At the recent GUADEC in Thessaloniki, I gave a talk about some strands of work that I’ve been doing around UX strategy and design/development process. I ended up skipping over some points that I’d wanted to make, and I also had some great conversations with people about the talk afterwards, so I wanted to share an updated version of the talk in blog form.
I’ll be splitting the talk into multiple posts. This first post is about creating a UX strategy for GNOME. As you might expect, this is a plan for how to improve GNOME’s user experience! In particular, it tries to answer the question of which areas and features need to be prioritised.
The approach I’ve taken in creating this strategy follows a fairly standard format: analyse the market, research user needs, identify and analyse competitors, then use that data to design a product which will succeed in the current desktop market. The main goal is to offer a product which meets user needs better than the alternatives.
In later posts in the series, I’m going to show off a set of updated designs for GNOME, which I think are a good place to start implementing the strategy that I’m laying out. For many readers, those later posts will probably be more interesting! However, I do think it’s useful to provide the strategy, in order to provide background and put that work in context.
Data and research are an essential part of any robust strategy. For my strategy work, I’ve read market reports and general UX literature. I’ve also done a lightweight competitive analysis exercise, as well as some primary research of my own.
My research consisted of three sets of in-depth interviews. These have been with three different groups of users (not just GNOME users), about what influences their choice of desktop. The participants in those interviews have been skewed towards development and technical users in Europe and the United States, but they did include variation and I think that some of themes that emerged are probably widespread.
The following are some of the key lessons that I think I’ve learned through the various research and analysis activities I’ve done over the past year. In my mind, these are all significant observations which can influence our UX strategy, and which certainly influence my thinking when I approach desktop design work.
The state of the desktop market
The desktop market hasn’t seen massive growth in recent years, but it is reasonably stable. Within that, we have seen an increasing emphasis on productivity and enterprise use cases, in part because of the relative weakness of the personal computing segment of the market. I think that there’s currently a renewed recognition of the importance of the desktop for productivity tasks, and as a platform for creation and development.
It should be noted that the personal computing market certainly hasn’t disappeared, and that there has been steady growth in convertible laptop sales (laptops which have a touchscreen and some kind of tablet mode).
The cloud has changed the competitive landscape for the desktop. One key development is that, nowadays, most of the key desktop apps people use are cloud-based (this includes browser-based apps, apps which act as an interface to a cloud-based service, and apps which are running locally using web technologies). As a result, they are generally cross-platform.
The rise of the cloud presents GNOME with both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, it makes GNOME and the Linux desktop far more viable, since it means that people running Linux can access most of the apps they need. Applications are no longer constrained to particular platforms in the way that they used to be (though this can still be a significant factor in some cases).
On the other hand, the cloud presents a challenge for GNOME, in that it becomes harder for us to show and deliver value. For some users, the web is already the only application platform that they use.
Expectations and quality
Another observation about the contemporary software landscape: the general standard of software user experience has significantly increased in recent history. (Largely thanks to improved methodologies and processes, including greater prioritisation of design and the increased use of user testing.)
People nowadays are used to software that does its job well, is easy to use, and generally looks good.
This makes GNOME’s job harder. Being OK is no longer good enough. People’s expectations have been raised: they are less inclined to accept poor quality software than they were in the past, and it’s harder to produce something that excites them.
The desktop user interviews that I’ve done over the past year have revealed a number of key requirements that people have for their desktop computers. These include:
- Reliability and stability
- Ease of use
- Software availability
- Brand trust
- User control
A bullet list like this is fairly crude way to present research results, and there’s a lot that I could say about each of these topics. However, for now the main thing to say is that people can and do change desktop platforms according to these criteria. I’ve been told stories about the moment someone decided to switch platform, because they were so sick of something not working the way they needed it to. I’ve also been told about the coping strategies that people use when they haven’t been able to find a desktop which meets their needs. The pain is real, and the struggles people have finding a good desktop are real.
Which brings me on to my main point: without naming names, if you look at the desktop market today, there isn’t a product out there which meets all the user needs I’ve identified. Each one is missing part of the winning formula.
From this perspective, the path for GNOME is clear: if it wants to compete, and out-perform its rivals in the desktop space, it needs to deliver on each of the points I’ve listed above.
In the posts that follow, I’m going to lay out a UX strategy which builds on these observations. The next post will describe a set of strategic goals which form the framework for the strategy. From there, I’m going to present a raft of design work, which I think represents a implementable UX plan, before finishing with a post about design and development methodology.
4 thoughts on “Towards a UX Strategy for GNOME (Part 1)”
Looking forward to future posts. Thank you for taking the time to document were you want GNOME to go.
I think for a FOSS project, I think we have one unique bullet point when it comes product development and that is how we work with our downstreams and its myriad of communities in terms of direction and communications and setting expectations.
I think at some point in one of the talks I said that GNOME does not always communicate very well or set expectations as one generally does for product development. Posts like yours help provide clarity in the direction you’re going – without it, people fill in the gaps with their own prejudice and create stories that do not reflect reality.
Does this also mean that GNOME is open for discussion of the design of the GNOME Shell?
The biggest usability problem in GNOME is, in my humble opinion, the ability of a user to quickly and distracting free switch between open applications.
Hey Scott, it sounds like you’re interested in something fairly specific, and I’m not sure that this is the best place to have that kind of discussion! Generally speaking, I’d like to think that we’re always open to evaluating our existing designs, and we’re currently looking into changing various aspects of the shell’s design. That said, we do have to work within various constraints – it’s not always simple to make design changes, particularly radical ones.
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