Ubuntu, Dark Side of Simplicity

The following is my take on how the current passion for UI “simplicity” may be to blame for Unity, the downfall of Ubuntu as I’ve known & loved it. It’s wide-ranging, so I won’t be able to fully substantiate its every point, but if you simply click the area you’d like to know more about, I will wish that you were being shown detailed examples in support of my point. Many of the newly introduced usability issues in Unity are shared by Gnome3, so it seems that now is as good a time as ever for people who care to try to persuade some Linux distro to retain the high standard of developer usability we’ve become accustomed to.

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Steve Jobs broke my OS, and I don’t even use a Mac. It began about 10 years ago, around the time Jobs had re-joined Apple, and the software industry was smitten with building UI that had every button and link you could need. “If they might need it, why not include it?” seemed to be the effective rationale.

good-ole-days

Windows XP represented the pinnacle of the art; complete with a “Start” button, that, when clicked, exploded into two columns. These columns in turn had menu options like “All Programs” that could themselves balloon out to several more (overlapping) columns. In the case of the “All Programs” specifically, the user was treated to an unordered list of every program they had ever installed (often hundreds). It was so…terrible…yet quick to an advanced user (e.g., those that figured out how to sort it). For new users, well, you could probably figure out some of the basics within a week.*

But soon people began to decide this was arrangement was not ideal. Or even OK. I noticed this in full force with the release of the first iPhone. It was a device that was so stripped down that it didn’t include a feature (secure network access for business email) that would could have increased its user base significantly. It launched anyway, was quickly dubbed the “Jesus Phone,” and has managed to sell a couple gajillion units since.

Gone forever were the days of “the most commercially successful” products were “the most feature-full” ones.

This evolution, which I’d pin as starting around 2006 (first iPhone) has continued expanding its base of believers to present day. Now, in addition to the set of Apple devices, the default aesthetic for web consumer products has become “huge buttons / huge text / nothing that requires reading.”

In the context of the web, I think that this growing obsession with simple UI is usually a great thing. Like it or not, our attention is fragmented and life’s too short to read the manual for a product that I simply want to entertain me (see: Twitter, Instagram).

The problem is when the momentum for this trend** pushes it out to use cases where it makes no sense. Sometimes, a detail-rich interface is required to get the job done efficiently. In the case where an app is used by novice and sophisticated*** users, a balanced curve of “level of detail shown to user” vs “user expertise level” might look something like this

balance_complexity1

That is, this balanced approach would dictate that novice users were exposed only to the most essential 10-20% of all UI complexity. The UI should appear very basic to them. As the user’s needs become more sophisticated, the UI reveals contextual choices and/or configuration menus that accommodate their needs as power users of the product. Novice users are happy because they don’t see the complex pieces. Sophisticated users are happy because they can use it with maximum productivity so long as they’re willing to read a handful of configuration menus.

Products rarely end up this balanced. Windows XP threw the user in the deep end, both in terms of the learning complexity, and the vast sea of choices/links presented to even the notice user. OS X freed users from this soup of links and options, though before they got smart about context sensitivity, it often came at the expense of more clicks.

Ubuntu, pre-Unity, was arguably even worse than XP to the poor novice:

balance-pre-unity

No oversized buttons or contextual UI reveal here. The reason the project thrived was only because the Ubuntu audience is made up largely of users who have advanced expectations for their OS. Many are programmers. They have to juggle IDEs, web browsers, web browser tools, and a smattering of terminal shells. Usually across multiple high resolution monitors, over multiple workspaces. To them, if complexity is the price that must be paid for configurability, then it shall be paid****.

This isn’t the sort of thing a novice will understand, let alone feel comfortable with, but the software did meet the needs of it sophisticated user base.

