[Usability] User problems and practices with modern desktop systems
- From: "Sean ." <aethyr7 hotmail com>
- To: usability gnome org
- Subject: [Usability] User problems and practices with modern desktop systems
- Date: Mon, 25 Oct 2004 19:30:29 -0400
An article was recently published in ACM Transactions on Computer-Human
Interaction that touches on a lot of areas that concern GNOME. The articles
involves filebrowsing (nautilus and file-selector), spatial navigation
(nautilus), taking notes (tomboy and sticky-notes), linking together
information with contacts (e-d-s), searching files and file metadata (beagle
and storage). They also take a look back over research from the past 20
years and compare their findings with previous results.
Some interesting observations made by the researchers on classification:
4.1 Observed Classification Practices
"Archiving: To all of our users, archiving was decidedly an important
matter. For this reason, a fair amount of effort was invested, both in
creating elaborate file system structures and in labelling them
adequately.... Proper classification was perceived as difficult: In our
study the users expended considerable cognitive effort with regard to the
classification of documents, and the labelling of folders and documents."
I think the point here is that it takes a fair amount of work to classify
all of your user documents. I don't know if there is a good solution to
this though, as I don't really agree with the idea of using metadata. and
dumping everything to one directory.
4.1.1 User Interface Issues
"The pattern on the screen plane [desktop] supported fast orientation by
sight. The users implied that it is impossible to impose the same type of
hierarchical structure on the screen as in the file system. As a
consequence, the interviewees uses concepts of thematic proximity and
document type to group the content on the desktop.... The [desktop] screen
space was mainly usered as temporary storage".
They made some points about people using the desktop to spatially organize
their material, but only temporarily before archiving it or deleting it.
Personally I don't use my desktop for this purpose.
4.2 Problems concerning the user interface:
"The [desktop] was regularly misused by the system. Newly installed
programs tended to automatically add short cuts to the screen plane."
"Low and medium skilled users expressed irritation due to the functional
similarties between the file system's user interface (File Explorer in
Windows, Finder in MacOS) and the [desktop] user interface."
"The interviewees felt the need for a comfortable, flexible, easy-to-use
method for adding notes and remarks to documents, much akin to the physical
world practice of using sticky notes. None of the available electronic
solutions [Acrobat Annotations or 3M Post it Software notes] were rated
either useful or practical."
This point made me immediately think of Tomboy, but then I realized that we
may even have to go beyond this. Currently in Tomboy there is no
association between a note and a document, so even if I open up a document,
I won't see the relavent notes.
"Most interviewees expressed the need to have their information linked
together (e.g. article author and respective address book entry, or citation
and cited article, etc.) and in general, to have more content-based and
context-based access to their information."
Basically I think people want their information linked together in a
"Classification and gaining overview implied considerable effort: Our
subjects complained about the effort connected with structuring and ordering
information manually.... Users agreed that an ideal system would offer an
enhanced overview of their data - far better than anything they have
experienced to date. They directory tree was considered too complicated to
navigate and not realy helpful in depicting a global overview."
I think metadata could be helpful here.
4.3 Conclusions on the Classification of Documents
"Properly seperate information belonging to users and to the system."
"Integrate rather than separate information. The present hierarchical file
system does not allow for many of the 'networked' information access
procedures that seem so natural to us. As an example, consider the
following task*: 'I need to write an email to all people who formed part of
the organizing committee for event X in 1996.'"
* I think this is a good use case. I'm not even sure how I would approach
it currently. If you didn't have a single document with everyone's email
address on it, it would be a huge pain.
Some interesting observations made by the researchers on document retrival:
5.1 Observed Search Practices
"Except in a limited number of circumstances, users were reluctant to use
search tools.... As a first choices, all interviewees searched by accessing
their categories directly, without even considering using a tool.... No one
made use of the soft links ('aliases' in MacOS, 'short-cuts' in Windows)....
In other words, the users' own intelligence, memory capacity, and contextual
knowledge were their guarantee. "
I think the researchers did a good job of highlighting the fact that
searching for files is so bad for most users as to almost practically be
considered useless. I was surprised that nobody uses shortcuts, but then
again, I never use them either.
5.1.1 Searching the Web vs. Searching 'My Personal Information Space.'
"The question arose of what made web search services, as compared to the
average search tool, so attractive? - An internet search was mainly used to
access and retrieve new, unknown information. Searching the local system
was an attempt to retrieve a piece of information that was known to be
there. A simple looking interface, combined with efficient easy-to-use
options were other key factors."
I thought the point about retrieving new data vs. known data was pretty
interesting. We could use something like a google search for the desktop
5.3 Conclusions about the Retrieval of Documents
"The main reason why built-in search tools are not widely used is because
their interface is simply too complicated to use and the quality of results
returned is utterly devastating.... Users have found that use of a search
tool requires just as much effort as a manual search, both cognitavely and
This goes back to the earlier point that every one of the participants tried
to manually find a file before searching.
These are just a few of the points the article raises, but as you can see,
it really touches base on things that concern the GNOME desktop.
It can be found online at:
Here's the article reference:
Pamela Ravasio, Sissel Guttormsen Schär, Helmut Krueger
ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI)
Volume 11 , Issue 2 (June 2004)
Pages: 156 - 180
Here's the abstract:
This study deals with the problems users encounter in their daily work with
computers and the typical practices that they employ. Sixteen daily computer
users were interviewed about their habits and problems that they encountered
during document classification and retrieval. For both these areas, we
provide an overview of identified user practices and a citation-based
analysis of the problems users encountered, including those related to the
use of the screen real estate (the actual desktop). Two types of problems
were identified: (1) Problems that concern the actual use of the system
installed on the computer. (2) Problems that arise when people realise that
they are using a system that does not allow for the desired work or
organizational functions sought. We were able to show that skill continues
to be an important factor with respect to the ease of using today's systems.
We suggest the following necessary improvements for the evolution of
personal information systems: A storage facility that represents the user's
view of information; replacing pure technical file metadata with more
user-friendly attributes; and introduction of annotations as a new
Hope some people find this useful,
Don?t just search. Find. Check out the new MSN Search!
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