Ubuntu Unity Experience

I started out rather skeptical of Unity, since it clashes with my habits. But it wouldn’t be the first time I modified them …

I’ve come to enjoy launching and switching between applications via the Launcher. Making the distinction between running and not running applications less important and having stable targets for the most common applications is nice. But only as long as it’s about single window applications, as having to juggle windows after using the launcher just feels like a hassle. The single top bar switching between title and menu is great with maximized windows. This is barely enough to tolerate the shortcomings.

Alt-Tab window switching works for me only as long as no application has several windows. Switching on 2 levels, first application, then between windows of that application is too much work, costs too much thinking and thus breaks the flow. At least the Super-W shortcut for exposing all windows helps here, sometimes.

I sometimes run Ardour, which relies on the JACK audio server. This involves soft realtime requirements, which normally is not a problem. However, any use of Alt-Tab beyond a quick tap that does not even bring up the menu, causes Ardour to lag, making JACK kick it out. On Unity 3D, with nvidia driver. Isn’t this supposed to be GPU accelerated, leaving the CPU alone as far as possible? In principle this machine could record and playback several tracks while compiling the Linux kernel in the background, but I can’t use the window switcher without dropout. This made me try different nvidia driver versions, so I found out Jockey is confusing and sometimes claims there’s no driver enabled, while lsmod does list nvidia. Trying to switch between nvidia versions one can easily end up with an X in minimum resolution and a Unity 2D that likes to render artifacts more than rendering windows. It’s not obvious how to switch between nvidia and nouveau.

I’m used to 6 workspaces. I had to use CompizConfig to change that number. Initially, it looked like that didn’t work, because the change did not come into effect before logging out and in again. The workspace switcher icon remains static and always pretends you have 4 workspaces with 1 window on the first, making me miss GNOME 2’s panel indicator.

Since many years I have switching to specific workspaces bound to Alt-F1 to Alt-F6. I had to mess with both CompizConfig and Keyboard settings to make that work.

After a short break, I now went to pick up development with Emacs again. I have a number of window (what elsewhere might be called a pane or panel) related commands bound to the Super, aka Windows key. So I changed Unity’s trigger button, only to find that the setting has no effect; the Super key still triggers Unity, while the new shortcut has no effect at all. I found a matching bug, with a suggested workaround involving going into unity config by hitting Alt+F2, to enter about:config. Since my Alt+F2 is bound to something else, I tried to assign a new shortcut to Show the run command prompt. Whatever I try, it is ignored. Now I can either drop Unity, or edit my .emacs and retrain against my muscle memory.

UPDATE: I now had success in changing the trigger key for Unity, but I don’t know what exactly made the difference.

I haven’t done any real work with GIMP on Unity, yet, but guess I won’t enjoy the global menu behavior there.

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Intuitive

You should avoid the term intuitive when discussing user interfaces.

In a general sense, intuition is defined as knowledge or belief obtained neither by reason nor by perception, instinctive knowledge or belief or similar.

There’s hardly anything in user interfaces that you don’t have to learn. You just might have learned it long ago in a different context. Humans even have to learn to walk and talk. Some say the nipple would be the only “intuitive” interface. I’ve been told that not even breast feeding just works on first try …

If you call something that has to be learned intuitive, you render that word useless, as it now also refers to what it used to exclude. Should you just want to express easy to learn or works as expected, just do so directly. Don’t be needlessly ambiguous.

To be precise: Lacking a mind, software cannot intuit, not be intuitive, it could be intuitable (support the user’s intuition) at best.

What makes an interface seem “intuitive” is actually familiarity. It might be useful to think of familiarity coming from 3 sources:

  • Physical, real world experience that can be leveraged with metaphors and pseudo-physical interface elements (or perhaps custom interface hardware).
  • Experience with existing software.
  • Concepts/thought-models from specific fields.

Jef Raskin wrote a great Article: Intuitive Equals Familiar. Bruce Tognazzini says similar things. Also very enlightening: What Makes a Design Seem ‘Intuitive’?.

Disabling Pulseaudio has been a solution, once again

On my current Ubuntu 10.10 installation, Pulseaudio did a good enough job to not appear on my radar, until today. I reactivated my Skype account after long abstinence. The test sound was distorted, like less than 8 bits with extra crunchy aliasing, perhaps mixed with a bit of clean signal.

Quitting Skype, killing pulseaudio and renaming its binary as the quick way to avoid having it restarted fixed the issue. Clean sound. Luckily I have an old soundcard that does hardware mixing.

