Linux/FOSS | Usability

Creating a Free Desktop everone can get behind

January 10, 2022

A couple of different podcast episodes have brought together some thoughts on Linux usability and adoption. One is a discussion last year on the benefits of BSD (despite Linux’s popularity). Another is a recent discussion of Gnome 3, still a controversial desktop environment. A third was a mention of Linux by someone outside the Linux community who uses Linux alongside other systems.

As someone who’s interested in usability in my daily work, I always pay close attention to peoples’ preferred desktop environments. Usually I come away frustrated though, because it usually boils down to “Gnome 3 works for you; it’s not for me; choice is great, let’s be grateful” etc etc.

But listening to the same discussions of Linux usability from people outside the Linux (and indeed FOSS) community, who’ve dabbled a bit or use it alongside Windows or Mac (they usually seem less invested in it, particularly the ethics of Freedom and/choice), are different, often more enlightening.

A recent example was on the Retro Computing Roundtable, a retro computing podcast, where all the hosts are almost masochistic in their willingness to engage with difficult-to-use systems from the 1970s and 80s. The main complaint (tongue in cheek to some extent) was that Linux ‘spoiled’ *Nix (Unix and its variants) because it fragmented the system (there are many many Linuxes) and overtook BSD in popularity.

One of the presenters of the retro podcast wrily mentioned that she wished commercial *Nix was still around, as at least it would provide a stable and predictable Unix-like platform. Mac was positively mentioned as the nearest we have, which I thought was telling.

Of course, I’m as keen as anyone to see Linux, and Freedom succeed over the Mac-like closed systems of this world, but we have to be realistic if we want adoption.

That’s where the Gnome discussion comes in. Complaints over Gnome 3 seem to revolve around its over-strict approach to add-ons and customisation. The Gnome team seem to want to be Apple, no doubt because of the success of that company and its reputation for tight control over design, matched with high usability (often mistakenly equated with ‘simplicity’ or minimalism).

And even the Gnome 3 advocate admits that it’s not perfect for them! What’s going on here?

The thing that’s always missing from these chats is the ability to narrow down on what exactly is wrong. Why is it not right for me, but is for you? No one seems to be able to articulate what they like, nor what annoys them, nor what “doesn’t suit”.

In short, I think there are two issues:

  • The Linux community seems unable to articulate what makes a usable (easy and/or enjoyable) computer experience when it comes to a desktop environment.
  • Freedom to tinker seems to conflict with developers’ methods of designing something good in a holistic manner.

I imagine the Gnome developers’ point of view is that they don’t want users wrecking their carefully-thought-out design with our add-ons. But that’s a problem because:

  • Their carefully-thought-out design does not appear, on the evidence of feedback, to be carefully thought out
  • Our tweaking of our systems is not a threat to their ability to create a product to their own specifications.

I feel that three things need to happen:

  • The Linux community needs to get a lot better at expressing what’s wrong with a design, and what’s right. That might mean becoming good at asking each other the right questions, like a usability testing consultant would do with a member of the public trying some new software.
  • The Linux community needs to get over its dualistic view of tweakability vs control. Desktop developers should be creating platforms on which others can build, a distributable version that matches their own vision, but which can be tweaked. Call it the Firefox Model (from back when Mozilla were good… ;)).
  • The Linux community should also stop equating minimalism with good usability. They’re not the same thing, even though Apple make it look like that.

More than any other ecosystem, Linux and Free Software have the potential to push the boat out, expand the envelope of what a desktop computer can look like, and be more peoples’ first choice.

But too often ‘religion’ gets in the way, and when passions are high the discussion becomes polarised, defensive, and unproductive. I think the barriers are around knowledge of how to make products that Other People (not just the developers) will enjoy, which are barriers that can be overcome.

I’d like to see Linux really put some effort into creating something unique, that more people can get behind, and that starts with learning to communicate a little better.