Ubuntu's ongoing UI meltdown

I kept reading and reading Mark Shuttleworth’s post of how Ubuntu plans to replace menus with something called HUD display. And all I could do is take deep sighs.

To summarise, in the new “advanced” Ubuntu releases, instead of clicking the traditional menus, you have to type in a few words in a special screen every time, and select from a drop-down which pops down.

12.04 HUD concept

12.04 HUD concept (From Mark’s post)

What is the problem that they are trying to solve? - Well apparently, it is an awful nightmare to navigate deeply nested menu structures, and therefore, somewhat like the way you access history in the latest Firefox or Chrome browsers, you search the app menu text, and get what you want in a few keystrokes.

I cannot even start thinking about how all this can go wrong, and I am terribly afraid that I might sound like an old stooge who doesn’t like changes by saying this (comes from using Linux for quite a few years). But here is why I think this is a big problem:

Now as Mark himself has admitted, one of the first big problems with all this is app functionality discovery. What does this mean? Well, for anybody other than frequent users of an app, how do you search for something if you don’t whether it exists? If you are using a word app, for example, other than the very basic of formatting options, how do you know what other formatting options are offered by the app? Earlier, you used to browse through the menus to see that, but the biggest problem with the HUD is that, well, it doesn’t want you to browse. You can only search for exactly what you want.

Unity screenshort by MethodDan on Flickr

Unity screenshort by MethodDan on Flickr

I see the HUD as a great complementary navigation system for the desktop - one in which both menus and HUD exist. But Mark’s post suggest that they plan to replace the menus completely with HUD. Apparently, they are trying very hard to save some pixels, which sort of make some sense in a tablet, but is completely bewildering for a desktop - desktop and laptop resolutions are both only getting higher every year. And that is an indication of the underlying problem with Ubuntu:

Ubuntu sees a future where desktops and laptops are a minority, where most people are essentially consumers using a tablet. And Ubuntu is therefore, putting all its bets on that future. For people who don’t have hardware or form factor to match that future Ubuntu is moving on to, things are going to be increasingly difficult. Because of this onslaught of tablet oriented desktop experience, many people are moving to other Ubuntu variants like Kubuntu and Xubuntu, which might be the right directions for people like me to take. And I find all this as terribly sad, as I used to really like the distro.

Ubuntu on a tablet

Ubuntu on a tablet

To end my rant, I want to bring up another question that nobody in the commentators on that blog post seem to be asking:

Someone mentioned there about how is the HUD going to find out the intent of the user? If in the word app example I mentioned before, the user has selected a region of text and want to increase the font size, is he expected to search for “larger font”  or “bigger font”? Semantically there are the same, but the app will have only one of these options in the menu. So without the facility of browsing the menus, how is the user to guess what is the right variation of their intent to search for?

Mark’s reply was that (to paraphrase) “Yes, that is a valid problem, and we need to add semantic variation and fuzzy search to fix that problem”.

But the really important point to ask Mark is WHY? Why is the desktop trying to figure out how the user wants to use the app? Isn’t that the app’s job? Who is in a better position to determine the synonyms and semantically equivalent variations of the menu items - the desktop or the app? Making the desktop trying to do this on behalf of all the apps out there is the really fundamental mistake of this whole approach. It will always be doing a bit of a disservice to the app developers. All the effort put in by app developers to confirm to a menu driven world is being forced into a non-menu paradigm. Somewhere something is going to give.

Ideally, if you have apps cooperating with desktops like Unity, they should provide all the variations of their menu items. But till Ubuntu comes up with a way for apps to do that, and apps start supporting this Unity specific feature (and we all know how likely that is to happen in the near future) we are rushing into a period of extremely frustrating user experience.

(Photos by: Mark Shuttleworth, Dan Lynch, Elizabeth Krumbach)

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