spatial nautilus concerns

I realize I'm coming to this discussion a bit late in the game, so I apologize if I'm reopening dead arguments. It's been several years since I last played around with Linux and I'm pretty excited to see the progress the Linux GUI has this point I'd argue it's more usable than Windows it most respects. (I'm a UI designer so I think of most everything in terms of "usable" :-))

I'm concerned about the discussion to date of the "spatial" / "object-oriented" metaphor, and have been ever since I read John Siracusa's article. It resonated with a lot of people, which worried me because many of his arguments, and the principles on which he bases them, are not supported by data and seem somewhat suspect. A few of his claims contradict evidence from the cognitive sciences altogether. I'm glad to see, looking through the GNOME discussions on the topic, that the basis for the spatial Nautilus decision goes beyond just taking the Ars Technica article at its word and is based on a direct debate of the issues involved. But I'm saddened that, given how fundamental this particular interaction is to the user's interaction with his computer, it appears that no empirical evidence has been gathered to verify this decision.

One thing overlooked in much of the discussion of this issue is the existence (and advisability) of hybrid solutions. The Mac OS X Finder, despite Siracusa's claims, adheres to nearly all tenets of his spatial metaphor. Icons and windows stay where you put them, and there is a one-to-one mapping of folders to windows except as overridden by the Open in Same Window preference, the Column View, and explicit user changes such as Keep Arranged by Name. Because the Open in Same Window preference necessarily implies some of the navigation metaphor, Apple also provides small forward/back buttons for users who want to take advantage of that. To me this all seems like a good compromise, but my opinion doesn't constitute empirical evidence any more than anyone else's does. The point is simply that it's simply not a black-and-white issue, and numerous in-between options are possible that mix and match based on the value of certain trade-offs.

Trade-offs are, in fact, the main issue. Most of the spatial metaphor seems to make sense in a vacuum, but every change has multiple consequences for usability, and is made at the expense of some other option. If strict one-to-one mappings of folders to windows is easier to learn (something I haven't actually seen hard evidence of yet), is it worth the drop in efficiency that might result from having so many windows onscreen? If the current GNOME scheme (with browser and non-browser versions of the windows) is used, is the added complexity of its two-interface system worth the preservation of one-to-one mapping in the default configuration? (I think the one-to-one mapping thing is really the most important issue - it's certainly worth getting evidence that keeping icons where one puts them is the best default, but there's less debate about it and I think the issue is less complex.)

A couple additional things:
- Without far more drastic changes to the GUI experience, I don't think we're ever going to get to a pure spatial metaphor. For example, the File Open dialog currently still uses the open-in-same-window scheme, and presents the user with her folders in a window other than the one shown by Nautilus. Sure, it's a different app, but that's not necessarily important to (or understood by) the user. - One common argument in favor of the spatial metaphor is that most people don't find file paths natural. Yet people often put things in folders, or categorize them according to nested hierarchies. (Siracusa claims that most people aren't good at this, but provides no support.) Maybe that's out of necessity, but maybe it's a natural way for people to classify things. If the latter, file paths may be natural for people, and (for example) it may just be that many users aren't always comfortable with the textual representations of those paths, and/or with hierarchies that they themselves have not constructed.

I certainly have my guesses at the answers to these questions. As a UI designer, I often base designs on such guesses. But I also always recommend the use of empirical methods such as usability testing to verify my choices. It's important when those choices are simple layout decisions, bounded by the standards of the platform. It's much _more_ important when one is defining the platform itself and dictating some of its fundamental default behaviors.

If empirical testing is underway, I apologize for my lengthy message...I haven't heard anything and feel pretty strongly about this. I started feeling strongly when I read the Ars Technica article, mostly because of the number of broad claims it makes about usability without any real support. But it goes beyond that. Linux, in large part due to the efforts of the GNOME community, is becoming a viable alternative to Windows for more and more users. I'm really excited about that, and the more it gets right the more excited I am. As more and more nontechnical users make the switch, the cost of making fundamental changes to the user experience rises, so the time to make such changes is now. GNOME has implemented all the functionality required by pretty much any permutation or hybrid of the spatial and navigation metaphors, so the question becomes one of choosing the right default settings rather than a lot of development time. Empirical methods such as usability testing work. So why not apply them and make sure we've got it right?

In the meantime, a modest proposal that doesn't change the default but provides flexibility to users and developers: Decouple the "open in same window" option from the "always use browser window" option. Then users (like me) who want to stick with the more minimal window style but would like folders to open in the same window can set things up that way. (Similarly, users who mostly want the spatial metaphor but also want the browser functionality at their fingertips can leave "open in same window" off but enable the browser.)

Thanks for listening :-).


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David A. Feldman
User Interface Designer

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