Whether or not they agree that Linux is "ready for the desktop" or not,
most observers will allow that there remains plenty of room for
improvement. And while some of those improvements will take the form of
slick new applications, there is also quite a bit of less glorious work to
do. So it is encouraging to see a couple of new efforts aimed at improving
the quality of the desktop we already have.
Novell has sent out a
press release announcing the launch of the Better Desktop initiative. This
effort, part of the OpenSUSE project, intends to provide information to
developers which will help them to make the Linux desktop a better
User-oriented proprietary software companies have many techniques for
improving the usability of their products. One of those is to film users
trying to fight their way through an application, then lock the developers
in a room and force them to watch the users struggle. No popcorn
provided. Developers know their software, so they will not wander into the
traps and dead-ends which confuse the rest of the world. Watching others
run afoul of usability problems shines a light on those problems which
cannot be denied. Once the problems are seen and understood, the
developers can start to think about solving them.
The Better Desktop project cannot lock developers in a room, and it cannot
deprive them of the refreshments of their choice. What it can do,
however, is provide the films. As a start, the project has posted video
streams of several users as they attempt to accomplish a set of
objectives. Also posted is a small set of
reports drawing conclusions from the videos. These conclusions are
relatively simple (users want to see the username and password fields
together on the login screen, for example), but they do demonstrate the
sort of issues that developers tend not to see on their own.
The research results posted are just a beginning; one assumes that the
project will run more experiments over time. Your editor suggests "figure
out how to make betterdesktop.org display reports in firefox without
popping up new windows" as a nice place to start. As this body of data
grows, implementing usability improvements indicated by the results should
be a relatively straightforward task. In usability, as in many other
areas, the real challenge is figuring out what problems to solve, rather
than implementing the solutions.
The Tango Project has taken on
a different goal: get rid of visual inconsistencies between desktop
applications, regardless of their source. In particular, Tango has
targeted icons as an area needing improvement. So, the project has posted
a set of
style guidelines on how icons should be created and a
specification on how they should be named. If applications adopt both,
the result should be applications that look the same everywhere.
The Tango icon
gallery gives a good demonstration of the guidelines in action. These
guidelines call for bright colors and well-defined perspectives on
objects. Not everybody will like the relatively cartoonish approach taken
by Tango, but use of these icons will undoubtedly create a lively desktop.
Tango may or may not succeed in the real world. It is important, however,
as a cross-desktop effort to improve the overall user experience. If the
Linux desktop is to continue to get better, a great deal of usability and
consistency work will have to get done. The fact that projects are coming
together to make a start on that work can only be a good thing.
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