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Matthew Thomas' Ubuntu thoughts

Last April, Matthew Thomas wrote up some thoughts on the usability of Ubuntu while he was using it. Sadly, he doesn't have a contact form on his site, and comments are closed, so I'll have to comment on this in my blog and hope I one day find out how to let him know in person:

7. Many controls change their appearance when the mouse pointer is over them, which is misleading because they’re not changing their state, and distracting if the pointer is just passing over the control on the way to something else.

It's something I can't point out often enough. Mouse-overs are generally a sign of bad design and too much eye-candy. Clickable hot spots should be obvious right away, so there's no use using mouse-overs to indicate clickable areas in general. When used as eye-candy they're usually distracting and confuse users. Just say "No".

10. … A foot icon? What’s that about, anyway? Ubuntu’s logo isn’t a foot.

This is one of the main reasons why I think desktop Linux has such big problems: It's made of oodles of heterogeneous projects, and there's still not enough infrastructure in place to allow easily customising each component to integrate into a coherent whole. But they're working on it. I hope it's at all possible...

18. Ubuntu supports the annoying and near-useless Insert and Caps Lock keys, with no obvious way to deactivate them. (Windows and Mac OS also make the mistake of supporting Caps Lock. I mention it here because Ubuntu — unlike Windows or Mac OS — offers no fewer than five options for “CapsLock [sic] key behavior”, but none of them are “Off”.)

This is something that's been annoying me more and more recently. I find myself constantly switching between several keyboards: A smaller one at work, my ergonomic one at home and the regular full-size ones at Uni, and thus it happens that I accidentally hit caps lock and get half a sentence in ALL CAPS before I even notice... Caps Lock is a typewriter key. Nobody uses it anymore. Those that want this feature would be just as well served with "Capitals" and "Small Caps" text styles and corresponding menu items in their word processors. Sadly, OS X, too, only lets me exchange caps lock with control. I can't turn it off completely. If there's one legacy thing I'd remove from future keyboards, it'd be caps-lock.

28. When returning after locking the screen, the interface for logging in again is completely different from that for logging in normally, for no apparent reason.

This is something Windows gets beautifully right. When you leave your computer, it switches you back to the login screen, though displaying some info under your user name (# of unread e-mails and running applications). This is nice, because if there are other users they can log in the same way they would when starting the machine, while it's still obvious your stuff is still running.

The same interface shows the current time, for no apparent reason. (Perhaps it should show the current temperature too.)

I actually think that time display is something every device with a display should be able to do. And they should do it constantly, in a consistent location. It's very annoying, for example that my MP3 player, that I carry around with me all day long, within easy reach, doesn't show the time on its display. I'd say that, maybe with the exception of when the screen saver is on or the screen is in energy saving mode, or you're doing a fullscreen game or so, the OS should display the time in the same location. So, if the task bar has the time in the lower right, the login screen should show the time there as well.

31. It also features a fuel gauge indicating how much time you have left to type your password. Not only is this unnerving to slow typists with nice long passphrases, it is only necessary because of another design flaw: the screensaver resumes a fixed time after the first key you press, rather than being postponed with every key you press.

While I agree, I think a timer showing you it's going to revert to screen saving in a little while is a nice touch. OTOH, a text display "Re-activating screen saver in 20s..." would be nice if they don't have that in addition to the gauge.

37. By default, when opening a folder window, the parent window closes automatically. This surprises (...) people (...). It is unfixably inconsistent (...) And it (...) is extremely difficult to get source and destination folders open simultaneously.

This is actually a huge problem with Windows Explorer as well, since at least some versions of it have no "New Window" menu item and the only way to get a second window to move a file from one folder to another further up is to either turn on the old Win311-style folder view, or to double-click the My Computer icon to get a second window... not too intuitive.

46. Clicking once in the address field does not do what people want 99 percent of the time, which is selecting the address so it can be replaced by typing a new one.

I'm not sure I'd want this behaviour for all text fields, though, and having this just for the address field is inconsistent. I'd like to hear more from Matt about this, since I don't think he'd overlook the inconsistency.

