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User interface familiarity breeds contentment

by Richard Hillesley

Changes to the behaviour of interfaces don’t always go down well, but are sometimes a good thing, says Richard Hillesley

In the past the challenge for developers of the free desktop was to reproduce the functionality available to users of other operating systems, and a bit more besides. But in recent times the developers have begun to look towards a future that might take the desktop further beyond the accepted conventions.

The point-and-click desktop as we know it has been around since monitors had flickering green screens, although the average laptop has disk, RAM and graphics capacity that was undreamt of a few short years ago. The approach of free desktop developers has been to find ways of taking full advantage of the expanding technology, the versatility of Linux, and the limited spatial characteristics of mobile devices. In doing this they have to satisfy the conflicting demands of users.

KDE 4 introduced Plasma and widgets, and made extensive use of the ‘sweet spots’ of the screen, the “edges and corners, which are easier to aim at”. GNOME 3 is based around the GNOME Shell, and Ubuntu is pushing off in another direction with Unity. The justification for the KDE developers was that “desktop computing has changed radically in the last 20 years, yet our desktops are essentially the same as they were in 1984. It’s time the desktop caught up with us.”

Usability is a delicate balance between utility and practicality, simplicity and aesthetics, and is inevitably subjective. How do you maximise both the potential scope and the usability of the desktop? Should the desktop be an end in itself, or should it be nothing more than a framework for accessing applications and data?

UNIX users find usability in transparency and a multiplicity of choices. Mac users prefer one-click solutions and couldn’t care less where their data hides. KDE is a popular choice for the Linux desktop because it is aesthetically pleasing and offers configurability and transparency. Likewise, many Linux users who have arrived at Linux through hearing about Ubuntu have liked the experience precisely because GNOME has aimed for simplicity and ease of use.

Usability is too often defined by familiarity. Critics talk of intuitive behaviour, but what we mean by intuitive behaviour is coloured by our familiarity with the recognised way of doing things. What we call intuitive behaviour when talking about computer desktops is neither intuitive nor natural, but depends almost entirely on learned behaviour. It isn’t intuitive to sit in front of computer and click a mouse. It isn’t intuitive to send an email to the other side of the planet, and it isn’t intuitive to tap out words on a keyboard, but all these behaviours become second nature because we know that this is the way it’s done.

Predictable behaviour and a minimum of choice is desirable for infrequent users who don’t want or need to learn new behaviours. Familiarity dictates that once we learn a way of doing things it becomes intuitive. It follows that if a certain set of behaviours become second nature, we don’t like change, because change necessitates a different behaviour.

So changes to the behaviour of interfaces don’t always go down well, especially where they’re done for the sake of change, or to “add value”. We know that if GNU/Linux is to break into commercial environments on a large scale there has to be continuity and consistency.

At the same time the desktop cannot afford to ossify, and the developers cannot be expected to ignore the potential that the technology offers. There are different users to please. Compiz has been massively popular with certain classes of user. Its popularity has little to do with utility or functionality. Nobody needs wobbly windows or spinning cubes to get their work done, but aesthetic pleasure, which Compiz provides for some, is as much a part of the usability equation to some users as the transparency of the file system is to others.

The KDE developers ran into problems with KDE 4.0 because, of necessity, changes to the applications lagged behind changes to the framework. As the new environment matured and the relationship between the applications and the desktop environment become more transparent, attitudes changed. Some users have been converted, and some have reverted to the lightweight window managers that do just enough and do it well.

It is early days for Unity, but the response so far has been at best ambivalent. Mark Shuttleworth’s declared aims are to unite design with free software, to blur the line between the web and the desktop, to create an intuitive GNU/Linux desktop that is a thing of beauty, and to make Ubuntu and free software popular among the kinds of user who have never heard of free software before.

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    • candtalan

      I have a number of novice, non-tech friends who come to me for ubuntu installation. Although I have been personally a bit slow to start using unity on a daily basis, partly because all my existing installations with friends are still 10.10.x, I have recently given high profile to ubuntu 11.10, including a couple of direct installs for previous users of Windows only. Unity has been very well received, which I am very glad about.

