Sunday, November 8, 2009

OpenOfficeMouse: An Epic Fail in Usability

Having been down for the count with a back injury for the last week, I'm a little behind the curve in keeping up with the news. I just learned about the OpenOfficeMouse, an open source mouse designed for use with the office suite. Upon seeing the picture, I couldn't believe my eyes and didn't want to, either.

This mouse is a usability nightmare and it's so ugly, it's oogly. If you don't want to mess with the press release, I'll give you the lowdown: it's a mouse with 18 buttons, 3 modes, a joystick on the side with 3 modes of its own, tons of optional extras, and tweakability beyond anyone's dreams or worst nightmares. When I first saw a picture of it, I couldn't believe my eyes that someone would come up with a product this bad. Warmouse did.

I've seen quite a few comparisons with Apple's Magic Mouse. I'm not going to go there -- it's been done -- but what I will do is detail what's wrong with the OpenOfficeMouse. There's quite a bit wrong with it, too, and I'm not even referring to its appearance.

The buttons... oh the bevy of buttons available on the OpenOfficeMouse... where should I begin? It's almost as if OOM is a cross between a keyboard and a mouse, possessing two groups of seven buttons with the two primary buttons on the outer corners. The only differences between any of the buttons in each group are minor: slight shape differences, location, and, in the case of the primary buttons, color. It would seem that the designers forgot that a mouse is generally used by touch, not sight.

One original mouse idea went around at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where it was designed. The concept, if you ask me, was very forward-looking: its three buttons had a different color and texture so that you could tell which button you were pressing by how it felt under your finger but easily specified on screen, e.g. red-click. Aside from the mouse becoming more rounded to fit the hand, not much else has been done to significantly change mouse usage since its inception at the PARC.

Button collections aside, there is also yet another major flaw in the mouse: the abundance of modes. Changing application behavior based on a button press or a checkbox is not generally a good idea because the user needs to adjust his actions according to the mode in use. Adding more kinds of modes places more mental load on the user. More technical users generally don't have a problem with this, but the difficulty they impose increases with the user's lack of expertise. Without appropriate feedback on the current mode -- considering the design flaws elsewhere in the design, is unlikely to be the case -- the different modes available both on the joystick and on the mouse in general will probably cause plenty of input errors, as well.

The intention behind the OpenOfficeMouse is to improve the experience of using the OpenOffice office suite faster and/or more easily. Unfortunately, unless you're an incorrigible tweaker, this mouse isn't going to help. The solution is to fix OpenOffice. Software is MUCH more malleable than hardware.


  1. Frak. Maybe there is some sense in focusing on KOffice or another Qt-app? Or even may be easier to begin our very own native Haiku Office Suite? is pretty huge basterd even on GNU/Linux.

  2. I disagree. OOo is far from perfect, but right now I'm in the middle of teaching it alongside M$ Office 2007 and while there are definitely some feature disparities -- particularly Impress vs PowerPoint -- I really like OpenOffice. In fact, I think things are better organized using menus and easier to find than using the Ribbon.

    It definitely has its quirks, but the UI has come quite a ways since even the 2.4 days. As good as AbiWord is, serious office users will need something with quite a lot more power.

    KOffice? I'd rather not, thanks.