Then came tablets, the momentum of simplicity, and Ubuntu’s loving ode to it all: Unity.

balance-post-unity

Because this blog needs to get finished before tomorrow morning, I am forced to gloss over a detailed analysis of the functionality lost between pre- and post-Unity versions of Ubuntu. A couple salient examples include: well-integrated dual monitor support, multiple/configurable taskbar support, desktop customization, and ability to keep program menus within each program. For the quantitative-minded amongst you, the compared market share of Ubuntu vs. Mint makes the point more compellingly than my mini-list.

If it’s not already obvious, I love the trend toward simplicity. It was one of the main points of opportunity I saw in starting Bonanza back in 2008 — we sought to build a version of eBay that would be usable to busy people and non-experts. Simplicity continues to be something that I push for as often as anyone on my team, and I think it continues to be a big difference between our platforms.

But I don’t believe that “simplicity” should be the same thing as “dumbed down,” and I wonder if Unity’s pared down featureset could be a result of the Ubuntu designers mistakenly conflating “simple” and “feature-sparse”?

tl; dr

“Simple” and “effective” are closely related for novice users and for simple products. But they can be inversely related when “simple” gets in the way of “configurability,” which begets effectiveness for power users. In the case of Ubuntu, the users are largely geeks who use complex features to maximize productivity. Give the pared-down version of Ubuntu to novice users, but don’t let it rob the majority of your users the functionality they need.*****

Update: Finally inspired to post this to HN after reading Linus’ comments about Gnome3 being a detriment to usability. Given that Gnome3 has traveled a very similar path to Unity in terms of degrading the user experience (for sophisticated users) with its newest release, I am hoping that perhaps a sympathetic designer of Unity or Gnome3 might find this.

Footnotes

* Though as a computer repair guy, I often saw the concept take far longer to sink in. And don’t even get me started on trying to teach my grandparents exactly what a file system was and “what it did”

** Regarding use of “trend” to label the simplicity movement: I mean only that it is influencing all corners of design (web, native apps, mobile, and beyond) — not that it is ephemeral or irrational.

*** “Sophisticated” here means “more advanced,” or “more demanding,” not somuch the “better looking” or “more expensive” connotations of the word.

**** Of course, something doesn’t need to be complex to be configurable. Progressively revealed / contextual UIs can often deliver much of the best from both worlds. But it’s also easy to get implement rather intricate revealing schemes incorrectly and be worse off than if you had simply built a cluttered but static interface.

***** What makes it doubly insulting is that until Ocelot, we could get the functionality we needed by choosing the “Classic Ubuntu” login. What explanation is there to chop a feature that’s already been built…and provided the main lifeline to advanced users after Unity’s release?

One thought on “Ubuntu, Dark Side of Simplicity

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I adopted Ubuntu back when its six-month release cycle provided the latest and greatest GNOME. GNOME 1.x was a rapidly moving target and building a stable release of it for a major distro was a lot of work. So, Ubuntu it was. I was trying to get a job at Ximian, developing GNOME.

    The ‘strip out configuration options’ meme was deep in GNOME before its 2.0 release. 2.0.0 was essentially unusable to anyone who had invested time and creative effort in creating a comfortable, efficient, environment for themselves. Over time better customization crept in, and third party applets integrated via the APIs and DBUS and the final 2.x releases were the best desktop environment that I knew of. Certainly the most tailorable.

    The only good thing I can say about GNOME 3 is that GNOME Shell actually strikes me as usable and not overly annoying for what it is. I prefer it to Unity. I can actually accomplish work in GNOME Shell, but I don’t use it.

    I use Cinnamon. My original reason sounds almost silly. I just wanted to use all of my vertical pixels on my monitor. Both Unity and GNOME Shell had fixed panels that could not be hidden. At a few brief periods it was possible to hid one or the other by means of fragile extensions that were broken by the next point release. So, I looked at what was out there and, goodness me, Cinnamon would let you set their panel transparent and/or hide or autohide it. I was able to install Cinnamon on Ubuntu via the Ubuntu Universe repositories. There were a few rough edges, but it was such an improvement that I just had to say ‘What the heck, I’m installing Mint. Somebody there has a spirit that I can relate to.”

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