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    • gorman7654

      Whiners make me sick. If you don’t like change, stop using computers.

    • Computer are not wholly about change, they are a tool to get things done and to entertain. Whiners are people with concerns – some feel let down and not listened too. Whiners can make or break a product – I feel XFCE getting a stronger life force as a result of people telling the whiners to get lost if they don’t like it.

      Gnome and Unity are still at best alpha stage interfaces and this is due to both camps ignoring and trying to socially engineer their users into using interfaces built for what may end up in phones. Of the two I prefer Gnome3 but still quite happy with Gnome2 and looking to go with XFCE next until Gnome3 get more mature – that could be another year or so away.

      I know things have to progress but lets not do it for the sake of it, don’t fix it if it ain’t broke!

      The Linux world should remember that it gained user’s from the Windows world as it’s users became frustrated at all the changes and GUI mods that got thrust onto them eg, Office Ribbons, Vista shambles etc…

    • LinuxLover

      It’s funny that Unity seems to aim to be a touch-centric UI, but KDE Plasma Active is already light years ahead of it, and already a much richer and more usable environment. You’d think the big money behind Ubuntu could do a better job than they have. However, it makes me wonder why Ubuntu doesn’t go after the touchscreen market with a version of Kubuntu running Plasma Active? I think it’s silly…

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    • jack1059

      An enjoyable read which got me thinking about the issue. It occurs to me that you’ve neglected the other key to the ‘usability’ puzzle, and that is the number of actions required to get to what i want. Im no expert on unity as i only test drove it. But i wasnt impressed because i couldnt find what i wanted without too many actions to get to what i wanted beyond the programs tagged to the sidebar dock. Granted i do not fully understand the unity desktop, but that was my first impression of it. A good read. Thanks.

    • Keith

      Driving has changed radically in the last 100 years, yet our cars are essentially the same as they were in 1904. It’s time the vehicles caught up with us.

      I mean, what’s with this insistence on four wheels, an engine and a steering wheel? Just because the basic concept is familiar to people and mostly works, can’t they see the need for change? Nowadays, people have in car infotainment, hands free phones and gadgets to guide them everywhere they go, so let’s just remove a couple of wheels, including the steering wheel, because basically it’s just familiarity that makes people keep buying them like that.

    • andy

      Nice parallel, Keith. In fact, I remember seeing an alternative control system being proposed for cars a couple of decades ago. It sprouted from the floor and was similar to the control column used in aircraft. Makes sense doesn’t it? They are both vehicles after all. You pushed it forward to go forward, tilted it left to turn left etc. and it only needed one hand to use it. I wonder why it never caught on…

    • MOGH

      The drive for mobile acceptance has many trying to push UI technology that doesn’t work on PCs as it does on mobile devices, that is the issue. As for taking a chance, that is what many in the community do everyday, testing and provide feedback to developers. However, the same taking a chance, changing a current desktop using newest UI technology doesn’t offer much, when most of users time would be spent working through problems and changes while, at the same time try being productive. Distros want a market share in the mobile space and wish to have users just accept the idea without question no matter the UI tech they choose for users.

    • MOGH

      “Just because the basic concept is familiar to people and mostly works, can’t they see the need for change?”

      what is the change you see that people should accept without question, and not having the choice to do so or not ? The UI today is nothing different then the early Xerox UI offered in the early ’70s. Xerox also had a mouse, and laser printers at that time.

      Interaction isn’t Sci-Fi as in movie special effects that offer more for the Imagination then interactive meaning as how someone in the real world does something. As for GNOME 3, moving the icons of applications off the desktop to another page to view, isn’t the greatest idea when it adds a click everytime a user wishes to start an app from that page. Otherwise the option is, having 72 bars on the desktop to hold all apps and things, users use eveyday, that just brings us back to what we already have — that does work very well without adding clicks.

      Please provide some idea of this change you feel is needed, ideas that don’t resolve back to the old ideas you seem to see as in need of change, that seems to only be change the arrangement of thing with more eye candy.