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Novell Promotes Better Linux Desktops

A new initiative from Novell seeks to unlock a better Linux desktop experience by helping developers better understand how the desktop is used.

The Better Desktop initiative officially launched today as part of Novell's community-driven openSUSE project.

The Better Desktop site provides a wealth of usability test data, as well as analysis of various Linux desktop use cases. The site also contains video footage of use cases as well as a description of how to conduct an efficient usability test lab.

Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, Novell director of marketing for Linux and open source, said the opportunity for developers to watch video clips of users playing with different designs illustrates "the raw underbelly of software design."

"The motivation for us doing this is that it takes a lot of time, effort and money to diligently create usability trials," Mancusi-Ungaro told internetnews.com. "We thought it would be a good contribution to the open source community building better Linux desktops if we made all this information public."

Mancusi-Ungaro explained that whether a user is using Firefox or Open Office, there are lessons to be learned that apply across multiple applications.

"Our belief is that the things that users stumble on have a lot of horizontal applicability," Mancusi-Ungaro said.

That said, he did not point out one specific item or usability faux pas that the usability testing done by Novell exposed. Rather, in Mancusi-Ungaro's view, usability testing guides offer developers simpler metaphors and ultimately better user experiences.

"The big take-away here is that when engineers see this data and have access to this data, it will remind them that even though they think that making the icon green is going to be the best thing in the world, users have a different experience and there will be surprises along the way," he said.

In general, he argued that developers cannot put themselves in the shoes of real end users, as they know far too much and they are sometimes challenged by pedagogy.

One of the long-standing choices on the Linux desktop has been the choice of the desktop itself, in Novell's case either KDE or GNOME. The openSUSE Better Desktop site will not however settle any arguments about which open source desktop is better than the other though.

"We don't run tests that say KDE is good or GNOME is bad or vice versa," Mancusi-Ungaro said. "We're mostly trying to distill information about what's working within a specific UI context whether it's GNOME or KDE."

The openSUSE Better Desktop initiative is not the first such effort to better understand open source usability. Openusability.org, as well as KDE and GNOME developers have also tried to better understand and address usability issues.

Novell executive and co-founder of the GNOME Nat Friedman in a 2004 keynote address called the issue of Linux desktop usability a people problem, not a technology problem. GNOME has something called the "Human Interface Guidelines," which address usability issues.

"This initiative by Novell is not intended to compete with any other usability work that is happening in the community, it's rather intended to support it," Mancusi-Ungaro explained.

The hope with the Better Desktop project is that developers learn from the use cases and get the "little things" right.

"The real pot of gold at the end of the usability rainbow is that you change a lot of small things," Mancusi-Ungaro said. "Software design is full of arbitrary decisions -- should we put the button here or there, blue or green. Usability testing really helps you to get the small things right, and when you get the small things right then the big things work."