Treating Users Like Idiots

People who use free software are almost all "open source/software freedom advocates" in on sense or another. There's something empowering about the experience of using software that you control, really control, and we want to share this with others. That makes sense, not just on a "lets get the family using GNU/Linux" level, that we want to increase the user base of free software as much as possible.

One of the chief recruiting concerns for communities, seems to be "lets make this piece of software more usable." This gets us into a lot of trouble as a community as there are a lot of similar and intersecting issues that get confused in the project of increasing usability. While "usable" is a subjective thing in the end, there are a lot of factors that make software more or less useable, they include:

  • greater or lesser functional complexity,
  • more or less visual clarity (of control interface and data visualization,)
  • functional and/or visual minimalism,
  • thoroughness of documentation and support materials, and
  • the learning curve.

One of the most powerful effects of free and open source software is the way that it encourages users to learn more about the software and systems they use. We say that one of the reasons for software freedom is "education," and you might think that this relates to the great potential for the use of GNU/Linux in schools, but I think it really relates to the way free software encourages users to learn more about the software they're running.

Given these notions, I must say that writing software that "even a non technical user could learn" (dumbing down features and interfaces) doesn't strike me as a very productive project, and a poor excuse for providing good documentation and support for a given project.

But maybe that's just me.

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