JUL
12
2009

GCDS Moblin talk: "We don't have menus, we think they're useless.."

At conferences like the GCDS there is so much going on, and you get bombarded with information from all the talks one after that other, and that means that sometimes it takes a while for the meaning of it all to sink in. For me the two biggest themes of the conference were firstly the emerging Semantic Desktop, and secondly the increasing importance of visual design. We actually are in the process of inventing new ways of visual communication, and it was very exciting to be right there in the middle of it happening.

One presentation which didn't have a subtle, delayed effect on me at all, was Nick Richards' Moblin talk. The Moblin graphic design is really very good - nice clean icons and tasteful use of 3D for stuff like 'zones' (virtual desktops). The main screen reminded me a lot of the presentation of Plamsa for netbooks on the Akademy Beauty track.

He included a parody of how Microsoft would redesign and re-market the Apple iPod, which was actually made by some guys at Microsoft. It was really funny the way the 'iPod Human Ear Professional Edition' ended up with a complicated box plastered in text. Microsoft just don't have 'beauty and aesthetics' in their DNA for some reason, and if we want to compete with them we have to be in the Apple league, and move on from trying to imitate their ugly badly designed UIs.

The phrase in Nick's talk that really hit me immediately, was the one in the title of this blog: "We don't have menus, we think they're useless..". I certainly don't like the look of KDE's or Gnome's menus much - they look like copies of Windows or Mac OS 9 respectively, and seem very dated. My pet hate is the underlines in the menu item names to denote keyboard accelerators which I personally never ever use. It has got to be one of the most ugly graphic design 'crimes' that Microsoft has ever commited, and I think it is sad that both desktops have copied it. Even though Gnome is trying to look like an old Mac, they still have those ghastly underlines.

If we can use Plasma for a beautiful customized Netbook workspace, how do we customize the actual KDE applications to look more 2010 than 1990? Most KDE applications like Kate/KWrite or Konqueror are built of KParts, and so it should be possible to wrap these KParts in modern QGraphicsView based shells with animation and a higher level of design (the shells could be written in Python or Ruby to make it easier to experiment). Also KDE applications have their menus and toolbars defined as XML files, and so it might also be possible to produced a different set of KActions that are more 'Plasma-like'. Either way I really hope we can produce something as impressive as Moblin over the next year.

Comments

A huge part (or at least an important point) is to give power users shortcuts. The keyboard accelerators is an important part of that.
Menus also gives you discoverability (another important usability point) and allows you to group large amounts of functionality neatly, without overwhelming the user.
There's probably more wrong with this, but this is what I could think of just now.

So my suggestion is to find this Mr. Richards and whack him in the head with your trusty pointy stick of doom, and tell him to read up on usability some day, or at least hire some usability people. Menus have stuck around for so long for a reason.


By martin sandsmark at Mon, 07/13/2009 - 01:01

"A huge part (or at least an important point) is to give power users shortcuts. The keyboard accelerators is an important part of that"

Firstly, Macintosh menus don't have those underline things and nobody complains. What percentage of ordinary users want to navigate menus without using a pointing device? Why is it better to type 'alt+B' and then 'alt+A' to add a new bookmark in Konqueror instead of 'ctrl+B'?

Secondly, I am saying these underline things look like total shit, and if you must have them, then get someone who can do a better job than Microsoft with the graphic design of the menus. They are just embarassingly bad compared with the appearance of the best designed parts of KDE4, such as Plasma.

And thirdly, the talk was not about power users, it was about casual users with pointing devices that don't work well - ie poor quality trackpads. They are not into typing much, let alone 'alt+this' and 'alt+that' to navigate menu systems.

"So my suggestion is to find this Mr. Richards and whack him in the head with your trusty pointy stick of doom, and tell him to read up on usability some day, or at least hire some usability people. Menus have stuck around for so long for a reason.So my suggestion is to find this Mr. Richards and whack him in the head with your trusty pointy stick of doom, and tell him to read up on usability some day, or at least hire some usability people. Menus have stuck around for so long for a reason."

He is an expert on usability, and Moblin looked like it was going to be highly usable when it is finished. Why should we carry on assuming that UIs implemented using 3D and scene graphs should look exactly like bad copies of what Apple came up with in the early 1980s?


