Are Usability Studies Hurting the Free Desktop?

Interface problems with KDE, GNOME and Ubuntu suggest that the Linux desktop may be headed in the wrong direction.
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The recent history of new interfaces on the free desktop is not a happy one. Three years ago, the release of KDE 4.0 resulted in a user revolt whose like had never been seen. This year, the releases of GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity have produced similar revolts, but on a smaller scale.

Looking at these reactions, I am starting to wonder: Are the developers of free desktops become obsessed with design principles at the expense of what users actually want?

Not too many years ago, the question would have been absurd. Built on the free and open source software (FOSS) principle that developers worked on whatever interested them, the free desktop used to be a hodgepodge in which just getting a dialog to have the same name when it was opened from different places was a major achievement. Back then, the idea that too much attention could be paid to usability would have been unthinkable.

But, beginning with Sun Microsystem's detailed user study of the GNOME desktop in 2001, free desktop developers have been becoming increasingly aware of usability issues. Almost always, the result has been interfaces that are easier to use, more efficient, and more aesthetic.

Nor am I completely convinced that KDE 4.x, GNOME 3, and Unity are exceptions to this steady improvement. However, at the same time, as someone who has grappled with usability issues many times in his career, I have watched the newfound interest in interface design with a growing concern.

At times, the free desktop developers have reminded me uncomfortably of other developers I have known who have just discovered usability and design. Too often, they interpret the tentative conclusions of usability studies as being as incontestable as the laws of physics. From this position, the step is a small one to acting as though designs that attempt to keep these conclusions in mind are as incontestable as the studies themselves.

The reality, however, is more complex. Just as a paragraph can be grammatically correct while its meaning is nonsensical or wrong, so a computer interface can be based on the collected works of Edward Tufte and still contain structures that are awkward and inconvenient.

The truth is, usability principles are always filtered through the basic assumptions of those applying them. If those assumptions are flawed, then the resulting interface will be, too -- especially if the developers ignore the context of what users are accustomed to or believe they want. And, unfortunately, when you are newly steeped in usability, ignoring this context is all too easy to do. Instead, usability experts risk getting lost in the minutiae and arcana of their field

That is what I worry might have happened to some extent on the modern free desktop. Supported by the authoritative tone of usability and design studies, could developers have assumed a false sense of objectivity that has caused them to ignore common sense? At times, the possibility seems all too likely.

Concealing Subjectivity

Few FOSS projects are as concerned with usability as GNOME and Ubuntu. For GNOME, the Sun usability study proved a turning point, especially when its lessons were codified and expanded into the GNOME Human Interface Guidelines.

Similarly, usability has been a driving concern in Ubuntu from the start. The subject is a particular interest of Mark Shuttleworth, its founder, who stepped down as CEO in 2009 to focus chiefly on design issues. "I’ve become very passionate about design and quality, and want to spend more time figuring out how we harness the collaborative process to build better, more insightful products."

Since September 2008, when Shuttleworth first announced usability as a priority, the majority of his blog posts have been on the subject of usability. Regardless of whether you agree with them, these posts have done FOSS as a whole a service by placing usability on the general agenda.

In addition, Shuttleworth and his Design Team have done enough studies of user screen shots to codify at least a couple of important modern design principles: users typically have 3-10 favorite apps, and, in this age of wide screens, "vertical space is more precious than horizontal space."

Yet, at the same time, Ubuntu shows every sign of being dominated by design concerns to such an extent that they sometimes seem to be a detriment.

I have no wish to psychoanalyze Shuttleworth, (whom I have never met, although I respect his vision and effort), but his entries about such subjects as notifications and Ubuntu's latest theme read very much like those of an autodidact happily submerging himself in his latest obsession, to the point where he risks getting lost in the details. Not that such matters are irrelevant, but a corporate leader choosing to present himself to the public chiefly on such subjects does seem more idiosyncratic than practical.


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Tags: Ubuntu, Linux desktop, Linux downloads, Gnome, KDE


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