Thursday, July 25, 2013

Using Fedora 19 Xfce at work

Allow me to expand on my previous post about Fedora 19 Xfce and usability. Going beyond merely the usability of the Xfce desktop, how does it perform at work? Since I've been using Fedora 19 Xfce for about two weeks, I thought I'd share some thoughts about Fedora 19 Xfce at work. While this isn't a typical topic for this "Open Source Software & Usability" blog, Linux aficionados may appreciate my views on using Fedora 19 Xfce as a day-to-day office desktop.

I opted not to attempt a "dual boot" configuration on my work laptop. If this were my home machine, that might be a different story. But at work, I didn't want to mess with the standard desktop; as a CIO, I don't want to make things more difficult for our support staff.

Fortunately, we had an unused external USB drive. It's a little old, but perfectly suitable to boot Linux. It was a fairly straightforward affair to connect this spare drive to a spare laptop to install Fedora 19 Xfce.

1. The install program has poor usability.

Fedora used to have a very simple, easy-to-use installer. You answered a few simple questions using point-and-click or drop-down menus, then the installer did everything else for you.

In the Fedora 19 installer, everything has changed. (Actually, I believe this changed in the Fedora 18 installer.) The installer now presents a warning label that the disk doesn't have enough room. When I clicked into the disk setup tool, I was given the option to "reclaim" space, but I really didn't understand what that meant. There was no button or other option to just "install," despite the fact that I planned to install only Linux on this drive. If I were a user with "typical" knowledge and "average" skill, I would likely be afraid to use this installer, lest it do the wrong thing.

The installer's progress bar is equally confusing. Usually, when a program displays a progress bar and a message to indicate the percent complete (such as, "Installing … 50%") you might expect the progress bar to indicate the same "percent complete" as the text message. Not so during the Fedora 19 installation. The installer displayed a message that it was installing system software, and it was "50%" complete, yet the progress bar displayed something like two-thirds complete. I quickly decided not to trust the progress bar. And it's a bad sign when your users decide not to trust your software.

The installer is a Fedora issue. My recommendation to the Fedora Project folks is to reconsider the new installer, and try to move back to a more streamlined installer that can be easily used by a user with "typical" knowledge and "average" skill.

2. Adding printers is confusing.

After installing Fedora 19 Xfce on the external drive, I rebooted into the desktop. Things went very well until I tried to add a printer.

The process was awkward, almost "klunky." You'd think adding a printer would be done under the "Printer" menu item. Not so; you must click the giant "+" icon. While I eventually figured it out, the action wasn't immediately obvious. Not a major obstacle, but menus would help. The user interface for adding printers needs some work.

3. The desktop works well.

Overall, I am very satisfied with how Xfce performs as a modern desktop. A user with "typical" knowledge and "average" skill should be able to easily navigate the Xfce desktop. Unlike GNOME, programs in Xfce use menus. Everything worked pretty much the same, and menu items had obvious actions and responses.

To be fair, I understand that GNOME does have a menu, located in the top bar next to the "Activities" menu. This isn't an obvious place for a menu, since it separates the menu with the program that uses it. That's an interesting UI decision for GNOME. I would argue GNOME fails the Obviousness criteria here, where Xfce succeeds.

4. Installing programs isn't obvious.

Once I installed Fedora 19 Xfce, I realized not all my favorite programs were installed by default. For example, I chose to install Evince (a PDF file viewer), GIMP (a graphics program), Google Chrome (web browser), KeePassX (a password manager), and LibreOffice (an office program). I needed to download Google Chrome separately, and I knew that, but the others were optional packages in Fedora 19.

There's no obvious menu item for "Add new programs" or "Install Fedora 19 packages" or something similar. Eventually, I tried the "Yum Extender" program, remembering that "yum" is a command-line package manager program that lets you install or remove packages. But "Yum Extender" doesn't accurately describe the action that it performs.

Once I ran "Yum Extender," it was fairly easy to install the new packages I wanted. But I'll admit that I used "yum" on the command line to install the Google Chrome package; that was easier than figuring out how to install a local package from "Yum Extender."

In a future post, I'll share some thoughts about the programs themselves.

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