Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Shaping up for GNOME 3.16

My contributions to GNOME have purely been on the usability side. I performed two usability tests: one using GNOME 3.4, and another using a mix of 3.10 and 3.12. I am also currently mentoring another usability test via the GNOME Outreach Program for Women.

So I was very pleased to see a post from mclasen about GNOME 3.16 sightings. Mclasen writes about "testing of the GNOME 3.15.90 release.Since we are entering feature freeze with the .90 release, these pictures give some impression of whats in store for GNOME 3.16."

From mclasen's screenshots, the new GNOME has several user interface tweaks that certainly give a very clean and sharp look to the GNOME desktop. Buttons seem well-defined, window borders are clear, and the application menu in the top bar seems to have received some attention with updated icon handling.

I like that notifications have moved from the bottom of the screen to the top. Mclasen writes: "Notifications are now appearing at the top of the screen. The message tray is gone, old notifications can now be found in the calendar popup." I believe this is a good change to improve usability. Western users use interfaces from left-to-right and top-to-bottom, so the bottom-right (where notifications currently appear in GNOME) are often missed. I'm sure many users don't see important notifications because they appeared at the bottom.

In other changes: "The ‘gear’ menu has been replaced by a popover, the list appearance is improved, and file deletion can now be undone from a notification [in the Nautilus file manager]." In truth, the gear menu was removed from GNOME in a previous iteration. I have mixed feelings about GNOME's gear menu, which I'll summarize by saying it was probably mis-used in GNOME. In my usability tests, testers referred to the gear menu as the “options” or “settings” menu because of a previous affiliation with the gear icon and “settings” in other Mac OS X and Windows applications. When asked to change the default font in gedit, for example, testers typically looked for a “font” or “text” action under the gear menu. Users expected that changing the font was an option in the program, and therefore searched for a “font” action under an “options” menu, which they interpreted as the gear menu. After my usability feedback, GNOME removed the gear menu and replaced it with the "three lines" icon to indicate a menu. The "three lines" icon is a better representation. I would have kept the "gear" icon but moved it to represent a "settings" function.

However, I much prefer the new popover in the Nautilus file manager. I think this is a good condensation of options into a single menu. Here is a screenshot of the view menu in GNOME 3.14.3 compared to the same menu function in GNOME 3.15.90:

The view menu in GNOME 3.14.3 vs GNOME 3.15.90

However, I do have some reservations about the updated GNOME. For one, I dislike the darker colors seen in these screenshots. Users don't like dark desktop colors. In user interface design, colors also affect the mood of an application. As seen in this comparison, users perceived the darker colors used in Windows and GNOME as moody, while the lighter colors used in MacOS X suggest an airy, friendly interface. This may be why users at large perceive the GNOME desktop to have poor usability, despite usability testing showing otherwise. The dark, moody colors used in GNOME provoke feelings of tension and insecurity, which influence the user's perception of poor usability.

I recommend that GNOME adopt lighter colors in future releases. Avoid dark colors, especially in backgrounds or the desktop wallpaper. Embrace light, airy colors in the interface instead of these somber, melancholy color tones. By adjusting the color theme, GNOME can influence how users perceive the usability of GNOME without further changes to the interface or design.

I'm also not sure about the blue-on-grey effect to highlight running programs or selected items in the GNOME Shell. In addition to being dark, moody colors, the blue-on-grey is just too hard to see clearly:

The blue-on-grey doesn't stand out very well

In short, the new GNOME 3.15.90 looks pretty good, but I would like GNOME to update the default theme to use lighter colors. Perhaps it is time to revert to the black on light grey interface used in GNOME 2. Aside from colors, I look forward to GNOME 3.16. And of course, more usability testing in the new release!
GNOME icon: Wikimedia commons

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