Are we assuming users are really dumb?

Update: This is a general criticism of modern development trends. Despite appearing on Planet GNOME, and referencing a current debate, this is not at all specific to GNOME. The point listed below was more a maintainer screw-up than anything else. It’s not a debate on good usability, because everyone has different opinions on it, none of which are right. The point you should be caring about is how users are treated. I know we’ve assumed too little of some people in Gaim and other projects. Not always, but often enough, and I know many other large projects do this as well. So please, focus on that part.

I completely agree with Davyd on the contextual information lost in notifications. I like GNOME, but I feel that we are taking a step back in this regard, and it’s leading me to wonder, are we assuming our users are really, really stupid and need hand holding?

Now, the Linux desktop is maturing, but there are a lot of areas that could be made easier. Things that confuse users. I hardly think “JPG” or “PNG” or “SSH” emblems are one of them. And really, do we think users have never seen JPEG or PNG files, have never heard of them, and would be confused and scared to use their desktop if they saw them?

If a user is connecting to a remote server and mounting it, they probably have some kind of understanding as to what SMB or SSH means. I mean, come on, they have to choose it first! It’s not some random technical thing we’re throwing at them. Context is good, and I know a lot of average users who prefer the context and turn on file extensions on Windows because they want to know what kind of file they’re actually working with.

The common question that I always hear is “but can my Grandma use it?” Are we really targetting senior citizens? If so, we’ve lost. Let’s take a page out of the proliferation books that McDonalds, Microsoft, and everybody else uses. It’s a simple one. Target people when they’re young! Contrary to popular belief, a number of teenagers use computers, and these teenagers understand things. They’re using bittorrent clients, maintaining websites, sending files across the Internet. Should we really treat them like they’re idiots? Sure, Grandma may not know what a JPEG file is, but I doubt she’s a heavy computer user anyway. Most likely, she plays solitaire, and I think her hand can be held with anything else. In the meantime, let’s not forget our younger users who really aren’t as stupid as we’re starting to treat them.

27 thoughts on “Are we assuming users are really dumb?

  1. I just made a test. I asked my wife, who’s been happily using Ubuntu for more than a year on her laptop that I’ve been administering when needed, whether she knows what a PNG or TIFF is, or SSH, for that matter. And I got blank stares. Now, this woman here uses Linux daily for writing scientific text, is not completely computer illiterate but doesn’t necessarily need to know more than what makes doing her work and organising it easy (including accessing our network drive through SSH). She hasn’t needed this information anywhere.
    And neither have I actually, I’m fairly happy with just clicking on the SSH connection icon whenever I need to access our network-accessed storage, I don’t mind either if it was SMB, NFS or whatever. Why is this information something you would need access on every time you look at an icon? It just isn’t, and I’m very glad that the tango icon set we both use doesn’t force that on you, similarly as the default icon set in 2.13. To me it seems like something I might want to have a look at in the list view that Nautilus provides if I need to have a look for something and sort files by type, but certainly not something I’m very much interested on every single time I use such icons.

  2. Matias: There’s a problem with that line of thought. Just because you and your wife don’t use it doesn’t mean nobody does. A lot of us do use that information, often. Now, your test was flawed, because you only checked if she knew it. You didn’t check if it confused her to the point of not being able to use the files, which I’d seriously doubt.

  3. I tottaly agree with you.

    I changed from KDE to Gnome a couple of years ago because, at that time, Gnome had a ‘cleaner’ interface but you didn’t loose much of options and information KDE gave you.

    Now Gnome is becoming more and more ‘simple’ as some developers like to say but they probably think that ‘simple’ is equal to stupid. Someone argued that using the SSH folder icon was redundant info. Yeah, it takes 5 pixels off the icon and makes it difficult to understand. Come on guys, this approch is making our lifes more difficult not simple.

    If this is the point where the developers want to come out and say “Hey, we will cut every feature from Gnome because it complicates things” then say it so we can change to KDE.

    Just keep in mind that a new feature or more information if it handled correctly (look MacOS X) makes things simpler and not reducing information.

    I am so close going back to KDE even though they give a bloatted desktop BUT they GIVE the options to customize it.

  4. That file extension is a really out of the way if you think about it. When you quickly glance at files do you want to have to look at the file extension for each icon. We are dealing with a graphical interface anyways and we should take advantage of the quick pattern recognition and peripheral capabilities of the eye as well.