By Richard Dale at Mon, 07/13/2009 - 11:34

Firstly, Macintosh menus don't have those underline things and nobody complains.

Nobody complains about those underlines either ;) But seriously, I stopped using Mac for exactly that reason. I don't like using the mouse it slows me down and hurts my wrists. Not having the 'alt' shortcuts is just painful.

What percentage of ordinary users want to navigate menus without using a pointing device?
Its about usability and discover-ability, as mentioned. Maybe you want to remove those for your own viewing pleasure. (they are generated by a class in kdelibs, likely easy enough to turn off somehow). But the only way to allow beginning users to progress to power users is to show those alt and control shortcuts in the menus. Notice that Apple doesn't show those ctrl shortcuts either so the user can't even learn it is ctrl-b for a new bookmark.

Why should we carry on assuming that UIs implemented using 3D and scene graphs should look exactly like bad copies of what Apple came up with in the early 1980s?
We don't :) I fully agree with that. Just saying something is useless (at least to a certain group of people) doesn't lead to better insights into the problem or to better solutions. So I'm not sure what to add to this discussion here other than; do you have any suggestions how to show this without using underline?


By Thomas Zander at Mon, 07/13/2009 - 15:01

"Nobody complains about those underlines either Eye-wink But seriously, I stopped using Mac for exactly that reason. I don't like using the mouse it slows me down and hurts my wrists. Not having the 'alt' shortcuts is just painful."

The Mac has something called 'Full keyboard access' which can be enabled, although I couldn't work out how to on my Mac. Anyhow, I don't see what is wrong with using the various command key (ie Apple key) shortcuts - they are pretty complete. Apple shows the command key shortcuts with nice graphics on the right hand side of the menu items.

On Windows it seems you can disable the underlines, so that they only appear when you type the 'alt' key. I found this discussion about underlined shortcuts. The comments point out that another problem with the underline things is that they are different according to what language localization you have.


By Richard Dale at Mon, 07/13/2009 - 18:11

On my Asus EeePC 1000H the space is precious, on GNOME I'm using global menu (menu in Mac OS X style) and I find it really a good solution:
* non-active windows menu doesn't take space
* the menu is always at the same place
* different windows use the same space
* only the menu of the active window is shown
* applications looks like simple (you see just the toolbox in the windows)

Menus are useful but not every moment, so global menu could be a good compromise.

Of course there are some problems, for example Firefox and OpenOffice and TK apps menus ara still shows in the windows, maybe we need a FreeDesktop specification? Thank you and sorry for the long comment and the bad english ;).


By xoen at Mon, 07/13/2009 - 08:09

I agree that on devices with very little screen space the original Macintosh idea of a single menu at the top of the screen works best.

My favourite menu system was the NeXT one where there was a single menu (not attached to a window) for each app, and the top level options were underneath each other, and not laid out horizontally like on the Mac. The menu was positioned at the top left of the screen by default, but you could move it and the new position was saved. You could also tear off sub-menus and position them where you liked. I'm not so sure they would work well on small devices like netbooks though.

Obviously if different sorts of Linux applications have different sorts of menus, it would be unacceptable for mass market users, such as the ones Moblin is targeting. Just getting rid of that old stuff like menus, files and document icons on the desktop as described in the talk, makes much more sense.


By Richard Dale at Mon, 07/13/2009 - 11:50

I use keyboard shortcuts and the keyboard focus all the time and it infuriates me when they don't work consistently. No Alt+Space for the window menu, not using Ctrl+Tab to shift between panels, no focus highlight in System Settings when you tab into a panel, all of these things are speed bumps where I lose my train of thought and have to reach for the mouse. At least Qt/KDE has pretty reliable indication of keyboard focus as I press Tab; I have no idea how to drive Plasma panels and plasmoids from the keyboard and the unintuitiveness and absence of focus indication has made them unappealing to me so far (a few months with Kubuntu).

"Underline shortcut letter only on Alt keydown" is OK, but I'm glad it's an option in Windows as it slows me down to have to wait for the underlines on obscure menus.


By skierpage at Tue, 07/14/2009 - 03:40