I’m not even sure how I would make a useful bug report out of this and lost time fixing the issue instead of getting things done, already. Still, I don’t want to let this pass silently.

Despite having nothing to gain from Pulseaudio, currently, I’m not opposed to it conceptually. But like in the old days, where I even went so far as to rip it out of my system, it was not a solution, but created a problem. A less computer savvy person could have deduced that Skype on Ubuntu is broken.

So now I have an old serial Wacom tablet requiring manually patching and building things to get it to work plus a sound system that I have to disable after each upgrade. Both Unity and Gnome 3 make assumptions that are not compatible with the way I work. Not even the way I want to work. First I lost interest in constantly messing with my system, after I got too much of that with Gentoo. Now I’m losing interest to even upgrade once every 6 months. But maybe that’s just maturity 🙂

Ours is better than theirs!

Thoughts on current means of mediated communication and collaboration

Part of the groundwork for Design-Boost.

IRC (or instant messaging)

While great for seamlessly going from asynchronous to synchronous communication, involvement requires to be there at the right time. Problematic for international projects. IRC logs tend to be of limited worth and are tiresome to read.

The relaxed realtime nature of IRC is desirable, but there should be mechanisms to encourage and simplify transferring information into other forms.

Email

Free Software wouldn’t be the same without mailing lists. A lot of mistakes are possible, starting with the choice of an inadequate client. Proper threading and quotation can’t be enforced and put strain on people via either the pressure to get it right, or by suffering by the acts of those who don’t. The defaults of certain applications and the limitations of mobile devices contribute to the problems.

Forums

Forums seem to have a very low perceived barrier to entry. They allow some helpful structuring and selective peruse.

But the dependency on email notifications shows that a forum is only half the solution (at best). There are inefficient quoting practices and a tendency to add a lot of noise, including signatures.

Wikis

Great for structuring textual content. Requiring markup for editing should and can be avoided. Editing conflicts are nasty. Wikis tend to be clumsy in handling images or other assets.

Etherpad and Google Docs show what could be done regarding collaborative editing in real-time, thereby avoiding editing conflicts, and how uncomplicated formatting can be.

Etherpad

The most straightforward implementation of collaborative editing in real-time I’m aware of. The combination of document area and chat can be very useful.

Lacks means to handle assets. Doesn’t help with tracking what has been changed and why. This makes me wish for commit messages. But it can be hard for a single person to edit and commit in a way that leads to clean and related change-sets, already. With several people in real-time, there will have to be means to select changes to commit.

Google Wave

An outlier and history, as far as the client implementation is concerned. Hierarchical replies shown within posts, thereby avoiding quotes, are a very interesting concept. Waves, as seen so far, tend to be hard to follow, if left as they happened and not edited intensively.

Google Docs

Perhaps the best thing it adds compared to Etherpad, are the notes at the side of the document.
The attempt to be a word processor leads to an amount of freedom that is only a distraction when taking notes or writing documentation. Automatic section numbering and an outline view would help to work with longer, structured documents.

Twitter and Identi.ca

Maybe I could write a less than 140 character message presented here without the context required to make any sense of it. Or just post a link.

Design-Boost

I want to assist in the creation of better software user experiences. On a slightly different take, I want to foster the quality and quantity of design efforts and outcomes for and with Open Source / Free Software.

The question of the most effective way to do so, led me to the idea of applying design thinking to how Free Software is being conceived and implemented.

There’s knowledge that many projects could benefit from, that has to be researched and documented. Methods to be developed and shared. Infrastructure to be build. That’s what I will do, and you are invited to join my efforts. Especially if you know a thing or 2 about design, user experience, Erlang, git’s inner workings and web stuff. Extra points for polyglot programmers.

Now, what this is really all about doesn’t fit into a few paragraphs, so bear with me while I elaborate.

Making a difference with Free Software

The current choice of Free Software has much to offer and is the result of much work and dedication by many generous, knowledgeable and skilled people.

But Free Software can and must offer more, and more complete and refined solutions, to fully succeed and fulfill its role in enhancing human lives. Users all around the world should become empowered and enjoy states of flow with minimal interruptions. Lots of little frustrations add up; so do the little victories of successful use. Now think about that being multiplied by millions of users for better known software.

The 4 Software Freedoms are important and can be seen as basis for the best possible user experience, where they do become relevant. But the entire developer, contributor and user experience has to be taken care of. Particularly the freedom to change software has to be be amplified by lowering the barriers to actually doing so, to make a real difference.

