Sunday, 4 April 2004

GNOME usability: still sucks

Miguel de Icaza points to a writeup of GNOME usability.

Taking each section in turn:

Simple Dialog Boxes

First off, let's consider that save dialog. A few questions immediately spring to mind:

  • How do I overwrite an existing file?
  • How can I have confidence I'm pointing to the right folder?

The list of files, even though it takes up screen space, allows two things to happen. You can overwrite an existing file by clicking it then clicking OK. You can be sure you're in the right folder, because you can see what else is in it.

It's well-known that users find a list of items easier to manipulate than a drop-down, so I'd argue that Windows' Places Bar is simpler than GNOME's Save In Folder drop-down. Windows appears to have a problem with this when using very large icons, where the bottom icon's label is clipped; however, this dialog is resizable.

There is one good thing about GNOME's Save dialog: the file-type drop-down shows the icon that will be used for the file. The dialog has too many buttons in the upper-right corner: do you really want to minimize a save dialog? What happens if you maximize it: do you get a full-screen dialog with massive edit fields? This is a form that shouldn't resize.

I then find this statement typical: "True, the dialogs may irk those who like tab completion and other esoteric features (I'm guessing their issues will be worked out in future releases)..."

Tab completion? In a selector box? Are you completely insane? It's very, very, very advanced users who will type a path into the File Name box to navigate to a different folder.

Simple Menus and Program Names

"Because free software environments like GNOME are founded upon cooperative development they can avoid the problems caused by corporate competition and branding. A user in Windows XP will have to navigate Windows Media Player, Real Networks Real Player and Apple Quick time in order to play media files. Their applications menu will be cluttered and the number of interfaces to learn is higher than in GNOME where a user must only find and learn Totem Movie Player."

As I've written before, everything would be a lot simpler for Windows users if Real and Apple would follow the platform conventions, DivXNetworks and the XviD project, and write their format decoders as codec DLLs, then write their players in terms of codecs. The user's choice of player would then be able to play any of the common formats - even without licensing those formats. But therein lies the problem - and it's also a problem for GNOME, because Real and Apple want to make money out of their formats.

XviD is probably contravening the MPEG-4 patents.

Simple Configuration Tools and Preferences

The Wallpaper Chooser link is broken, so I can't challenge that. In Windows, the Desktop tab of the Display properties is hardly difficult to find. The Position and Color drop-downs take a bit of thought, but not much. The Customize Desktop button is probably misplaced - maybe an Advanced button instead? Fewer options here would suggest fewer choices.

Yes, the IE preferences dialog is a lot busier. It also has many more options than Epiphany. You're trying to compare the interface of a Mercedes E-class with satellite navigation and CD auto-changer to that of a Ford Fiesta with a radio - of course it has more buttons!

Applications - Multimedia

Again, here you're comparing a really basic application with a complicated one. Totem offers no support for playlists, Internet Radio, CD ripping, copying to a portable device, organising your music library, selecting from that library. It's your choice whether these features are included in your media player, but condemning Media Player's interface because it has all these features is ridiculous. The basic operation is pretty simple: once you've ripped a CD, it appears in Media Library; hit the arrow next to Now Playing to get a menu of albums, artists etc, then select what you want to play. The Albums menu could be clearer: at work I have Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Greatest Hits and Queen's Greatest Hits I and II. The Albums menu simply shows the album name. However, there's always Media Library.

On top of this, if you want a simpler interface to Media Player, it's actually quite easy to write one. The reason is that the core of Windows Media Player is written as an ActiveX control, and you can write your own wrapper around that. The 'Windows Media Player' executable, at base, is simply a skinning engine that wraps the player control.

The bottom panel shown in the screenshot in this article isn't even shown by default in WMP.

As for WMP's 'bloated menus', they have to be: every feature that's exposed in the UI is also exposed in a menu somewhere.

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