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A Week With GNOME As My Linux Desktop: What They Get Right & Wrong
User Experience and Closing Thoughts
When Gnome 2.x and KDE 4.x were going head to head.. I jumped between the two quite happily. Some things I loved, some things I hated, but over all they were both a pleasure to use. Then Gnome 3.x came around and all of the drama with Gnome Shell. I swore off Gnome and avoided it every chance I could. It wasn't user friendly, it was non-intuitive, it broke an establish paradigm in preparation for tablet's taking over the world... A future that, judging from the dropping sales of tablets, will never come.
Eight releases of Gnome 3 later and the unimaginable happened. Gnome got user friendly. Gnome got intuitive. Is it perfect? Of course not. I still hate the paradigm it tries to push, I hate how it tries to force a work flow onto me, but both of those things can be gotten used to with time and patience. Once you have managed to look past Gnome Shell's alien appearance and you start interacting with it and the other parts of Gnome (Control Center especially) you see what Gnome has definitely gotten right: the little things. The attention to detail.
People can adapt to new paradigms, people can adapt to new work flows-- the iPhone and iPad proved that-- but what will always bother them are the paper cuts.
Which brings up an important distinction between KDE and Gnome. Gnome feels like a product. It feels like a singular experience. When you use it, it feels like it is complete and that everything you need is at your fingertips. It feel's like THE Linux desktop in the same way that Windows or OS X have THE desktop experience: what you need is there and it was all written by the same guys working on the same team towards the same goal. Hell, even an application prompting for sudo access feels like an intentional part of the desktop under Gnome, much the way that it is under Windows. In KDE it's just some random-looking window popup that any application could have created. It doesn't feel like a part of the system stopping and going "Hey! Something has requested administrative rights! Do you want to let it go through?" in an official capacity.
KDE doesn't feel like cohesive experience. KDE doesn't feel like it has a direction its moving in, it doesn't feel like a full experience. KDE feels like its a bunch of pieces that are moving in a bunch of different directions, that just happen to have a shared toolkit beneath them. If that's what the developers are happy with, then fine, good for them, but if the developers still have the hope of offering the best experience possible then the little stuff needs to matter. The user experience and being intuitive needs to be at the forefront of every single application, there needs to be a vision of what KDE wants to offer -and- how it should look.
Is there anything stopping me from using Gnome Disks under KDE? Rhythmbox? Evolution? Nope. Nope. Nope. But that misses the point. Gnome and KDE both market themselves as "Desktop Environments." They are supposed to be full -environments-, that means they all the pieces come and fit together, that you use that environment's tools because they are saying "We support everything you need to have a full desktop." Honestly? Only Gnome seems to fit the bill of being complete. KDE feel's half-finished when it comes to "coming together" part, let alone offering everything you need for a "full experience". There's no counterpart to Gnome Disks-- kpartitionmanager prompts for root. No "First Time User" run through, it just now got a user manager in Kubuntu. Hell, Gnome even provides a Maps, Notes, Calendar and Clock application. Do all of these applications matter 100%? No, of course not. But the fact that Gnome has them helps to push the idea that Gnome is a full and complete experience.
My complaints about KDE are not impossible to fix, not by a long shot. But it requires people to care. It requires developers to take pride in their work beyond just function-- form counts for a whole hell of a lot. Don't take away the user's ability to configure things-- the lack of configuration is one of my biggest gripes with GNOME 3.x, but don't use "Well you can configure it however you want," as an excuse for not providing sane defaults. The defaults are what users are going to see, they are what the users are going to judge from the first moment they open your application. Make it a good impression.
I know the KDE developers know design matters, that is WHY the Visual Design Group exists, but it feels like they aren't using the VDG to their fullest. And therein lies KDE's hamartia. It's not that KDE can't be complete, it's not that it can't come together and fix the downfalls, it just that they haven't. They aimed for the bulls eye... but they missed.
And before anyone says it... Don't say "Patches are welcome." Because while I can happily submit patches for the individual annoyances more will just keep coming as developers keep on their marry way of doing things in non-intuitive ways. This isn't about Muon not being center-aligned. This isn't about Amarok having an ugly UI. This isn't about the volume and brightness pop-up notifiers taking up a large chunk of my screen real-estate every time I hit my hotkeys (seriously, someone shrink those things).
This is about a mentality of apathy, this is about developers apparently not thinking things through when they make the UI for their applications. Everything the KDE Community does works fine. Amarok plays music. Dragon Player plays videos. Kwin / Qt & kdelibs is seemingly more power efficient than Mutter / gtk (according to my battery life times. Non-scientific testing). Those things are all well and good, and important.. but the presentation matters to. Arguably, the presentation matters the most because that is what user's see and interact with.
To KDE application developers... Get the VDG involved. Make every single 'core' application get its design vetted and approved by the VDG, have a UI/UX expert from the VDG go through the usage patterns and usage flow of your application to make sure its intuitive. Hell, even just posting a mock up to the VDG forums and asking for feedback would probably get you some nice pointers and feedback for whatever application you're working on. You have this great resource there, now actually use them.
I am not trying to sound ungrateful. I love KDE, I love the work and effort that volunteers put into giving Linux users a viable desktop, and an alternative to Gnome. And it is because I care that I write this article. Because I want to see KDE excel, I want to see it go further and farther than it has before. But doing that requires work on everyone's part, and it requires that people don't hold back criticism. It requires that people are honest about their interaction with the system and where it falls apart. If we can't give direct criticism, if we can't say "This sucks!" then it will never get better.
Will I still use Gnome after this week? Probably not, no. Gnome still trying to force a work flow on me that I don't want to follow or abide by, I feel less productive when I'm using it because it doesn't follow my paradigm. For my friends though, when they ask me "What desktop environment should I use?" I'm probably going to recommend Gnome, especially if they are less technical users who want things to "just work." And that is probably the most damning assessment I could make in regards to the current state of KDE.
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