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Ubuntu Design: Micro, Macro

Ubuntu Precise, the “pixel perfect” release is in beta with release on the horizon. It’s been two long years since Lucid and we are really seeing the evidence of that time being well spent.

But just how well?

The Times Are A-Changin’

What started with Lucid was a remarkable change for Ubuntu in mine own eyes. As a distribution we were going to elevate the user experience up above all the rest. We started to get a lot of those tiny “papercut” bugs closed. Unity was evolving from its origins in the Netbook Remix. And it’s been a great time for development for Ubuntu.

Sure, many of these things had been happening before, but Lucid is where it really started to blossom. It hasn’t hurt that at the same time, GNOME itself has made a push toward the same end– even if it’s in a different direction. The last two years have seen the most change in Ubuntu since I started using it. And not just change for the sake.

“So… What’s Your Point?”

The big ideas have run dry. Lately, all the community hears about are divergent products: Ubuntu TV, Ubuntu for Android, plans for Ubuntu Tablet and Phone. Ubuntu started something and it has not even got that quite right yet.

The renamed Ayatana mailing list, now “Unity-Design,” has become a place to pick at the minutiae. The discussions all focus more and more on the small details that still afflict users of Unity. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, Ubuntu does need to focus on polishing every detail. In fact, this is part of what Precise is meant to be about after all: precision and polish.

“I’m sensing a ‘but…'”

But… Ubuntu is suffering from the issue of half-assery. You can’t polish the shell to a shine and expect people not to notice that all else is welded together with ugly seams using whatever metal they found laying about.

This is exactly our current situation.

Precise, by default, has five different toolkits present in default applications. Five. And no two of them look exactly alike, so you’re acutely aware that there are five. The closest analogy I can think of to this toolkit visual issue is that of the Uncanny Valley. Every toolkit looks similar to, but just different enough from the “default” GTK+ that it draws your attention to the fact.

Getting past that, we also have the issue that no two applications share the same sort of design patterns. Well, some categorically similar applications do. But LibreOffice is inherently different from Firefox and both are different to Empathy in styling.

It Gets Worse

Even given the fact that Ubuntu doesn’t have the same development weight as Apple or Microsoft has, we’re still left to suffer from missteps. Take, for instance, the global menubar.

The idea was blogged about and made public around two years ago and it still doesn’t work the way it was described. We still don’t have any tips of how to integrate an application with that concept. Who do we take cues from? Apple’s OS X? The original implementations of such menubars?

Excepting that as well, I recently brought up the subject of design in relation to the global menubar in the Unity-Design mailing list. I was met with a curt response to the effect of the launcher having no bearing on how I should handle menus.

Finally, The Macro

We’ve lost that big picture. One cannot forget that everything should inform everything else. If the Unity launcher is on a per-application basis, shouldn’t the best philosophy be to take that into accounting and suggest an application attempt to design their menus in accordance?

Precise is on its way out the door and its wheels are turning. There’s no stopping it, nor is there need to. Precise, as I’ve found out from my daily use of it (in fact, I’m typing this article in it right now, cannot recommend it you try it out enough) is offering a veritable pallet of improvements.

Instead, I want the community to be sure to take the time to remove the blinders from all the small items and take a look around at the big picture more often. Remember that default applications are a horrible smattering of many different things. Remember that you don’t create a mansion and then furnish it with whatever you find lying about.

Most of all, show that there is demand to see an Ubuntu that raises the baseline every where: from the big picture of applications and the system working together instead of being disparate parts to the very minutiae of correctly spacing/padding items in the Appearance pane of System Settings.

Onward to 14.04 “T” we march ladies and gentlemen.

On Menus and HUD: HUD uses, and will use, the menus as they are and not everyone will have HUD, it’s design also isn’t finished yet. It’s quite hard to design for a moving target such as that.