Woe to the open-source developer that doesn't showcase his or her work.
I'm speaking, of course, about the most important tool on any open-source project's landing page. It's not the feature list, nor is it even the download button--it's the screenshot. When I take off my Maximum PC hat, I'm an average consumer with simple needs: I need a program that does what I want it to do, is relatively easy to set up and maintain but, most importantly, looks good.
The thing about hunting for open-source alternatives is that it's real easy to find quite a number of programs that mimic the success of a popular program or treatment. Need an open-source Photoshop variant? Piece of cake. How about a Content Management System? Sure. Now, how about... an application that looks just like Adobe Premiere? Danger, Will Robinson, danger!
Why does the look of an application matter so much when you're evaluating its potential success?
As my good friend and fellow UI enthusiast Nick Disabato says in the miniaturized version of his book, Cadence & Slang, "When someone experiences a great interface, they consider future experiences in the context of that interface. And when they have bad experience, future impressions of similar products are colored by that negative moment."
I'd like to take that thought to its natural conclusion. If a particular piece of software looks like crap, then it's going to dampen an average user's interest fairly quickly. The experience is created the moment an interface is deemed poor or perfect in a potential user's mind. To that person, the time spent crafting a program's look is a larger reflection of the app's feature-set and general usability. After all, few have the time to download an assortment of open-source applications and compare them all for their merits. More often than not, those who need problems solved quickly are not going to go with the rusty clunker app--they're going to go with the waxed-up Porsche.
Is this a fair assessment of a particular app's skills? It depends. For example, I've been scouring the Web in my undisclosed nine-to-five job for the past week or so in a grand search for an open-source alternative to the Basecamp project management tool. Nothing against the creators of said application. I think it's a supremely helpful tool for keeping a wide list of programs on some semblance of a schedule--I just want an open-source version.
I've actually found plenty of different, open-source applications that mimic a number of the key project management features found in the Basecamp Web app. I don't have time to set up each and every one on a Web server, however. And running through the feature lists only helps me exclude programs that don't completely meet my needs; it doesn't help me differentiate between the strengths of similar programs that cover my basic demands.
In this case, the interface becomes a quick-and-dirty way to tell just how successful the application is going to be in the particular usage scenarios I envision--one of which being, "just how easy will it be to teach my coworkers how to use this?" I kid, but a clunky or otherwise ho-hum interface suggests a steeper learning curve and increased steps in my overall process versus a slender, beautiful, easily accessible design. Plus, my coworkers are decently familiar with Basecamp; Why reinvent the wheel?
If this all sounds like a hefty dose of common sense, well, you would think it is. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What's one person's pretty interface is another person's MIA UK. As the famous Google example goes, Vice President of Search and User Experience Marissa Mayer once had her team test 41 different shades of blue to determine which was most preferred for the Google toolbar. That's just a color--not a layout, and certainly not an experience.
While it would be wrong to demand that every media-themed open-source developer follow Adobe's lead and mimic its design in Creative Suite 4, there's something to be said for an open-source program that uses its interface's resemblance to popular closed-source tools as a hook to build user interest. Or, simply put, I'm not going to download an open-source tool that looks like it was built during Amateur Hour--not unless I have no alternative. Form and functionality go hand-in-hand. Without evidence of one or the other (or screenshots), I can't see why a typical user would ever want to take a shot in the dark.
Dare I ask, what's the worst user interface you've come across? Let me know (and link a screenshot) in the comments!
David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. Befriend him on Twitter, especially if you have an awesome app or game you're dying to recommend!