In October 2005, Novell announced the Better Desktop Initiative, whose goal is to obtain and share data regarding desktop "usability." Usability is, according to the Usability Professionals' Association "the degree to which something--software, hardware, or anything else--is easy to use and a good fit for the people who use it." Essentially, it is a measure of how easy the item is to use and how efficiently it allows people to get things done.
There are many ways to approach usability. In today's computing world, at least in North America, many people have used computers before. Of these people, arguably most have used at least one form of Microsoft Windows. While many point out that Linux is not in fact Windows, or a Windows clone, those who are trying to draw Windows users onto the Linux desktop--particularly corporate users--have to take the pragmatic approach of helping these users migrate with as little difficulty as possible.
When Novell took a look for which market segment was most likely to adopt a commercial Linux desktop, the company decided that it was business users who are going to make the switch first. So, once the usability data was available, Novell used its newfound knowledge of how people work in Windows to redesign its interfaces, enabling business users to get straight back to work quickly and easily.
The GNOME project also made good use of the Better Desktop Initiative data. According to Dave Neary, Chairman of the GNOME Foundation Board of Directors, "usability studies have always been an important part of the GNOME project, whether they have been sponsored by Sun, Red Hat, or Novell, or have been independent efforts like OpenUsability." He points out that each project only has a certain level of resources, but that "GNOME developers care deeply about the user experience, and as a project we have always worked hard to make common tasks easy, without making advanced tasks impossible."
For those who wonder about the real usefulness of such studies, Neary shared an example of just how important it can be for developers to be able to see the effects of their efforts on the average user. "BetterDesktop is a project which had a big impact when it was presented at last year's GUADEC (GNOME User and Developer European Conference) conference in Stuttgart--watching test subjects as they struggled with things which we take for granted was an enlightening experience for many." As a result of these efforts, "The project has reinforced usability in the GNOME psyche, and provided tools for developers to do more and better usability testing themselves."
Federico Mena Quintero, the maintainer of several GNOME modules and GTK +'s core developer, says that the Better Desktop Initiative has "made developers very aware that the assumptions they make are sometimes completely disconnected from users." As an example, he offers the way the Send/Receive button in Novell Evolution, which is confusing to many people. "That was a part of the user interface describing what the code would do, instead of describing what the user is able to accomplish with it."
In particular, Quintero points out that "The killer 'feature' of BetterDesktop is that anyone can see the videos in the same format as the usability team will use for study. The only thing better than that is to actually be in the room when the usability test is being performed. Having the summaries is great for quick reference, but the videos provide deeper understanding."
Projects that have worked particularly close with the Better Desktop Initiative include Novell Evolution, F-Spot, and Banshee. That the Evolution project used this tool is expected, given that both Evolution and the Better Desktop Initiative are Novell projects. Harish Krishnaswamy, the maintainer of Novell Evolution, said that "From the Evolution point of view, Better Desktop has had a significant impact on how we think about the UI and driven much of the UI refactoring efforts during the 2.6 release."
There are five DVDs' worth of video showing people using Evolution during the usability exercises. Krishnaswamy says that these DVDs showing people "carrying out normal tasks gave the project several eye-openers (including the Send/Receive, Menu/Toolbar placements, attachment handling) often turning conventional 'developer thinking' on its head."
Having access to such data has apparently had a lasting impact on the Evolution team, one that Krishnaswamy hopes more GNOME projects will embrace. The Evolution team, according to Krishnaswamy, now subjects all interface changes to usability tests just before the final release, making adjustments to improve ease of use before it is released to the public.
Lest you think that KDE, in its absence here, doesn't focus on usability as well, keep in mind that the Better Desktop Initiative focuses its testing on GNOME. However, the KDE project also keeps usability in mind, working in conjunction with the aforementioned OpenUsability project, among others.
This article was first published on LinuxPlanet.com.