More about those zero-dot users

Yesterday’s article about KDE’s target users generated some interesting discussions about the zero-dot users. One of the most insightful comments I read was that nobody can really target zero-dot users because they operate based on memorization and habit, learning a series of cause-effect relationships: “I click/touch this picture/button, then something useful happens”–even with their smartphones! So even if GNOME and ElementaryOS might be simpler, that doesn’t really matter because it’s not much harder to memorize a random-seeming sequence of clicks or taps in a poor user interface than it is in a good one.

I think there’s a lot of truth to this perspective. We have all known zero-dot users who became quite proficient at specific tasks; maybe they learned how to to everything they needed in MS Office, Outlook, or even Photoshop.

The key detail is that these folks rely on the visual appearance and structure of the software remaining the same. When the software’s user interface changes–even for the better–they lose critical visual cues and reference points and they can’t find anything anymore.

On the desktop side, these people are the target audience for Long Term Support (LTS) distros, where the UI never changes for years at a time. This is exactly what they want because they prefer a bad yet unchanging UI to one that incrementally evolves to be better.

So I think if we want to reach these people, it will probably be done less by improving Plasma or KDE apps, but rather by being more attentive to our existing Plasma LTS offering and broadening it to encompass apps and frameworks as well. That way these other KDE products that are used alongside or underneath Plasma can benefit from more bugfixes without the UI changes of non-LTS upgrades. And we should increase the support period to 5 years or more. It’s 10 years for Red Hat Enterprise Linux! This is what’s needed to have a real LTS product and bring the zero-dot users into the fold.

However I’m not sure we have these resources right now. No KDE developer I know uses the Plasma LTS release. Working on old crappy code isn’t any fun. Backporting fixes is a thankless task. I think we would probably have to pay someone to be the full-time LTS developer-and-backporter if we wanted to have an LTS product worth of its name. It will most likely need to be on the back burner for a while. Hence, focusing on the one-or-more-dots users for the time being.

39 thoughts on “More about those zero-dot users

  1. Whether it’s 5 or 10 years, things change and then their world breaks down. Things should be treated at their root cause. Not sure if KDE can do that. Maybe changing the way you describe can treat the symptoms. I don’t believe Windows has an edge at that, except for it’s high usage percent and zero dot users reluctant to move to KDE because they learned the Windows way of treating the symptoms (aka Windows UI). KDE already resembles Windows close enough in default setting IMO but i’m a 3 star user.


    1. You’re right that change is a constant, of course. But people differ widely in how much of it they can tolerate, and at what speed, and in which areas of their lives. People can be crotchety and conservative in one area of life but very open to change in another. I’ve known very open-minded people who loved novelty and new experiences who nonetheless are scared of computers and don’t want anything to change there.

      This changes as we age, too. I’m only 34 but I already feel myself gravitating towards things that are comfortingly familiar. None of this Tickety-Tock nonsense! Where’s my Descent II CD-ROM? 😅

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Maybe i have to say it that way – constant small change is better (IMO) than big one time change every 10 years.


    3. That might be the case for most 2+ star users, but <1 star users I don't really think this is correct. It would be preferable for them to learn the UI once and then forget about it for the next 10 years. Yes, everything they do will break in 10 years, but by then there'll be new software/hardware/interfaces anyway. And even if there isn't, relearning once in 10 years is much better for them than constant relearning, IMO.

      Liked by 2 people

    4. On *third* (yes, I need to think more before commenting) thoughts, I think this needs some sort of UX tests. I still agree with both my original point, as well as the linked commenter. Since both are anecdotes, however, either could be correct.
      It could be that the linked comment was referring to a higher level of 0 star than I was. Lower levels of 0-1 star, who have been accustomed to click on something and it does exactly what it did exactly in the past will benefit from a etched-in-stone UI. A higher level of 0/1 star will probably be able to adapt to small changes in the UI better.