    Even my mac shows “pdf”, “png” , “jpg” ,”wma” etc. on the little icons. You cannot possibly tell me that apple has bad use cases and a “complicated” user interface design. Grandma can sure use my mac!

  5. Get ’em while their young. Would be nice to get our collective foot in the door in the education market.
    Dont underestimate the silver surfers though. There are plenty of older folk who have lived through Mainframes and other pretty hairy computer systems, there are a least a few older people who aren’t complete technophobes. There is probably more could also see about making Gnome easier for those who want to keep in touch with the kids and look at family photos, who knows!

  6. You didn’t check if it confused her to the point of not being able to use the files, which I’d seriously doubt.

    Oh, great. So the rule is that unless something is dangerously confusing, it must be shown?

    I am the only person I know who cares about the difference between jpg and png. I might not be the only person who is aware of the difference, but I’m certainly the only one who cares. And I use the same icon for both, with no text.

    In a way I think it’s touching that the Free desktop is now decent enough that trivia like this sparks heated debate on Planet GNOME.

    – Chris

  7. I agree with you. I’m a young Linux user, not as young as some, but still a highschool student. Out of all my friends, and myself personally, we use GNU/Linux and GNOME, because, well, it feels like you’re holding pure ultimate power. It doesn’t get in your way, you know exactly what’s happening, it’s simple, powerfull and provides slews of information at the same time.

    Young Linux users are definatly not stupid either, no Linux users are stupid. And even the stupid Windows users that I’ve known to use Linux, are almost instantly enlightened. And although confused at first by the truckload of information and power handed to them, they grow to rely on it rather quickly.

    I think there is a difference between making a smooth, unobtrusive, easy to use desktop, and treating users as stupid. And at the moment, too many people are confusing GNOME as doing the later. This type of pointless regression is almost making me agree.

    The file type and protocol type on the icons was a great advantage on the desktop.

  8. C’mon, what’s that “we want to target young people with GNOME” thing ? I really think you’ve been too far from *real* people. If you’re surrounded by average users, your remark is quite good. But I know *a lot* of YOUNG people that have a computer, using windows or linux, and that don’t know what a bitmap, at jpeg file is. I’m not talking about some dumb ass, but *real* people that use computers, and only want it to work, and not confuse them.

    Having connection information icon is BAD, because not HIG compliant. The emblems trick is good as a workaround. But you should really consider in meeting people of the real world, and not users who have been using a computer for years… And about targetting dumb people… Don’t forget we’re still on an age where people get a mail with a virus attached and open it. They reply to spam too…

  9. I’d love to hear how that information will make your user experience richer and more productive. A picture is a picture is a picture on a glance, I think it’s a good idea to just tell that rather than cramp text in icons. Also users on other platforms and a veery large share of common applications are used to expect this of icons.

    Also, this far in this discussion I haven’t heard a single argument that would somehow elaborate just how this information is something that needs to be seen so readily in an icon. Why doesn’t a list view in Nautilus, etc, or through file properties just suffice? Besides, the non-grannies among us have no problem in changing the icon set to something that will show this information, don’t you think? However, the grannies and many others among us daily users just care for clarity (and text in icons is not something that I consider useful or clear on a quick glance I normally give for icons). And also, Christian, perhaps you shouldn’t take “granny” too literally.

  10. liberforce: You make too many assumptions about me. I have worked as a computer consultant for years, working with knowledgeable and unknowledgeable people. I’ve helped out in schools, with people who know very little about computers. I didn’t say all teenagers know a lot about computers. However, many do, and my point was that it doesn’t add a level of confusion to the icon that would distract the user.

    As for the rest of your comment and of Matias’s, let me quote something that Jeff Waugh just said: “it was a fundamentally inappropriate change at this point in the release cycle.” It’s not that I want the info in the icons necessarily. It’s that this information is useful to my daily work and that it’s being taken away with no suitable replacement. File extensions are not the answer. SSH mountpoints and SMB mountpoints don’t have file extensions!

    Anyhow, some of the responses I’m getting are now insulting, and at this point I’m going to ask that insults be left out or, quite simply, don’t post.

