The Liberal Arts Major Test

Think an average Windows user would be comfortable in GNOME? John Meuser interviews a liberal arts major at Purdue University about her two year journey with getting to know GNOME.


Around two years ago I started an experiment. Everyone seemed to be debating the merit of Linux on the desktop. Some pundits conducted the so-called Grandmother Test. They would get Linux installed and configured with an easy to use desktop (like GNOME), and see if their Grandmother with no computer experience can figure it out. I have never thought that this was a very fair test because someone with absolutely no computer experience will have problems no matter what desktop and operating system you put in front of them.

I also do not believe that putting a seasoned Windows user in front of a GNOME Desktop is a fair test either. They subconsciously expect things to work the same way they do in Windows, so the alternate behavior of GNOME usually frustrates them.

The best unbiased test would be to take someone who is more of a casual computer user. Someone who has enough experience to use a computer without much instruction, but has not used the same desktop enough to be pre-disposed to expect specific behavior. I also knew that this must be a long test in order to be accurate. Just because the user can fumble through for a few days with a Linux desktop, does not mean they can use it for an extended period.

A friend of mine matched the criteria perfectly. Jenn has been exposed to computers nearly all her life. She had a casual familiarity with DOS, Windows 3.1, and Windows 9x. She was by no means a techie, and at the same time wasn’t completely new to computers. I installed Debian with GNOME 2.0 on a machine that I built for her out of spare parts from an upgrade of my computer, and some salvageable parts of her old computer.

I sat down with her and showed her the basics of using it and figured out what programs she needed to use and showed her how to find and use them. Here is the list that she compiled of programs that she uses:

I generally handled the nitty gritty of the system like keeping it up to date and fixing little bugs that come up. She was able to transition into using GNOME very easily. The learning curve wasn’t nearly as steep as I thought it would be. She is able to learn to use GNOME just as easily as she learned to use Windows. After two years of using Linux, Jenn is satisfied with it as a desktop and encourages others to make the switch.

Interview with Jenn

GJ: What do you think of spatial nautilus?

Jenn: Spatial nautilus makes sense to me. Before spatial nautilus moving or copying files by means of the gui environment tended to be quite annoying. While manually searching through folders, if I came to a folder I realized I no longer wanted to use my first reaction was usually to close it, only to remember that I just closed ALL of the folders I was working with, and that I would have to start over. I do a lot of sorting through files and folders with all of my music and pictures, and this spatial method makes it so much simpler for me.

GJ: What was the hardest part about the switch from Windows to GNOME?

Jenn: I had purchased a webcam right before the switch. It just happened to be the one webcam that no one had developed drivers for. I went through serious Sims withdrawal, but that can be prevented by having a windows partition. It took me a short time just to get familiar with things. I can be pretty impatient when it comes to technology, I want things to work, my way, now. I find that I am more able to do this using Linux, however in the very begining it was hard for me to see this. If you decide to make the swich, the best thing to do right after installation is sit there with a guru and just do what you typically do in front of your computer. After that you can tackle the bigger stuff.

GJ: What was the easiest?

Jenn: Before my swich to GNOME, I was already familiar with the essentials; Gaim, Evolution, and at the time Mozilla. So that change was no big deal. When I learned how simple it was to find and download new programs, that was pretty easy too, however for some reason I really struggled a bit with actually installing new software.

GJ: What do you like about GNOME?

Jenn: GNOME makes it possible for me to do what I want to do on my computer, without a lot of hassle. Its sleek, simple, and very very sexy. It doesn’t go out of its way to make me feel like a preschooler.

GJ: What don’t you like about GNOME?

Jenn: I actually had to ask my friend what I don’t like about GNOME. I honestly can’t think of anything . . . really. 🙂 Maybe just that I can’t play most videogames.

GJ: Describe your experience when you are forced to use Windows now.

Jenn: Anymore I find using windows to be obnoxious and annoying. It seems like every time I use a windows machine in labs, or if I use my friends’, there are these incessant boxes recommending you do stupid things, like remove unused icons. If I wanted those icons removed, I would have done it myself.

GJ: In your opinion, do you think that GNOME is usable by non-techie users?

Jenn: GNOME is definately usable by non-techie users. I would recommend having someone experienced around to help through the transition. I think a lot of people who find they don’t like using GNOME simply haven’t seen all that you can do with it, or you like KDE for some reason. 🙂


My experiment has been a success so far. I have reciently moved her over to Ubuntu from Debian which is working very well for her. Since stability is not the focus of Debian Sid, bugs tended to crop up occasionally after upgrading. This made periodic upgrading something I was not comfortable with her doing on her own, so I did it. With Ubuntu, you get a stable, up-to-date desktop with fewer updates between releases, so I believe she should be able to administer it on her own.

I believe this two year experiment shows that the GNOME desktop is definitely user-friendly enough to be used by the average user. The administration side of Linux is not quite ready for the Liberal Arts Major, but Ubuntu is making some fairly large strides in this area.

Discuss this story with other readers on the GNOME forums.


Posted on January 10, 2005, in January 2005. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: