GNOME Usability hackfest
The GNOME Usability Hackfest took place at Canonical’s offices in London from Monday 22nd to Friday 26th February 2010, almost at the same time the DevCSI organised Dev8D 2010 was being held. The purpose of the event was to test and discuss usability aspects of the new GNOME (pronounced ‘Guh’ ‘NOME’) desktop environment, GNOME Shell, that is set to appear later in the year. As GNOME is the default desktop environment for many popular Linux distributions, including Ubuntu and Fedora, it’s important that every aspect of the new interface be polished and usable so that the transition for the user is seamless.
GNOME isn’t the only desktop environment available for Linux. Other popular ones include KDE, XFCE and LXDE. Whilst KDE is known for it’s features and LXDE/XFCE for their speed, GNOME Is well known for focusing on usability and simplicity.
I was asked to attend this event by the DevCSI project, to report back to people who were attending Dev8D 2010 at the same time and therefore were not able to attend and for anyone else interested in GNOME (especially in Higher Education).
I arrived at the GNOME hackfest on Thursday, three days after it had started. I had been keeping up with the hackfest via the various GNOME contributor blogs, so was up to speed on what they had been doing. After introductions and acquiring coffee the day was quickly in motion. Charline Poirier kicked off the day with a report on a usability test that was recently conducted for Instant Messaging client Empathy.
As of Ubuntu 9.04, Empathy has become the default Instant Messaging client for Ubuntu. It’s main feature is the ability to import contacts from many popular chat protocols, including IRC, ICQ, Yahoo, AIM, MSN, Facebook, Myspace and Google Talk. Whilst obviously very useful this feature brings with it a huge set of complexities. For example, how does a person manage contacts that have the same name or e-mail address but exist in different protocols? Also, should the program use the term Alias, Nickname or something different? Whilst programming errors are easier to fix with more developers to hand, issues like this are not as easy to solve. Even with twenty people in a room we were still struggling to find a common term that could be understood across different cultures.
Following on from the presentation and subsequent discussions on Empathy becoming more people-centric in its approach to handling the contacts list I was even able to draw up a rough user interface design and discuss with one of its core developers the various aspects of it and then shortly after submit a suggestion to their bug tracker for other developers to asses. Usually this process of simply viewing the suggestion can take anywhere up to three or four months.
After lunch, we appeared to split up into smaller groups to work on individual tasks. As I haven’t been this involved with GNOME development before I saw this as a perfect opportunity to learn more about contributing. I spoke to Brian Cameron from Sun about getting involved with GNOME development. My particular are of interest is in accessibility, usability and also art and design. The GNOME website, like many other project websites, advises those interested to sign up to the mailing list or join the IRC channel of the project, observe for a while and then offer opinions, code patches or interface blueprints. Whilst this approach doesn’t have any real negative aspects I found that being in the room with the developers and project managers for a few hours helped me more than being on the mailing list for several months had done. Being able to instantly communicate with a developer, or to watch over their shoulder and ask questions as they worked I feel is a more efficient, or at least a huge compliment to developing remotely over the Internet.
Another thing that soon hit me was how spread out the GNOME development team is. Most traveled from Europe, America or further in the UK to attend. From the day I found that there a many similar events all over Europe and America, but very few in England.
I think events like this ought to happen more often, not just for open source projects but for all projects and interests. As more and more people conduct their business over the Internet we can lose sight of the value you get when working in close proximity.