Ubuntu Netbook 10.10: Usability vs. Constraints

Wednesday Oct 20th 2010 by Bruce Byfield
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Your comfort with the Ubuntu Netbook depends on whether your work habits conform to the assumptions built into the design.

From KDE's Plasma Netbook to EasyPeasy, every Linux desktop for netbooks that I’ve seen are designed with the same assumptions. Each assumes that, because of the smaller screen, the desktop must be simpler than a workstation's, and will be used mainly for light computing in general and social networking in particular.

Released at the same time as the Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick) general version, the latest version of Ubuntu Netbook Edition does not question these assumptions. This conventionality may be questionable to many: workstation versions of GNOME, KDE, and Xfce work perfectly well on the smaller screens of netbooks for anyone with regular vision, and netbooks -- especially the latest generation, with their extra memory -- are capable of more than light computing. In addition, though, Ubuntu Netbook also has some design quirks that can make it less than ideal.

Ubuntu Netbook is available as a Live CD. Alternatively, you can create a Live USB drive, following the instructions on the download page. However, be warned that, like GNOME Shell, Ubuntu Netbook requires 3-D hardware acceleration, which means either using the still relatively few free drivers which meet this requirement or else finding proprietary ones. Unfortunately, this requirement is only mentioned in the final stages of loading, and the Live devices include only a limited set of drivers.

Although this is not a problem on many netbooks, most of which use the Intel Atom processor, it can be a problem if you try to run Ubuntu Netbook on another chipset. A message suggests that you boot with the regular version of Ubuntu, even though it is not included in the disk image.

Once you work around this problem, Ubuntu Netbook opens to reveal a desktop with a panel across the top and a launcher on the left that is a combination Favorites menu and taskbar of open applications.

With the pastel and gray buttons on the launcher and Ubuntu's luminous default, the visual impression is stunning. But is Ubuntu Netbook an effective desktop? That depends on whether your work habits are in keeping with the assumptions built into the design.

The Art of Keeping Things Simple

In interface design, simplicity is usually considered elegance. And, on a netbook, the smaller screen size provides another reason to keep the desktop as simple as possible. Whatever the reason for the drive towards simplicity, the trouble is that it can lead to the removal of choice, which in the past has been a main consideration on the free desktop. Either the choices are removed altogether, or else they are buried so deep in the interface that users can miss them altogether and assume that they are not there.

In some ways, Ubuntu Netbook manages a balance between greater simplicity and functionality. For instance, it keeps unchanged the collection of applets on the right side of the panel, such as the notification tray, the time and date, the MeMenu and the exit menu. This is sensible, since users refer to these icons constantly, and to change their position or components would only confuse.

Ubuntu Netbook does change the position of Ubuntu's second panel to the left of the screen, but this choice seems a sensible redesign that reflects the fact that netbook screens have more horizontal space than vertical.

ubuntu netbook

The Ubuntu netbook desktop

However, depending on how you prefer to use a desktop, you may be frustrated by other simplifications in Ubuntu Netbook. If you prefer desktop or panel icons, you are out of luck, because the desktop is oriented towards using the launcher instead. Moreover, should the application you want not be among the defaults or those recently used, you need several more clicks than on a standard desktop to find it under the Applications buttons. In other words, the simplification in appearance can create inconvenience.

That is especially true of customization of appearance or keyboard shortcuts. Admittedly, most users do not continually customize, so that designers might conclude that such things do not need to be available. But many free desktop users will customize almost immediately. And, because the tools are buried so deeply, they can easily jump to the conclusion that what they are looking for simply isn't there, and that they are stuck with the defaults.

Next Page: Ubuntu Netbook: Social Networking vs. Productivity Computing

Similarly, you could argue that having all applications open and maximized is logical given the limited screen size. Yet, for some, this default makes tracking down open applications difficult. Keeping track of the little arrows on the launcher that indicate an open application is far more finicky than actually viewing the windows. Nor, unlike a workstation desktop, does Ubuntu Netbook remember the last size at which you opened a window; each time an application starts, it opens maximized. In effect, the default behavior for opening application encourages you to open only one application at a time, just so you don't have to spend time floundering through the desktop.

