A novel aproach to addressing open source usability

I was just doing my morning catchup on RSS feeds with trusty Liferea, and ran across ingimp in my freshmeat feed, which has a rather interesting idea.

The standard method for usability testing in proprietary software is to pay to bring in a bunch of people “off the street” while your product is in beta, sit them down in front of your program, and give them a list of tasks to accomplish. You record the whole thing. Then you go back and figure out how long each of those tasks took, but more importantly, what sort of mistakes people made. When asked to Enable Grumocks, what menu did they guess grumock controls would be in?

While this is all good and fine for people with a bucket of money, in open source, something like this really can’t happen. Ingimp is a modified version of gimp (not a plugin), that provides transmits back to a central server what you are doing with gimp. This lets them get a snapshot of users as to what kinds of images they most often modify, which tools are most often used, etc. From their website:

Who uses GIMP? What do they use it for? What size images do they work on? How many layers do they have in their images? What tools do they use? How frequently do they use the software?

These are all important questions to consider during design. However, precise answers to these questions are generally unknown for the GIMP. While usability studies of the GIMP exist, and mailing lists and bug tracking software host ongoing discussions regarding the GIMP’s design, it is difficult to characterize how the GIMP is actually used in the real world, on a day-to-day basis.

ingimp is an instrumented version of the GIMP designed to gather this information, with minimal effort required. Just use ingimp as you would the normal version of GIMP and it will automatically collect information about how you use it — the commands you use, characteristics of your documents (number of layers, image width/height, etc.), and so on. When you quit the application, your usage data is sent to this website where it is publicly available for anyone to analyze.

ingimp is part of human-computer interaction (HCI) research at the University of Waterloo investigating new forms of sustainable open usability. In particular, our goal is to research new tools that assist open source projects in their efforts to make more usable software, without creating significant new overhead to end-users, developers, or other project members.

Unfortunately their instrumented version is still Gimp 2.2, and I’m on a 2.3 build in my distro. Perhaps after the next stable series I’ll give it a go.

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