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LinuxPlanet: Editor's Note: Sun's Practical Present, Tech Support Revisited

Jul 27, 2001, 07:55 (29 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Michael Hall)

Last week, Sun (NASDAQ:SUNW) released the results of its GNOME usability study. Michael Hall says the Linux community couldn't have asked for a nicer present than one that helps talented hackers understand an area where their coding skill does them little good: the over-cited, seldom-understood world of usability. Plus: a second look at tech support, with the one document every Linux advocate should keep taped to the wall when it comes time to help those hopeless newbies.

"Usability," like the word "design," found voguish status among vaguely mod information age sages. Everyone knows, for instance, that things should be "usable," and it's a sign of deep knowing to make remarks about the usability or unusability of a given thing; it's also a sign of knowing to talk about "good design" or "bad design." In either case, sometimes what you ought to be hearing is "I didn't like it," or "I did like it," or "I think this sucks but can't tell you why."

Some people spend a lot of time thinking about usability, and they've developed robust methodologies and bodies of work around figuring out what helps people do useful things with the tools in their lives. Many, many more people aren't quite so sure what makes something usable as they are that they want more things to be that way, whatever it may mean.

The danger of an over-used concept is that it becomes trite and worn out, its meaning lost in the obfuscatory wilderness of knowing party banter and guru-for-a-day proclamations. Some people I've spoken to, for instance, use the word "unusable" in everyday assessments of fairly routine things, and not as a wry way to describe a shopping cart with a straying wheel. They like it because it's a shinier way to say "this thing sucks" or "I didn't know you had to push down before turning." Others use the word "usable" to mean "dumbed down" or "simplistic," and base their understanding of usability on some vague notion of what works well with stupid people.

Although there are many, many talented people at work on building the better desktop, entrusting them with characterizing what makes a piece of software "usable" or not is a bad idea. Not because they're flawed or less than talented, but because they live with the software they're creating day in and day out. Anyone who's been around GNOME for a while has probably become used to its idiom on a level that's blinding when it comes to anticipating what less proficient and capable users need to succesfully navigate an interface. It never occured to me, for instance, that anyone would have a beef with "moon and stars" icon meaning "exit the desktop." At least not until I remembered that I'd once passed the mouse over it tentatively the first time I encountered it to make sure it did what I thought. That isn't to say that there haven't been some nice touches added. Ximian has made GNOME a better (more usable) experience for a lot of people, for instance. But there are a few more yards to go in this push."

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