When open-source GUIs attack: The Blender example

TDT 3D has put together a comparison of six 3D modeling tools. I am not going to get too deeply into the finer points of the products and what the TDT 3D reviewer thought of them, but many readers got quite worked up about one of the tools, Blender 3D 2.45.

What was the problem? Certainly not the price. Blender is a free, open-source tool that is compatible with all major desktop operating systems and even a few relatively obscure OSes -- Solaris, FreeBSD, and Irix. The features also got high marks. The reviewer gave Blender props for UV tools (a 3D texture-mapping technique) and fluid simulation, among others.

No, what really rubbed readers the wrong way was the interface. I quote from the Slashdot thread that references the article, "Blender Compared To the Major 3D Applications":

l0ungeb0y: It's the UI that kills it

I've always thought Blender to be a solid but completely useless application because for whatever reason, the developers created the most heinous god aweful UI known to man. It's a freakin eyebleeding headache that leaves one happily shelling out the hundreds or thousands of Dollars for a modelor with a usable GUI.

It's a shame. Because Blender could be a contender, but since the developers live in their own little world with the attitidude that their app is made for a "certain group of people and not everyone", the application is basically a sick joke.

paganizer: Re: It's the UI that makes it

I tried. I really, really tried. I grabbed the tutorials, FAQ's. I bought "The Official Blender guide". I even had a "Blender Guru" come on to my system in VNC to walk me through the (allegedly) simple process of opening a file, applying textures, and exporting using the plugin. it took 3 flipping hours.

Blender may be a great engine. But the interface is a crime against logic, nature and makes me revise my opinion on whether or not true Evil exists.

Naturally, there are more than a few supporters who think that Blender is a super tool for 3D modeling, and can actually be quite quick -- that is, once you "get past the need to learn special keys and modes and such."

To give you an idea of what the Blender UI looks like, check out the following YouTube tutorial:

Clearly, knowing keyboard shortcuts, palettes, and expanding right-clickable menus are crucial to operating the tool.

But isn't this what we've come to expect from the open-source community -- interesting software, awesome features, a price that can't be beat, and a user experience that's about as pleasant and intuitive as filling out a tax return? Linux is well-known in this regard -- the geeky, DIY/CLI experience of many distros is actually seen as an asset by users who are turned off by Microsoft and the dumbed-down Windows GUI. I see a similar problem in Audacity, an open-source audio editor that I use to record and edit Computerworld podcasts. Audacity is free and it does the job, but there is a steep learning curve involved, and many functions have been poorly integrated into the interface.

I'm not alone. One Slashdot reader, responding to the Blender thread, says that open-source programmers are great at what they do, except when it comes to the UI. What are the reasons? "Jellomizer" points to five factors:

  1. Some developers are students and professors, and this group is always thinking of new ways to approach problems -- even if the public at large would rather stick with the status quo
  2. There is no financial motivation to improve the user experience
  3. Attitude issues among developers: Don't like the interface? Then RTFM or don't use it -- it's not my problem!
  4. Limited experience with UI design, and a tendency to overlook interface glitches because they are so used to working with the system.
  5. No pointy headed bosses cracking the whip over developers' heads to deal with "boring" UI issues.

On the other hand, there are open-source software products that have done a great job with the user interface. Firefox springs to mind, and several Computerworld bloggers have sung the praises of the Ubuntu and Kubuntu flavors of Linux.

It must also be noted that many commercial products have terrible user interfaces. Microsoft Word is the top offender in my book. Lotus Notes is a close second, followed by practically every Adobe software product I've ever used. And don't forget Second Life -- in my opinion, Second Life's clunky UI is one of the main reasons why a large percentage of new residents give up on the virtual world.

But at least the commercial software market has many great examples of good user interfaces that minimize frustration and enable people to more effectively use them. The UIs for the Mac OS X operating system, desktop software applications like iPhoto, and portable electronics such as the iPhone have helped turn around Apple's fortunes. Google also takes pains to develop user-friendly interfaces, from its search engine functionality to Google Maps. The results may not please some hard-core users who revel in obscure features and tweaks, but for most people they are more than adequate and have helped propel both companies into positions of leadership.

In Google's case, the attention shown to interface design has helped marginalize scores of commercial and open-source competitors over the years. Google is in fact moving in on Blender's territory, with its recent work on SketchUp and moves to position itself for the 3D Web. The Blender community may not regard SketchUp as a threat now, but if enough new users prefer the interface of the Google offering, and SketchUp boosts its functionality, Blender and other 3D modeling tools may be forced to clean up their own UIs in order to compete.

Update: After publishing this blog entry, I was contacted by Tom Musgrove, a member of the Blender developer community to discuss some of the issues brought up in my post and the comment thread. He kindly agreed to an email interview (Q&A: Tom Musgrove Discusses Blender Development), and also helped gather some images for a gallery of Blender-generated art and UI screenshots.

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