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Are Usability Studies Hurting the Free Desktop?

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.

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