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When users first encounter Ubuntu: six showstoppers

This article is more than 14 years old.

We recently conducted usability testing to see how users respond to Ubuntu on their first encounter.

Overall, first impressions are good.  Typical remarks include:
“It is bold and different.”
“Ubuntu is fresh and accessible ….”
“This is good. People are getting tired of Windows.”

What we were looking for during these sessions, however, were things that could pose strong challenges to unfamiliar users  — that could, in fact, be ‘show stoppers’ in the sense that they had the potential to keep such users from coming back.

Here is some of what we found.

1. File compatibility

Almost all our participants habitually used Microsoft Office. As they explored OpenOffice, one of their main concerns was the degree of its compatibility with other software. One participant asked: “How compatible is ODF?”, while another wondered: “When someone else receives my document will it look the same [as when I sent it]?”

Saving in the current format or in ODF was also confusing to participants.  They didn’t know how the format would impact their document or in what format their document was in the first place.

2. Lack of feedback on system behaviour

Our participants needed to be reassured that their actions had an impact on the system. Constant feedback on how (or whether) the system was responding was crucial to their sense of being in control. As one participant noted, “[the system] needs to say what it’s doing. My feeling is that it’s crashed [and I don’t know what to do].”

3. Use of jargon

During their exploration of Ubuntu, participants encountered words they didn’t know, or didn’t expect, or terms that they had no use for: examples included ‘Gwibber’,’broadcast’,’terminal’ and ‘server’. “You lose me with ‘terminal’ and ‘server’.” one person said.

The use of such specialised language significantly influenced how users perceived the brand and the intended audience for Ubuntu. Some of the participants wondered whether Ubuntu was meant really for expert users rather than for them.

4. Getting flash

Most users of Ubuntu will need at one point or another to get flash in order to view a website. When attempting to download a flash player, participants had to choose between, YUM, .tar, .gy, .rpm, .deb or APT. Most didn’t know what to do at that point. No-one succeeded in downloading the flash player.

5. Software centre

All our participants found the software centre right away and responded very positively to it. The centre is simple and promises access to a large amount of software.

However, when they looked at the software available to them, participants did not always understand the descriptions, and they tended not to be able to distinguish major applications from minor utilities. The names and descriptions were not always clear to them. Indeed, the descriptions of apps are typically feature- and technology- centric, and do not describe the use and benefits for users. Additionally, the descriptions tend to assume a level of sophistication that most new users don’t have. “Software centre descriptions are geeky,” remarked one participant.

Many participants didn’t know where to find apps once they had been downloaded and as a result were unable to run them. One person, expecting to find the new app on the desktop, asked: “Where did my app go? Is it installed somewhere?” Another wondered: “Is it downloading or is it within the thing?”

When asked, many participants could not recall the name of apps they had downloaded from the software centre and had no way to find them again.

6. Adding a printer

Many participants didn’t understand the dialogue boxes – ranging from “Enter device URI”, “Host” “Queue”, “LPD network”, “Samba”, “SMB” – which were presented to them when they wanted to install a new printer. One person commented: “Not terribly helpful. Assumes you know what you are doing.” Another asked: “What is Samba? [I have] No idea.”  Many did not succeed in adding a printer.

These six issues – the extent of file compatibility, the lack of feedback on system behaviours, the use of jargon, challenges to the ability to use flash, access to applications in the software centre, and installing a printer – are central to whether Ubuntu will be taken up by ‘ordinary’ users. For many, if they’re unclear about these things, they’ll simply be unable to use Ubuntu to accomplish their basic goals:  to communicate and exchange documents, to feel in control, to use the internet fully and to access new software. In that sense, these issues can really be show stoppers.

Yet, it would be relatively easy to prevent users’ frustrations by taking thoughtful steps: to clarify issues around file compatibility and reassure our users; to promote system transparency through ongoing feedback and put users in control; to simplify the language we use and make this language serve the concerns and goals of our users; to  make our processes effortless.

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