2021-07-06 On criticising the user interface

I use Audacity to edit my podcast. Well, I’d use it, if I were to make new episodes, which I currently don’t. In any case, I like Audacity. Recently, it was acquired by a company that also owns MuseScore. They started making changes that generated a lot of controversy online (added tracking, a new license agreement, a privacy policy), and so I’m not surprised to see there appears to be a fork out there, brewing.

At first, people were happy. Martin Keary (aka Tantacrul) was going to be in charge of a redesign. And Audacity does look weird. But then again, the competition also looks weird on my small laptop screen (Ardour, Reaper, yikes). So my take was this: Audacity is simple enough for me to use without feeling overwhelmed, and not ugly enough to stop me. The question remains, though: what to make of it?

Given recent developments, I’d say what we’re seeing is that the price for better usability seems to be our privacy.

“what happened with Tantacrul and Audacity is the natural and inevitable end result of “FOSS has inherently bad UX” discourse. y’all really got what you wanted, idk what to say” – @tindall

The obvious reply to that sentiment: surely we can criticise software for it’s flaws? Well, yes you can. But there are consequences. If you’re a paying customer, then the company selling you the software is going to look at the trade-off: time and material spent, future sales, and so on. But remember Bill Gates?

“We don’t do a new version to fix bugs. We don’t. Not enough people would buy it.” – Bill Gates in an interview with FOCUS magazine (1995)

There’s no guarantee that paying money gets you what you want. But worse: if you’re not a paying customer, then developers are looking at a similar trade-off: time and energy spent, having a good time. If your criticism is impacting on them having a good time, then they might stop. Which some of you might be fine with. But often enough I’m also developer, spending my time writing software. And let me tell you, having a good time is absolutely the most important part.

That’s why the language used matters so much. If we’re on the same team, if you’re helping me fix that problem, if you’re redesigning the software to be easier to use and easier to work with, then that’s great. If you’re here to tell me that my programs have bugs and that my design looks terrible, that my choices were wrong, then I don’t know what to tell you. Please don’t use my software?

It’s true. I feel that trepidation in my heart. I want to hear that people like the things I’ve done. That’s me having a good time, feeling smart, and enthusiastic about solving problems and adding features. I’m far less interested in everything else. You might think it’s the arrogance of a privileged white male programmer speaking. It probably is. At the same time, it’s also my life, my time, my hobby. I don’t appreciate people shitting on my amateur drawings, on my amateur music, and on my amateur programs. This trepidation I mentioned – it causes me to wish my sites to remain undiscovered and my software to remain unused, for nothing to scale, for obscurity instead of fame. It seems to me that this is how everybody wins, these days. Existing in that contested territory between fear and hope.

In software, I see this as a problem of people feeling entitled to service, to quality, to fitness for a particular purpose.

In role-playing games, I used to think that we needed more honest reviews. That was going to be the way forward to improve our craft! Better rules, better modules, better settings! But then I had two or three people on social media point out that they’d rather spend time on things they liked instead of writing about the things they didn’t like. Fair enough. Not writing a review of a bad product you got for free, in your free time no less, is time not well spent. Skipping that review is self care. But these days I’d go further: to criticise a labour of love means to shit on somebody’s hobby. (And as far as I am concerned, “labour of love” includes all those PDFs and books for one or two dozen dollars.)

Sure, if you think of criticism as helping out, then there is a moment when criticism can happen. Editing happens before a work is published, criticism can happen after a work is published. But make sure that you’re asked for it! What you do is helping only if the other person asked for help.

Long story short: what I’m trying to say is that criticism can be valid, if you’re talking to a big company that treats you like a customer and not as a person; if you’re talking to a person, however, don’t shit on their labour of love. Help them out, if they ask for it. Otherwise, move on, nothing to see, use something else.

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Tangentially related:

A proposed unified standard for opting out of telemetry for TUI/console apps. – Console Do Not Track (DNT)

Just in case you thought Audacity was alone.

– Alex 2021-07-06 13:13 UTC


For extra vomiting factor:

As the first people were literally arriving at my place of living, where they knocked on my doors and windows to scare us, I am hereby officially stepping down as a maintainer of this project. – #99 Stepdown as Maintainer of this Fork

– Alex 2021-07-07 06:08 UTC


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