Wishy Washy Ubuntu [Updated]

A little while ago, I posted that Ubuntu is getting a new interface design which includes window management buttons on the left. In addition to this, the close button is now the third button from the left, and minimize and maximize icons are up and down arrows.

ubuntu

This seemingly arbitrary redesign of a central UI concept — window management buttons — has received some flak in the community. Alex Faaborg mentions that the up/down arrows are reminiscent of scrollbar buttons. The community has called out the lead designer to explain the reasoning behind this new direction, and Ivanka Majic responds haphazardly:

After the internal debate and analysis (which went something like the picture below) we decided to put this version in the theme and to use it. I have had it running on my machine with the buttons in this order since before the Portland sprint (first week of February?) and I am quite used to it.

Is it better or worse?

It is quite hard to tell. The theme has been in the alpha since Friday. Now that you have had a chance to use it what do you think?

Personally, I would have the max and min on the left and close on the right.

Aza Raskin, creative lead for Firefox responds on Twitter:

It’s this kind of wishy-washy design speak (from the lead Ubuntu designer) that weakens our field in open source http://bit.ly/axDRbf

Eloquenter. Point: Aza.

Had you asked me yesterday, I’d have cared slightly less about the design of maximize or minimize buttons or even whether they’re left or right (exciting new platforms and UI paradigms intrigue me more these days and these traditional OSes now seem quaint), but this kind of — Aza puts it rightly — wishy washy design speak belittles the whole interface design process.

Not all UI designers think like Ivanka and the Ubuntu design team.

I don’t even care to discuss left or right or up or down. But I will say that window management buttons, minimize, maximize and close, are vital parts of an operating system. That doesn’t mean this is by any means a sacred goat that should never ever be touched, it simply means that when you do touch it, you’re walking on the razors edge (don’t look down, you’ll lose your head).

I’ve said this before: usability is not a Jackson Pollock painting.

If you were designing a faucet, would you switch the locations for hot and cold water? How about making a door-handle go up instead of down to open? What about the direction you turn a key to unlock? Should we drive on the left or the right side of the road? Should americans switch from the imperial system to metric?

Whenever you change a completely vital aspect of a system, do not justify the change by asking: “Is it better or worse? It is quite hard to tell”. That will not fly.

Anyone can make up wishy washy design speak. In fact, here’s a snatched-from-the-ether list of similar justifications:

  • “Steve told me to do it.”
  • “Our branding team told us we had to mess with the buttons in order to stand out from OSX and Windows. It was either left-aligned, close button third-from-the left, or centered buttons.”
  • “It started as a joke, but then we kinda liked it.”
  • “We wanted to be more like OSX, but without blatantly copying.”
  • “Oh right those buttons. What do they do again?”
  • “The close button is a destructive action, which is bad. So we placed it in a really awkward place. The shut down operating system button, however, we placed in the top right corner of the screen, right at the edge, you know, where Windows has its maximized application close buttons. We think it looks good.”

As long as we’re playing “make up an excuse”, there are plenty better ones to pick from.

[Update]: Here’s a super quick mockup, which should hopefully serve to illustrate that the new theme aesthetics could easily work without changing basic window management layouts.

ubuntu_min_max

5 thoughts on “Wishy Washy Ubuntu [Updated]”

  1. Nicole says:

    Should americans switch from the imperial system to metric?

    Well, that’s at least one I can answer: yes!

    While I generally like the looks of this new Ubuntu theme, I’m definitely not a fan of buttons on the left side. Then again, like many Linux users, I’m used to tweaking all manner of aspects of the OS to my liking. If they’re trying to attract users unlike me, though, I agree that they need better reasoning behind their choices.

    1. Joen says:

      Well, that’s at least one I can answer: yes!

      I also would like the US to switch to the metric system. But I think it’s a good example, in this situation, because it would be a huge, impactful change, and there are a host of good reasons to switch.

      I’m definitely not a fan of buttons on the left side. Then again, like many Linux users, I’m used to tweaking all manner of aspects of the OS to my liking.

      They need good defaults. I’m not against options, but they could have made buttons on the left, close button third-from-the-left be optional for those who wanted it.

  2. Bitmand says:

    It looks weird. Why is it no one gets this right?

    I’m a Mac user, but never really liked the traffic light design (or usability) in OSX.
    The way the buttons works and the placement in Windows is actually good – but the design of them is ugly and imho not good usability.
    As far as the design of the buttons in this new Ubuntu, I really like them. Its easy to recognize and get the meaning of max, min and close. But the order simply looks weird.

    1. Joen says:

      I’m a Mac user, but never really liked the traffic light design (or usability) in OSX.

      Me either.

      The way the buttons works and the placement in Windows is actually good – but the design of them is ugly and imho not good usability.

      Well, I actually think it’s the best design in the bunch.

      The start bar is bottommost, so a maximized window puts the buttons at the screen edges where they’re easy to hit, which is good, because minimize, maximize and close aren’t nearly as destructive as Ivanka puts on.

      Additionally, the design of the button icons, I find, is also the most usable: maximize is a big box, which actually indicates what’s going to happen, and minimize is a “small bar”. X as in “crossed out window” is universally accepted.

      In comparison, Ubuntus new up and down arrows are more like scroll, or “move upwards/downwards”. OSXes “plus and minus” are horrific. Plus and minus are mathematical concepts that means add to or detract from. Which mac apologists can argue means “add to window” or “detract from window”, except the plus button behaviour is not consistent. Try it on Safari, it doesn’t always “add to”. It’s more like a “toggle size”, which I have no idea what has to do with plus.

      As far as the design of the buttons in this new Ubuntu, I really like them. Its easy to recognize and get the meaning of max, min and close. But the order simply looks weird.

      I too, would be able to use the new Ubuntu interface, if placed in front of it. That’s not the big question.

      The kicker here is that the new button icons, or their placements, are not better in any way — they’re worse. It’s a step back. I too think the dark look, the white buttons, the red close button finish… it all looks good. But that’s just eye-candy, and I dare say that eye-candy would be equally nice, with userfriendly buttons.

      In fact, lemme try.

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