Rethinking Graphical User Interfaces

For Christmas last year, I offered myself an iPod, and I found that the interface, made for big fingers on a small screen, is surprisingly friendly and intuitive. OK, granted, some things are harder to find than other (like how to kill or group apps), but the overall experience is agreeable. You don’t feel the thing as a new device that breaks your work-flow, because you can’t have a work-flow on this thing.

Ubuntu 11.04 came out in April and it offered—well, kind of imposed, actually—their Unity desktop environment, and it does break your work-flow. Not because it is clunky (because it is), but because it does not offer ways of doing what you’re used to on a workstation, it tries to replace what you’ve always done by something “revolutionary.”

Let us compare both. Let us start by the iPad/iPod/iPhone interface.

  • It is arranged to take into account the small physical dimension of the screen (regardless of its very high DPI 960×640 resolution)
  • It takes into account that your finger is large compared to the items on screen
  • It manages complexity by sliding screens and “drawers”
  • Uses mostly natural and intuitive gestures, such as press, hold, drag, etc.

Furthermore, everything is accessible by sliding or opening a “drawer.” You can search with their search thingie, but you generally do not need to.

Now for Unity:

  • Not loaded with the apps the user used before upgrade, only stuff like LibreOffice and UbuntuOne (neither of which I care about)
  • Shows apps in no particular order (see picture, below)
  • Keeps showing apps available for install based on…? And do I care which apps it suggests me?
  • Makes it hard to find stuff, no default menu to find, say, all configuration applets. If you want it, you have to know how it’s called to summon it via the typing interface. Great if you know the name… do you know how the thing you want is named?
  • Pulsates icons while loading; may or may not be correlated with actual application start-up

There are a few nice things, for example the application switcher, but the overall experience is that it leaves you looking for ways to do the stuff you used to easily. It’s not a surprise that its reception is mitigated.

The impression I have is that Unity it was meant for a tablet, but I do not know if it would be actually usable on a tablet. It is certainly different than the usual desktop experience—too different—and regardless of future plans for it, it fails to provide the next-generation experience it was meant to offer.

* *

Rethinking an interface for a small screen and fat fingers clearly isn’t a trivial task. Apple proposed an alternative, Unity is another one, but both have limitations. The iOS has severe limitations that makes it unsuitable for a desktop environment, for example, you have to completely switch between tasks, you can’t have two or more apps running side by side simultaneously. Unity gives you that, but the whole thing departs too much of the usual desktop metaphor to be actually useful; even more so that it does it in a very counter-intuitive way; you have to re-learn everything.

And even the smallest things can make your life miserable. For example, I gave (yet another) honest 2-3 weeks try to OS X, and I think it has some very annoying behaviors. I use the virtual desktops extensively (“spaces” in OS-X-speak) and if I click on the terminal icon, does it launch a terminal in the current workspace? No. It switches the current workspace to wherever is the last opened terminal and gives it focus. No, if you want a new terminal, you have to “dwell click” on the icon until a speech-bubble like menu appears and let you have a “new terminal”. How retarded is this? There a few other things, none which, individually, invalidates the environment, but, combined together, they are mightily annoying. And there’s no way, that I know of, to configure that behavior. Because, you know, Apple Knows Best ™.

So what it boils down to is not that we could go much further into interface design, whether for desktop or tablet, using exotic gestures, layers of widgets and other whatnots, but that a new interface should use the knowledge about the existing work-flow of the user base to transform the work-flow only slightly, one or two modification at a time.

For first time users, you can basically thrown anything at them, and as they have no automatisms to fight, they will embrace the new interface without really thinking about it, because, for them, that’s how things are done. Long time users like me, on the other hand, will have to continuously fight their automatisms to get things done on a new interface, and that’d bad, because it slows down adoption of the new interface. Or, worst, it ends up in outright rejection. There’s an Ubuntu Classic login option to use the familiar Gnome environment, and guess who used it?

3 Responses to Rethinking Graphical User Interfaces

  1. Eric says:

    >>> And there’s no way, that I know of, to configure that behavior. Because, you know, Apple Knows Best ™.

    Yes, there is a configuration for that.

  2. Eric says:

    Unless I misunderstand the problem, you just need to turn that checkbox off.

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