Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Unity and the mismatch of user interfaces, or how I learned to hate the overlay scrollbars

During my first years of Linux, I switched between KDE and GNOME at the same time as I switched distributions, or more exactly, as each distro had a different default desktop environment. Later on, I began switching when each desktop environment leapfrogged others with new fancy functionality.

Then, some time ago, I settled on KUbuntu, and keep using it for my day to day desktop users. I'm perhaps not a typical KDE user, because I use many non KDE alternatives as standard applications. I don't use KMail or any of the semantic desktop functionality. My default browser is Chrome/FireFox, my mail client is web based, and I use GIMP to retouch photos. This is not to say that the KDE Software Compilation apps are bad -try them and you'll see that they are in fact quite good- just that I'm more used to the alternatives.

However, when I got a netbook, I tried KDE and found it too demanding on screen real estate to be comfortable to use, so I installed Ubuntu with the default GNOME 2 desktop on it. The machine ran 10.10 perfectly, and I did not feel the need to upgrade or change anything.

We, KDE users, had to endure a couple of years ago the difficult transition from KDE 3.5 to KDE 4. The KDE 4 team had a very hard time explaining to its users the reasons for the change. As I understood it, they were rewriting the KDE internals in order to clean up the code base and be able to implement existing features better and allow for evolution of the desktop environment without carrying over difficult to maintain legacy from the 3.5 code base. For users this was difficult to understand, since the changes in the desktop environment required also changes in applications. Which mostly meant that existing applications were either not available, or were not on par feature wise with their 3.5 equivalents at the time the version 4 was released.

Two years have passed since that traumatic 3.5 to 4 transition, and the pain is over. KDE 4.7 is on feature parity with 3.5, and is regarded as one of the most elegant and configurable desktops. Certainly is not the lightest, or the least intrusive. But you have to agree that you can change almost anything you don't like using the KDE control panel to suit your tastes.  

This is to say that I've been mostly an spectator in the Unity/GNOME 3 debate. That is, until I decided to upgrade Ubuntu in the netbook.

I read a lot about Unity, and was prepared for a different desktop interface. I read a lot of angry comments targetted at Unity, but honestly I did not gave much credibility to them. In the land of Open Source, everyone is entitled to have their own opinion, and there is always a segment of users that reject changes. Happens always with any kind of change. For these whose work environment is perfect after years of tweaking and getting used to it, anything that tries to change that, even for the better, is received with angriness and noise.

I was not prepared for the shock. Unity is a radical departure from the previous GNOME 2 desktop. It's not only radical, it is also trying to go into many completely different and conflicting directions. Let me explain.

Most desktop environments, not only KDE and GNOME but also Windows and even Mac, have been disrupted by appearance of the touch based devices. Using your fingers on a screen is completely different than using a mouse, either stand alone or via a touch pad. Fingers are less precise, if only because a mouse arrow targets an area that is a few square pixels. Fingers are also much faster to move than the mouse over the input area, and you can use more than one at the same time, instead of being limited to the one to three mouse buttons.

Touch devices need a different user interface metaphor, one based on... touching instead of one based on pointing. This has became evident with the success of iPhones, iPads and Android based devices. Note that touch interfaces can, or perhaps should, be markedly different depending on the screen sizes, because the different ratio of screen size vs. human hand.

What does not work well is trying to mix the two metaphors. Touch and point based devices have different usage patterns, and different constraints. Trying to have a user interface that is efficient and ergonomic with both devices at the same time is simply impossible. It is like trying to have the same interface for switching gears in an automobile versus a motorbike: yes, you can build something that can be used in both contexts. But no, it will not be optimal in two at the same time.

Unity is such an attempt, and one that fails to be efficient with any input devices.

The Launcher
In the past, you pressed the "Start" button on the bottom (or top) of the screen and you were presented with a set of logically organized categories to choose from. Or you could type a few letters of what you were searching for and find the program you want to execute. No more. You now have a bar on the right side of the screen with a row of icons, whose size cannot be changed, that in theory represent the programs that you use most. This bar is on the side in order to not take space out of the precious screen height, which in a netbook is usually small. Well, at least something good can be said about the launcher.
Ah yes, we can always use some keyboard shortcuts to switch between applications. Another usability triumph, I guess.