Why should you care?

Why should you care about the user experience of others? Because, just like in any social setting and with any kind of common good, we will all be better off, the more people do care. You might feel the altruistic reward of doing something for others, not just yourself. Furthermore, this can be a huge challenge, a test of your intellect, endurance and all the skill you got. What are these good for, if not exercised to their fullest?

User Experience

It might sound like some marketing buzzword, but it stands for the insight, that it’s not a product or service as such, that really matters. What really matters is the experience that is being created. It depends on the specific user and the entire context. We are looking at a system, and some of the components happen to be human.

Because of individual differences and the wide range of possibilities regarding set and setting, generalisations are problematic. They are also necessary due to limited resources and many unknowns. Luckily, quite a bit can be said about a well defined group of people and their environment. Design for more than one individual has to be concerned with ranges, not single data-points, regarding characteristics and abilities.

Humans are emotional and often, on some level, irrational beings. Besides goals and results, there is also the process, the experience of using software, that counts. Destination vs journey. You may speak of the pragmatic and hedonistic qualities of software.

There’s a continuum with result-driven, usually work-related usage on one end, and playing games on the other. For the former, it’s all about effectiveness (being able to do something at all) and then efficiency (low resource use, usually time is most critical). Use of the software is not a goal in itself, in this case. For the latter, it’s all about the how, where the most efficient way may not be the most enjoyable (how this works out is a pretty big subject by itself). What may be loosely described as creativity software, will be somewhere in between. Tools and toys; the categorisation is fluid. Thus satisfaction depends on a different weighting of factors, depending on where a piece of software is seen on this continuum, by individual and case, but likely with clear general tendencies.

The role of design

I don’t want to just highlight the design aspect of creating software, fighting the misconception that design would be limited to making things pretty. I want to make clear that design and software development belong together. That one flows into the other. That no good designer in this realm can stay entirely ignorant of implementation issues, and that no competent programmer can stay out of design.

In the end, it’s all just more or less methodical problem solving. Doing your best to reach specific goals, creating artifacts that have a purpose. It’s just that the most visible aspect of design is concerned with aesthetics. But if done right, surface and guts are closely interrelated.

The current state of affairs

While some progress has been made thanks to tireless advocacy of Usability and Accessibility, there are still widespread misconceptions and questionable practices.

Design by software developers

It seems safe to assume that most Free Software is designed by developers. Not many people are both competent software developers and designers, especially at the same time. Not having the implementation in mind helps to get the UX perspective right. In this sense, it’s not about fixed identification with a vocation, but rather about roles people play in specific projects.

Even just a little insight into UX and design methods should allow developers to make better decisions and to see the value in working with specialists.

There should be a place that presents the most important and effective design knowledge and methods, tailored to developers. It might also work as a general point of entry into the field.

Loud users

User feedback can be great, but some are more loud than representative and paint their needs and assessments as those of a supposed majority. Clear project briefings and defined audiences can help users to choose based on there needs and preferences, allows them to ascertain in how far their feedback may matter to the project and helps project members to decide who and what to listen to.

Half-truths and misconceptions get thrown around. The truth (best current knowledge) should be presented loud and clear. People should feel a cultural expectation of better, more informed conduct.

Noisy discussions

There’s a tendency for every highly visible channel, list or forum to become very noisy, with discussion for the sake of discussion, non sequiturs and even outright flaming. A too high percentage of newcomers, and those persistently ignorant, not just leads to a waste of time, but can also drive away the very people with the desired skills who do or might get stuff done.

It’s no fun having to explain the basics of the field again and again. Especially it’s no fun to argue about what should be given. Everything can and sometimes should be challenged, but only if done in an informed fashion. A well defined and documented set of definitions and required knowledge as basis of discourse should help.

Situational barriers to entry should be as low as possible, but consciously erected barriers to entry can be necessary for certain results. I would consider to apply moderated membership using invitations or applications and questionnaires, reputation systems and comment moderation.

Requests don’t match resources


Inviting users to submit ideas and feature requests can lead to sensible concepts, especially if you encourage differentiation between problems and solutions like Ubuntu Brainstorm does. But in the end, it’s all just noise, if not met with attention, agreement, willingness, competency, time and effort leading to implementation. A better approach would have to include being conscious of these resources.

