Dumbing Down Linux

Matt Hartley wrote a commentary about “dumbing down” Linux. I partly agree with Matt’s observations because they match my experience and observation. For decades I have watched how most people use computers. Most people learn exactly and only exactly what they need to know to do their jobs or support their personal life. Many people have no interest in changing the engine oil on their cars and they approach computers the same way. They avoid “opening the hood” as much as possible.

This attitude is not right or wrong. This attitude is only a lifestyle choice. Each person recognizes the value of time and that no human can be in two places at the same time. There are only 24 hours in every day, in which everybody must eat, sleep, produce, and recreate. Everybody chooses their priorities in life. For many people that means families and friends come first, jobs and hobbies next, and computers are way down the priority list, if they appear on a priority list.

To most of these users the computer is only a tool. Nothing more. Nothing less.

In my experience with helping people use computers I have been pushed to the point of exasperation and often, disbelief. I am continually reminded that these types of users do not understand computers in any way whatsoever. To the point that often I question whether there is a difference between ignorance (the lack of knowledge) and stupidity. These people all seem to lack an ability to work their way through common computer problems and challenges. Anything that deviates outside the tasks they have memorized by rote is beyond their comprehension.

A simple lesson in these episodes is never responding immediately to requests for help. Let tempers and disbelief dissipate. That allows being charitable and presumes ignorance rather than stupidity.

The advent of specialized computers such as smart phones, televisions, music players, hand-held devices, etc., has failed to help educate such users. Many of these people fail to recognize or comprehend that these specialized devices are in fact, computers. This is unlikely to change. Ever.

Using these specialized computers has encouraged most people to view these devices as appliances. A general purpose computer is not an appliance. Yet the perspective remains the same. Most users expect to point-and-click. Nothing more.

Despite these long-term observations, I disagree with Matt that Linux has been “dumbed down” too much. The phrase “dumbed down” is a psychological ploy that is emotional and not factual. The “dumbing down” argument is arrogance. Elitist. The argument lacks compassion.

The real topic is not about dumbing down. This is about more skilled people helping others. The actual topic to discuss is whether Linux desktops should be designed in a way to become more palatable to non technical users. This is not a process of arrogantly “dumbing down.” This is a process of making complex tools easier to use. In that respect I believe more effort is needed. Yeah, I know, this is blasphemy to Linux die-hards and geeks.

As I have shared often in this blog, that does not mean removing features that knowledgeable people want and desire. That only means moving those “advanced” features out of sight from the non technical user. That means sane defaults favoring non technical users rather than geeks. Desktop defaults in a typical distro heavily favor geeks. Non technical people cannot handle the geek side of Linux. They just can’t. They won’t.

More GUI controls are needed for the non technical user. The traditional reply of opening a terminal or text editor to fix problems needs to disappear. Nothing stops the technical user from opening a terminal or a text editor, but appropriate GUI controls for the non technical user keeps such users calm and quiet. This is an area where Linux developers tend to fall short. To many developers the terminal is a permanent crutch rather than a temporary aide.

The current era of “computer” users have known nothing but taps, swipes, push buttons, and remote controls. The Do It Yourself (DIY) approach is embraced by only a minority of people these days. Long gone are the days when the majority of computer users needed and relished knowledge about how devices actually worked. Those of us who enjoy “getting under the hood” of computers are now a minority.

These people do not understand the distinctions among MATE, Cinnamon, or Xfce. They do not understand the differences among Ubuntu, CentOS, or Slackware. To them everything is simply “Linux.” When they contact me for help they always use the word “Linux.” To tell these people they are using Linux Mint with the MATE desktop is meaningless to them. Everything is just “Linux,” just like they learned that everything in their other computer is “Windows.”

I have watched people resist Linux despite my coaching and help. Why? The polish is not there. “Linux” is too hard. “Linux” does not function like Windows. Why doesn’t “Linux” work? Why doesn’t “Linux” do this? Why are passwords needed to connect a printer? What is a workspace switcher? Why do I need more than one work space? Why do I need to type commands to do things?

These people seldom run more than two apps at a time. Their experience with installing software is taps and double-clicks. They expect the same from any other computer.

These people do not refer to a web browser as a browser. That’s called the Internet. Or “That blue e thingie.” Email clients are not referred to by name. They all are just Email.

These people do not understand folders. They only know that they connect the camera and the photos are copied to the computer. Somewhere.

These people do not understand that they can change the desktop wallpaper. They do not even know the desktop background is called wallpaper.

These are people who do not use online forums. Most do not know forums exist. They think Facebook is the Internet. Often they do not know how to use F1 to access an app’s help files — if such files even exist. Often such files do not exist (I am looking at you Xfce). Expecting these users to use a web browser for help or IRC for tech support results in nothing but glazed eyes.

This is the chasm that I keep discussing in this blog.

Yeah, I know the geeks have little to no sympathy for these users. To the classic geek these people are stupid and should not be helped. They should be allowed to die to improve the gene pool.

There really is only one way for Linux to become popular in general purpose computers. Provide the same user experience as specialty computers. That does not necessarily mean a convergence interface on desktop or general purpose computers. This means developers need to suck up and provide those missing GUI controls. Distro maintainers need to suck up and provide polished operating systems and forget about displaying geek creds. Terminals need to be pushed out of site. Installing software needs to be a full GUI experience, no exceptions. How-to authors need to stop using the terminal in their articles unless targeting skilled and technical users. Features such as window roll-ups or transparency need to be disabled as the default. Otherwise these non technical users become confused. Real fast. They do not find such features useful or cool.

Fan boys and geeks will hate this suggestion, but the default desktop needs to simulate Windows. I wrote simulate, not become. For the truly paranoid non technical user, every distro should include a theme that looks much like Windows.

Tech savvy users and geeks need only five minutes and some mouse clicks to purge their systems of these defaults. Non technical users will be at ease with the “new” computer.

Most people want to get things done. They want to relax. They do not want to become a computer science major. Computers are tools. A means to an end. Nothing more. Nothing less.

If computers do not render life more enjoyable then people do not bother using them. Developers and distro maintainers who think geek creds trump usability should get out of the business or at least keep their geek creds to themselves.

And everybody involved needs to stop using the phrase “dumbing down.”

Posted: Category: Usability Tagged: General

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