Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Xfce and usability

Continuing my discussion on open source software "desktops" and usability, I previously mentioned the usability of Fedora 18 and the GNOME desktop. In testing the release of Fedora "19-alpha" (they released "19-beta" today), I'm somewhat concerned that GNOME 3.8 (in Fedora "19-alpha") does not meet two of the four themes of successful usability: "Consistency" and "Menus". The updated file manager (Nautilus) doesn't have a traditional menu, but other programs in GNOME 3.8 do. And when you maximize a Nautilus window, either to the full screen or to half of the screen, the title bar disappears.

In the interests of making a comparison, I decided to look elsewhere. I tried one of Fedora's alternate desktop distributions: Fedora Xfce.

Xfce provides a desktop experience that most users will find familiar. While I haven't done a formal usability study of Xfce, my initial evaluation is that Xfce meets all four of the key themes: Familiarity, Consistency, Menus, and Obviousness. The menus are there, and everything is consistent. The default Xfce uses a theme that is familiar to most users, and actions are obvious. Sure, a few areas still need some polish (like the Applications menu, and some icons) but Xfce already seems better than GNOME.

Additionally, if you are technically capable, you can dramatically modify the appearance of Xfce to make it look and act according to your preferences. At home, I've modified my Xfce desktop to something similar to Google's Chromebook. It works really well and I find it is even easier to use than the default Xfce desktop.

Allow me to demonstrate:

The Chromebook uses a desktop environment called "Aura." It presents a somewhat simplified desktop experience, where all applications actually run "inside" the Chrome web browser. For example, clicking a "YouTube" icon actually launches youtube.com in a new Chrome browser. Frequently-used programs can be added to the desktop, or you can browse other applications by clicking the Applications menu icon. Other desktop functions (clock, wireless network connections, battery indicator, etc) are displayed in the lower-right corner. While there is no "bar" or "panel" like in Windows or MacOSX, the Aura desktop appears to do the same by the way it displays icons and desktop functions.


Additionally, if you are technically capable, you can dramatically modify the appearance of Xfce to make it look and act according to your preferences. I've modified my Xfce desktop to something similar to the Aura desktop. It works really well and I find it is even easier to use than the default Xfce desktop.


Like Aura, this Xfce desktop uses a "panel" that makes it easy to run frequently-used programs, or you can browse other applications by clicking the Applications menu icon. Other desktop functions are in the lower-right corner. By adopting an available theme included in Xfce, the "panel" visually becomes part of the background, rather than competing for foreground attention, so it is not distracting. Icons aren't so widely spaced in Xfce as they are in Aura—but I only intended a similar feel, not identical.

Power users may notice that this desktop doesn't include the virtual desktop browser, which allows you to represent different desktops on one system. For example, you might use one virtual desktop just to run your email program, a second virtual desktop for your web browser, another for your programming editor, and a fourth for other tasks. As you might guess, virtual desktops are often used by programmers and other highly-technical users, but I omitted the virtual desktop browser for the sake of simplicity. If I were to re-add virtual desktops to this, I would likely create a separate "panel" on the right edge of the screen that lets me switch between virtual desktops.

I'll share the steps to reproduce this desktop very soon, for those who are interested.

In case you're curious, "XFCE" used to stand for "XForms Common Environment," where "common environment" was an older Unix term that we call a "desktop" today. But it's been re-written twice, so now doesn't use XForms. The name stuck, however, so now they write the name as "Xfce."

And "GNOME" originally was the "GNU Network Object Model Environment," but these days it's just written "GNOME," in all caps.

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