Revisiting Ubuntu Design

by Ostatic Staff - Jan. 06, 2012

In 2010 I wrote about the challenge Canonical faced in revamping the design of Ubuntu, and later looked at the tough road they had ahead of them with Unity and the Community. In the past few days I’ve revisited the operating system to see how far they had progressed, and while the default look of Unity is beautiful, the system still faces significant challenges.

To use Ubuntu now, the user needs to shift between two modes: a normal desktop mode, and the Dash mode that holds shortcuts to launch the applications. Inside of the Dash, there are two additional modes. The first shows a list of shortcuts which can not be dragged to the dock, and there seems to be no obvious way to configure them.

Typing in the large search box at the top of the Dash, or clicking on one of the three other icons at the bottom of the Dash will place the user in the second mode. In this mode the user can drag icons to the dock, and browse through applications, files, or music. The user can also drop down a second panel which allows them to filter results on a number of appropriate variables. For example, music can be filtered by decade or genre, documents by type, size, or last modification date, and applications can be filtered by type or, oddly, rating.

Filtering applications by rating seems to have an effect only on applications available for download. Another strange design decision. When was the last time you thought to yourself, “I’m interested in a one-star Internet application.” To add a rating for an application already on your computer, you need to go into the Ubuntu Software Center, and add a review. Of course, before you can do that, you need to create an Ubuntu Software Center account. This process places several layers of obstacles between the users intended outcome (rating an application), and where they first encounter the ratings system (in Dash).

Back in Dash, after adding icons to the dock, the dock does not resize based on the size of the monitor. Instead, the user has to scroll the dock to find the icons they are looking for. Once the user discovers this, I can see how it would be less of a problem, but I would rate the discoverability of this feature low. Since the dock does not react when dropping a new application on it, there is very little visual indication that the drag and drop procedure worked. The process could easily lead to confusion. Since the dock gives no feedback, and since the dock does not resize when adding new icons, when a new icon is added to a portion of the dock that is off screen the icon, to the users perspective, simply disappears. All icons are added to the bottom of the dock, in the order in which they were added, and no, you can not rearrange the icons.

After scrolling, and then launching an application, the dock does not set itself back to locating the Dash icon at the top left corner. Even hitting the Super hot-key does not move the dock back to default. The dock stays where it is until the user scrolls back up. This could be beneficial, since the dock stays put until the user interacts with it again, but the Dash icon is on the dock, and is lost off screen when the user scrolls down. So, the user can not assume that the Dash icon is always in the top left hand corner. This is wrong because the user is going to want to know a single place they can go to access all of their “stuff”. Right now, the only process the user could memorize that works reliably is using the Super hot key to launch Dash.

The strangest design decision is how the menu bar at the top of the screen hides the file menu of the currently running application when not in full screen. This feels like the type of decision made when aesthetics trumps usability, until the user hovers over the area where the menu should be. When hovering, the menu appears, but it is not offset enough, and obscures the title of the application. The title is faded out and appears to go behind the file menu. This is also wrong. Hiding the file menu is one thing, but overlapping the title of the application makes the entire setup look messy.

I’ve found several other items which seemed odd or out of place:

    • When the user closes the list of shortcuts on the Dash home screen, Dash reopens them the next time it is opened.
    • Applications do not respect last closed window position
    • Some applications launch centered on the screen, while others default to the top left corner.
    • Some applications do not respect the Global Menu, and others do.
    • And so on, and so forth.

Many of these complaints may seem like nitpicking, or making mountains out of molehills, but, as they say, the devil is in the details. Despite the problems I’ve listed, I find that I do enjoy using Unity, and the new Ubuntu feels simpler and easier to navigate the more I use it. The modifications the Ubuntu design team made took courage, and I hope they continue fine tuning and polishing not only how Ubuntu looks, but how it works.