      (also, sorry for the account weirdness – I just created a WordPress account so that I can edit instead of replying to myself over and over again)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think this tiered “dot” system is interesting, but it is way to skewed towards the top (befitting a role playing game, of course). In reality, I can’t see how a UI would need to be different for a 3, 4, or 5 dot user- they all have the skills to have full access to the UI’s capabilities. There’s a world of difference between true zero dot users and a 1 dot or 2 dot, user though. Are they able to do nothing without direct instruction? Do they have a small set of simple routines memorized? Can they use a limited set of applications with some proficiency if not fluency? Do they know how to navigate the UI to find what they need, but don’t yet have memorized? Do they understand how to customize the UI to create an optimal workflow for themselves? Do they understand how the UI relates to the underlying OS? To it’s hardware?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Many years ago at a HMI (human-machine interaction) conference, I learned that for many (most?) users, the UI they were familiar with (no matter how awful) was preferable to any other (even much better) UI.

    This explained at least part of the resistance of MS-DOS and MS-Windows users to even try using a Macintosh.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s too bad HMI died in the early 90s. We could really use it now. The best we get are outdated conclusions like this one. If we studied HMI today, with fresh eyes, we’d notice that Windows and Mac have converged in many areas. There’s no reason to believe that things that seemed true in 1991, when Windows and (especially) Macintosh were VERY rudimentary, are still true today.

      Unfortunately, Linux missed the bus on this convergence. Things that are the same on Mac and Windows are often very different on Linux. And unfortunately, people justify these differences with old hackneyed folklore loosely based on these old HMI studies. You’ve heard it. We’ve all heard it. Repeat after me: “People only use Windows because that’s what they’re used to”. Which, I suppose, gives them free reign to break every single Windows desktop UI standard, and users are supposed to “use it until they’re used to it”.


    2. In my university at least, it’s been taught to me about a year ago (Human-Computer Interaction or HCI). It had opened my eyes to a new world of user interface and user interaction implementations in relation to (many) current designs that we have now.

      For general computer users (albeit desktop, laptop, mobile phones etc.), they’ve adapted the designs that they know of and have been etched in their minds. I can confidently say it’s quite easy to identify the underlining issues and missing basic functionalities from major market shareholders (not in terms of popularity, keyword is familiarity). From what I’ve learned, designers adopted commonly used philosophies (based on researchers predating to before computers entering the general market) that placed emphasis on reducing psychological stress (cognitive load).

      On the other side however, for the people that have no idea about computers. No amount of HCI implementations can help them since they need to learn. The best way to help them is guidance from general users (practical demonstrations – best way), and clear documentation (can be tricky at times).


  4. I think effort should go into educate “zero-dot” users so that eventually they turn into “one-dot” or “two-dot”, rather than “force” old UI or invest extra effort on LTS versions. World changes fast, and so do computers and software. Of course, I think this is something KDE developers alone cannot change in an easy way, but perhaps the community as a whole can have a huge impact. For example, by introducing KDE, Plasma and Free Software in schools, universities, workplaces… I’ve seen “zero-dot” and “one-dot” kids (just “using” phones and tablets) convert into “two-dot” users in a summer camp learning how to use (properly) a keyboard, understand directories (I’m amazed how some users just throw everything to a single folder), etc., etc.


    1. Several dot users are rarely well served by interface redesign either. They have years if not decades of muscle memory (and recall of command line alternatives) with software that enable them to work efficiently without having to think about whether someone else has moved or changed things. The same goes for users with limited sight or dexterity. Basically, any major/breaking changes should be for extremely good reasons, consulted on, tested, etc. Whether it’s Windows or Plasma doing it, alienating an existing userbase isn’t a good look.


  5. My 2-cents on this is that maybe we should challenge the whole LTS concept as we moved to continuous approaches in other parts of IT.
    Focus on continuous quality assurance and small incremental changes plus handling migrations to the next iteration seemlessly may bring greater benefits.
    I feel even zero-dot users are able to handle slight incremental changes if they happen slowly one at a time. They will keep adjusting barely noticing it, but over the years they would be running on completely different systems.
    No matter how well maintained and solid an LTS is, we are setting a model where, by design, there will be a moment of time with a traumatic change (no matter if it is 2, 5, 10 or 20 years).
    Big fan of rolling distros for a long time 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Nate.

    Lets try to look at it from the other way around. We have undergo around a decade of transition from GNOME 2 to 3 and development of elementary OS is of around the same age. Now tell me on how much simpler can they get and why aren’t most people praising the simplicity they now provide? Why is it extremely hard to find people that would say i can use GNOME 3 without extensions? In theory there is nothing wrong with simplicity. The devil is in the details. That is you have to get the simplicity right. Otherwise people will perceive it as lacking and will rather opt-in for complexity. Complexity that satisfies their basic needs and expectations. Not some other people vision of simplicity that doesn’t work for them. Stability, lowering resources consumption, sane aesthetics … The rest is solid.


