Design and “looking good”

July 25th, 2008  |  Tags: ,

According to Gina Trapani, writing for Lifehacker, Ubuntu honcho Mark Shuttleworth is interested in improving the Linux desktop experience:

Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth (who we interviewed last year) announced that he’s out to make Linux a better-looking operating system than Mac OS X—within two years.

Trapani then asks whether or not a “better-looking” Linux would motivate switchers:

Everyone loves eye candy on their desktop — Apple’s record-setting Mac sales can attest to that — but is looks is the main hurdle for Linux adoption amongst Normals?

This is notable, since it exemplifies a pervasive way to completely miss the point. People don’t use Apple’s computers because they’re pretty or feature “eye candy.” People use Apple’s computers because they work well. Design is not about how something looks; design is about how something works.

Merely bolting on chrome or extra features is not the way to make the Linux desktop experience competitive with, say, Apple’s user experience. Chrome and eye-candy are clearly popular: note the ubiquity of “cell-phone skins” and other items employed to personalize and otherwise disfigure bland commodity goods. With extra features, the “paradox of choice” comes into play: people mistakenly believe that they want additional options and features, even when the absence of options might increase usability.

I don’t have access to Shuttleworth’s original comments, and the article Trapani links to seems to indicate, contra her summary, that he is more interested in design and experience than in merely creating a pretty desktop full of “eye candy.” If this is the case, good for him.

I suspect that what any user interface really needs to provide a good user experience is a consistent abstraction and a clean, ergonomic way to access a minimal set of orthogonal, composable functionality. The fascinating part, given how painful most software (from all vendors) is to use, is that good programmers are already sort of trained to notice these things — when they come up in software architecture or in system interfaces. (I am sorely tempted to mention the end-to-end argument and RISC at this point.) I’m not saying that user interface design and software design are the same thing, or that we should expect people who are good at one to be good at the other. However, I wonder how much the analysis and abstraction skills that make good systems designers are transferable — with time, study, and effort — to user interface design.