It's been my experience that most Linux distros are pretty much noob-friendly; and all pretty much woirk the same, with only very minor differences (excepting a few of "hobbyist" distros, like Slack and Gentoo)- there seem to be bigger differences between the various DE's than between most of the various distros. Basically, pick a good solid stable distro, like Debian, and you can test-out virtually any DE or file manager (like Openbox).
IMO, it's better to try the various experiments directly on the kisk, as opposed to in a VM, because their performance in a VM is virtually never as good (so you really can't get an idea of how well you like the distro's or DE's performance), and because it is in a VM, and you know it won't be permanent, if you are like me, you don't want to put as much effort into setting it up and tweaking it, 'cause you know it won't be a good investment of your time.
Whereas on the disk, you can play with it for hours, and if you end up liking what you've got...you can keep it and use it. Maybe just use the VM to try a little experimentation with just the installation options...but once ya know how to install it the way you want, do the real thing.