That is why, although the release's FAQ explains that design decisions were based on "an extensive literature review" and "stock usability principles and knowledge," the fact that only "a small usability study" was done in December 2010 -- after the interface was already well-developed-- is some cause for concern.
The trouble is, a significant proportions of the users of any software are straightforward in their needs, and conservative about change. Apparently, many users -- at least vocal ones -- want little more from a desktop than a place from which to launch their applications. Since that was achieved years ago in GNOME, such users tend to resist anything more than minor changes in the interface. Even when innovations increase efficiency or productivity, a percentage of users will resist them precisely because they are new.
Looking back at the KDE 4.0 release six months later, Aaron Seigo suggested that the release confronted users with more changes than they could handle at once. Much the same could be said about GNOME 3.0.
GNOME can argue that the upcoming release offers "an overview at a glance," but people used to a single screen are still going to be upset by having to change to another one to view activities. Similarly, advertising "distraction-free computing" is not going to reconcile all users to not having applets in the panel -- and never mind whether their equivalent is available elsewhere. The kind of users I am talking about want what they know and know what they want.
For such users, GNOME's invitation in the GNOME 3.0 FAQ to provide feedback is going to be ignored. Most of these users will never see the FAQ, and those who do have little sense of how to use a bug tracker, and no inclination to read up on GNOME design before making their suggestions.
Moreover, if Jeff Waugh is correct, and even an established free software company such as Canonical can have trouble knowing who to talk to in GNOME, then what are the odds of average users finding the most effective way to contribute?
By default, input will tend to be confined to the experts. Should average users succeed in registering their reactions, they are likely to risk being intimidated and ignored -- not necessarily out of any hostility towards them, so much as because most of them will not be strongly motivated to persist and the experts often lack time to educate them in effective advocacy. Projects that want the input of such users have to seek it out patiently, and, in this respect, GNOME seems only slightly better than KDE was.
The result? Like KDE 4.0, GNOME 3.0 is a release that will please developers, with features that will delight programmers and frustrate many users -- in both cases, simply because the features are new.
Ten years ago in free software, developers and users could be assumed to be the same people, but those days are long gone. Today, an increasing number of users have a consumer mindset, and expect developers to deliver what they want. Unfortunately, since what such users apparently want is minor enhancements of what they already know, and developers understandably resent such demands.
Under these circumstances, GNOME 3.0 seems poised to have the same reception as KDE 4.0 did. Since GNOME has tried to mitigate possible responses, the reaction will no doubt be less extreme and less unreasonable. But, since GNOME has not eliminated all the reasons for the reaction, some sort of reaction will likely happen all the same.
Already, a project called EXDE has been formed to continue development of the GNOME 2 series, just as Trinity KDE continues the KDE 3 series. In fact, EXDE has already existed for two months. Its existence may look like the effect coming before the cause, given that Trinity KDE took a couple of years to merge, but the very existence of EXDE is an omen that history is about to repeat itself.
The repetition will not be exact. It never is. But it will be exact enough to emphasize the fact that the free software community is still struggling to define the exact relationship of users and developers.
Admittedly, GNOME is trying much harder than KDE did three years ago to keep users informed and get them involved. Unfortunately, though, the indications are that these efforts will mitigate but not eliminate the consequences of moving faster than users can adjust.
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