EuroOSCON - Remembering the End User

by Daniel H. Steinberg

Editor's note: Daniel Steinberg reports on some of the sessions and keynotes that spanned the first two days of O'Reilly's first-ever European Open Source Convention, taking place in Amsterdam. In one way or another, these sessions--by Jeff Waugh, Alan Cox, and Simon Phipps--focused on the user. For more news items, press releases, blogs, and photos about the convention, check out our EuroOSCON Conference Coverage page.

There is both an upside and a downside to having a conference in Dam square in Amsterdam. It's a great location: a beautiful city with a ton of things to do, all within walking distance of the Dam. But the first-ever EuroOSCON starts each morning at 8:45 a.m. This can be a challenge to attendees to get the most out of the city while still attending the evening sessions and making it to those early-morning sessions.

During the Monday evening extravaganza, Larry Wall gave the 9.3th "State of the Onion" and Damian Conway reprised his "Fun with Dead Languages" talk from OSCON. He began with Lisp, which "may not be dead, but it's pining for the fjords" and ended with executable Latin. Control structures, variables, and brackets all translated into the presumably "very dead" language of Latin. The Tuesday morning addresses considered the relationship between non-technical end users and open source software.

Enabling Users

Open source developers often forget that one percent of their end users are geeks while 99 percent of the users are not technical. In fact, Jeff Waugh of Ubuntu and GNOME says that the percentage of technical users is probably closer to 0.01 percent, who write the software, and everybody else just wants to get their jobs done. In his response to Asa Dotzler's OSCON address on the "Search for the Linux Desktop," Waugh explains, "There's been a cultural change in the GNOME community. We realize that freedom is not just for geeks. Freedom is not just for the people who write the software, but also for the people who use it." This change of focus led to GNOME embracing usability, accessibility, and internationalization.

Jeff Waugh

As a demonstration of how deeply they have embraced this change, Waugh showed the global settings panel menu from GNOME 1.4. Users could set everything from the speed of animations to making buttons flush with panels, to an option to indicate whether or not to display newly installed software in menus. In GNOME 2.0, none of these options exist. He reported on a study that concluded that if you try to trick your users by making your software look like other programs, your users will resent the fact that your software doesn't work like the software it resembles.

Waugh reported that a great deal of their increased usability in dialog boxes came from their decision to use verbs. Where traditional dialog boxes might have a great deal of text followed by the options Yes, No, or Cancel, they've added more descriptive text followed by Save, "Close without updating," or Cancel. Waugh demonstrated the benefit to users by taking out a special pair of glasses that enable developers to see a dialog box from the perspective of non-technical end users. The descriptive text was blurred out and all that the users could see were the final choices. By placing action phrases on the text buttons, the actual choices available to these users was instantly clear.

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