GNOME Usability Hackfest

Back in the Dublin office today after last week’s GNOME Usability Hackfest in London, during which I didn’t blog nearly enough.

My main goal for the week was to help figure out a plan to revise the GNOME Human Interface Guidelines, which I originally helped to write almost a decade ago, but which really haven’t kept pace with the changes in either hardware or software technology over the past 5 years.

The notes from all the discussions we had aren’t all that impressive to look at, but I think the key thing is the general agreement to have less monolithic text, and switch to more of a pattern library approach. This should allow us to react much more quickly to changing trends in GNOME UI design, maintain related patterns for different types of devices such as desktop, touchscreen and stylus devices, and even allow individual distros to customize the library with their own unique, in-house patterns if they so desire. (Which hopefully won’t be too much, but it’s clear that, for example, the GNOME-based Moblin UI is a different beast from the vanilla GNOME desktop, so the Moblin team will likely want to maintain some patterns of their own.)

I’ve already started to draft up a template for what a GNOME UI pattern might look like, and hope to flesh things out a bit more over the next couple of weeks.

Of course, many other things were discussed at the hackfest as well. Nautilus and gnome-shell were hot topics, as was the old chestnut of a GNOME control centre redesign—on that front, I ended up moderating a couple of card sorting sessions during the week where we had users categorize 100 settings into groups of their choice. Charlene from Canonical presented an Empathy usability report, partly to discuss the findings, but mostly to discuss how best to present such reports to GNOME developers. And of course, Seth’s vision of a future GNOME desktop hit the headlines, making it to Ars Technica almost immediately!

On the community front, some ideas for improving the tools we use to analyse and report usability data were also discussed. And there was a strong presence from the accessibility community, to keep us all honest when coming up with anything new.

Many thanks, of course, to Google and Canonical for sponsoring the event, and particularly to the latter for hosting us in a 27th floor office so we didn’t need to waste money on the London Eye 🙂

On the new shell

It’s great to see Vincent, Owen, Federico, Karl et al. thinking about bold ways to bring the GNOME desktop into the 21st century.  With guys like that motivated to make it happen, we certainly have more than a fighting chance.

But despite taking a keen interest in GNOME usability for the thick end of a decade, I haven’t specifically commented on any of their mockups.  Why not?

Because if we’re serious about this undertaking, now isn’t the time to debate the merits of major design changes among ourselves. It’s the time to go out, talk to our users, watch them using GNOME, and work out what needs to change, what might be cool to change, and (just as importantly) what needs leaving alone. And that’s before we even think about making any more mockups.

And when I say “our users”, I’m not talking about the usual suspects here, either.  I mean the silent majority who don’t show up at GUADEC, don’t hang out on mailing lists or IRC, and don’t file bugs.  The ones who might not even use GNOME through choice, but might just have got out of bed one day to find it’s been installed on their office or school computer, or on the kiosk in their library.  And the ones who don’t even know they’re running GNOME at all, but who just know they have some desktop or mobile device that doesn’t look exactly the same as Windows does at home, but that it kind of works the same.

With all due respect to those who’ve put their ideas on the line so far, making visionary mockups of a brave new world isn’t usually all that difficult—although it’s certainly fun 🙂 Making mockups that meet well-researched, documented user requirements takes a bit more effort, though, and refining those mockups into a product based on iterative feedback from a representative sample of users is, well, a lot of hard work.  You only need to look at the amount of software that sucks for proof of that.

With that in mind, let’s do it!

(FWIW, I did some further waffling on this theory in my response to Stormy’s mail on the usability mailing list recently.)