How Ubuntu's Unity Can Be Improved

Monday May 9th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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Ubuntu's developers could follow these tips to improve user experience for both existing and new Ubuntu users.

Since its debut, I've had plenty of time to work with the latest Ubuntu release known as version 11.04. And even considering some of my earlier harsh criticism, I've indeed found some nuggets of goodness within the 11.04 release.

This got me thinking. It appears the only gripe I have left is addressing Unity itself in some way. As I stated before, I have no problem with Unity being among the available desktop options. But defaulting people automatically to it is just plain foolish. There should be a cleaner indicator for folks that GNOME's classic experience is still available.

Sadly though, users must rely on their past Ubuntu experience in working with multiple desktop environments (or use Google) to learn that this is even a possibility.

I believe that choice means nothing without the details on how to explore it. This is something that Canonical apparently wasn't too concerned about when releasing Ubuntu 11.04.

On the flip side, however, the new desktop that Canonical has chosen is not as ridiculous as I once thought it would be. I found that with some corrective fixes and general quality control, Unity could become a usable desktop experience for newer users.

What Unity Gets Right

The launcher

With a little more time in the oven, the Unity launcher could become a great asset for those looking to replace the AVN Dock on the Ubuntu desktop. I love that when I slide a window up next to the new launcher, it automatically tucks itself away.

This not only looks nice, it's fairly simple to use. For the most part the only gripe I have with using the launcher is that I cannot right-click on it to get more options.

ATI Driver

I was very excited when I found that I was able to use 3D effects on the Ubuntu desktop without relying on the ATI proprietary driver. I'm unsure if this was available in the older Ubuntu release as I had the proprietary driver installed already. When I decided to remove it for testing, I was pleasantly surprised to find it was no longer needed.

Icons within the launcher

The provided icons for the new launcher not only worked well with my installed Metacity theme, but they actually complemented it nicely. The icons have great contrast and are easy to read. So, no complaints at all there.

Where Unity Needs Some Help

Missing home folder

What I'm about to share with you really blows my mind. In the earlier release of Ubuntu, being able to find my home folder was as simple as Places>Home folder. Sadly, now it seems that you need to click on the Files/Folder button on the launcher. From there, you're presented with a random list of folders to choose from. Did I mention none of them are the home folder?

That's okay, Unity provides a search box. At this point I begin the process of typing in the word "home" into the search box. "Your search did not match any files." Well of course it didn't, as the search box says; files and folders. And this would be why I'm using the search tool to search for my home folder, since the listed "favorite" folders are random and not providing me with anything helpful.

Finally I decided to click into a "random folder" so I can get into Nautilus. After a bit of clicking around, I finally get into the once missing home folder location. Perhaps I could have simply typed in Nautilus to speed things up? Oh that's right, I can't! This brings up the same error as searching for the Home folder.

Okay, let's try searching for the "Matt" folder? Again, no luck there either. Clearly Unity has very a different idea than I – or anyone I've ever met -- about how people manage documents and other files.

Solution? How about Unity takes a radical position of making the user's home folder available within Files and Folders area of the desktop? This would be a crazy "risk taking" concept I know, but I think the developers might be able to take a page from past releases here. This older approach seemed to work just fine up until now.

Goodbye GNOME applets

I cannot express the jaw-dropping level of ignorance it must have taken to arbitrarily decide that access to the GNOME applets was no longer necessary. Instead, Unity needed more real estate to fill what was once the panel with the name of the application you're using when it’s maximized.

Sure, I'll have to open a shell to kill a failing application or throttle back my CPU, but at least I can clearly see the title of the app failing in a crisp new font!

Solution? How about we either lose the "maximized window to fill all four corners" routine or offer a place for GNOME applets to live in the meantime, until something better can be worked out?

Dual monitor issue

Does Unity function with dual monitors? To a varied degree, yes it does. This being said, it would warm my heart a bit to see the option to minimize/close an application on both desktops even when one is not being used at the moment. It seems that these options vanish due to how each monitor interprets whether it's being clicked into or not.

Solution? This may not actually be so much of a Unity issue as an issue with two monitors and click focus on each of them. The only fix I can imagine is that when I click on the area at the top where the panel used to be, focus would come back into play, showing me the close/minimize options.

I'd also love the option to choose which monitor my launch bar appears on. This particular issue is minor, so I won't spend too much time on it.

Applications suggestions

I find it irritating to have applications being suggested to me when I'm merely trying to find an a specific software title that's already installed.

For example, when I click on the "Applications" button from the launcher, I'm presented with apps that are installed and other random apps that aren't. If I had needed more applications, I'd likely head over to the Ubuntu Software Center to install them. That is also a place that makes suggestions for software to try, but does so in an "appropriate location" kind of way.

Solution? This is really easy – stop spamming me with software suggestions outside of the software center. It's not clever, it's tacky and freakishly annoying.

Menu button

I'd like you to consider the menu button at the upper left part of the screen, shaped like a foot. I have no problem with this menu placement at all. Yet I find it annoying that when I click it, because I'm then presented with even more redundancy. Browse the Web, Check my email and Listen to Music. All of these options are clearly going to be covered on the launch bar.

In itself, this snafu would be a minor issue if I had a clean way to remove this redundant list. But based on what I was able to find, there isn't a setting for adjusting the app list.

But wait, there's more! After clicking the menu once again, I must then click on "More Apps" to find the rest of my applications. Then I realize that I must click yet again to see all of them.

After all this, it hits me that I should have sorted the software list based on category. After all, I'm merely looking for an app that I forgot the name of. So once again, I must go to the upper right to select the section I think it's in and then, again, click "show all x number of applications" to see everything in that section. After scrolling for a bit I finally locate the mystery application.

Apparently this is progress?

Hey, I have a radical idea! Let's instead try Applications>Section>click>done. Yes, I fully realize that this is the concept that Unity "improved upon." Apparently spending 15 minutes looking for something in a menu that is more attractive provides more value than getting things done in less than 5 seconds. Did I mention in both examples that I was looking for an application that was previously name-unknown?

Solution? Keep the existing menu layout, but give me a "human-usable" application layout within said menu so I can get things done efficiently.

About the progress of the Ubuntu desktop

Starting and stopping at the launcher bar, Unity is great. It even looks nice, too. But for the sake of usability, the items listed above are not me cherry picking at random personal dislikes with Ubuntu. Most of these issues are all out show-stoppers for anyone who does more than just use a web browser.

About the only thing from above that I would label as optional to fix is my complaint about dual monitors. It technically works and isn't really that big of a deal. But to be completely honest, the applets, folder searching and folder/application handling within the menu system is nothing short of hideous.

Should Canonical opt to follow the advice above in future releases of Ubuntu, I firmly believe that both existing and new Ubuntu users will find the desktop experience to be a positive one. In the meantime, we still have "Classic GNOME" to work with. Perfect it's not, but I can work within it at a greater speed than I can with Unity.

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