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Missing Menu Icons: What are GNOME playing at?

Notice: This post is more than a year old. It may be outdated.

The option to re-enable missing menu icons in GNOME menus has been removed from the version of GNOME to be included in Ubuntu 10.04. Why?

Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala – with its updated version of GNOME – brought with it a small change that left many users wondering if there was a glaring bug that had been overlooked – missing menu icons in certain menus.

The answer was, of course, no. This was a ‘feature’ of the new GNOME desktop. Many users wanted their icons back so we posted a simple how-to on re-enabling these missing menu icons in Ubuntu thanks to a built-in appearance preferences feature allowing you to do so. That ‘feature’ is now, sadly, missing from Ubuntu 10.10 – not only that but even more icons have gone walkabout!

Real Reasons
The reasoning behind removing the icons is simple – the Gnome “usability” team came to the conclusion that the icons in the menus specified (System menus and the bottom entries of the ‘Places’ menu ) would gain a strong visual improvement sans the icons.

Fair enough…?

Martin Owens points out in his blog post deriding this decision that removing the icons and the ability to easily re-enable them, stating that it makes it harder for people with dyslexia (he himself is dyslexic) to use Ubuntu. I can equally imagine that users with visual disabilities also find their removal a hindrance.

I often use my sister as an example of non-tech users using Ubuntu on this blog (she can’t tell an OS from a browser). What was one of the first grumbles I heard after installing Ubuntu Karmic on her notebook? Missing icons. She had become used to them, she knew what they stood for and allowed her to quickly navigate around menus – menus of which she is continual fearful of in case of screwing something up! Their removal only served to worry her that something was wrong.

Decisions on a whim?
The reason? According to GNOME developers: –

“Discussed many times. We should remove the interface tab. Basically
everthing there is a user experience design cop-out. It only belongs in
a tweak UI tool ‚Ä” but only if someone cares enough to write one.‚ÄĚ

Several members of the Ubuntu community are extremely annoyed at this decision. It’s one thing to change menu appearances, but an entirely different one to remove the option to re-enable them.

Ubuntu champion Leftyb took issue with several parts of the GNOME response to this ‘bug’, particularly the ‚ÄúDiscussed many times‚ÄĚ part:

Discussed where? Were Gnome users asked for feedback on this decision?

The comments to our blog post on re-enabling the missing icons back during the early days of Karmic certainly showed that the majority of ‘normal’ users weren’t happy with the decision.

The biggest “issue” surrounding the sudden elimination of user choice on this matter must certainly concern the real motives behind the decision.

Martin Owens sums this up wonderfully in his blog post on this matter: –

I don’t expect devel[opers] to say they’re good at design when they are only good at systematics. If you’ve worked out some of the science or some basic principles of design, it doesn’t make you a designer. It’s not always parcelled into simple rules and regulations. Sure, sometimes they help, but they’re at best guidelines and a good starting point and you’re not expected to use them as iron clad regulation. Of course this is an obvious warning sign that the coders have taken to design before learning anything about servitude let alone elegance.

What do you think should happen? Do you think it’s important that users are given the choice to re-enable icons or do you trust GNOME devs implicitly?