Hello, GIMP developers:

In January 2018, I conducted a user test on GIMP v2.8, as part of a class 
project. User testing is the process of having representative users from your 
user personas do a task designed by the interviewer. The interviewer then 
records breakdowns, situations in which the test participant is able to follow 
a sequence of steps toward the final goal, but got stuck at some point, failing 
to complete the task.

I wrote a lot in the original report, but that was not a good way of 
communicating. In this email, I will summarize the report.

I interviewed 5 people. Two of them are part-time photographers who have 60k+ 
followers on social media. The other three are STEM students who occasionally 
edit images for class projects. I will name them A, B, C, D, E, respectively.

Task: consider the photo of a paper cup stack. Select the cup stack and turn it 
black-and-white. A rough selection is ok.

Issue 1: sub-windows

All test participants expressed their confusion regarding the sub-windows in 
GIMP v2.8. One of them wondered if they belonged to different programs. Despite 
this, all participants started doing the task without changing the default 
window layout. At the end, I asked each of them to find an existing option that 
“turns everything into one window,” but nobody found it. Participant A looked 
into the preferences dialog, did not find the option, and started browsing all 
the menubar items. He even opened the “window” menu, but did not recognize the 

> Does the user think of the right thing at the right time (conceptual model)?

No. participant C does not understand the default window layout.
Yes. When instructed, participants want to adjust a program state to 
accommodate their preferences.

> Is the action visible?

Yes. You can see it in the “window” menu.

> Does the user recognize the action, even if the label is on screen?

No. All test participants fail to discover this action. They expect this action 
to be in “preferences.”

> Will the user understand the feedback?

Yes, I believe participants will know the action works as they expect, but they 
prefer to have “single-window mode” activated by default.

> Analysis – why does the breakdown happen?

Quoting my textbook [1], default values:
- are the initial state of the program.
- are the best values, reflecting the most common use cases you observe. (Users 
don’t need to change them.)
Many users don’t change them.

Being completely new to the software, participants did not change the default 
values. Default values did not reflect their expectation.

> Propose a solution!

GIMP should be in single-window mode “by default.”

> Quote your participants!

- “Don’t have two windows. Use one window for the whole program.”
- “When you open the software, you want to focus on the software. You don’t 
want to see gaps everywhere.”

Issue 2: accepting invalid input

When finding the pen tool, participants D and E first looked at the brush and 
texture panel, though it is not required for the task. In GIMP, it is important 
to define a selection before using the brush and texture panel. The panel is 
active when a path is in the process of being drawn. A participant interacted 
with the panel without a well-defined region, but this action did not change 
anything in the image, or change the property of the tool.

> Does the user think of the right thing at the right time?

No. The panel lacks a clear title. The participant thinks the panel is some 
kind of filter.

> Does the user understand the feedback?

No. The panel shows an option is selected, but the option does not make sense 
in the current mode. The user expects a grayed-out panel.

> Analysis – why does the breakdown happen?

No signifier: the panel (or tab) lacks a title.
No constraint: GIMP accepts input that does not make sense in the current mode.

> Propose a solution!

Give each tab a visible title, in addition to the hover text. You can say: 
brush, texture, gradient.
Gray out options that do not make sense in the current mode. When a path is 
still being drawn, gray out the brush, texture and gradient panels.

Issue 3: deviation from convention

* By convention, I mean the previous knowledge which the user has acquired by 
using other similar software.

Participant D could not close the path to form an area. She clicked on the 
first vertex, but the path did not close. She then dragged the vertices, hoping 
to make them “stick” together, but the path did not close. Getting stuck, she 
was given a hint to right-click. Following the hint, she converted the path to 
a closed region.

> Does the user think of the right thing at the right time?

Yes. She wants to turn a closed loop into a region.

> Is the action visible?

Yes. The action to make a closed region is in the “tool options.”

> Does the user recognize the action, even if the label is on screen?

No. The participant tried to close the region by double-clicking and dragging 
the vertices, later got stuck and asked for a hint.

> Does the user understand the feedback?


> Analysis – why does the breakdown happen?

The participant uses what she learned somewhere else. The action of clicking on 
the first vertex, or bringing two vertices closer, can be used to close a path 
in other programs, such as Inkscape and Photoshop.

> Propose a solution!

- Show a “four-side arrow” when the cursor hovers on a vertex.
- Leverage what the user has previously learned! Implement a double-click 
handler that closes the loop, since dragging on an existing vertex moves it.
- Make two vertices “stick” together when they are brought close.

Issue 4: lacking error prevention

Participant A makes high-quality selection, but GIMP removes his region when he 
clicks on tool to see what it says.

> Propose a solution!

- When appropriate, show a confirmation dialog before deleting the user’s 
- When another tool kicks in, delete the selection only after the user clicks 
on the canvas with the tool.

> Quote your participants!

(Pre-interview) “When I have 300 photos, I don’t have 300 hours to edit them. I 
apply filters and move on. Sometimes I use pre-recorded settings.”

Issue 5: non-descriptive names and lack of presets

Participant C cannot tell the difference between “invert” and “value invert,” 
until he reads the tooltip text. He cannot understand what “colorize” and 
“colorify” mean until he opens the dialog.

“Colorize” controls the hue, saturation and brightness. He could have achieve 
the black-and-white effect by turning down the saturation, but he adjusted the 
hue first, and he was not satisfied with the result. He expanded the dropdown 
for presets, but there wasn’t any preset.

> Propose a solution!

Rephrase the options. For value invert, how about “brightness invert,” as said 
in the tooltip description.
Value invert ==> Brightness invert
Colorize     ==> Hue, Saturation, Brightness
Colorify     ==> Colored-glass

Don’t leave out the presets. You can start with making simple presets, like 


[1] Ko, A. (n.d.). “How to design user interfaces” 

Best regards,

  Flynn Liu
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