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Thursday, April 17, 2008


Usability Basics: Introduction
One of Aesop’s most famous fables is the story of The Lion and The Mouse. Written in the sixth century BCE and circulated across the globe, this story illustrates a point which has stood the test of time, and, which is often overlooked in Linux software developement. Examining this fable and its moral provides a starting point for understanding how usability testing can strengthen desktop Linux.

The fable goes like this: A very small mouse, playing in the jungle, awakens a sleeping lion, who threatens to eat him. Bargaining for his life, the mouse promises to help the lion someday. The lion is so amused by this seemingly ridiculous promise that he lets the mouse go. (After all, what good could a tiny mouse possibly do for the king of beasts?) The next day, the lion is caught in a hunter’s net. He begins to cry, and the mouse hears his lament. The mouse runs to the lion, and nibbles through the net, saving him from the hunter. From then on, the two are close friends, who recognize the value of their extreme differences.

The moral of this simple tale is clear: the differences in the individuals who inhabit our communities can be used to our advantage. The lion, for all his might, was unable to free himself from the hunter’s net; the mouse used his diminutive size to his advantage to crawl unseen along the net, dismantling it. Now what, you may ask, does this have to do with software?

Traditionally, we tend to adhere to a relatively isolated development process. We may involve other hackers in the construction of our software, we may draw on the talents of GNOME artist to enrich our projects with beautiful icons, and we may even collaborate with translators to make our applications accessible to an international audience. But what about the people whom we interact with in our everyday lives? The experiences of our brothers and sisters, our friends and co-workers –the inhabitants of our home communities– are equally valuable in creating useful software. Usability testing provides the mechanism for processing their needs, and for cultivating better software.

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