University of Padova

Linux GUI Usability


In this study we focused about the usability of two desktop environments (DE) developed for LinuxOS: Gnome and Kde. Gnome and KDE are two products characterized by a wide distribution and use developed around the open-source community.
The open-source community carry out a very philosophy that describes practices in production and development. This philosophy promote a free access to the end product’s sources. Specifically for software and hardware, two important aspects are involved: the free access to the informatic sources and the availability of the source code.
In the open source community the source code is published and made available to the public, enabling anyone to copy, modify and redistribute the source code without paying royalties or fees. Open source code evolves through community cooperation. These communities are composed of individual programmers as well as very large companies.
In this frame, Linux GUI usability is very important to improve the user interaction with the Operative System. The choice of an usable desktop environment is one of the first step in order to make LinuxOS versatile and easy to use, also for an unaccustomed user who doesn’t want to use consolle and terminals.
In line to this idea, the approach of the study is that one of “user centered design”, where the customer assumes a core position in the planning and designing process of the interface.
The prefixed objective of the study is to provide suggestions about the design’s improvement of the two interfaces, giving a contribution to the open-source community.

A kde screenshot in default version A Gnome screenshot in default version
Picture 1- A kde screenshot in default version Picture 2- A Gnome screenshot in default version


For this study we chosen the distro Ubuntu 5.10. Ubuntu is a complete Linux-based operating system, because of its user friendliness. Ubuntu is already fit of Gnome desktop environment. Them we installed also KDE. Infact the two desktop environment can coexist together and is possible to choose the favourite DE during the login step.


To estimate the usability of Gnome and Kde a heuristic evaluation has been carried out.
Heuristic evaluation is an informal method aimed to find usability problems in the user interface design starting from a small set of evaluators.
To accomplish the prefixed goals 4 Nielsen and Molich heuristics have been selected, and one heuristic created “ad hoc”.
In this way, it would be possible to obtain a quantitative comparison of the two interfaces.
The heuristics chosen are:
– Assess the system’s feedbacks
– Assess the system’s consistence and coherence
– Assess the system’s facility to provide recognition elements
– Assess the system’s facility to provide help
– Value size and colour of graphic elements (principally icons and buttons)
In order to avoid situations in which the evaluators were concentrated only on a subset of elements of the two interfaces, the two desktop environments analysis have been subdivided in three “functional blocks”:
1) Application bar;
2) File manager and;
3) Applications’ menu.


The heuristic evaluation highlighted many problems about the two interfaces’ usability. The interfaces both need strong improvements, above all improvements to icons and buttons. An accurate study of these elements would be appropriate, mainly for the applications’ menu and the file manager. Moreover, it seems to be necessary to improve both the consistency of some graphical elements and the visibility of the system’s state, principally for Gnome.
The results of the usability study match with the prefixed goals. With the use of the heuristic evaluation we found a large number of problematic elements in the two graphical interfaces and provided suggestions about the design of the next Gnome and Kde versions.

Click here to see the Poster (pdf about 300 kb) presented by Carla Valenti at “HTLab Day: Cognitive Science and Technology 06” at University of Padova on May, 26, 2006.

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