Linux: the girlfriend test

21st Sep 2008 | 09:30

Linux: the girlfriend test

Our writer subjects Linux to the most exacting useability test yet devised: his girlfriend

The world has changed in the last 10 years. Humans finally have hover cars, unlimited energy and a cure for cancer. Well, not exactly, but Linux is almost ready for the mainstream desktop. Which is just as exciting. Sort of.

Before we crack open the Canonical-branded champagne, there are one or two things to sort out. Linux still has a reputation for being too finicky, technical and 'just for geeks'. This needs to be killed as quickly as possible. How? By putting the latest distributions through the ultimate in scientific usability studies: the girlfriend test.

See, the old problems of hardware incompatibility that once plagued Linux are fading, especially now that major vendors such as Asus and Dell are starting to cuddle up to Tux. The issues still prevalent are in the process of converting the huddled masses (or 'Windows users') and making the experience as friendly, straightforward and encouraging as possible. This needs to happen before Linux can reach that critical mass of users.

Erin, the subject of this test, is a girlfriend who aptly represents the average young PC user – a possible convert to the open source cause. In return for the writer's participation in a similar 'Boyfriend shopping experiment', Erin has agreed to attempt a number of tasks on a fresh installation of Fedora 9 in the hope that some its usability oversights might be exposed.

Erin's PC experience is mainly limited to using her computer for recreation and university work: emailing, using MS Office and Photoshop, browsing the web and playing music. These are common tasks that, under Windows, she accomplishes with no problems. The only information given to Erin was her username and password and that she would be using Fedora 9. Here are our findings.

Task 1: Bookmark a website in Firefox

As you'd expect, Erin encountered no problems with our first task. A launcher for Firefox was on the Gnome panel by default, which surprised her. She had no idea of the open source connection – she just knew about Firefox because it's the default browser at her university.

Crossovers like this definitely help smooth Linux's learning curve for the average PC user, and hopefully we'll see more of it as common open source applications become increasingly mature and widespread. Regardless, Erin was off to a good start.

Task 2: Write and print a letter in OpenOffice.org

Finding OpenOffice.org Writer was easy, being in the Applications menu under Office. For what Erin needed to do, Writer's interface worked in the same manner as the de facto industry standard Microsoft Word; she typed and formatted the letter with no issues. However, as you might imagine, problems arose when she tried to print.

The application was silent for 10 seconds before it opened a troubleshooting wizard. This is impressive – there's nothing more disheartening than to have the computer give you nothing but a generic error message. It wasn't that long ago that a user would have to go trawling through logs in weird parts of the filesystem just to find out what was going on. Sadly, the wizard didn't resolve the issue, as the drivers just weren't there.

This is the case with Vista as well, though at least Microsoft provides a link to the Lexmark website. Knowing how useless some manufacturers can be when it comes to Linux support, maybe the troubleshooter could instead recommend search engine terms, or related support forums.

It may seem second nature to a Linux geek to look online for help, but things like that don't occur to Erin and the many users like her. The advantage of the amazing community behind Linux and its distributions should be shouted from the rooftops, not left for hesitant Linux adopters to discover for themselves.

Task 3: Rip a CD

It may come as a shock in these downloadhappy times, but Erin still buys her music on CDs. She rips them using iTunes and puts them on her iPod Nano without any trouble. When asked to make a list of the more important things she uses a computer for, Erin put this task near the top.

Seconds after she put the CD in the Fedora machine's drive a box appeared asking her what she wanted to do. The options were to either play it with Rhythmbox or open it with Sound Juicer. The latter was clean, simple and functional: all Erin then had to do was click on the big 'Extract' button and Sound Juicer took care of the rest.

The songs were extracted using the open source Ogg Vorbis codec. Erin, like most other users, doesn't know what a codec is or that a song on a computer can be anything but an MP3. Storing the songs this way is all well and good if Erin only needs to play them on this installation of Fedora, but what happens when she wants to play those files on her friends' computers, or her iPod? It won't work, and she won't know why.