Now, try to tell a novice how to find what he wants there. You cannot. Instead, you explain that if those icons have a tiny ball on the left side, means that they are applications that are being executed. The distinction on how to launch a new empty window document and how to switch to a running instance is very small, in fact a few pixels small. It's a lost battle to try to explain the difference between creating a new document in LibreOffice using the File->New command versus launching another LibreOffice instance.

Given that there is no simple way of finding what you want to execute unless it is in the first six or seven icons, you tell the novice to press the home button on the top left of the screen.

And good luck there, because something called a "Dash" appears there, which is a window that lists programs. The dash shows oversized icons of the most frequently used applications with four small icons that represent application categories at the bottom. It's up to the novice to figure out what those categories mean, and to find anything there. Of coutse, the novice can type a few letters to search the dash. Depending on how well localized Ubuntu is, he/she may be lucky and find a mail client, or a web browser, or a photo viewer. Or not.

The window title bar
One of the most important aspects of any kind of interface design, not only user interface, is to be consistent. The Unity window title bar breaks inconsistency records in that area. When it is maximized, it shows the application name, except when you hover the mouse over it, when it magically changes to show you the window menu. Of course, if the application window is not maximized this is different. If our novice has not yet given up using Unity, he's going to be asking "where is the application menu" in a matter of seconds. That is, assuming that he or she discovers how to maximize or minimize windows, which probably will make you go back to the explanation about tiny little blurbs on the launcher because when you minimize a window, it literally disappears except for the little blurb that tells you that is still executing.

Overlay scrollbars
These are, to put it bluntly, an horrible idea. To reach for that tiny line on the right side of the window, click and then have a widget appear where you page up or down is clumsy, counterintuitive and downright uncomfortable. Whoever decided to go for them forgot a few key differences between touch and pointing devices: first, in touch based devices the tiny bars on the right are an indicator of where you are in the page, not a scrolling device itself. Scrolling is done with a finger gesture that does not require you to move your hand to the right side of the document. Second, aiming to such a tiny line is difficult with touchpads. Third, whereas with the traditional scrollbar you could click anywhere below or under the lift to page up or down, now you are required to move the pointer to the part of the scrollbar that is being displayed, and thus you have to move much farther on average.

I cannot believe that someone that uses a computer for handling documents that are routinely longer than a single page can find these scrollbars convenient. Certainly I cannot find anyone. The scrollbar as we know today (before Unity, that is) has been an incredibly simple metaphor that novice users could understand without explanation. Now try to explain these overlay scrollbars to a novice.

All this inconvenience is introduced in order to save something like 5% of a maximized window width. Here is a message to the Unity user interface designers: it is not worth doing it, because for documents that fit in the window height you can simply hide the scrollbar, and for those that are longer it's better to have an effective navigation device than having to deal with such an oddity.

And please, do not remind me that we can always use the keyboard. Because it is true, but we are talking about usability, right?

Lack of customization
All this is the default behavior. Being a Linux user, you may think that it is just a matter of finding where the configuration dialog is and start changing those odd default settings. Here are the good news, there are no options to change most of that, lets the novice become confused with too many options. In the end, I find this the most sensible choice for Unity: your users are going to be so confused by the user interface that it's best to hide anything else to prevent them becoming distracted from learning the new Unity ways of doing things, which is going to consume most of their mental energy.

Maybe there is something good about incoming Unity releases. I'll have to find it on a VM, because there is no way that I'm going to use it on my desktop, laptop or netbook. Which is now running Mint, by the way. Of course, with the overlay scrollbar package removed.

P.S: this post comes with tremendous respect for the Unity and Ubuntu developers. I know that creating a good user interface is incredibly hard. And I know that lots of time and resources have been invested in Unity in a well meaning attempt to create something different and better. I just can't understand what mental processes have been in place to allow for Unity to see the light in its current state.

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