Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fedora 19 Xfce and usability

Fedora 19, codenamed "Schrödinger's Cat", was released on July 2, 2013. After about a week, I finally installed this on my laptop to explore the usability in Xfce. I've previously mentioned that Fedora has lost me. Before giving up entirely, I tried the alternate Fedora Xfce distribution, and found I liked it.

Since I've been using Fedora 19 Xfce for about two weeks, I thought I'd share some thoughts on the desktop. First, let me acknowledge this isn't the default Xfce desktop; I've applied a few changes. Here is my current desktop:


It's no secret that I love the "Aura" desktop on Google's Chromebook / ChromeOS. The Aura desktop has a simplified look that is both easy for new users and flexible for power users. Aura provides very good usability: The desktop is familiar to both Windows users and Mac users, and the desktop functions more or less like the desktops on these other platforms. Since (almost) everything in the Chromebook runs inside the browser, programs share consistent behavior. Menus are not immediately visible, but are available. Actions provide obvious feedback.

Overall, if the Aura desktop were available on a "stock" Linux distribution and had the ability to launch local programs like LibreOffice or a terminal, it would be a great desktop for most folks.

So while I like the usability in the Xfce desktop, I like the usability of Aura a lot more. But if you are technically capable, you can dramatically modify the appearance of Xfce to make it look and act like anything - like Aura. And 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.

You may notice I have "tweaked" the desktop settings from my previous modifications. A few differences:
I'm using a light grey theme instead of a dark grey theme. The other theme was great for a few days, but the darker colors made things more difficult to read. This light grey theme ("Adwaita") provides much better visibility.
I've added a volume control ("Audio Mixer") next to the Notification Area.
I modified the clock style so it also displays the date next to the time. I sometimes need to look up the date, and this saves me the step of having to hover my mouse over the clock to display today's date.
I changed the Applications Menu icon to be a series of three lines, instead of the "3x3 grid." Icons are metaphors for things or actions, and the "3x3 grid" icon works well for the Aura desktop because Aura's Application Menu is presented as a grid of available applications. But Xfce's Application Menu is a hierarchical list, so the "3x3 grid" icon didn't accurately represent the action. In my mind, I didn't associate the "3x3 grid" icon with the Application Menu, even though I gave it that icon. But the series of three lines ("view-list-symbolic") provides a more accurate metaphor for the action it instantiates.

Otherwise, I find the Xfce desktop to be very pleasant. While I haven't done a formal usability study of Xfce, my heuristic usability evaluation is that Xfce meets all four of the key themes for good usability: 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 pretty solid.

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