Those who only want to get into their applications will never notice such concerns. But, for those for whom doing things their own way is important, Ubuntu Netbook's efforts to simplify can easily seem like over-regimentation.

Social Networking vs. Productivity Computing

Ubuntu Netbook's design assumes that netbooks are used mainly for light computing. Part of this assumption is inherited from the general Ubuntu desktop, whose defaults include panel applets for centralizing social networking.

However, the assumption is also visible in other ways. For instance, the first buttons in the Home view's menu are labeled Web, Music, Photo & Video, and Games. Office is sixth of the eight buttons, Files & Folders seventh, and Get New Apps eighth.

The same priority is shown in the launcher. The most important applications are at the top of the launcher, where the user's eye is likely to fall first: Firefox for browsing, Empathy for messaging, Evolution, and the webcam controller Cheese, and the Rhythmbox music player. Files & Folders, whose main purpose is navigation, is third from the bottom, and office productivity is not even on the launcher at all, but three clicks lower down.

These priorities reflect recent reports about how people are using the Internet -- notice, for example, the placement of messaging in a higher position than email. Personally, I am not sure that a profile of Linux users would show the same priorities, but the point is not that there is anything wrong with these priorities so much as the fact that only one user profile is included in the design philosophy.

If you are a high school or university student, Ubuntu Netbook's design might suit you very well. But if you are a business traveler, using your netbook to do some serious work while you wait in the airport, you are probably going to find it less convenient.

Design Inconsistencies

In addition to these design assumptions, Ubuntu Netbook has several inconsistencies that, if corrected, would bring it closer to the apparent goals of simplicity and efficiency.

To start with, Ubuntu Netbook is often inconsistent in its naming of buttons. For instance, in the Home view menu, the button for starting a web browser is labeled Web. On the launcher, it is Firefox Web Browser. In the list opened by the Applications button, the name is also Firefox Web Browser, but it is found under Internet. The same is true for other applications, such as Rhythmbox.

Such inconsistency is common on workstation desktops, where usability was an afterthought and tidying continues. But when you are building a desktop from scratch with usability a priority, there is really no excuse for such sloppiness.

In much the same way, buttons on the launcher seem partly color coded, with pastel buttons indicating general applications, and orange and gray buttons system or administrative functions. However, the usage is by no means consistent, and seeing the pattern only leaves you wondering if yellow, blue, or some other color might have a specific meaning, too. Although the launcher does seem to show a half-hearted organization of buttons by function, that does not seem consistent, either. Perhaps dividers that grouped buttons would make the arrangement clearer.

Next Page: Ubuntu Netbook: Theory and the Real World

Something is surely needed, because many of the icons are non-descript enough that you need the mouseover text to know what they are represent. Yet the mouseover text doubles the space taken by the launcher, which slows the use of the launcher and partly defeats its positioning.

Problems like these are easy to correct, so the question is why they were left for the official release. As things are, Ubuntu Netbook sometimes leaves the impression that its components were developed individually, without enough overall coordination.

Theory and Practice

Ubuntu Netbook is not alone in its assumptions or inconsistencies. All the netbook desktops I have seen have similar problems to a greater or less degree, although Plasma Netbook is the closest to being exempt, since it amounts to a skin over the KDE code that you can swap out if you choose.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is the time between a project's proposal and delivery, even in free software. In the case of netbooks, design assumptions were made at a time when netbooks were underpowered and developers could only guess how they would be used. Now, netbooks are more efficient, and the guesses about use cases seem partly incorrect, but these changes have still to show up in planning.

Another part of the problem is that usability experts as a whole -- and not just in free software -- tend to mistake simplicity and over-simplification. Not only can you simplify without ignoring use cases, but you probably should, because otherwise, users will continually find ways to use your software that will surprise you.

In theory, a netbook desktop should be possible that does not constrain users to a single way of doing things. Unfortunately, in practice, the latest version of Ubuntu Netbook is not that desktop.

ALSO SEE: Why Does Everyone Hate Ubuntu?

AND: Boosting Ubuntu's Productivity: 20 Tips

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