Usability, that old b****r

Usability is hot — especially usability for Linux Desktop Environments. After all, we (that’s the lde (Linux Desktop Environments) developers) want the misguides Windows-using masses to switch, and join us, and be enlightened, now don’t we?

Well, I don’t. I don’t care — what I want, in the first place, is an environment that enables me to do my work. And my work consists of  coding, writing (novels, blog entries and articles), messing with photographs, listening to music, playing the occasional game while waiting for a long compile, emailing, browsing, imming — you get the picture. And not only do I want to be enabled to do that, I want to feel comfortable.

KDE, with its myriad config options, with its minicli with completion, its excellent terminal emulator Konsole, its email client that tries to guess when I’ve forgotten an attachment, its insanely powerful file manager has always managed to make me feel comfortable. Empowered. Strong in the knowledge that this computer is serving me.

But in the outside world, evil forces are shaping the mindsets of other KDE developers in a dark and Sheldrakian field. Gnome used to be the epitome of power; it sunk to a third-rate (after Windows) imitation of MacOS. Gnome has its GConfEdit, Windows its Regedit, OS X its NetConfig. All three are tissue towels to stop the bleeding from their respective user-level config apps. All three make a noise while drinking soup — that’s to say, in case you haven’t read your Emily Post nor your Wodehouse, they suck. And now, infected by this leprous mentality that tries to hide all that’s powerful from users, KDE developers are disembowelling, emasculating KControlCenter by moving useful options, options even my eight-year-old daughters use with glee, out and away.

As I said in a answer on the kde-core mailing list to Aaron J. Seigo,

[KDE] should be about empowering every user — including the users people normally call ‘power users’. And, messing with configuration options has nothing to do with usability. People moan about config options on websites like OSNews, but from my own observation, 100% of children under ten years old like messing with config options to see what happens better than playing Klickety, and 100% of bored office workers rather mess with config options, especially for gui things, to see what happens than read the Onion for the second time.

Real usability is about not surprising people: about consistent keyboard shortcuts, about never changing the location of a menu option, about never crashing, about never disappointing someone’s expectations, about never making fonts disappear, about always having the same mdi interface out of the box, about using the same toolbar button icons, about not placing awfully similar toolbar buttons like ‘find’ and ‘zoom’ right next to each other. And about not alienating your existing user base by dis-empowering them.

Okay — let me substantiate that last list with examples from KDE:

  • KMail and KNode are both apps that read messages. In KNode you go to the previous message in the list with ‘b’ — ‘p’ posts a message. In KMail, you have to use ‘p’ — ‘b’ goes to the first mail folder that starts with a ‘b’.
  • There’s a system menu, a venerable institution that dates from Windows 3.0, which took it from Motif. In KDE, it always had a certain order; with 3.2, the order is subtly changed, and now finger reflexes no longer work.
  • Crashes are still part of the daily grind, I’m afraid. Kopete is a bad example, as is KMail.
  • I’d used Gaim for quite a long time, and Gaim keeps a log of all my IM exchanges. Kopete might be able to do that, too, but it’s a plugin, and the wording in the text of that plugin is weird enough that even I, who is regarded as a geek, and therefore not a user, cannot understand what’s going to happen if I enable it.
  • There are several paint-like apps in KDE, but none of them use the same icons for brushes, etc. Now that’s going to be fixed, but it’s bad to start with.
  • Konqueror has find, zoom in and zoom out next to each other. Three magnifying glasses with squiggles around them. Even after five years of KDE use, I still press the wrong button.
  • And then there are suddenly config options disappearing… But that means we’re back at the start of this entry, so redo from start, if you please.