This post is a part of a short series, in which I’m setting out what I think could be the beginnings of a UX strategy for GNOME. In this, the second post, I’m going to describe a potential GNOME UX strategy in high-level terms. These goals are a response to the research and analysis that was described in the previous post and, it is hoped, point the way forward for how GNOME can achieve new success in the desktop market.
For me, the main goals of a GNOME UX strategy could be:
1. Deliver quality
If GNOME is going to succeed in today’s desktop market, UX quality has to be job #1.
UX quality includes what the software looks like and how it is designed, but it also refers to how the software functions. Performance and bugs (or the lack of them) are both aspects of UX!
More than anything else, people are looking for a desktop that Just Works: they want a solution that allows them to get their work done without getting in their way. This means having a desktop that is reliable, stable, which does what people want, and which is easy to use.
People value solutions that Just Work. They’re also prepared to abandon them when they don’t Just Work.
To its credit, the GNOME project has historically recognised the importance of Just Works, and it has delivered huge improvements in this area. However, there is still a lot of work to be done.
My sense is that driving up quality is one of the key strategic challenges that the GNOME project needs to face up to; I’ll be returning to this topic!
2. Factor in the cloud
In my previous post, I worte about how the cloud has reconfigured the landscape in which GNOME operates. Accordingly, it’s important for our UX strategy to account for the cloud. There are various ways we can do this:
- Focus on those bits of the desktop that are used by all users, even if they mainly use a web browser. This includes all the parts of the core system, as well as the most essential desktop apps.
- Enable and encourage native cloud applications (including Electron and Progressive Web Apps)
- Add value with high-quality native apps.
- Integrate with existing cloud services, when it is safe to do so.
The last point might seem counter-intuitive, but it makes sense: in a world where the web is dominant, a fantastic set of native apps can be a powerful differentiator.
At the same time, GNOME needs to be careful when it comes to directly competing with sophisticated web apps and services, and it needs to recognise that, nowadays, many apps aren’t worth doing if they don’t have a cloud/cross-device component.
3. Grow the app ecosystem
The primary purpose of a platform like GNOME is to run apps, so it stands to reason that the number and quality of the apps that are available for the platform is of critical importance.
Recently, Flatpak has allowed the GNOME project to make great progress around application distribution, and this is already positively impacting app availability for GNOME. However, there is a lot of work still to be done, particularly around GNOME’s application development platform. This includes work for both designers and developers.
4. Support modern hardware
One of the things that my research revealed is that, for most users, their choice of desktop OS is thoroughly entwined with hardware purchasing choices, with hardware and software typically being seen as part of the same package. Attracting users to GNOME therefore requires that GNOME be available for, work well with, and be associated with high-quality hardware.
A lot of hardware enablement work is done by distros, but a lot also happens in GNOME, including things like high-definition display support, touchscreen support, screen casting, and more. This is important work!
Do less, prioritise
Any UX strategy should address the question of prioritisation: it ought to be able to determine how resources can be directed in order to have maximum impact. This is particularly important for the GNOME project, because its resources are limited: the core community is fairly small, and there’s a lot of code to maintain.
The idea of prioritisation has therefore both influenced the goals I’ve set out above, as well as how I’ve been trying to put them into practice.
When thinking about prioritisation in the context of GNOME UX, there are various principles that we can follow, including:
- User exposure, both in terms of the proportion of people that use a feature, and also the frequency with which they use it. Improvements to features that everyone uses all the time have a bigger impact than improvements to features that are only used occasionally by a subset of the user base.
- User needs and desires: features that are viewed as being highly attractive by a lot of people are more impactful than those which are only interesting to a small subset.
- Common underpinnings: we can prioritise by focusing on common subsystems and technical components. The key example here is something like GTK, where improvements can surface themselves in all the apps that use the toolkit.
When we decide which design and development initiatives we want to focus on (either by working on them ourselves, or advertising them to potential contributors), principles like these, along with the high-level goals that I’ve described above, can be very helpful.
I also believe that, in some cases, the GNOME project needs to have some hard conversations, and think about giving up some of its existing software. If quality is job #1, one obvious answer is to reduce the amount of software we care about, in order to increase the overall quality of everything else. This is particularly relevant for those parts of our software that don’t have great quality today.
Of course, these kinds of conversations need to be handled delicately. Resources aren’t fungible in an upstream project like GNOME, and contributors can and should be free to work on what they want.
In my previous post, I described the research and analysis that serves as inputs to the strategy I’m setting out. In this post I’ve translated that background into a high-level plan: four strategic goals, and an overarching principle of prioritisation.
In the next post, I’m going to introduce a raft of design work which I think fits into the strategy that I’ve started to lay out. GNOME is lucky to have a great design team at the moment, which has been pumping out high-quality design work over the past year, so this is a great opportunity to showcase what we’ve been doing, but what I want to do is also show how it fits into context.