Friday, September 21, 2007

Dear Open Source Projects...

If you run the main webpage for a piece of open source software, there should be a very clear, concsise explanation of what that software is on the front page, prominently displayed, where anyone can find it. I appreciate that a lot of open source developers like to maintain a development blog on the front page. That's fine. But, there should be something on that page that immediately indicates to a newcomer what on earth she has found. Release notes aren't of much use to someone who has never touched your software before.

Some Good

The first text on the Firefox webpage is:
"The award-winning Web browser is now faster, more secure, and fully customizable to your online life. With Firefox 2, we’ve added powerful new features that make your online experience even better"

That's not great, because it assumes previous exposure to the product, but at least I can figure out what Firefox is, from that sentence. B

The first text on the GIMP website is:
"GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. It works on many operating systems, in many languages."

That's excellent, except it should probably include a link for "GNU," since that assumes knowledge that a naive reader may not have. B+

How about Blender:
"Blender is the free open source 3D content creation suite, available for all major operating systems under the GNU General Public License."

That's great. It concisely explains what the product is, and also links to a FAQ about the GPL specifically tailored to their would-be-users. A.

As for Audacity:
The Free, Cross-Platform Sound Editor
Audacity is free, open source software for recording and editing sounds. It is available for Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux, and other operating systems. Learn more about Audacity...

Flawless victory! A+

Some Bad

"Bugzilla is server software designed to help you manage software development."

That's pretty damn vague. Luckily, they follow this up with a "More about..." link. C+

What about jMonkeyEngine:
"jMonkeyEngine 1.0 release candidate 1 has been released."

This means absolutely nothing to a new would-be user. I have to hunt around for a "What is jME?" link to figure out what this software is. D

There is nothing but news, here. There are many links to other areas, but none of them link to an "About," or a "What is..." section. If you look up on the title bar, you will see "Free Raytracing for the masses - Y A F R A Y . O R G." Okay, so it's a raytracer. And it's free. But, is that "free" as in Stallman, "free" as in FreeBSD, "free" as in beer, "free" as in free love, or "free" as in Aretha Franklin? (Freedom is so very complicated, these days.) D-

Let's look at GForge:
"GForge helps you manage the entire development life cycle
GForge has tools to help your team collaborate, like message forums and mailing lists; tools to create and control access to Source Code Management repositories like CVS and Subversion. GForge automatically creates a repository and controls access to it depending on the role settings of the project."

It slices, it dices, it even purees! But, what IS it? Maybe you can figure out what it is from the feature soup (It's a, uh, development lifecycle, uh, manager, uh, thingee, with, um, meta-revision-control management stuff. Or something.). Ah-hah, the title bar says that it's a "Collaborative Development Environment (CDE)." If only that were on the page! But, still, that doesn't quite express what it is very well. It's a software project-focused collaborative development environment, like SourceForge. (In fact, it was built upon a branch of the SourceForge codebase.) C+

"The purpose of this site is to provide a central Xfig repository for the diverse documentation and programs available on the web. All the components and libraries will be available at this site, in addition to Xfig drawings."

So, that's what the website is for. But what about the program? D-


Al Riddoch said...

It's funny you should mention Audacity, because when I re-modeled the WorldForge front page last autumn, I used it as one of the main inspirations. Some of the features, in particular the boxes containing download links were copied directly from Audacity. Why? Because despite being a relatively minority interest software package it has some really high download statistics. It is currently the 11th most downloaded package on sourceforge, and at the time I was digging it was the most downloaded package that was not a file sharing client. Clearly they are doing something right.

Tess said...

Here are some of the things I think Audacity does right with their website:

1.) Their page is really clean and loads quickly.
2.) I can immediately see what the software is.
3.) I can immediately see how to download the software.
3.) I can immediately see a thumbnail to a screenshot of the software, and can easily reach more if I want to.
4.) I have easy access to everything I need to know about the software, including further information on its role, documentation, and how to help out.

I look at it this way: The clock is ticking, the moment someone starts loading your page. If they can't find the information they need, you may have lost a user -- or worse, lost a potential contributor. That's a pretty big deal.