Ubuntu: Design for all, keep custom options open

Unity design call re-raises issue of basic vs. advanced user experience

orange ubuntu logo.jpgPhoto credit: Ubuntu

So, here's the thing. I have two monitors set up in my office, one plugged into my primary Ubuntu machine and one plugged into a Windows PC that I keep around for my business accounting. (Yeah, yeah, I don't like GNUCash, okay?)

To move my mouse and keyboard control between them, I use a neat little tool called QuickSynergy that enables control signals to move across the LAN so I can just use both operating systems as if it were one big screen. Normally, the Windows monitor is off the left and the Linux monitor is centered in front of me because it's the giganto monitor and I use it 90 percent of the time.

But lately I had a big writing project for a client that not only requires Word, they have historically chafed on Word-formatted files I have saved for them in OpenOffice.org. Rather than trying to futz around with file formats, I have found it just easier to work with Word. Since this was a big project taking six weeks of writing, I decided to be clever and switch the inputs of the monitors around so the Windows output came through the big central monitor with the Ubuntu machine displayed on the left.

It should be noted that during this time, I upgraded the Ubuntu machine to 11.04 because (a) I like Ubuntu and (b) I wanted to check out Unity.

This weekend, the major part of that big project was completed, so today I finally got a chance to switch out the monitor inputs and adjust QuickSynergy to accommodate for Windows on the left, Ubuntu on the right.

Take a guess what happened next.

For those of you not familiar with the Unity interface, I'll let you in on it: the Launcher bar, which normally autohides on the left edge of the screen until you mouse over to that edge, is now very inaccessible. This is because QuickSynergy effectively moots the left edge of the Ubuntu screen to let me roll over to the Windows monitor (now on the left side).

The result of this configuration is this: the Launcher never shows up unless I (a) hit the hot key for the Launcher, which for some reason doesn't always work depending on the app I am using or (b) verrrry carefully slide the mouse cursor along the top edge of the Ubuntu button to creep the Launcher toolbar open.

This is something I didn't notice before, because when the Ubuntu monitor was on the left, this was never a problem.

To fix this I thought it would be a simple matter of configuring the Launcher bar to pop up somewhere else on the screen. Like the right side. Or the bottom. This would be simple, I reasoned, because any other Linux distro I have used would let me do this.

(Here comes the punchline.) Until now.

And this was no accident, I would learn today, but rather a deliberate design decision, according to this comment from Mark Shuttleworth:

"I think the report actually meant that the launcher should be movable to other edges of the screen. I'm afraid that won't work with our broader design goals, so we won't implement that. We want the launcher always close to the Ubuntu button."

Ugh, really?

Again, had I been paying attention, I would have known this, but like I said, my temporary configuration didn't indicate a problem. I will also freely acknowledge that my situation is on the unique side and most users would not run into this precise problem.

But I cannot believe there are other, no less valid, and probably more common reasons why someone would want to move the Launcher. (Handedness comes to mind.)

There are, of course, ways I can fix this. Number one being, turn off the Windows machine, which will in turn tell QuickSynergy to reset the left edge of the screen to the actual left edge of the Ubuntu monitor. Or I can move all of the stuff on my desk around to permanently center the Ubuntu screen on the left and have the Windows monitor on the right. Or shove shortcuts in the Ubuntu button's menu and just click that button to access commonly used applications.

Or drop the Unity shell.

Or move away from Ubuntu altogether.

I get the need for a consistent, well-designed interface. I really, really do. But there also needs to be an understanding that some users will want to customize that interface in ways with which the designers might not agree.

And that's perfectly okay.

From strictly a design point of view, the Ubuntu design team's efforts to keep the Launcher and the Ubuntu button together is understandable. But what if I don't use the Ubuntu button?

If I don't have the app in the Launcher, I use the Terminal. Now, it seems, I need to change my interface habits to accommodate a design team's wishes? Who cares about the Ubuntu button? I'm a big boy now. I think if I want to separate the two interface elements, I should be allowed to do that. If that somehow makes the user interface less efficient that's my problem.

If I wanted a non-customizable interface, I would just use Windows or OS X full-time. Except for, you know, those operating systems being proprietary and riddled with security holes.

I have heard that Ubuntu's new Power User community is growing like gangbusters. Maybe this issue and ones like it can be addressed by them. Protecting new users from their mistakes is all well and good, but should it be at the expense of the advanced users' experience?

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