Unity divides opinion

Ubuntu Unity LogoUnity replaces the once default Gnome experience in Ubuntu, but is it a step back for usability?

I have used Ubuntu for many years now, in fact I just dusted off the official 6.06 CD I had lying around. I have to admit however that I have always dual booted with Windows. The latest release of Ubuntu saw a switch to the new Unity desktop environment. This had been present on the netbook edition but after some fairly extensive changes they saw it fit for use on its desktop counterpart. I have to say I followed the development of unity with a lot of scepticism, not only did I find it unattractive but the overall usability seemed to leave a lot of be desired. Nevertheless on the release day I took the plunge and ‘upgraded’ to 11.04. I wish I hadn’t.

You have to praise Canonical for wanting to move the desktop forward and enhance the way users interact with their computer rather than sticking with the status quo. The problem is, Unity in its current form feels like a ‘throw everything together and see what sticks’ approach. As part of this we see the introduction of Mac-esque global menus. These appear at the top of the screen for the currently active application. On the plus side, yes they do follow Fitt’s law: throw your mouse to the top and you’ll hit the menu. Additionally, you gain a little extra space. With screen resolutions ever going up though do we really need to eek out every last pixel of screen real estate at the cost of usability? On the negative side, there are a whole lot of drawbacks:

  • The menu only appears when you hover over the window’s title. Not only does this make its discoverability for new users somewhat shocking but it also makes it harder to aim for a particular menu. Say you want the ‘help’ menu which is generally at the end of the list. Typically you could aim straight for it. Now you have to guess where it will appear and adjust accordingly once the menu is revealed. Visibility is a core concept of usability, unity simply ignores this.
  • The menu won’t always fit in the space, especially on small screen devices. The irony here is that Unity, having come from the netbook environment, is designed to work well with small screens. However, that’s now exactly the environment where it’s most likely to fail. At the moment, when the menu overflows there’s no way to access the missing items. The planned fix is to have the extra items overflow into a special extra menu. Not only will this make accessing menus inconsistent (some accessible in one step, others taking two) it also means the supposed advantage of following Fitt’s law is reduced.
  • Some applications don’t yet use the menu. Admittedly it’s early days but it seems a headache that many applications still need to be updated to make this work. Indeed it’s inevitable that some legacy applications never will be updated. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this breaks the golden rule of keeping interfaces consistent.
  • The ‘close window’ button is right next to the ‘Ubuntu button’ when the window is maximised, making accidently clicking it more likely.

Maybe if it was just the problems with the menu I could forgive them. After all, applications these days tend to minimise the need to dig into the menu with any regularity. When you start to use the so-called lenses however, you realise the issues continue. The search functionality is a great feature, something I missed from Ubuntu after having it in the Windows start menu since Vista. It’s presence here is something I’m sure all users will welcome. The problem, at least for me, is the extra effort to manually locate applications. The classic menu did a great job of organising the applications into a logical category-based list. On the contrary, here you now have a massive list of all the applications. There is a drop-down list to filter them by type (which may I add, looks totally out of place) but it just seems to take longer. Scanning down a vertical list of applications was a breeze, now the grid layout often stalls me.

Now I come to the least welcome feature of the applications list: applications available for download. This is a feature which I have seen many others complain about also. When you’re looking for an application on your computer, do you really want a list of suggested apps with poor, out-dated logos and of questionable relevance? The worst part for me is that they waste space that could otherwise be showing more of your own apps.

The release also sees the introduction of overlay scroll bars. A bold move, you may say, as normal scroll bars have served us well for decades. A bold move it is indeed and a move which is hard to adjust to. I’ll give that they take up less space and are slightly neater. They are also, however, harder to use. You have to hover over just to show the controls and then they only perform the page up and down actions. Huh? Where’s the one line at a time scroll? This simply not possible with the new scroll bars, you either jump in massive chunks, un-intuitively drag the whole thing to move like dragging a normal scroll bar or revert back to your keyboard. Again the same problem with the global menus also arises; some applications do not currently use them. The gaps in implementation are obvious. Sure developers will catch up, sure this will encourage them to but in the meantime end users suffer.

I do understand that it’s early days, which is no doubt why there’s almost no way to customise Unity out of the box. Want to change the way the launcher hides? Sorry no can do unless you install Compiz settings manager. Even then, there’s few preferences you can set. In future no doubt a proper preferences area for Unity will be introduced, along with various fixes and improvements. It just feels like Unity came along one iteration too early, it simply isn’t finished. Sure, throw it out there and see what people think but just remember this is what new users are going to see too. The existing community may be forgiving about certain issues but to a new user that IS Ubuntu. If something doesn’t work or there are inconsistencies, they will think that’s just how Ubuntu always is.

Suffice to say, Unity and I don’t really get on. The reaction on various blogs suggests other users have similar reservations too. I’ve now moved to Kubuntu, it’s been many years since I’ve used KDE but it’s come along very well. It’s slick, full featured and customisable to boot. Some may say Kubuntu isn’t the best KDE distribution, but it leaves KDE pretty much untouched which I personally like. Also, because it’s Ubuntu under the hood, the unbeatable community support is easy to come by. I’ll check back on Ubuntu when the (hopefully more polished) 11.10 arrives.

This entry was posted in Linux and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>