11 August 2012

User Experience with Open Source Tools

This must be my third week using open source tools for user experience and, to be honest, the experience has been okay. The tools are mostly extremely capable - the most impressive tools were for statistics (R and PSPP) and Pencil, a rapid wireframing program.

My work has lately been data analysis: I've been comparing a tool from my company against competitors. Coming from a background in psychology with a post-doc in education, the best way to investigate was, to me, to use Cronbach's Alpha, a test of reliability (or internal consistency if you prefer). In short, this takes a few different ways of measuring something and asks, "Are they measuring the same thing?" If they are, then the scores from our tool and those of our competitors should vary by the same amount at the same places, and indeed we found that they did.

If anyone's curious why a UX designer is doing statistical analysis, well, it is one of our core skills. We have to be numerate to understand data like analytics, experiments and the like. To me, it's probably a more important skill than drawing which is a contentious point. I would, however, prefer to design something that works well and looks poor rather than vice versa. It's fairly easy to make something look okay but the converse - well think, "lipstick on a pig".

Using PSPP (an open source version of SPSS) was quite fun, particularly as the GUI is working quite well. It was a fairly simple task to run up the test and check the results which showed that between us, it was the "industry standard" who were the odd ones out. My next bit of work is checking why they are the outlier which is a whole new article.

Other work included creating icons with Inkscape. These had to be crunched to 16x16 PNGs, and they turned out alright. I cannot imagine using Illustrator and doing any better and it felt like I was the biggest limitation of quality output which is the sign of a good tool.

The GIMP has problems. It's layer model differs enough from the Adobe Suite (I talk as if there is a consistent model amongst Adobe's tools) and I was dismayed to have to learn another way of doing things. My ideal is the Fireworks model which I get pretty well even though I've used Photoshop for many more years.

Pencil is a great wireframing tool. It can do the Balsamiq variety cartoony-type wireframes but can also handle higher fidelity ones. Appearing from version 1.3 upwards, the grid makes a big difference to layout and the results are as good as most things I've used. The interface feels less messy than Fireworks though there are fewer effects to polish things off. I know some designer will get hot under the collar and insist that wireframes are throw-away documents and the more scratchy and crappy-looking, the better; and this is so for most occasions. But there are times when higher-fidelity mock-ups are necessary.

I actually hold out hope for this tool and will consider making a donation to it in the hope that it continues. I wonder if I can convince my CEO to make a company donation... ;-)

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