Monday 9 May 2011

Things that need fixing in Unity

So, it's been a week or so since the release of 11.04, and I've been running Unity on my desktop and laptop for some time now, and, I'm fairly ambivalent about it. On the one hand, it's pretty and there are some really cool elements to it, but then these are spoiled by REALLY stupid design decisions, the UI is not in any way "simple", or "consistent" in fact, it's almost like it was designed to be complicated.

One of the special skills I find in the open source community is that, we are generally more adaptive than most people. We learn how to work around stuff pretty quickly. This is a real hindrance when we come to design and use interfaces, because we adapt past broken interfaces and forget what it's like to see this interfaces for the first time.

Now, let's take a step back. Let's look at Unity with a fresh pair of eyes and you will see actually, things aren't that great.

1. The Panel (General Design)

This is by far the most broken part of the experience on the desktop. The panel has been designed for netbooks, and it's designed for maximized windows only. The moment you start bringing in unmaximized windows the whole thing becomes inconsistent, confusing and frustrating.

The problem (as I've discussed before) is that maximized windows merge into the panel, but the panel shows details from the focused window. If you have an unmaximized window, these ARE NOT the same thing. So the menu/title and controls of the focused window appear in the titlebar of any background maximized window...

Except, that's not the only problem. Noticing this, the design team tried to design their way out of the problem they'd designed themselves into in the first place. Realizing that now the window controls in the panel make it look like you are closing the maximized window, rather than the focused window, they removed them. So now, there is another inconsistency window controls only appear in the panel for maximized windows, and then only if they are focused. There are two solutions:

1. Don't merge the titlebars or window controls. Make the panel only show the menu and title of the focused window.
2. Merge the titlebars of maximized windows, don't use a global menu.

Personally, I'd go with the latter, I'm not a fan of the global menu on the desktop, and I like the way the titlebar merges with the panel.

2. Overlay scrollbars

Don't get me wrong, I think these scrollbars look slick. The real issue is that the appear inside or outside the window depending on the available space. This makes it hard to predict exactly where you need to move your cursor to scroll. Excuses I've heard are "I use the scroll wheel" and "I use PgUp and PgDn" - these to not excuse the problem. Just make the scrollbars always appear inside the window so people know what to expect.

3. Dock Autohiding

This, by default, was the wrong decision. The dock is difficult to "get back" and is not touchpad friendly at all. And the weird hover behaviour on the Ubuntu button doesn't help.
One thing that I continually do is click the Ubuntu button expecting that it will show the dock, which it does alongside the dash, but then I can't click anything on it.

The other annoyance is when autohide is enabled, the window controls aren't at the left hand edge of the maximized window they are awkwardly offset because of the Ubuntu button.

Just turn off autohide by default, make everyone's life easier.

4. Maximized Windows Can't be Focused by Clicking Their Titlebar (Bug)

If you are working in a small window (e.g. Empathy) and you want to focus a maximized background window (e.g. Firefox), your instinct is to click the titlebar (e.g. the panel). But this doesn't work, so the only way to focus is to click *somewhere* in the background window, without triggering some action of that window. Nightmare.

5. Dragging the Titlebar of a Maximized Window Doesn't Always Work (Bug)

This is a bug, but I'm seeing it quite often. If you try to drag a window out of it's maximized state (e.g after aero-snapping) it works sometimes, but not always. Really frustrating.

6. The Title Hides Even Without AppMenu (Bug)

Remove indicator-appmenu, hover a window title in the panel. The title hides to show nothing.

7. Hiding the Menus Behind the Title Ruins Global Menus

I've never been a fan of global menus on the desktop, on a netbook, fine, but on a desktop I think the travel distance, extra context and window disconnection outweigh the benefit's of Fitt's Law. At least though, on a netbook it makes sense right? Unless of course you hide the menus behind a title so you can't see where you are targetting until your cursor is actually there, so the Fitt's Law argument goes out of the window. Also, relying on hover breaks touch. Bad decision.


Well, there's 7 problem's that need fixing, I could go on but I think these are the worst; they are at least the ones that affect me. You'll notice though that 5/7 are down to the panel design. Just don't use global menus, don't update unrelated parts of the UI based on the focused window and those issues disappear.