Monday, January 21, 2013

Usability of Fedora 18

This blog has always been about open source software and usability. My primary reason for my writing the blog is practical experience towards my M.S. degree in Scientific & Technical Communication, where my thesis will be about usability methods applied to open source software. In Fall semester, I conducted a limited usability test of three open source software programs: Gedit, Firefox, and Nautilus. These tests allowed me to discuss at some length the practical approach to apply usability methods in open source software, including some of the results I derived from the usability testers.

So it would be somewhat amiss of me to not comment on a recent new version of a prominent open source software project: Fedora 18. This is a full release of a Linux distribution that is built completely from open source software.

Arguably, the most prominent component of Fedora 18 is the GNOME desktop. Fedora provides different "spins" of their distributions, and the default "spin" uses the GNOME desktop.

I installed Fedora 18 on a 16GB USB stick over the weekend. I'm not very impressed. I'll leave it to others to comment on the full install process, which got a major facelift in Fedora 18. (I wrote the Fedora 18 distribution to a "live USB stick" so I didn't go through the new install process.) However, I can comment on the the usability of the desktop.

Here is the default desktop (GNOME 3) in Fedora 18. I have started two instances of the Nautilus file manager; one is maximized on one half of the screen, the other is running in a window of default size:

From my usability test last year, the four themes of successful usability were:

  1. Familiarity
  2. Consistency
  3. Menus
  4. Obviousness

You can immediately see that the updated GNOME desktop in Fedora 18 doesn't do well with two of the four themes of successful usability: "Consistency" and "Menus".

Where are the menus? There is no "File" menu that allows me to do operations on files. There is no "Help" menu that I can use when I get stuck. The new Nautilus doesn't have a menu, but other programs in Fedora 18 do. The new Gedit text editor (which is also part of Gnome) still has menus, but the file manager does not. I don't understand why. The programs do not act consistently.

And things get worse when you compare the two Nautilus windows in the screenshot. When you maximize a Nautilus window, either to the full screen or to half of the screen, the title bar disappears. Look again at the screenshot and compare. The "x" button in the upper-right corner (to close the program) disappears in the maximized view. How do you exit the file manager after you've maximized it? For that matter, how do you "un-maximize" the file manager, to return Nautilus to just a regular window?

As somewhat of a "power user," I'll also complain that I can't figure out how to connect to a remote server. This used to be an obvious action under the "File" menu, but without a menu in the new file manager, I can't do it.

The only clue I have to connect to a remote folder is under "Network" - "Browse Network" at the bottom of the left pane. But this only lets me see my local network, and the server I want to connect to is hosted elsewhere.

I think I'll keep clear of this release and see if things get fixed in Fedora 19. But as an experiment, I may try out a different "spin" of Fedora 18, perhaps the "XFCE" or "LXDE" lightweight desktops.


  1. Hi Jim,
    the new menus in GNOME are shown if you click on the application's name (near "Activities"). There are all the options like connecting to server and all the other things you may miss. You can also close apps with the menu.
    If you want to un-maximize windows, click in the upper black bar and drag it down.
    If you want to review DE's, please first get all the information about it. I use GNOME every day and I love it :D
    GNOME's developers are working on some intro stuff, to explain, how to use GNOME.
    I hope, this will help :)

  2. >>If you want to review DE's, please first get all the information about it.

    Your comment is interesting. People shouldn't have to figure out how to use a program in order to utilize it - aside from specialized tools. Typical users with average knowledge should be able to operate a general-purpose program. If a program is too hard to use, that suggests the problem is more with the program than with the user.

    I love open source software, and I've said elsewhere that I'm a longtime Linux and GNOME user. But GNOME 3 has very poor usability.

  3. You also mention the relocated "menu" in GNOME 3, by clicking on the application's name (near "Activities"). That's an interesting UI decision. I would argue it fails the Obviousness criteria.

    Here's an example: I use a laptop, with a 22" desktop flat-panel monitor as my second display. For me, it works well to run Chrome, GIMP, and other "large real estate" programs on the desktop monitor. (I run "small real estate" programs on the laptop display, such as Nautilus and Terminal.) GNOME presents the "Activities" action (hot-corner) on my laptop display. So if my program is running on the 2nd display, there's no connection between the "menu" you describe and the program.

    I mentioned this on Slashdot, and user AdamWill said "I think there are a few upstream bugs about the problem of using the global menu with apps on secondary displays, it's recognized not to be a great experience at present." I think "not a great experience" is a fair statement. It doesn't match user expectations, and fails Obviousness.