It's fine for Fedora to default to extracting music files as Ogg Vorbis, but it should inform the user of this the first time they run Sound Juicer. Erin should've been told what the repercussions were, and how she could use MP3s instead. If they want to be fully functional, distribution makers can't stick their heads in the sand and ignore the dominant standards.

Task 4: Send an instant message

To chat online with her friends, Erin uses the Windows Live Messenger client. Her first instinct was to go to the Microsoft website and download it. It's a Windows executable file, so her attempts to use it fail unsurprisingly and miserably. Linux's conceptual shift away from the Windows method of installing applications is simple once explained, but significant enough to confuse anyone uninitiated.

After a bit of exploring, Erin found Pidgin – listed in the menus as 'Instant Messenger'. As soon as she ran it, the first-time wizard asked her to add an account. Pidgin, being a multi-protocol client, confused Erin. She doesn't know what AIM (the default network) is, let alone what a protocol does. Moreover, using something like MSN doesn't involve having to add an account – you just log in. This should really be an option. Erin thought she was creating a new account on the 'AIM' network!

It wasn't until after three failed attempts that she played with the protocol option, found MSN and put in the right details. You're right if you're guessing that the first things she said to her friends weren't exactly favourable towards Linux!

Task 5: Create a pie chart in OpenOffice.org

If it weren't for OpenOffice.org, Linux wouldn't be nearly as desktop-ready as it is currently. The suite is mature, stable and does everything that most people need. Erin's attempt to use the Calc spreadsheet application went very similarly to her word processing attempt: smoothly.

Kudos to Sun for getting so heavily involved with the open source community. It's an excellent sign that Erin wasn't even surprised that it worked so well – she was expecting it at this stage.

Task 6: Put the ripped CD on to her iPod

Erin uses her Nano daily, and puts new music on it at least once a week. She uses iTunes and never has any trouble. When Erin plugged in the iPod, Fedora recognised it straight away and presented her with the option of opening it in Rhythmbox.

Thankfully Gnome, like iTunes, combines the music player and portable audio player manager into one piece of software, otherwise there might have been some confusion. Rhythmbox opened up, and the album was already in her music library even though it was ripped by a different application, Sound Juicer. Fantastic: the tight integration between Fedora's major desktop apps is one very distinct advantage held over Windows.

Erin highlighted the album and dragged it to the iPod, just like she would in iTunes. Her triumphant smile faded away when she realised the songs weren't on her iPod. She tried copying and pasting and dragging them across from her Music folder in Nautilus, but it didn't make a difference: the iPod does not support OGG files. It's mind-boggling that Rhythmbox won't even tell her why the files aren't copying across – in fact, it's completely silent. If someone tries to put a song or podcast encoded in Ogg Vorbis on an iPod, a guide (similar to the printer troubleshooter) should start up.

It could tell the user that what they're trying to do won't work, and how they can convert the file into a format that will – including what needs to be done to install proprietary codecs. The end user is only interested in getting things done well with the least amount of effort. The steps Erin took would be the same that anyone with her experience would try, and that user would be left without songs on their iPod and a little bit closer to giving up on Linux.

Task 7: Photoshop her head on to my body

Erin, using Firefox, found photos on Facebook and downloaded them to her home folder. Thankfully, Fedora lists 'GNU Image Manipulation Program' and not just 'Gimp', which might have discouraged her a little from clicking on it. Gimp opens up, and Erin quickly grasps how the interface differs from Photoshop. From then on it's easy, and she opens up the pictures and cuts her head and puts it on my body.

Erin later explained that she was surprised at the amount of quality software in Fedora; in particular how well OpenOffice.org and Gimp match the functionality of their commercial counterparts. However, a good idea would be to provide the option of either the Windows or the Mac OS X interfaces for Photoshop, to please both types of possible converts.

Task 8: Watch a video on YouTube

Having not been living under a rock, Erin is familiar with YouTube and had no trouble navigating there. Flash doesn't come installed with Fedora, so Firefox gave her the option of installing it. Another wizard takes her through accepting the associated licence agreement and downloading the necessary files – it's all too easy.

