August 25, 2006

OpenUsability funds student projects

Author: N. Sanders

OpenUsability, the organization of software interface usability experts, has begun taking applications for the first in a series of funded student projects. Similar to the Google Summer of Code, selected students will be paired with mentors and set to work on projects to be completed over a three-month period, with a reward of $700 upon success. Students applying now will be competing for the first such position -- an opportunity to do interaction design for the GIMP.

OpenUsability engineer Ellen Reitmayr, also a member of KDE Usability, admits to inspiration from Google, but notes a longstanding effort to attract students. "Before, we were more focused on single universities, offering them lists of possible student projects that might be part of the curriculum. The success was not too high, so that's why we decided to offer projects on a broader base." FLOSS Usability and Aspiration Technology are collaborating with OpenUsability to launch the student projects.

OpenUsability's initiative joins the Summer of Code and Season of KDE as pioneers in a increasingly popular field of free software sponsored student projects. All parties involved recognize such efforts as an opportunity to not only buy efficient and skilled labor, but to invite a new generation of talent into open source programming. Such programs complement bounties, another method for attracting programmers that has found an extensive bandwagon. Indeed, the Summer of Code was at first greeted as a bounty program by many.

Reitmayr attests to the value of the initiative. "It is beneficial for both sides: Students can train their skills and learn how to collaborate, while projects get usability feedback from a person who knows what he/she is talking about. Indeed, a great part of the KDE usability team are students."

The inaugural project and the GIMP

Student projects will involve an estimated 20 hours of work per week for the three months. Mentors -- usability experts who have experience with the relevant open source technologies -- will work with students via the usual collaboration channels, such as email and IRC. Mentors will be selected from volunteers in the OpenUsability, FLOSS Usability, and Aspiration Technology communities. Students will be assigned existing open source projects on which to perform usability analysis or design, information architecture, or interaction design.

The GIMP project will be of the interaction design category. One selected student will be given the title of Associate Interaction Architect and will help "shape the user interface of the next generation of the GNU Image Manipulation Program." A comprehensive analysis of the current GIMP interface is involved, as well as meetings and group decisions regarding both fundamental and minute changes to be made. Peter Sikking will be mentoring, lending his experience as "principal interaction architect" for man + machine interface works. Sikking previously worked with the GIMP in March, attending GIMPCon 2006 and guiding the project's product vision.

Reitmayr says, "The GIMP project is a pilot for us, to probe ways of effective interaction between mentor and student. We chose the GIMP because we know the project very well and [Sikking] was just looking for an intern to do exactly the tasks described in the project goals. He was willing to spend the intern's salary as a sponsorship and be the first official OpenUsability mentor. Another part of the sponsorship will be given by the GIMP project itself." When the next set of approximately eight student projects is announced during World Usability Day on November 14, mentor-project sponsorship will not be required; an as-of-yet anonymous nonprofit organization has agreed to step in for funding. The future projects will be chosen from among the more than 100 OpenUsability member projects, based on necessity, developer interest, and mentor availability.

Any interested student is encouraged to apply, regardless of degree or previous experience. OpenUsability warns that "if you have extensive GIMP or Photoshop preferences, then this project might be not for you." Frequent use of an existing interface can bias an interaction architect's impression of universally usable design.

The Season of KDE, already nearly halfway finished, was founded as way to take advantage of the talents of the hundreds of students not accepted for the Summer of Code. Similarly, OpenUsability does not want to limit its reach to those who can be paid. Reitmayr says, "The goal of the projects is to keep students working on OSS projects. For applicants who do not get a sponsorship, we will offer alternative tasks from other projects registered on OpenUsability."

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