"My first 48 hours enduring Ubuntu"

Stephen R Laniel steve at laniels.org
Wed Jun 15 17:03:11 UTC 2005

On Wed, Jun 15, 2005 at 10:23:31AM -0600, Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier wrote:
> Don't mind the rant - I understand the need for consistency, but I tend
> to balk at having the placement of every little element dictated by some
> arbitrary guidelines that some UI "expert" decides on. One person's
> "intuitive" is another person's computing nightmare.

I'll grant you that quite often what's usable is dictated by
what we're used to: people find Windows usable, when I don't
think it really is; that's just what they've been trained
on. Likewise I think 'intuition' is quite often overrated
and misnamed: intuition is formed by our earlier experiences
using similar objects.

That said, there are good models of usability out there, as
measured by the entirely un-arbitrary standards of how well
untrained users can get along in them. We could ask a
computer novice -- maybe a child would be a good candidate
-- to walk through accomplishing a certain task and see the
difficulties he or she runs into along the way. I suspect
we'd find that OS X is more usable to most people, by that

At this point in GNOME's life, I don't think we're in a
place where we can insist that users retrain themselves on a
model that we like better. For better or worse, we're
confined by what users are used to -- because what they're
used to, again, defines what's 'intuitive' for them. They're
used to Windows or Macs. We should build our development
tools so that the default behavior is to keep the look
consistent and maybe mimic Windows or OS X in some
particulars. I'm not saying we should clone them, by any
means, but taking some of their cues might be a good idea.

Also, bear in mind that Microsoft and Apple have enormous
budgets for conducting usability and beta tests; GNOME does
not. (Last I heard, it's been four or five years since
anyone conducted a GNOME usability test.) I think we'll want
to defer to the experiences of companies that have worked
with actual users.

I used to work for a software company that designed a very
cool piece of Windows software. Version 1 used a highly
nonstandard interface, and spent a lot of effort making the
interface 'skinnable'. All the UI widgets looked unlike
Windows. The company, I think, was convinced that its UI
was better than Microsoft's. Fast forward a few years:
version 3 of the software completely scrapped the custom UI
and replaced it with Windows, for both technical and
usability reasons: using the Windows UI immediately buys you
all sorts of OS niceties, like accessibility, i18n and l10n.
Nonstandard UI means you have to reinvent the wheel, thereby
making the whole thing buggier and harder to test. Plus
usability tests showed that people just couldn't figure
out what was going on in the software. V3 was a big hit, and
was a regular Windows app.

I realize that the Linux community prides itself on
do-it-yourselfism, but there are good reasons for
let-someone-do-it-for-youism. :-)

> Maybe I'm just a computing misfit, but I think GNOME is more usable than
> OS X. I use both, though I use GNOME much more than OS X, and I vastly
> prefer using GNOME over OS X. I admit, I've been using Linux as my main
> OS a very long time now (six years) so my outlook is a bit different
> than folks who are just now looking at the Linux desktop and comparing
> it to Windows and Mac OS X.

Right: your 'intuition' is different than a non-Linux user's
intuition. I'd like to suggest that if we're looking for
massive market adoption of Linux, we should rely on the
usability experiences of the 98% of desktop users who don't
use Linux. The first precept of places like the Carnegie
Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Institute is: You Are Not
The User. Anyone on this list is, I would suggest, in the
top few percent of computer users. Before we can suggest UI
directions for Linux, we should talk to real users rather
than to each other. Since Apple and Microsoft have already
done this quite a lot, we should be lazy (in the good Larry
Wall sense) and let someone else handle the legwork. Let's
gladly borrow their UI.

Stephen R. Laniel
steve at laniels.org
+(617) 308-5571
PGP key: http://laniels.org/slaniel.key
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