  7. Agreed on this too, a sharp observation. It’s about staying familiar and/or having the ability to adapt to that familiarity, not about reducing functionality or just keep making things “simpler” in hopes of reaching some kind of lowest common ground.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Users say they want LTS Linux distros and a desktop that never changes.

    What they _actually_ want is a desktop that works reliably year after year, without gratuitous breakage of their workflows. They also want updates that work so well that you don’t even notice them. Chrome got there long ago, Android is getting there, and Windows aspires to be a rolling OS with managed apps, but is still struggling with slow updates and frequent reboots.

    Linux distros need to get into the mindset that it’s never ok to do things like switching the default desktop session to Wayland while there are still known usability gaps and regressions. Bad experience irreparably damages user trust.

    Chrome delivers monthly feature updates, and yet we hardly ever notice a glitch. Even UI refreshes went by smoothly for as far as I can remember. Perhaps we could look at their development process to learn a trick or two.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I also agree with this point. However, I think that this kind of stage is just that: a stage of development. KDE is still in its heavy development (self discovery) page, and it will take a while till it settles back and becomes this very reliable, stable environment.

      In a way, KDE is already one foot in that stage – new releases rarely come with breaking points, as it was pretty frequent not so long ago. Also, many new improvements are just details and users may not even notice the release change. For example, the switch from 5.22 to 5.23 was… pretty boring. I noticed the accents thingy and… the rest new stuff was not visible on the glance. However, 5.24 should be more interesting, so we are not yet in a stage where new releases are always boring (in a good way).

      However, this kind of reliable stage may become really boring for some, while for others this will be a blessing.

      There is no need to force KDE to be what it’s not yet. At the moment, a lot is happening, and some minor revolutions are there, like – getting rid of some window switcher effects, how I miss them! Can’t wait having them back! My point is, we can dream about stability that would be great for non-tech savvy users, but it will take a while till we get there, we can’t rush it, it’s a process, and we’re already on the path.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Absolutely. You don’t move/change things that are important to the user (and particularly don’t move/change them with no way for the end user to put them back to how they function in the user’s existing workflow) without it being unavoidable. And part of that is software developers and UI designers having a close relationship with users and big enough testing pool, with both stakeholder groups actually listened to.

      Even things that seem relatively minor to a particular developer like Google changing the tab or font sizes subtly in Chrome will negatively affect some of a userbase estimated as well over two billion people. Moving a button? There’d better actually be a good reason, and that reason well-communicated, or those ten million users that have a problem with it are going to switch, fill the internet with bile about the company, or both. It can be surprisingly high stakes.

      Then you’ve got Microsoft, who’ve made a long career out of alienating users and are relying on being too big to fail.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. As you say Nate: “I click/touch this picture/button, then something useful happens”… That is probably the main thing. At least says my wife who is according to herself a “zero point user” but according to me most certainly a “one point user”.
    Perhaps it is easier and more complex at the same time:
    perhaps the question is not “rolling or not rolling” or “change or no change” perhaps what matters most to the “zero point users” is to give their muscle memory it’s way. So that they almost blind can do what they want. Al the rest could be not so important. As long as their things remain physically on the same place.


  10. A very interesting discussion, and I’m going to side with the small-but-often update idea. I agree with those comments above who say users won’t even notice the changes and will quietly adapt.

    But that’s not why I’m commenting Nate — your post has brought to mind a topic that I feel strongly about, which is how can we help those zero dot users when so many online services are turning more and more towards difficult login requirements such as complex passwords and 2FA? I was thinking about this today, and knowing that these particular users are not able to get their heads around a password manager in their current form (let alone any kind of browser addon), I was wondering if there could be a low level (i.e. system level) function that would automatically create unique logins for them.

    Yeah, this is way off-topic from your original post, but I’m putting it out there as an idea for thoughts and discussion.


