Can using free software lower the bar for your own design standards?

Note: This post might be a little dated. It was published in June 2009.

When you start your own company, there are lots of small decisions that you need to make. What do you splash out on, and what do you pinch pennies on? It’s tricky to decide.

One of the common ways to reduce your initial outlay is to opt for free or low cost software if you can get away with it. For example, maybe you’d consider using a bug tracker like Sifter or Jira, but you’d finally opt for Bugzilla. It’s not pretty, but it’s free – and it has all the features you need.

Bugzilla UI

With a cluttered, unintuitive UI, Bugzilla has a learning curve – but it’s not insurmountable. Plenty of companies use it.

Next on the list for your company is mobile phones. iPhones would be nice, but they’re too expensive. Better to opt for last year’s Windows Mobile handsets, the ones that come free with the contract. You can’t argue with free.

Windows Mobile 6 UI

Older versions of Windows Mobile have been widely criticised for poor usability and “toothpick” interaction style, but what the hell – lots of people have learned to live with it. It packs a lot of features in for the price, that’s for sure.

What’s next on the list, then? What about a wiki? Knowledge management is, after all, pretty important. Maybe you could use Confluence or PBworks – they are nicely crafted packages, and not too expensive either. But hey, there are plenty of free solutions out there, like Mediawiki.

mediawiki UI

Mediawiki may have an interface that only its mother could love, but if it’s good enough for Wikipedia, it’s got to be doing something right.

But let’s stop and think for a moment. Everyone in your company will spend most of their days looking at this software. They’ll probably spend more time looking at these UIs than they spend looking at the faces of their loved ones. Without realising it, you’ve set a standard. You’ve taught everyone in your company that UIs like this are ‘normal’, and are the right way of doing things. When someone needs to design a new advanced search UI, what do they think of immediately? Why, Bugzilla of course. That’s a typical advanced search UI – everyone knows how to use it, right?

Wrong. That’s the classic egocentric fallacy in action, the lynchpin of all bad design: “Other people see the world how I see it, and think how I think. Therefore if I find it easy to use, everyone should be able to.” According to Piaget, humans grow out of this phase at age 7. If only that were true!

You can’t expect all of your staff to be great UI designers. But if you surround them with great UIs, you improve their ability to discern quality, to recognise bad design, and to point the finger and say ‘this doesn’t seem right’.

There are lots of good reasons to use free software, and many more reasons to use open source. Raising the bar for your own UI design is rarely one of them.