As a teenager, I played a lot of Vampire the Masquerade (VtM)–a tabletop role-playing game. One of the skills in which your character could become experienced was Computers, with ability measured from 0 to 5 dots:
This little table has stayed with me over time. As simple and crude as it is, I think it provides a reasonable measurement scale that can be used to guide software development: you need to decide how many dots in Computers a user must have before they can use your software, which helps you organize the user interface and prioritize features.
My sense is that currently most Linux-based software targets people with three dots in Computers or more, but is often usable for people with two dots. My wife is a solidly two-dot user who is happily using KDE Neon as her distro.
But how many zero and one dot users are out there? What fraction of the market are we abandoning by requiring two dots?
This question was answered a couple of years ago when the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development commissioned a massive a study of adults’ computer skills, with over 200,000 participants (!!!) across 33 high-income countries. The Nielsen/Normal Group summarized the results, and here I’ll condense them even further:
- 25% of users cannot use computers at all. AT ALL! These people have zero dots in Computers according to the VtM scale.
- 14% can can perform easy and obvious button-driven tasks in single simple apps, such as sending or deleting an email. They also have zero dots in Computers, but would be on the higher end of zero. Maybe a little more than half a dot.
- 29% can use more advanced functionality in individual apps, such as searching for data that is not currently visible, or writing an email reply to multiple people and not just the sender. They have one dot in Computers.
- 26% can perform multi-step tasks involving more than one app, collate information from external sources, overcome minor errors and obstacles that occur during the process, and do some monitoring of background tasks for activity. They have two dots in Computers.
- 5% can perform complex tasks involving multiple data sources and apps with lots of navigation, transform imperfect data with tools to make it suitable for the required work, and succeed at ambiguous tasks with more than one correct outcome or possible approach to get it done, overcoming significant roadblocks along the way. These people would probably have three dots in Computers (even if they are not software engineers).
Let that sink in: almost 40% of adults in rich countries have practically no computer skills at all. This isn’t mentioned in the summary, but my personal experience with people in the lowest-skill group (25%) is that they can only use smartphones and tablets, while those in the next skill group (14%) still strongly prefer them over computers.
Another 30% of people have effectively one dot in Computers on the VtM scale. Taken together with the two lowest-skill groups, this means 70% of people’s computer skills are non-existent or very basic. Those with more advanced skills–two dots in Computers and up–are only about 30% of the population.
Maybe the dominance of the smartphone makes a bit more sense now…
KDE is never going to achieve world domination with software that can only be used by at most 30% of the market–those with two or more dots in Computers. To broaden our appeal, we need to make our software usable by at least the people in the next level down (one dot in Computers), which doubles the potential to 60% of the market–going from a minority to a solid majority.
BUT WAIT! Won’t this “dumb down” KDE’s software? Won’t we alienate our current audience of 2-and-3-dots-in-Computers users? After all, smartphone software optimized for zero-dot people is indeed really simple and limiting. So it’s a risk.
But I think good design and high customizability can make software elastic, suitable for users with a range of skills. Software with little or no customizability or poor design can probably only straddle two categories, so decent phone apps would be comfortably usable by people with 0-1 dots in Computers, maybe 0-2 dots with exceptional design. This pretty much matches the experience of myself and many people I know: those with more technical ability find most phone apps to be limiting and prefer using a computer for heavy lifting.
But well-designed software that’s customizable and has good default settings can accommodate a wider range of skill levels: people with 1-3 dots, or even 1-4 dots!
We can deliberately exclude the zero-dot people from our target audience, who are probably never going to be happy with KDE software. Our focus on power will bleed through in even the simplest apps, and just never appeal to them. GNOME and ElementaryOS can have those users. 🙂
This is what I think we should shoot for in KDE: software that is simple by default so it can work for 1-dot users, but powerful when needed via expansive customization, so that it can appeal all the way to the 4-dot users–which includes many KDE developers. This is currently a strength of KDE software, and it won’t be going away!
Essentially we need to fully embrace Plasma’s motto of “Simple by default, powerful when needed” all KDE software, not just Plasma.
I see a lot of this already happening via our simple-by-default Kirigami apps gaining power and customization opportunities, and our powerful-by-default QtWidgets apps gaining better default settings and a streamined appearance. So let’s keep it up!