Saturday, December 21, 2013

Fedora 20 desktop impressions

EDIT: I received feedback via Twitter from GNOME designer Jon McCann, and I've added his comments below.

After having used Fedora 20 and GNOME 3.10 for about a day, my initial impression is that GNOME 3.10 has made big improvements with the desktop. Some of these changes are subtle, others more obvious. Let's look at some screenshots.

GNOME initial desktop, with Help
GNOME initial desktop, with Help

After installing Fedora 20, the first thing you see is the GNOME 3.10 desktop, with a Help application to get you started. That's a great way to introduce new users to the desktop, and a good way to provide balance for more experienced users who just want to get right into things. A few things to note:

I like the minimalist icons in the upper-right. It's immediately obvious that these represent your wireless connection, speaker volume, and battery charge. The down-arrow suggests that you can click on this area to get more (and you can).

The "Activities" hot-corner/button in the upper-left makes it clear how to get to new applications.

The simple white-on-black scheme of the top bar helps to provide better focus on the desktop and applications, rather than "blending" the top bar with the desktop metaphor.

GNOME certainly addressed some usability issues, but not the big ones.

I'm still not a convinced of GNOME's decision to put menus behind the application icon. Their compromise to usability is to include a down-arrow to suggest you can click on this, but in most applications that's just an option for "Quit" (which is the same as clicking the "x" icon in the upper-right of most applications, anyway). I understand from GNOME developers (and other folks, for example on Slashdot) that GNOME intends to move all application menus under this application icon. That doesn't seem to be a good move to me. My previous usability testing shows that users prefer menus that are obviously part of the application (think "menu bar"). The application menu in the black top bar doesn't stand out as part of the application experience.

EDIT: Apparently this is not correct. McCann reports "no intent to move all menus to app menu." Good to hear!

Activities - Show Applications
Activities - "Show Applications"

If you click on the "Activities" button (or just move your mouse into the upper-left "hot corner") you'll get a view of all applications that you currently have open, plus the "favorite" applications you use frequently on the left-hand side. If you click on the "3x3 grid" icon, you'll be able to "Show Applications" and see all the applications that you can run. I think this is really well done.

GNOME Evolution using Gmail linked account
GNOME Evolution using Gmail linked account

GNOME linking to online accounts
GNOME linking to online accounts

Another thing that GNOME 3.10 has done really well is to let you link certain online accounts with GNOME. For example, you can choose to link to your Google account, which lets you access your Gmail and Google Calendar using GNOME's Evolution application. This is a good feature for those who prefer to use desktop tools, similar to using Outlook on Windows.

GNOME overlapping windows

GNOME overlapping windows with Nautilus tiled to right side

However, I think I found a problem with how GNOME displays overlapping windows. I show two instances above, where one window (GNOME's Nautilus file manager) overlaps another (GNOME's operating system update tool). In GNOME, you can drag an application to the top edge of the screen to maximize the window, and that's what I've done with the update tool. You can also drag an application to either the left or right edge of the screen to "tile" the window over half the display. And I've shown that here in the second screenshot with Nautilus.

When the application hasn't been tiled, you get a nice drop-shadow effect, suggesting that one application window is "over" another. But when the application window has been tiled, you lose this shadow effect. Take another look at the second screenshot. Where does the Nautilus window end? How do you know when you've moved your mouse out of the Nautilus file manager, into another application? Perhaps this is a bug?

EDIT: Fortunately, McCann says "Lack of tile shadow is a bug" so I hope to see this fixed soon.

These screenshots also show a poor usability choice with the Nautilus file manager. You'll notice that other GNOME applications include a menu. Not so with the file manager. In this application, you don't even get a title bar. The application's menu is under the application icon in the black top bar. You click on the application icon to access features such as "New Window," "Connect to server," "Bookmarks," and "Preferences." So far, the file manager is the only application I've found that does this. All the other GNOME applications seem to use the application icon menu for "Quit."

I'll be interested to do another usability test with GNOME. How will average users with typical knowledge react to GNOME? Will they find it useful, or confusing? What will be the pain points? What works well for these users, and what areas could still be improved? I expect to start a usability test in February or March, with results in April or May. Watch this space.

Also, some research help: I know GNOME did usability testing in the past. If anyone can point me to their usability tests, please leave a link in the comments. (I haven't done much digging yet.)

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