It’s a beauty, isn’t it? 128×128 pixel screen, 725 KB memory. You can embed a choice of–get this–12 clipart-style images in your texts. It even has something called ‘WAP’, though what I’m supposed to do with it I’m not quite sure.
I ended up with my new phone by mistake. My last one spontaneously combusted and a neighbour gave me this as a temporary substitute. I quickly learnt to love this phone, though; the main reason being that it has no hold over me. It does everything that I need it to (well, almost) and nothing more. I don’t find myself using it frivolously, and it never acts as a distraction. It exists in the background. That lets me concentrate on other things like the world around me or reading books.
My new phone has got me thinking, though. I’m of the opinion that GNOME should be in the business of trying to improve the lives of its users through its software. This is no simple matter, of course. People are complicated, and figuring out how to make their lives better is complicated. Do we concentrate on giving them new abilities? Do we give them fun, exciting and satisfying experiences? Do we deliver something visually beautiful? I personally believe that we should be doing all of those things, but I also think that we owe it to our users to attempt to background our software, to prevent it from being a source of distraction. We need to recognise that our users have more going on in their lives than the technologies that we produce.
It turns out that I’m not the only one to have been thinking about backgrounding. As Tino Arnell recently pointed out, Windows Phone 7 is championing backgrounding both through software design and advertising. He argues that designers need to find ways to combat peoples’ increasing domination by glowing rectangles. Windows 7 Phone is significant here. It shows that it is possible to compete with commercial rivals on the basis of backgrounding.
Backgrounding is a tricky design problem. How do we design software that is both enjoyable to use and attractive, but does not demand users’ attention? Thankfully, I think GNOME is going in the right direction here. Backgrounding is a key concern behind the design of GNOME Shell. You can see this in the handling of notifications. They are subtly displayed, then stored away out of view. The Shell will also briefly show the user their outstanding notifications when they return to their machine after being away. Users will be able to focus on the task in hand when they are using their computer and will have an easy way of knowing what has been happening while they have been away from it.
We’ll probably never get to the point where computers running GNOME exist in the background to the same extent that my new phone does. Nevertheless, backgrounding could be one of the GNOME user experience’s motifs. To do that, we would need to change some of our priorities. We would need to consider the contexts in which GNOME is used. We would need to find more ways to enable users to comfortably leave and return to their machines. We would need to do more to take care of users’ affairs without their intervention. We would have to reduce the amount of monitoring work that users have to do. We would need to concentrating on producing modest, understated experiences.
There are many potential avenues that could be explored in the pursuit of backgrounding. Building context awareness–particularly awareness of whether a user is away from their machine–into the behaviour of our software is one possibility. We might also want to think about tools which will enable users to manage their computer use more effectively by integrating work break, ‘do not disturb’ or self-control facilities into the desktop experience. How would you put GNOME into the background?