Design by Bulldozer

In the previous post, I mentioned there are some very fundamental advantages in my POSIX level driver proposal, related to usability.

Now I want to pick up on one of those, which will be a recurring theme in this blog, being an extremely important issue: Accessibility.

I do not mean accessibility in the usual interface-related meaning of posing no barriers to people with disabilities. I mean accessiblity in the sense of not posing barriers to about everyone.

Most developers, and even many UI designers, seem completely unaware how extremely important accessibility is. Somehow they assume if something makes sense to them, it is good. The thought doesn't even cross their minds, that it might mean considerable work for others to learn the concept.

Look at which technologies are successful. The WWW is popular because it has low entry barriers. People are more likely to participate in wikis than contribute to static pages because they have a lower entry barrier. And so on.

Look at Firefox. Why is it so popular? Because it focuses on those features that are easily accessible. Popup blocking is a good feature, because it is obvious. So are tabs. Or the search bar.

Compare this to Opera. If you configure it to ask about setting cookies, for example. You get a dialog that presents you with more than half a dozen of options how to handle each cookie, some of them I don't even understand. (At least in the versions I tried.) And Firefox? It presents you with a very simple dialog, having only a few obvious options. Maybe its slightly less powerful; but still covers what you want in about 99% of all situations, and is at least three times simpler. Meaning about an order of magnitude more useful.

There are many other examples of features in Opera that are quite interesting, but so hard to use that they have no practical value. Features so complicated or obscure that hardly anybody will bother to learn them, are just useless. Sure, there are always a few nuts taking considerable pains learning even the most obscure feature of some program. However, if it takes more trouble to discover, learn, configure and get used to some feature than it saves in the long run, this is just an end to itself. You can boast how powerful your program is and/or how well you master it. But that's about all the value you will ever get out of it.

Accessibility is important not only for GUIs, but really at all levels of the system. Let's take one example from the driver proposal: Among many other possibilities, it allows control of who is allowed to run what drivers, simply by changing file permissions on the underlying device nodes. Now, of course, you could implement some kind of permission system in any other driver framework... But requiring some obscure special mechanism, with some kind of config files in the background or somehting, not only is it considerably less flexible, but actually much much harder to set up in the first place. Unix file permissions on the other hand are obvious and a well know concept to every Unix admin -- there is nothing you need to learn or remember; just by looking at the nodes you can guess what to do.

And it goes even further down. All of this is true for the system internals, programming interfaces, everything. Making functionality accessible, tearing down entry barriers, is among the most important design principles in about any kind of software developement. (I'll show how this applies in various contexts in other posts on more specific topics.)


ossi said...

that's called usability, not accessibility.

antrik said...

Usability is a much broader concept. Avoiding entry barriers is just one aspect
of usability. (Though a very important one.) Also, few people would talk about
"usability" in the context of APIs, system core features and similar.

I agree that the term I used is not optimal, as it has already a quite specific
meaning in realation to IT. But in the general meaning of the word, it fits
quite well. And I have failed to come up with a better term so far...