Usability Analysis:

The Free Software Foundation Europe just launched, a site designed to be an alternative link for places where people have to offer “Download a PDF reader here”. However, compared to the competition, the usability of the site is not very good. So much so that I would be very concerned about linking to from a site on which I was providing PDFs, because I would be concerned that users would not be able to get what they need.

A quick list of flaws:

  • “Vendor neutrality” has trumped usability – it offers a choice of 4 (Windows), 2 (Mac OS X) or 5 (Free OSes) readers rather than the best one for each OS. This is probably the primary foot-shooting move – it will bewilder anyone trying to use the site.
  • They don’t detect the OS the user is running and highlight choices for that OS.
  • Some software is marked “additional software may be required to use this program”. What does that mean? Either it is or it isn’t, and if it is, what is it and where do I get it?
  • There are paragraphs of text to read before you get to the download links.
  • At least one of the Windows downloads leads to an FTP site with a ZIP file. What are the chances of an average user correctly installing that software? Even with a proper Firefox installer we lose almost half of downloaders along the way.
  • They forgot to register the obvious typo “” and it’s now been grabbed by a squatter.

This is a mock-up of what the page should look like for a Windows user who speaks English. (Both the OS and the language should be detected server-side, although there are links on the page to override the choice.) Note that graphic design is not my forte. Page features:

  • All of the possible free software PDF readers for each OS have been evaluated and the one with the best combination of easy installability, compatibility and usability has been recommended.
  • The link would be direct to the download, not to the project website.
  • For free OSes, it would detect the OS and say “you probably already have a PDF reader but, if not, here is how to install some using your package manager”, then give instructions.
  • Rather than trying to force people to read all the freedom stuff before you tell them about the download, it lets them start the download, then give them the freedom stuff to read while they are waiting. So it does not, in my view, compromise the core message of the importance of freedom.
  • The language has been simplified and dejargonized.

10 thoughts on “Usability Analysis:

  1. I for one would be wary of downloading an application of which I’m not even told its name. Imho it might be a good idea to have the “Download” text say something like “Download Free PDF Reader: Okular (Windows, English, 3.2MB)” or similar.

  2. “All of the possible free software PDF readers for each OS have been evaluated and the one with the best combination of easy installability, compatibility and usability has been recommended.”

    I only tried out the Windows ones, but I’m afraid none was much good in any of those areas. If people can’t follow the site as it is, I’m afraid they’re also not likely to find the readers usable either. Zip files are the least of the problems – one of the others needs KDE for Windows installed first, and another requires separate download and installation of Ghostscript.

    If you want “installability, compatibility and usability”, I think at the moment you need Adobe’s own Reader or the closed-source Foxit.

    There’s no point providing a usable download site for unusable pre-1.0 applications – what’s needed at this point is people to work on the projects to improve the software…

  3. Michael: OK. I wasn’t able to try out the different readers for different OSes. I assumed that at least one for each platform was vaguely easy to use, but it seems like I was wrong. Perhaps the FSFE could fund a port of evince to Windows, and produce an installer bundle with all the relevant libraries?

  4. Sumatra is definitely listed on, sixth from the top. It seems to be a possible candidate on Windows, as it has an installer and no external dependencies.

  5. As the situation is now, they should just link Windows users to SumatraPDF, noting in smaller print that other alternatives are available for the adventurous.

    I tried installing Okular, which gave me the kde-win installer, which did not at all mention Okular on their installer, but did, OTOH, ask me to select a mirror server, install location, and list an enormous amount of other KDE software, with no hint at all as to which, if any, of these packages might also include Okular. If it were my own computer, I’d try installing some and see what happens, but this would be horribly complex to find out of for regular users.

  6. Apalled by the 250 MB size of Adobe’s reader, I tried all links at Sumatra is OK but the rest, I’m afraid, can only serv to give “Regular Users”(tm) the impression that free software is inferior stuff that only nerds can put up with.

    Sumatra – good installability and usability although it doesn’t render quite as well as Adobes bloatware.

    Okular – haven’t tried it, because the has been down all day. Having read Kevin’s post, I’m not going to bother with it anyway. Not worth the hassle.

    MuPDF – simply too primitive. Renders OK, but has no menu, no features, nothing. You can’t even set the page view to continous.

    Yap – no installability at all. Download the Windows zip files, and you won’t find any executable file anywhere. There’s no readme either, so Regular Users(tm) wouldn’t know what to do. TBH, I don’t know what to do with a few source code files and a GNU makefile on a Windows system either.

    It’s probably a good idea to scare Regular Users(tm) off with bad site usability. It keeps them away from the complete and utter unusability of all the linked PDF readers, SumatraPDF excepted. The best I can say about the site, is that they had the good judgement not to include GSView, which is totally usnuitable for anyone but the geekiest of geeks.

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