47. The icons for all available toolbar buttons in Firefox face directly towards you, except for the Home button, making it look out of place.

If done on purpose, this might be rather smart, though. "Home" is an important place for the user to get back to, and finding that icon faster because it stands out would be great.

51. By default, the arrangement of the Bookmarks window is such that the name of every bookmarks folder is truncated.

That's a pet peeve of mine with many Windows and open-source apps, like FileZilla, MPlayer, VLC... even the Mac versions show excessively wide "author" columns for movies even when no movie in the list has an author, show the duration with oodles of whitespace and truncate the file name to the first word... Dynamically adjusting column widths to match the size of data displayed would be really handy here.

57. Evolution’s Preferences dialog, and its “Account Editor”, both fall off the bottom of the screen by default.

The Mac has a fun variation on this: The Print Panel (using the HP DeskJet print driver) remembers its position on screen based on the lower left corner, it appears. It starts out centered. When you change to a different tab, it enlarges in size, moving down a tad. Next time, it starts out that much lower. Now you go to that larger tab again, and after a while it will move down so far that the OK button is *always* underneath the dock.

61. Chat windows have a “Send” button, which will slow some people down by misleading them into thinking that they need to click the button every time they type something, instead of pressing Enter.

Here I disagree strongly. I constantly have to remind web browser users that they have to type return to actually view the page whose address they just typed in the address field. If there was a "Go!" button like in old versions of CompuServe, they'd just click that and be self-sufficient, but with no indication you have to hit return, and no other way to call up the address's page, they are bound to fail.

A great read, and lots of food for thoughts, this list of Matt's thoughts on Ubuntu. I hope he'll be writing more... there's been not much more in the last four months, I hope Matt is just busy and will soon have some time to blog again.

