Last night I migrated a Windows 7 box to a new 1 terabyte drive, thanks to an open source tool named Clonezilla. It was a success, but the whole time I kept saying to myself the same thing again and again: "Wow, this program is ugly."
Clonezilla, for those not in the know, is a miniature Linux distribution designed to clone, back up, restore and copy hard disk partitions. It boots and runs most anywhere, and it's been designed to get its job done and not bother too much with aesthetics. Some people would call that a good thing: after all, isn't it a waste of effort to make a disk-copying utility look pretty?
Maybe pretty isn't the right word. Something like aesthetically positive would be better. There's no reason something can't be both well-designed and good-looking and powerful. It's just really difficult to pull off. But it should be something to shoot for.
When I say "ugly", here's what I mean. Most of the time, when you're running the program, the screen is splattered with the raw output from the various programs used in the distribution, which can be confusing: it's not always completely clear what's happening or why. There are menus, but they're simple text menus where you only see the current set of choices. Consequently, it isn't always possible to go backwards or forwards -- it's not like a wizard where you can skim through the choices you've made before you commit them.
That's ugly. That's also that much less useful, both to technically experienced users and amateurs. Ugly programs are harder for everyone to use, not just amateurs.
I have heard an amazingly cynical argument about why it's not worth the trouble to improve the interfaces of programs like this. One, the people who use them tend to know what they're doing anyway, so giving them a spiffed-up interface would be beside the point. Two, the effort involved in putting a good interface on such a program would distract attention from other, more valuable work.
Sorry, no. These arguments are nonsense. Experts are always going to go with the tool that's easier to use, all other things being equal. Ease of use never precludes power. Two, the idea that hiring a visual designer (or attracting one) to work on such a program is a "distraction" is so thunderingly stupid that it brings tears to my eyes just to type it.
Does a tool like Clonezilla need to be polished? My answer is: why not? It might become all the more powerful because of it. Let's not let "open source" or "free software" turn into a catch-all excuse for a kind of digital primitivism.
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