February 26, 2004

The Luxury of Ignorance: An Open-Source Horror Story

I've just gone through the experience of trying to configure CUPS, the Common Unix Printing System. It has proved a textbook lesson in why
nontechnical people run screaming from Unix. This is all the more frustrating because the developers of CUPS have obviously tried hard to produce an
accessible system -- but the best intentions and effort have led to a system which despite its superficial pseudo-friendliness is so undiscoverable
that it might as well have been written in ancient Sanskrit.

GUI tools and voluminous manuals are not enough. You have to think about what the actual user experiences when he or she sits down to do actual stuff,
and you have to think about it from the user's point of view. The CUPS people, despite good intentions, have utterly failed at this. I'm going to
anatomize this failure in detail, because there are lessons here that other open-source projects would do well to heed. The point of this essay is
not, therefore, just to beat up on the CUPS people -- it's also to beat up on every other open-source designer who does equally thoughtless things
under the fond delusion that a slick-looking UI is a well-designed UI. Watch and learn...

The configuration problem is simple. I have a desktop machine named 'snark'. It is connected, via the house Ethernet, to my wife Cathy's machine,
which is named 'minx'. Minx has a LaserJet 6MP attached to it via parallel port. Both machines are running Fedora Core 1, and Cathy can print locally
from minx. I can ssh minx from snark, so the network is known good.

This should be easy, right? *hollow laughter* Famous last words...

Link: catb.org/~esr/


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