posted by John Munsch on Mon 30th Dec 2002 19:05 UTC

"What Brand?"
Ask yourself, "What brand should a Linux desktop show?"

This is a question that was raised recently by RedHat as they attempted to unify the two most popular Linux desktops (KDE and GNOME) so they would look and behave more alike.

BTW, the answer is... Linux. The brand of the operating system that the user is running and identifies with. "I am a Linux user." "I have Linux on my machine at home." "Does this program run on my computer? I run Linux."

Note: I didn't say KDE, GNOME, or the name of any distributions like RedHat or Mandrake. The brand that the user needs to identify with is Linux, don't confuse him by making it anything else. If you aren't comfortable with the penguin as a mascot, avoid him and just focus on the name or things which are task centric rather than brand specific. For example, the KDE desktop does not need a little K with a gear behind it on their desktop menu. Something more appropriate would be "Start" (ala Windows), "Programs", or even "Linux".

Is any Linux distribution you have ever run set up to help a true beginning user? That is, one who has taken home his/her first computer and the white box shop he/she purchased it from slapped a Linux distribution on there because it was free and they could include a complete set of discs and promise free productivity software like OpenOffice.

Ever sat down to think about what a computer experience needs to be for a user like that? For one thing, the computer has to ask a lot of questions and do so in simple words that anyone with a grade school education can understand. For example, when I stick an audio CD into my machine for the first time how should a home edition of Linux behave? My belief is that it should ask the user whether he/she wants to play the CD or pull the music off of the CD to be played later. Likewise, in a home environment I think "My Music", "My Pictures", "My Documents", etc. should be prominent right on the desktop for the user to find.

Remember that beginning users are more comfortable learning one way to do any given thing, whether it is ripping a CD or closing a program. They can learn more than that as they become a power user but you also have to remember that the power user of the word processor isn't automatically a power user for downloading pictures off of a camera. If wizards and other helpers come up frequently and can be turned off individually and at the user's discretion, the user can set his/her own pace for learning his way through new applications and new uses of the computer.

Corollary: Don't be afraid to be aggressive in your use of wizards and help. The power user can turn it off easily enough. Users often think in terms of tasks rather than software. They want to "share their files", not configure Samba. They want to "get the pictures off of the digital camera", not run gphoto. So menus and user desktops need to cater to helping the beginning user find what he needs to accomplish a given task.

Because users don't stay beginning users forever, put a simple splash screen at the beginning of all your GUIs that says the name of the application and its version. Then people can begin to make the association for themselves that they use program X to perform task Y. Then they can graduate to just running the program when they are ready to do so.

Put some thought into the programs you choose to build. Do we need another text editor? No. That category is collapsing under its own weight. Build something that does what iMovie does on a Mac or something that tells a user what the weather, news, and sports scores are every morning. Just pick something different that covers some of those tasks that aren't already well covered. Create a list of tasks you think people want to perform and run it by the real users you know. Ask Grandma, Grampa, little Timmy, anybody you can think of who doesn't even know what the words Perl, compiler, or even Linux mean, what they want to use a computer for. Then start making it easy for them to do those things. Here's a starter list I've been compiling for you to start with. A poll that asked real end users to rank all these in terms of importance would tell you a lot. They could also add write in candidates that would probably quickly identify another 20 or so worthy of being on the list.
  • Visio-like Diagram Editing
  • Weblog/Simple Website Editing
  • HTML Editing
  • Download Photos, Scan Them, and Maintain Photo Albums
  • Listen To Audio CDs
  • Rip Music Off Of Audio CDs
  • MP3/Ogg/Wav/etc. Playback
  • CD/Audio CD/VCD/SVCD Burning
  • Word Processing
  • Spreadsheets
  • Presentations
  • Email
  • Browse The Internet
  • Personal Finances (ala Quicken)
  • Perform Simple Photo Editing
  • Make Greeting Cards And Other Personal Printing Projects (ala PrintShop)
  • Instant Message
  • Watch Videos
  • Watch DVDs
  • Download Music And Other Files
  • Chat
  • Videoconference
  • Personal Information Management (Addresses, Calendar, Tasks, etc.)
  • View Pictures
  • Compress/Uncompress Files
  • Protect Their Machine (Personal Firewall/Anti-Virus)

    The idea is for a firewall that is as simple to use as ZoneAlarm on the PC and some simple software capable of scanning executables and incoming mail.

    On that subject, there is a fascinating myth running around that Linux is immune to viruses. It isn't. It definitely hasn't been targeted heavily so far and it has the ability to better protect the user from them (i.e. a virus might nuke all of an individual user's data but the system would still boot and run and other users of the same machine would have their data protected). But if you think users aren't going to click on executable files that are mailed to them by total strangers then you don't get out enough. Like touching the frozen pole with their tongue to see if it tastes like chocolate, some users do it now, and some will always do it, even when you've told them not to and they should know better.

  • Run A Webcam
  • Tax Preparation
  • Keep Track Of Recipes
  • Keep Track Of Collections (Baseball Cards/Comics/Beanie Babies/etc.)
  • Share a Printer
  • Share Files
  • Clip Art/Fonts

    This is not an actual task but it is a good point. My wife pointed out that most people use whatever came with Office or PrintShop or whatever they use. If we have a few discs of royalty free material they can use that can be bundled with a distribution it is just one more thing taken care of for typical end users.

Table of contents
  1. "Why?"
  2. "How?"
  3. "Pretty Does Count"
  4. "What Brand?"
  5. "Conclusion"
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