  11. You’re all right. Just because the image files *are* different, doesn’t mean they should *look* different. I mean, we wouldn’t want users to be overwhelmed with the knowledge that there’s more than one type of image file. Why should they care about different file types? Really, we were probably better off when everyone used .GIFs, then this wasn’t an issue.

    In fact, now that I think about it, all files should have the same icon. I mean, they’re all files, right? Why confuse the issue by having different icons for PDFs, text files, music files, or image files. All a user cares about is that it’s there, and when they click it, it opens. Answer solved. Also, the icon for all files should be a pie. Because pie is yummy.

  12. How do SSH and SMB mount point differ in a way that makes your work more difficult without their difference being shown with emblems? I just don’t see how. I’ve got a number of them sitting on my desktop and I’ve never had a need to distinguish between different types of connections, especially when there isn’t any way to change the preferences of them after making such a volume available (which I think is one of the current real usability issues with network mount points). Sorry, I’m not trying to just argue pointlessly and infinitely here, am genuinely interested of what extra value it gives you. Have been fine with this lack of instantaneous information on connection type also on OS X.

  13. As an average and newbie Ubuntu user, I definitely love the text on the icons. Why? Well, the icons become unambigous. If you have directories with different file types, it becomes obvious on the first sight which is which. On Windows (uses slightly different icons without text to distinguish between gif and jpg and other graphic formats, for example), I’m often confused on first sight because I cannot remember what icon represents what grafic file type.

    And it is not true that the file type doesn’t matter to us normal users: I have to deal with images for webpages (gif, png, jpg), i try to convert my mp3 to ogg, i still have legacy wmv files… And like Dexae said, for the (even hobby) webdesigner/programmer, the file type is also very important.

    Everybody but the most basic users seems to benefit from the text information, and I cannot see how it could confuse/harm them, as long as clicking on them opens the desired application for them. SO why take this valueable textual (unambigous) information from us?

  14. Matias: the difference is encryption. In some situations mistaking an encrypted channel with an unecrypted one can be a serious issue. The text on the icons decreases the probability of making such an error.

    As for the images, I can’t see a real reason for keeping the text on the icons. There are times where the file type counts, but I can’t see many of them, and not as serious (in my understanding, I can be wrong).

  15. I think we miss the point here.

    The text does not belong on the icons hardcoded like this. It does feel clean programmatically and for this reason it looks ok to go. I do not think there is an issue if this came back refactored, possibly as a nice SVG emblem.

  16. The difference between the icons are not just having the file extension on them or not; the icons are actually different between a png or a jpg for example.

    There are two ways to distinguish file type.

    1) png, jpeg, ogg, mp3, wav, mpg, etc

    2) image, music, video

    I think we can agree that 2) is more important for general computer users (I don’t mean grandmas, for sure lawyers and doctors fit in here too, as well as teenagers). 1) is important for some of our users and I would assume they’re the minority of people in the world. But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored.

    It comes down to this: how do you design the interface for *all* these people? The old icons had problems for 1). An icon for a jpg image was different than an icon for a png image. Different video formats also had different icons. Does that cause problems for the user? I think so. Because the users don’t know what icon to look for when they want to find a photo or a video on a folder. So when looking for a photo the purpose of the icon (filtering images from other objects) is lost. The user doesn’t know what to filter from what, as it’s possible for a folder with 5 files of the same “type” (image) to have 5 different icons.

    There are other advantages, like making the icon theme easier to maintain. A *lot* easier. This is very important considering we *need* to improve the gnome-icon-theme. I love it, but it just won’t look good when someone compares it to Windows Vista or Mac OS X (this wasn’t always the case; you could really impress someone used to Windows 98 or Mac OS 9 with the icon theme in GNOME 1.x. But they’re moving forward faster than we are).

    There’s the different issue of file extensions. As someone mentioned, Mac OS X has the file extension on the icon. However, they hide the file extension from the filename (inconsitently in different place btw), and GNOME doesn’t. And I hope GNOME won’t do that too. The way I see it, there are four ways to go about this:

    1) have the file extensions off in the file name and on the icons;

    2) have the file extensions on the file name and off the icons;

    3) have the file extensions off everywhere.

    4) have the file extensions on both.

