LXer Feature: The Art of Learning New Interfaces (For the Technologically-Challenged)

Posted by dcparris on Nov 11, 2005 8:31 AM EDT
LXer; By DC Parris
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A great many people find new interfaces downright puzzling. However, most interfaces share common features. Having been there and done that, Don Parris shows the technologically challenged how to find their way around nearly any graphical interface, whether it's an operating system GUI or a new office suite.


It's a Learning Experience

Perhaps you're faced with having to learn a new operating system, or just a new program. Perhaps your boss spoke, and it's happening. Or maybe you still haven't tried out that Live GNU/Linux CD your friend gave you six months ago. Many people won't try something new because they fear failure. They're afraid they'll click the wrong icon and ruin their whole computer. Or they're afraid they'll see the new interface, and won't recognize anything. They'll feel lost. If you fit into this category, let's see if I can help you out.

I bought my first computer from a small business owner who was doing business in a sizable company. I later learned that his promises of 24/7 technical support were only made to get me - and all his other customers - to buy from him. I also learned that he ignored my calls because (a) he was one person who needed more than one hour's sleep in 72, and (b) because he didn't have the time to devote to being my personal trainer. For $75.00 an hour I could have all the pampering I wanted. Since I was earning something like $9.00 or $10.00 an hour, that wasn't likely to happen anytime soon.

Instead, he recommended books. So I bought books. Using those books, I learned enough to go on my own, for the most part. When it came time to upgrade from DOS and Windows 3.11 to Windows 95/98, I had no problems at all. I bought a Windows 98 book to use as a guide in offering training to people in the lower income brackets. But I didn't need any training for myself. When I bought a book about Red Hat 5.1, I began to learn my way around the new system. The graphical part was easy. KDE and GNOME both have interfaces not too different from Windows. It was the command-line that I found challenging. But I learned enough to do what I wanted.

I now know how to find my way around virtually any system or program you throw at me. Since most non-technical users are desktop users, I'll focus on that. I'll also show you how to look at two programs that fulfill the same purpose, but that have different interfaces, and find your way around those. But before we get started, there is something I think every user should understand. It is o.k. to explore the new interface. Go ahead, it won't hurt you. It might frustrate you, but it won't hurt you - unless it's the launch interface down at the nuclear missile silo. Since most of us don't work at the nuclear missile silo, I think it'll be safe to explore the new interface.

One other thing. Terminology can change from one system to another. What Microsoft calls the "taskbar", KDE and GNOME refer to as a "panel". While it's a good idea to learn the new terminology that accompanies the new environment, go ahead and use terms you are familiar with until you feel more comfortable. I'm not saying you should keep your old habits, but it's o.k. if you don't use the right terms in the beginning. Let's get started!

Getting Unstuck in the GUI

GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows all offer some sort of graphical user interface (GUI). Many operating systems do. GNU/Linux actually offers a variety of GUI systems that user can choose between to interact with their computer, whereas Windows offers only one (though others can be added later). In order to find our way around any GUI, it helps to understand some of the things they all have in common. For instance, all GUIs have some sort of colorful background (which we usually refer to as the desktop). Some have a panel, if you will, that runs across the top or bottom of the screen, or even down one of the sides. They typically have some way of presenting application programs and documents to the user, usually some sort of window on the desktop, as well as methods of controlling how the windows appear.

The desktop environment you see when you first log into a system may or may not have a panel running along the top, bottom, or side of the screen. There may or may not be any icons on the desktop. Windows users may be shocked to discover that some GUIs don't let you put icons on the desktop. There may or may not be an obvious way to launch programs. You might panic when you don't see a button for logging out. What to do? Look. Observe the desktop. How do graphical environments work? Usually by using the mouse to click on something, the user can launch programs and exit the system.

Remember, GUIs are typically driven by a combination of icons and menus, as with Windows, KDE, and GNOME. In some cases (BlackBox and Enlightenment come to mind), the GUI is driven almost entirely by menus, except for iconified (windows that have been minimized to an icon). GUIs with no panel (or an icon-less panel) typically are menu-driven. Simply click on the desktop in such cases to see if that pulls up a menu. You can also try right-clicking. Then look for something like "Applications", "Exit", "System" etc. on the menu. If your GUI has a panel, chances are that you'll see a programs menu (the Start button in Windows), probably on the far left (or top) of the panel. Alternatively, some GUIs, like XFce, offer groups of menus across the panel. Some GUIs (GNOME, XFce) separate the task bar from the main panel.

Since most documents and programs are presented using windows, it's helpful to know that most GUIs allow you to maximize your windows to take up the full screen or minimize them to an icon. Many GUIs even allow you to control how a window gets focus (that is, make it the active window), either by clicking (the usual method) or by moving the mouse over the window. You can also "roll up" or "shade" your windows, so that only the title bar is showing on the screen. The title bar usually runs across the top of the window. The rest of the window is contained by borders. In most cases, clicking on the title bar allows you to move the window, while clicking on the borders (with the mouse pointer looking like a bi-drectional arrow) lets you resize it.

Navigating Comparable Programs

Users are more likely to face new application programs than new operating systems. When changing from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.org, or from Internet Explorer to Firefox, you can still find your way around fairly quickly. Examine the tool bar buttons to figure out which ones appear similar. All word processors need to align paragraphs. They also use the same symbols for this, a series of horizontal lines even on one side or not even on either side. Obviously, that's the paragraph alignment button. It's the same for nearly any office suite.

Most programs have a menu bar and/or a tool bar. You should click on the menu bar to see what options exist. Examine the tool bar to see what looks familiar to you. Educational applications and games tend to break from these norms, but most applications use standard interface design concepts. Dialog boxes with radio buttons and sliders all form the standard widget set that developers use from one program to another. They may dress up the images a bit differently - different colors or shapes - but they usually convey the same message to the user.

If you look at the menu bar, most programs have at least a file menu that allows you to open, close, save and print files. An edit menu will allow you to cut, copy and paste data to and from the document you're working with. The options or settings menu will let you change how the program looks and behaves. The window menu lets you control the program and document windows. For example, if you have two word-processing documents open, you can switch between them from this menu. The help menu should contain documentation and information about the program. Usually, you can find a link to the program's license from here.

Exploring On Your Own

So, now you should be ready to explore a new GUI or program. Go download something like Emacs or jEdit. Or maybe Firefox. Go ahead, you can put that Live GNU/Linux CD in the drive and reboot now. Take a look around. Be adventurous! Mind you, reading the documentation is still a good idea! Even so, you should feel a little more confident knowing that most systems and programs share similar features. A square icon and a round one can both perform the "cut" operation if you see the scissor image. In other words, don't let the aesthetic or surface differences fool or scare you. Whether you run a pure Microsoft environment, or work in a heterogeneous environment with GNU/Linux, Mac, and Windows, you should be ready to explore a little more than you did before.

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Digg this story. tadelste 10 1,693 Nov 12, 2005 9:13 AM
A skill that serves you better than any other peragrin 0 1,419 Nov 11, 2005 1:40 PM

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