Ever since last July, when Mark Shuttleworth called on Ubuntu to surpass Mac OS X in desktop
design within two years, Ubuntu mailing lists and blogs have become one of
the main places to go for detailed discussions about GNU/Linux
usability. However, the discussions can become convoluted and acrimonious,
as developers argue the logic of design principles. A case in point is the
discussion of Ubuntu's new notification guidelines on the ubuntu-devel
list over the past two weeks, which quickly turned into a discussion of
whether notifications should be used at all.
The discussion centers around the new guidelines for notification messages,
which typically appear by the notification tray in GNOME. These guidelines
were announced in Mark Shuttleworth's blog entry for February
21. Both the blog and the guidelines include screen shots to
illustrate what they are describing.
The problem is that the now-standard notification bubbles (so-called for
their shape) are easily missed because they disappear after a few seconds,
and they often point to icons in the system tray, which users may find hard to
click. For these reasons, the guidelines call for a reduction in their use,
although acknowledging the possibility that they might still be useful in
Whenever possible, notification bubbles will, in the next Ubuntu
release, be replaced with a notification in an existing window; for instance,
when a web browser has blocked up a popup, the notification could display
in a dialog above the web page, using the browser's built-in notification
system. More radically, when a notification needs user input, but doesn't
need an immediate response — for instance, when a printer is
detected, but the necessary driver is missing — it will be displayed
in an alert box that opens beside the system tray without taking the focus
away from the user's current window.
In cases such as a low battery reading, when a quick response is needed,
the window or alert box will display the basic message, followed by, when the user
clicks it, a dialog, possibly with a different color background. The
guidelines refer to this arrangement as "morphing," and suggest that it
will help prevent the accidental selection of a button when the cursor
moves to the dialog. Why accidental selection is perceived as a problem,
though, is unspecified.
The advantages of the proposed alert boxes is that, unlike notification
bubbles, they remain on the desktop, and provide dialogs that are easier to
click than a system tray icon.
Discussion of these new guidelines quickly followed Shuttleworth's blog
entry, wandering across several threads in ubuntu-devel in February and
March. Some of the discussion called for citations to support a usability
assertion, as when Jordan Mantha told
Mat Tomaszewski of the Canonical design team, the group responsible for the
guidelines, that "'trust us, we have our reasons' is not going to
very convincing to many people."
As discussion continued, it soon became apparent that at least some Ubuntu
designers outside Canonical distrust those employed by the company. For
instance, Scott Kitterman remarked:
The feeling I get from many email and IRC discussions with people
involved in the Canonical [Desktop Experience team] is that they
are so convinced of the correctness of their design that any
disagreement with it must stem from a lack of understanding from
Similarly, Martin Owens complained
that "It's as if the people at Canonical had taken a politics course
and decided to deliberately alienate those people who are not inside of
To such comments, Mat Tomaszewski replied several times, with patience and
enthusiasm for the tasks at hand, while Matthew Paul Thomas, another
Canonical employee, explained in a similar tone that usability efforts were
just getting started, and were expensive enough that "much of the
time we will have to rely on common sense".
At one point, the language became so heated that Mark Shuttleworth intervened
to call one developer's comments "not constructive" — a
rare occurrence on Ubuntu lists compared to those of some projects, due to
of conduct by which developers agree to abide.
However, for the most part, discussion remained civil. Matthew Paul Thomas
the new guidelines, pointing out that:
[A] 22*22-pixel icon in the
could never convey the idea that there are software updates
available to a usefully large proportion of our users, no matter how good
the icon designer was. An actual sentence saying, 'Software updates are
available for this computer' can do a much better job.
Thomas also summarized potential problems with notice bubbles: either they
disappear after a few seconds and can disappear before users notice them,
or else they persist and distract users. In addition, alerts and windows
are easier to use than small, often indistinguishable icons.
By contrast, Lars Wirzenius presented
a case against all notifications, saying flatly that:
are always interruptions. When something new popups up on the screen, it
interrupts my thought and my work, and if I'm 'in the zone' (also known as
'in hack mode,' that interruption may cost about fifteen minutes of
effective work time.
Wirzenius wanted was essential notifications, suggesting that "All
applications should, in my opinion, strive to interrupt the user as little
as possible, especially by default."
Wirzenius' position was soon challenged by other developers in ways that
show some of the considerations necessary in usability design. Chow Loong
Wirzenius' assertion that default settings should be designed for those who
use their computer as a "tool" rather than a
"toy," arguing that the tool users would know how to change
the defaults while the toy users would not.
Similarly, Ted Gould contended
that, since toy users are probably a majority, the defaults should be
settings that they want. In the same post, he also suggests that:
reality is that you want different levels of notifications at different
times. Sometimes an interruption is okay and sometimes it certainly is
not. For instance, someone IMing you 'wanna take a long lunch?' while
you're giving a presentation to your boss. The problem is that it's hard to
detect what people's intentions are.
However, Tomaszewski indicated
that some ability to change levels of notifications would be available via
a "Do not disturb" mode that would block at least some
What made this discussion especially interesting was how it brought out
both the general and specific issues that arise in usability. For instance,
Mathew Paul Thomas responded
to the suggestion that using an application at full-screen size should
disable notifications by pointing out that:
If you're using Ubuntu on
a netbook, for example, you're quite likely to make the current application
full-screen whenever you can — but that doesn't have anything to do
with which notification bubbles you want to see.
Thomas also warned
Developers often think their software is more fascinating to
people than it actually is, which leads them to make the software more
'chatty' than it should be. (The pathological extreme of this can be found
in the Windows Vista
User Experience Guidelines, which seriously recommend that a
'non-critical system event' should display a notification balloon 'once
every 10 minutes if users must resolve within an hour, once every hour if
users must resolve within a day.').
In much the same way, Tomaszewski stated:
[W]e have good reason to believe that persistent indicators only
work for some very specific cases (examples being network connection,
volume, etc.). We are now going through the long and painful process of
carefully defining these cases.
Yet another post, this time by Bruce Cowan, summarized
the problems with any sort of dialog. The sudden appearance of windows and
alerts, Cowan suggested, is confusing, and could make users worry that a
piece of malware has started an application. In addition, too many dialogs
could frustrate users, to the point that some disable them altogether, so
that over-use of the system could defeat the entire purpose of providing
timely warnings. As for the changes in the new guidelines, Cowan suggested
that they may annoy experienced users who see little wrong with
Whether these discussions will have any effect on the Ubuntu Design or
Desktop Experience Team seems uncertain, since the guidelines are already
being used in alpha versions of the upcoming Jaunty release. All the same,
they are the sort of discussions that Ubuntu developers are likely to be
having for the next eighteen months as they try to realize Shuttleworth's
goal of increased usability, especially in the absence of hard data to show
what designs are most usable. They are likely, too, to have them again, as
they attempt to have their changes accepted upstream by projects like
GNOME. However, for others, they show the punctilious but necessary
considerations that usability generally involve — considerations that
many free and open source software projects are only just starting to face.
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