Ease of use: But for who?

Over the weekend I was writing an article for TechRepublic about two alternative Linux word processors (Abiword and KWord.) As I was writing this article, I discovered something that might lend a hand to not only the developers of those tools but to Linux developers in general. This discovery is simply a matter of target audience.

I think Linux developers are targeting the wrong people. I think, in a number of instances, Linux developers are targeting themselves as the key user group for their tools. What made me come to that conclusion might surprise you.

As I was writing my article, I found a couple of the features of the word processors that I found to be rather nifty. One was the KWord Personal Expressions Editor. This tool allows the user to save oft-used phrases and be able to insert them quickly and easily. Say, for instance, you use the phrase iptables -A INPUT -s 0/0 -i eth0 -d -p TCP -j ACCEPT often enough to not want to have to type it over and over. You could create this as a Personal Expression and have easy access to it. A programmers lil' helper?

Another interesting feature came from Abiword. In the tools section you will find entries for Babelfish and Wikipedia. You highlight text and select Wikipedia, and your browser will open on the Wikipedia page for that word. Yet another tool most Linux users are very familiar with.

You will also find, in Abiword, the ability to add equations (from LaTeX even) and bookmarks.

Both tools can be used nearly 100 percent without a mouse - another throwback to Linux programmers.

If you take a look at OpenOffice.org you will see the target audience is pretty obvious - MS Office users. The developers of OpenOffice.org simply want to take over that cross section of computer users. That particular user-space is made up primarily of average users who know nothing about programming, can't imagine using a computer without a mouse, and have most likely never visited a wiki.

I think the average Linux developer could benefit from following the lead of the OpenOffice.org developers and stop developing for themselves. Focus your sights on the average Jane and Joe who just want a word processor that will do exactly what they expect it to do. Instead of focusing on adding features that will wow the Linux crowd, tighten up the features that all users of word processors have come to expect.

  • Make it import and export MS formats 100%.
  • Make it follow standard formatting.
  • Make the UI standard.
  • Make it print properly.
  • Make it install easily.
  • Make it fast and reliable.

I think if you follow those simple guidelines, and stop trying to raise the geek-factor, your projects will find more success. Of course that doesn't mean you can't have geekier versions available. Just make sure you don't neglect that largest, non-geek user group.