[Usability] User problems and practices with modern desktop systems

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 meaningful way.

"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 (Beagle?).

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 mechanically."

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 information type.

Hope some people find this useful,

Don?t just search. Find. Check out the new MSN Search! http://search.msn.click-url.com/go/onm00200636ave/direct/01/

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