It should be avoided to fix symptoms, if root causes can be tackled. Building up the courage and ability to change parts of the stack, to work on the architecture should allow to fix issues on the lowest possible level, avoiding duplication and complications. Necessary cross-project cooperation should become more likely and involve less friction with shared planning, research and conception.

Investing work on best practices and infrastructure for the entire life cycle of software could increase the number of people who can and will fix issues.

Path of entry for designers

Designers who want to get involved, have to determine if the ambitions, insight and capabilities of the core developers match the scope of what they deem appropriate or necessary in changes. For fruitful cooperation, it may be necessary to first gain trust in small steps. Opportunities should be more obvious, not require that much research, up-front.

Designers have to rely on developers for implementation. Learning to program to the necessary level of skill may not be feasible. After all, time spent learning to code is time not spent designing and not spent making a living. However, strong frontend/backend separation, GUIs that are dynamic at runtime and authoring environments (perhaps inspired by Smalltalk and Flash) could lower that barrier significantly.

Assessment of competency

From the point of view of developers, it might be difficult to tell in how far (self proclaimed) designers know what they are doing. Some level of scepticism and verification can lead to improvements, as nobody is perfect. But questioning every single decision and detail causes too much friction, at least if done in an unstructured and isolated way.

What if there was a reputation system, designers vouching for the competency of colleagues? Developers recommending designers and designers recommending developers, teams and projects?
Be there or be square

Many design decisions are made on IRC channels, an arcane and scary place for those not initiated. Roadmaps are sometimes drawn on conferences or private meetings. This means you have to be there to make a difference. Further down the road, you get outcomes, but the reasoning stays invisible, as chat sessions will rarely be distilled into concise notes. This removes opportunities for corrections or learning from others.

Any mechanism that would shorten the distance between free-form discussion and concise documentation would be a boon.

Units of design

Textual content, say wiki entries or code, allows fine grained edits as contributions. While there can be small and highly local design issues of similar granularity, design tends to be so much about consistency and an overall strategy, that there seems to be not much room for small and isolated contributions.
Breaking up problems into sub-problems and tasks into sub-tasks can ease collaboration and allow more people to contribute at a lower cost per individual.
If the whole building of reasoning and decisions rooted in a central goal could be brought into a form that might resemble program code, even more opportunities for granular contributions might arise.

Broken chain

Specifications, if used at all, are turned into code manually, risking mistakes in the process. The act of implementing increases insight, but it’s unlikely a separate specification will be kept in sync with changes made at this stage. Runnable specifications would help.

You have to ask what’s wrong with GUI-builders like Glade, if there seems to be a need for separate tools for mockups? The wireframe look should be achievable by using a theme. If a widget layout can be created more efficiently elsewhere, something is wrong. Different expectations regarding precision should be answered by iterative addition of constraints, not by starting from scratch again.

The needs for creating fluid layouts and handling interaction are so similar between creating prototypes, demonstrations, interactive presentations and full-fledged applications, that it should be beneficial to handle all of them within a single approach.

Platform diversity

Increased interest in running applications in the browser and more device form factors and means of interaction in parallel all call for better abstraction between user interfaces and functionality, as far as possible. Software should be more modular and composable. Choice of a ribbon over a classic menu or a commandline should not require a new application from scratch. For every application where it makes sense at all, running it in a browser or locally should require minimal extra effort from developers.

Tackling these challenges will require cooperation between many people and projects. A shared vision, or even a related set of visions should help. Where approaches differ, underlying assumptions, weighting of various aspects, choices between benefits and drawbacks, should be articulated.

Strategy: design design and the software life-cycle

The state of affairs calls for designing the way design shall happen. Optimal results follow from optimal processes. Should you get there otherwise, it’s pure luck.

There should be a clear path from need or idea over design and implementation to distribution, maintenance and continuous improvement.

Much of current software is dominated by a bottom-up approach, with roots in times where hardware offered only a little fraction of today’s capabilities. Doing the best possible job of designing for user needs requires to take a top-down approach, to give proper weigh to human capabilities and limitations. But one also has to be wary of leaky abstractions and take care to stay well within the realm of the technically feasible. Where top-down and bottom-up don’t meet, you need to iterate.

We have code editors and development environments, bugs/feature trackers, Q+A sites … where are the design environments and trackers?

Design thinking and methods turned into infrastructure, with its use evangelised and made highly visible, can change minds and then culture. A few people can only do so much, but an evolved culture will move mountains.

