The Equal Accessibility Paradox

Whilst reading Bruce Byfield’s “Divining from the Entrails of Ubuntu’s Gutsy Gibbon” today, I began pondering the evolution of Ubuntu. Ubuntu began live as Warty Warthog back in 2004, and rose quickly to fame. Its biggest selling point was that it was user friendly Linux, the best, most accessible Linux distribution to date. Now, just a few short years later, Ubuntu has truly conquered the Linux market with an estimated 30% of the field, and suddenly, there is some pushback.

I’ve seen a project take this path before, but project was Mozilla Firefox. The Firefox devs suddenly turned their back on their userbase in favor of catering to a wider audience. As a result, I – an obsessively dedicated Firefox user since at least Phoenix 0.2 – have sworn off the software completely.

Enter the “equal accessibility paradox.” I see this often with software projects especially, but it exists in all sorts of arenas, from websites to cell phones, cameras to iPods, from cars to TVs, even in restaurants and stores. The problem exists as such: you have two distinct groups of customers, one who prefers additional options or features even if it introduces complexity; and another, possibly larger, audience who prefers elegant simplicity at the expense of features. The goal is to provide everyone with the options and abilities they expect without overwhelming them. Can a new, non-savvy user control the product to do what they want equally as well as an advanced user can configure the product to do what he wants?

The problem comes from the fact that all too often, like with both Ubuntu and Firefox, you begin to favor one community over the other. I believe the Mozilla Foundation, at least in the provided example, unfortunately decided to cater to a wider audience by making decisions at the expense of its current users. They have made decisions that have cost them at least one user. Ubuntu, if the article is to be believed, has provided plenty of advanced options but over-simplified the non-advanced procedures. In short, if you aren’t a complete novice, you’re an expert. Thus the paradox takes shape: the gap between your two user groups becomes greater. Hopefully, along the way, you don’t so aggravate your most vigilant supporters so that they abandon you.

I’m positive I haven’t best expressed what I intended to say, but I think there’s a theory in there. As your userbase grows, the gap between your two user-types widens, and your target generally becomes one or the other.

As Apple grows and branches out from the Macintosh computer line, I can only hope they don’t cater to new users to a degree that forsakes the current users who kept them afloat for so long. As Microsoft has grown, they have taken more and more steps to frustrate the people who best support their products, so much so that my business now uses Linux on web servers and PHP for programming and I always recommend Macs and Linux to my friends and colleagues. As Firefox grew, I felt they left users like me behind. As Ubuntu grows, I hope they can control the divide before they find themselves head-to-head with the “equal accessibility paradox.”