The GNOME project has announced
the release of version 1.0 of the GNOME Human Interface Guidelines (HIG). The
HIG is, according to the announcement:
...the most complete and carefully researched document of its kind
in the Free Software community [and] a major step
toward the creation of an easy to use and powerful set of free
applications with a distinctive and coherent style.
Leaving aside the hype, some examination of this 130-page document shows
that it is, indeed, an impressive piece of work. The HIG examines many
aspects of the usability of graphical applications, from window layouts,
color selections, icon design, etc. through to things like how to label
menu entries. A simple example of the sort of work that has been done:
User testing of MIT's Athena system revealed that users had
difficulty finding the file manager because they were unfamiliar
with the name "Nautilus". Because users did not associate the word
"Nautilus" with the concept "file manager" the menu item did not
Like many things in the usability arena, this conclusion seems obvious - in
Even after years of human factors research, creating highly usable
applications still requires a great deal of plain hard work. Application
designers are often blind to things they do that confuse their users.
Creation of the best desktop applications available requires more than just
great hacking; it requires serious attention to all of the little things
that make those applications really work for the people who will use them.
The HIG, thus, is a great contribution to the free software community, in
that it will help to focus and guide that attention.
The HIG is also the sort of work that free software developers are not
supposed to be good at. What self-respecting, ego-driven, itch-scratching
free software hacker is going to bother with human factors research, after
all? Such claims have been increasingly hard to defend for some time; the
HIG is just one more example of what the free software community is really
One other quote from the announcement is worth a look:
Further, we would like to challenge the KDE project to serve the
general user community by partnering with us in developing these
guidelines to create a common Free Software interface style.... We
call on the members of the KDE project to rise above Not Invented
Here (a natural tendency that neither project has been particularly
succesful in repressing, we know) in taking a major step for the
good of both our user bases and the long term success of Free
Software on the desktop.
A true gesture toward cooperation could certainly have been done in a less
public and challenging way. It is true, though, that the creation of a
common interface document could be a good way for the two projects to work
together. The creation of a more consistent desktop environment across the
two projects would help both - as would a more formal approach to human
factors in general. And both projects could join this work while
maintaining their own code bases. It's worth some thought.
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