Formal Methods

Just having a clear briefing for every noteworthy software project would be a big step forward. Formal design methods can lead to the following benefits:

  • Avoid oversights and typical errors by working step-by-step and using checklists.
  • Increase width and depth of ideation and conception by working methodically, including the use of patterns.
  • Organize thought, (inter)action and assets to avoid extraneous effort.
  • Have a basis for evaluation, rise above the unsubstantiated thumb up or down level.

The Underlying Goal

Improved software user experiences on a global scale. To get there, do:
Foster quality and quantity of open design efforts and outcomes.

Open design efforts: Design efforts that exhibit openness to the public, collaboration, meritocracy, sharing and permissive licensing.

Permissive Licenses: Licenses applicable to otherwise copyrighted works that at least allow free redistribution and may also allow use for any purpose, creating and distributing derivatives. Examples of permissive license are the GPL and the Creative Commons family (Non-Commercial and No-Derivatives variants are edge cases).

Not just executable Software

Several aspects of such infrastructure won’t have to be specific to designing executable software. Or, from another angle: handling visual and aural design will have to be part of it, anyway. Thus it can be useful for other cultural artifacts, as well. Promoting this should lead to a larger, more diverse and more creative community.

Mission

Create, deploy and maintain a website for managing open design processes and assets.

Where assets are any kind of content wrapped in files such as images, audio and video recordings or compound documents (text and images).

Vision

  • A central hub that supports distributed development. Where design needs meet design competency and solutions.
  • An open design agency, valuing cooperation over competition. Where few people can get much done. Avoiding redundancy.
  • An open design university. A clear path into the field. Where everyone grows wiser.
  • A design showcase. Get to see how it’s done. Learn from analysis and research of others, independent of implementations.
  • A collection of career-furthering portfolios.

Risks and concerns

  • As with most projects: failure to implement, to not reach critical mass …
  • Creating bureaucracy.
  • Duplicating functionality and ending up competing with VCS hosters like Github or aspects of Launchpad.

Early thoughts on architecture

I foresee a website where those with appropriate permissions can edit content immediately and collaboratively. Edits by anyone could be possible, but would only become public after approval (beware of workload and spam issues). All assets, including text, are versioned and can be branched.

I will investigate the use of git as a backend.

Design methods are baked into a set of pre-made project templates. Using a template might be equivalent to branching it, with the later option to stick to one version, or to follow updates.

Credits

Thanks for input, feedback and corrections to:
Kevin Godby
K. Vishnoo Charan Reddy
Troy James Sobotka
Sakari Bergen
Ivanka Majic
Mushon Zer-Aviv

The working title for this was Free Software Meta-Design, but then I thought I shouldn’t appear over-analytical right from start 😉

Proprietary vs Open Source vs Free Software

I recently had to think about the terminology problem around Free Software, Libre Software, Open Source, FOSS or FLOSS.

Whenever you do mean to imply the 4 Software Freedoms, Free Software seems to be the best option. Libre instead of Free might help to make it clear it’s not about price, but that term isn’t used that widespread, and it’s the Free Software Foundation, not the Libre Software Foundation.

FOSS may be bearable, but having 2 words for the same thing in one acronym like in FLOSS, while there’s already a huge overlap  involved … I have no nice word for it.

Open Source will in most cases also be Free Software, but it’s often used to emphasise the practical aspects and is preferred by those who want to distance themselves from a perceived Free Software fanaticism. What’s really impractical is that Open Source feels to me like a more handy term for stuff that doesn’t happen to be executable software, but this baggage is no help, there.

I really don’t like the idea of a divide between an Open Source pragmatism and Free Software idealism (or worse labels). While there may be FS nutcases, I think the determining aspect is the nutcase, not the FS part, then. So called idealism can often be thought of as long-term pragmatism. You don’t reach certain goals, if you give in, easily. The hard part is the balancing of the value one ascribes to what is desired, against the probability and cost. What seems pragmatic now, might show to have been short-sighted, later.

Now all in all, people will not agree on the weighting of values and of what is actually at stake, what the opportunities and risks are and the time span to think of. But if you see a continuum, instead of a hard split, it should be much easier to get along or even cooperate for mutual benefit.

Personally, I much prefer Free Software, but will use what I think I have to, to get a job done. I may forgo some comfort I could have with a closed solution, sometimes. It’s a case by case decision. But I would not stay out of an entire field for lack of an FS solution. As an example, have fun trying working as Industrial Designer without Solidworks or the like. And no, I simply can’t write a parametric solid-modelling application or fund it’s development, not in this life 😉