Then Firefox told her that the install failed due to a malformed RDF file. I'm sure you can picture the puzzled and acutely disappointed frown that replaced her once-optimistic grin. She tried it with a different website, and it still didn't work. The PC's hardware is normal and Erin hasn't changed a thing. Functionality this basic should really be tested again and again before release.

Proprietary formats, even if they're inefficient and belong to profit-driven corporations, are common practice. Why on earth can't Fedora explain to the users when they first boot up and log in that websites, songs and videos aren't going to work as they do on Windows, and how users can fix this? Most converts or first time users might not know how to shell script, but they can read simple, helpful text. A little bit of explanation will go a long way.

The manual install option that Firefox recommends after the failure of its automatic system is in no way feasible for a user like Erin. It's just a link to Adobe's web page, where it offers the installation files in gzipped tarball, RPM and Yum formats. It makes no mention of the fact that Fedora uses RPMs. The wellobfuscated installation instructions on another page involve use of the terminal, and don't provide screenshots or even more than a paragraph of help.

It's baffling and a little dismaying that something as simple as installing Flash was not easily achievable for someone of Erin's computer ability.

Task 9: Make a phone call using Skype

Erin, international social butterfly that she is, has friends in various parts of the world. She calls them cheaply using Skype and a headset, just like hundreds of millions of other people do. Her headset is a Sennheiser and plugs into the headphone and microphone jacks on the on-board soundcard.

Now, Erin knows from Windows that if you want to install an application, you go to the program's website and download the setup file. Right now there are probably some readers gasping in horror at the thought that someone wouldn't go exploring through the System and Administration menus and find 'Add/ Remove Software', but Erin's assumption is going to be one made over and over again by new users.

Luckily, Skype is cool enough to cater for numerous Linux distributions. Unluckily, their support for Fedora only seems to go up to version 7. Erin clicked on this anyway, and the default Firefox action is to install the RPM. It all happened automatically, and Skype was installed in her applications menu. Don't get too excited: Skype failed to make calls because of an 'audio playback problem'. Erin was truly stumped. She made sure the volume mixer in the top right was up full, but other than that didn't know what she could do.

We know that it's not a fault of the Fedora developers if proprietary software won't work easily with their system, but if it's something that such a staggering number of potential users want, they should really make an effort to see that it works. The attempts made by Skype to release versions for Linux shows considerable effort on its part, and it seems likely that the company would be willing to collaborate with the Fedora community to make sure that Skype runs nicely on the latest versions out of the box.

Our findings

One of the reasons so many are drawn to Linux is the fact that those involved are genuinely trying to create a better computer experience. Obviously, this means there are going to be many major points of diversion from the Windows way of thinking. It's hard to criticise Linux, Gnome and Fedora over issues that arise due to new users being familiar with another operating system, but in practical terms it needs to be done.

The Linux community needs to establish what it is that users expect and need from an operating system, and where Linux deviates from this. Many problems stem from assuming too much technical knowledge from the user. This is especially widespread in Linux due to the very technically-minded people who are involved all the way from design to evaluation.

It's madness to act as if Windows doesn't exist and isn't the standard for most users. It is, and distributions need to be prepared for that fact that most new users will be ready for things to work in a particular (and often different to Linux) way. This does not mean we should make Linux into a Windows clone, but that we should educate new users on how and sometimes even why things have changed. Users are most resistant to change when they don't believe it's necessary.

While it's funny to tell a troubled Linux newbie to type man man in the terminal and work from there, it's not the approach that's going to see Linux gain critical mass. First-time users need to be guided with pop-up boxes and wizards. Why aren't tips displayed at bootup, or during installation? A little bit of information goes a surprisingly long way.

A welcome screen explaining history, terms and basic concepts would've helped Erin to understand what Linux is, what it can do and how you use it. If the hardcore Linux geeks don't want this interruption, it's very easy to implement a 'beginner mode' enabled only for first-time users. If we're going to make any pretension that Linux is to be ready for the desktop, then the design of applications, distributions and Linux itself needs to be focused on the end-user.

Hopefully one day someone like Erin will be able to work and play on a Linux PC without any fuss.

First published in Linux Format, issue 111

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