A classic example for me is the story of my first patch to KDE. KDE's education suite includes a tool called KMPlot which takes a mathematical expression and plots it as a graph. At secondary school my teachers used a similar program called OmniGraph heavily. Aside from looking and feeling somewhat dated it had a raft of minor irritations which could easily be fixed with access to the code.
I wanted something similar to help with assignments at home and I found KMPlot (KDE 3.4x). I fired it up and entered a simple equation:
y = sin(x)
I was met with a somewhat cryptic error. It turns out that KMPlot required equations to be defined as named functions ( name(x) = expression ). Children at secondary schools in England don't learn about these until A-Levels, 4 years after they start playing with graphs. Whoops! My first patch fixed this by accepting "y = expression" equations and then re-writing them internally.
A more signficant problem was the interface design. A common use of OmniGraph was for teachers to load it up on their PC in a classroom which was connected to a projector. They would then enter several related equations into OmniGraph and use laser-pointers, electronic white-board pens or wooden rulers to explain the relationships between the various equations and their graphs. This environment imposes a couple of major requirements:
- Projected images generally have poor contrast. The equations therefore need to be displayed in a big colorful font so that they can be read at a distance by pupils in a classroom.
- In order to compare multiple equations and their graphs, equations need to be displayed alongside their graphs.