    1. IMO SQRL is a tool with the potential to fix this ( Webauthn ( could also be a good step with more industry support but with a less though out lifecycle of keys (eg: SQRL has the concept of deprecating a previous per-site key and automatically use the new one as you log into the sites again). SQRL also has a cleaner story for what is the fundamental piece of secret to keep private, which is a very important thing when educating users.

      There are a list of example sites to test SQRL out here:

      Similarly to LTS concept, I would challenge the whole password concept as a valid authentication mechanism. It is one of the biggest mistakes of our industry IMO, we need to step back from it.


    2. Yes, passwords were indeed a mistake IMO. I was just helping a zero-dot user in person and was reminded of how normal people can’t remember more than, like, three passwords.


  11. The one thing that confused my parents coming from Windows to KDE is the default window control buttons. They really are not intuitive, especially the meaning of the diamond and the confusing nature of the arrows. E.g. when maximized does a down arrow restore or minimize? That is not intuitively clear.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Regarding zero-dot users, I disagree Gnome is superior to KDE.
    In Gnome, clicking “activities” is too hard a step.
    I experienced that with my parents, they could not remember easily this step.
    Having a bottom bar like in KDE with the main launchers is far more intuitive, plus it resembles windows.
    I think Gnome managed to make everybody unhappy about the design.

    What I find a bit difficult in KDE is the taskbar.
    It displays too many different states.
    For >=2 dots users it is OK, but definitely not for zero-dot users.
    In comparison, the windows taskbar is much simpler.
    Maybe it would be possible to make a special theme for zero-dot users.

    The KDE settings center is a bit complex too but well organized, I don’t think this is a problem since zero-dot users will not go there anyway.

    Desktop icons is a bad design for >=2 dots users, but is probably useful for zero-dot users.
    Another reason to choose KDE over Gnome for zero-dot users.

    I think what is important for zero-dot users is to have a support, like from the family.
    I personally use TeamViewer a lot with my parents.
    TeamViewer does not work with Wayland, that is an issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It has 6 different states: progress, focus, normal, hover, attention, minimized. + the standard appearance of the launchers when the application is not launched, meaning 7.


    2. In Windows, minimized is the same as launcher.
      The progress is done with a progress bar, so it is different.
      The normal state also is done with a bottom bar, not with a different background.

      In KDE, what I find difficult is that you use slightly different background color for different state: the launcher is a light grey, then the minimized is slightly darker, then the normal is even darker.
      Then the focus, attention and progress are done with a different background color (blue, orange and green).
      It is too many different background colors IMO.


  13. I don’t think that there are “zero dot users” through “five dot users”. I think that everyone is a mix of all of these types of users. We behave more like “zero dot” when the task is simple. Copy a file from location A to B. That should be simple. If the way I copy a file from location A to B every changes, I’m going to be frustrated and annoyed, despite that fact that I’m a highly-technical (“five dot”) user and can definitely figure out what the new way is. I may have read the patch notes, and know about it beforehand. That doesn’t matter, I’ll still be annoyed.
    It’s also more enjoyable when you’re allowed to be a “zero dot user”. I don’t have to think? Perfect! Now I can think about the task at hand, instead of incidental complexities of trying to do it.

    Secondly, I think that an app or distro maintaining consistency with itself over time (no UI changes) isn’t nearly enough. Users want their software consistent with OTHER software on OTHER ecosystems. If something is too different from Windows/Mac, they won’t use it. Because, everyone also has to use Windows/Mac. So why introduce an unnecessary context switch when it comes time to use Linux? They just won’t use Linux. This is why Mac and Windows impose a small amount of UI standardization on every app. Close box is an X, it’s in the upper-right corner. You can’t even rely on that between Linux desktop environments…

    Thirdly, I think that discoverability and tooltips are much more important than consistency or standardization. Blender has become very successful despite having the MOST unusual UI I’ve ever used. Why? Because it’s actually easy to discover how it works, once you watch just one or two tutorial videos to get the basics down.
    When I open a photo editing program for the first time, I judge it on how intuitive it is, and how easy it is to do what I want without reading the manual. I don’t judge it based on how well it works once I’ve read the manual. Maybe I’m a bit selfish, but I put a priority on my own time investment. If I have to “learn the Foobar way” to use the app Foobar, then I don’t want to use that app.


    1. It’s a good point that we are all zero-dot users from time to time, and can even desire it so we don’t have to think so much.


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