Introducing Usability Activities into Open Source Software Development Projects-Searching for a Suitable Approach

Article excerpt


Usability is an important quality characteristic of software products and systems. Different approaches for introducing usability activities into SW development have not yet been evaluated with respect to open source software (OSS). This paper tests the introduction of usability activities through four empirical case studies in the OSS development context. Case studies were carried out using four OSS projects that were not commercially supported. Empirical analysis suggests that usability specialists should become members of the OSS community, but, at the same time, should keep an objective view. The usability activities had substantially more impact when specialists introduced and carried them out as fellow members of the OSS community than as usability consultants from outside the community. The importance of management commitment for usability activities is discussed in the OSS context. The challenge of adapting usability and OSS development philosophies together should be researched further.

Keywords: usability, open source software


This paper examines four case studies in which usability activities are introduced into open source software (OSS) development. The specific research question examined in the paper is: How should usability activities be introduced into OSS development? OSS development has gained increasing interest in information systems (IS) research during recent years (see, e.g., Fitzgerald 2006, Niederman et al. 2006), and OSS development has been argued to be highly influential in the software landscape of the future (Fitzgerald 2006). Estimating the number of users and the market share of OSS solutions is difficult because OSS can usually be downloaded freely and from numerous mirror sites and peer-to-peer networks. One of the most well-known Web-based repositories is SourceForge, a leading resource for OSS development and distribution. It has about 2.7 million developers, over 260.000 OSS development projects, a total number of users in all projects estimated at more than 46 million, and more than two million downloads from project repositories every day ( At least twenty other source code repositories and resources also exist for OSS development and distribution.

The size of an OSS development project can range from a single developer working alone to code and use the application to massive OSS development projects that span years and involve hundreds of developers, e.g., Linux and The latest version of the office application suite has an estimated 15-20 percent market share. In 2009, announced that the latest version had recorded one hundred million downloads within a year from their main download site, and this did not include downloads from mirror sites and peer-to-peer networks ( The Firefox Web browser has been downloaded over one billion times and has a 23 percent worldwide usage share for Web browsers ( The Apache Web server software serves 55 percent of all websites in the world and has reached the 100 millionth website milestone ( Therefore, the OSS phenomenon clearly is highly influential in the current software landscape (cf. Fitzgerald 2006).

The term open source software refers to software for which source code is freely available for everyone to read and modify. The fundamental idea of OSS is to enable software to evolve outside of commercial company restrictions by exploiting the participation of technically oriented contributors and users in the outside community (cf. Raymond 1999, Ye and Kishida 2003). Traditionally, software development is carried out in closed settings as closed source software development, where only few people can access the code. In traditional software development, the endusers can see and use only the binary form of the software. In contrast, OSS development makes it possible for the end-users to adapt software to their personal needs and to fix defects (Raymond 1999). …


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