Reader Comments: (RSS Feed)
Aaron Ballman writes:
I agree about mouse-over eye candy. That's a good example of "expecting the user to have foreknowledge." If the user doesn't know they can click it, why would they bring the mouse over it in the first place? It's pure eye candy, and serves very little purpose. The only time it's truly solving a problem is when the clickable area is small (such as window close widgets) -- in that case, it's solving a problem for people with visual acuity issue. As for the caps lock and insert keys -- there is a purpose to them, but I wish it'd be an opt-in key (you have to purchase a special keyboard to get them). People who do copious amounts of data entry use both keys fairly extensively. As for the Windows Explorer "flaw" -- there's been a preference since its inception to open new windows any time you double click a folder. Go to Tools->Folder Options and select "Open each folder in its own window." It's not a total solution, but it's not as flawed as you make it sound like. ;-) And I agree with your view on the Send button. Never rely on hidden shortcuts -- those are for power users. For something as basic as sending an IM, you can't rely on a hidden shortcut. Otherwise you'd miss out on a large portion of the population (granted, that portion is dwindling, I believe). Sending an IM is not a power feature, so it shouldn't rely on only power feature hidden interactions. To me, this is like saying "we don't need Edit->Cut because the user can just type Ctrl+X."
Uli Kusterer writes:
@Aaron: Thanks for teaching me a new word: "acuity" :-) Well, I count myself among the "data entry people", and I don't use caps lock either. Especially not the way it is on the Mac, where it only works on characters, and not on other keys like the number keys. Thanks for the Explorer "workaround", though a simple "open new explorer window" menu item would IMHO be better for beginners than littering their desktop with dozens of windows.
Aaron Ballman writes:
@Uli -- your English is infinitely better than my German; glad I could help. :-) I think the purpose to caps lock is diminished if the software requiring it wasn't flawed. If it requires all caps, the it should uppercase the text upon entry and not rely on the user to enter it that way. I don't strongly believe caps lock should stick around -- but I'd vote off other keys long before caps lock or insert. Scroll Lock's the one I'd remove. ;-)
Daniel J. Wilson writes:
System Preferences -> Keyboard & Mouse -> Keyboard -> Modifier Keys… -> set Caps Lock to "No Action"
Uli Kusterer writes:
@Aaron: Well, scroll lock and insert aren't near another frequently-used key like caps lock is. On the Mac, scroll lock is F14, and the insert key is "help". So those two are already gone there, even though I'd prefer they'd got rid of caps lock. @Daniel: Thanks, I don't know how I missed this. The only thing I now have to do is change IntelliType to no longer swap alt/Windows on my keyboard because if MacOS X *and* IntelliType swap the keys, they're back in the original (wrong) positions on my keyboard ... :-S
Luc writes:
CAPS LOCK: Did you ever worked on a laptop with azerty keyboard and typing numbers? Then you will understand why there is a caps lock button!
mpt writes:
Two years later, I finally come across this page! (At least, I’m guessing it’s two years.) By now problems #10, #31, #37, and #47 are fixed — and as for #18 and #28, their days are numbered. I appreciate the behavior of single-clicking in the URL field could be argued either way, consistency vs. convenience. There are some ways the situation could be improved without violating either, though. For example, in Epiphany (like in Safari and Camino), clicking the page icon selects all the text; but in Firefox and in Konqueror this doesn't work. And Konqueror has a special button specifically for clearing the URL field (equivalent to those in Mac search fields), but it looks terrible. As for the lack of a “Send” or “Go” button, I see that as an investment. It will slow people down by maybe 10 or 20 seconds the first time they use the field. But after that, it will save people about 2 seconds EVERY time they use it. So omitting it is the moral thing to do.
Uli Kusterer replies:
@mpt: Hi, great you found this, and great to hear you guys managed to make progress. Clicking the icon to select all is OK. But clicking the text isn't really. It breaks forgiveness and predictability IMHO. OTOH, on the Mac, you can double-click text to select a word, and triple-click to select a line. That also works in URL fields (as does the 'Select All' menu item). That's handy, consistent, and not as surprising as having one field that constantly selects all its text even when you're inserting. E.g. my Dad always leaves the "http://www." in place and adds the previous URL to that, and I think he should be allowed to. Regarding 'Send': What about a keyboard shortcut? In EyeTV, you can use the un-decorated + and - keys and the arrow keys to switch between channels and change volume and timeshift TV. There is a menu item for each of these functions, and it has the shortcut next to it. The advantage here is that the shortcut is discoverable. People can use the menu item, and the shortcut will slowly burn itself into their retina, and eventually they'll just press return. I'm not married to the button, but iChat has no 'send' button, and I still get questions from people who don't chat very often.
mpt writes:
Uli, I know very well what double-clicking and triple-clicking do on the Mac (it constantly annoyed me, for example, that TextWrangler’s behavior was inconsistent with the rest of the OS). But that, for example, even John Gruber was confused about it[1] should be a clue that promoting triple-clicking for such a common operation is not the right approach. Imagine how much time your father could have saved by now if, instead of carefully selecting and deleting the section following the “www.” every time, he had instead been selecting the whole URL with a single click and just retyping the “www.”. Now multiply that by everyone else with the relevant level of knowledge. Nobody’s saying people shouldn’t be *allowed* to continue selecting part of the URL with a drag; the address field in Internet Explorer for Mac demonstrated that these two actions are not mutually exclusive. A more comprehensive solution would be an obvious visual difference between those text fields where a single click selects all, and those text fields that follow the traditional behavior. Internet Explorer and Firefox on Windows actually go partway towards this: single-clicking in a Windows combo box selects all the current value, and the URL field is a combo box, therefore single-clicking in it selects all the current URL. The problem is that combo boxes aren’t visually distinct enough from normal text fields. Mac OS X does a better job with the Clear button in its search fields, but the URL field isn’t a search field. As for keyboard shortcuts, I don’t think “discoverable” means what you think it means. While we’re citing parents as examples, my mother will never learn the keyboard shortcut for sending an e-mail message, because there’s a Send button in the toolbar. Similarly, disclosing in one of iChat’s menus that Return sent the message would help very, very few people. And showing it in the “Send” button itself would be hideous — though presenting it as a tooltip might work. [1] http://daringfireball.net/2008/04/firefox_safari_addenda (“Counting clicks”)
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Created: 2006-06-16 @055 Last change: 2014-10-02 @643 | Home | Admin | Edit
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