    I think 3 would be perfect in a perfect world were nobody has to care about file extensions, but that’s not the case so we can rule it out.
    4) is displaying the same information twice. It makes the interface cluttered, which means less optimal for the people who don’t care (lawyers and docters I mentioned before). So it comes down to deciding how you want to show the file extension, in the file name or in the icon. My choice would be to use the filename, because I don’t like hiding the file extension (it’s part of the file name after all) and I think browsing a folder is easier if the icons are designed for images, videos and music instead of jpegs, mpegs and oggs.

    And for the “are-we-assuming-people-are-dumb” dept, the KDE 4 icon set also leaves this information to the file name. So maybe most users of X-based desktops are dumb. Also, GNU ls uses colors by image, video or music and not by jpg, png, mpg, etc; that information GNU ls provides in the file name, just like nautilus with the 2.13 icon theme. Is GNU ls designed for dumb people?
    I particularly hate when people say GNOME is for dumb, because it’s not. GNOME is trying (and this takes careful thought, discussions, flamewars, etc) to design an interface that makes sense for everyone instead of just hackers, and IMO doing a great job at it specially given the resources available. Dumb are the people who just assume some things like the printer dialog is a design decision, when in fact it was not.
    You can say GNOME is designed for dumb people when it asks you if you want to clean up your desktop because it has unused files 🙂

    About Mac OS X, their icons are usually associated with an application. For example, all music related stuff (listen, rip, write cd’s, etc) is done in iTunes, so music files are a document sheet with the iTunes icon on it. I don’t know a single interface that uses different icons for png and jpg images, even if they do write the file extension on the icon.

  17. Here’s a question: why not have the blankish icons active by default, and provide an alternate icon set that provides more detail? IconsSimple could have image.png assigned to image/*, etc., and IconsComplete could have image-png.png assigned to image/png, image-jpeg.png assigned to image/jpeg, and so on. What exists that strips away this sort of information before the icon theme layer is reached? Nothing? Good. Then *do* it.

  18. Chip: I agree with you and Jeff about this: at this time of the release cycle, it was just a bad idea, because unsatisfied people must just cope with it for at least 6 months if no alternate solution is found… I suppose the people that have done it didn’t expect so many unsatisfied people would come up.

    GNOME is good at aiming for simplicity, but bad at making changes on the desktop before knowing the impact on the “average+” user. I don’t know if the 6-months release cycle is good for this, or if a kind of “icon freeze period” would be good to avoi this…

  19. We can disscuss about which user is most important for us or not, but what I can say that text for connection icons was God blessed thing. Such info is needed for this particular case. For example, I love how gnome-vfs have been progressed and have about 12 folders to connect. So it is very easy to forget which is which, which uses SMB, which uses SSH, which uses FTP.

    So it is essental and requires more disscussion and planning. Simply dropping it in the middle of some release without any sound was just plainly wrong.

  20. What I don’t understand is why the info is removed before a replacement is found. Or why it’s not discussed before. It’s just like the no_ubuntu_spatial in ubuntu. Blam it just happened and 60% of the users went WTF?

  21. Pingback: Journal Of An Open Sourcee»Blog Archive » Is Less Better? - Take 2

  22. A person is not stupid because they see a computer as a tool. Stupid is just a knee-jerk term.

    Most people in my school don’t really know about what the difference between jpg, gif, ect. are. They know these terms bounce around because the design-details of the computer force them to keep chosing between them, but that’s as far as it goes. Any type of image opens in the same app, inserts fine into the word-processor – why is there a need of any more distinction?

    Our apps need to intellegently pick filetypes for the user, so the default filetype Just Works. They open it, email it, print it and it still just works. It is simply an image. That’s the Gnome way.

    When most users look for a file, they recognise it based on name, location and the thumbnail. Not the extension – it’s the worst way to refine your search! By all means keep it in the name for the many tasks which still need it, but don’t parade it as if it’s important to someone who just wants to print the scan of their kid’s portrait.

  23. Well, I don’t use extensions since gnome/nautilus happily reads the meta-data from the file and figures out what it is, so sometimes I have two thumbnails that look the same and have similar names and I don’t know on first sight which one is the 10Mb original TIFF and which one is the 500Kb jpeg-file I want to attach. If the icon states this I don’t have to do an extra check.

  24. Hi!
    Perhaps these kinds of moves are more marketing, than anything else. Instead of focusing on the problems that most users coming from windows, or new to computing, stumble on, gnome developers sometimes point to non-issues or minimal usability problems, then proclaim them as big achievements to the world.

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