Thoughts on GNOME 3.6 UX Changes

GNOME 3.6 has entered Debian Experimental, at least to the point where it’s installable save for a few applications. Here are some of my thoughts on the new experience.

Application Menus

In GNOME 3.6 some applications (specifically Files (previously Nautilus)) move their menus to the spot next to Activities. This spot is occupied by the currently-focused application.

The main thing is to be aware of the change. You now have to go there for those applications, and you have to ensure the application is focused before doing so.

On the whole I don’t think this is that bad. Yes, I do happen to keep my Files instances way on the right of a two-monitor setup, and the menu is way on the left. But how often do I need that menu? Pretty much never. Occasionally I’d get somewhere via bookmarks in the old Nautilus. Every now and then I look over my preferences and tweak them. But neither were remotely a daily occurrence for me.

Assuming other applications that drop their menubars for this global menu spot take similar pains to avoid needing the menu very much, it won’t bother me.

In that, this design is a kind of dare to application developers: try to get all the bang out of the UI itself.

Scrollbars

Now that the Gtk+ 2 theme is closer to the Gtk+ 3 theme, all my scrollbars are normalized. That means my scrollbars are now like one bead abacuses. Formerly I had bookends on them letting me press buttons. Now I only have the slider and non-slider areas.

The mouse buttons changed their meanings. Formerly middle-click would jump to the point in the scrollbar. Now that’s left-click.

Provided the scrollbar semantics don’t change every release, this is passable. While I would occasionally use the buttons, I can live without them.

My main complaint with the current generation (and with 3.4) scrollbars is the color of the inactive thumb and blurred thumb. By those I mean the dragged part of the bar that’s not in active use, and the bar that’s part of an inactive window.

I tend to lose my place, as they don’t stand out particularly well. That’s especially true of the blurred bar, where it probably takes me a full second to find the white on light gray thumb.

Why do I need to know that? Often I am going through a scrollable area in a linear fashion, and deciding how far I am is important to time management. But more importantly, switching to that window means evaluating where I need to scroll to. Before, with easily seen bar positions, I could make that decision as I was making the switch. But now I usually have to make the switch, then decide where to scroll.

In time, maybe I’ll learn to ignore the bar and simply try to discover my position based on the content, but more likely I’ll find an alternative to Adwaita (or modify it).

Still scrollbars on the desktop are a far cry better than what I’ve experienced on Android. There, scrollbars are basically vestigial. They only show you where you are. There are a few applications that have functional scrollbars, but even those don’t really allow for jumping to points in the list.

This is especially annoying when you’ve read to the bottom of a page and need to get to the top. I’ve tried gesturing at it, but it doesn’t seem to understand what that means. So I find myself repeatedly dragging the page until I get to the top (or bottom). Give me a regular scrollbar any day!

New Lock Screen, Shutdown Without Holding Alt, etc.

One of the features people cared about in this release is the new lock screen, which you have to either drag out of the way or press enter to be able to unlock. It doesn’t bother me. I can press enter. The updated lock screen looks nicer.

Same goes for the shutdown with or without alt. I was used to holding alt, but I haven’t accidentally hit suspend so far.

Only things that have really bugged me so far are both in the Activities overview:

Centered Search Field

This just feels like it’s in left field. Like it should belong somewhere, but there wasn’t a spot that was preferred, so it was stuck there. It’s got an unusual sizing, it just feels awkward. Maybe I’ll get used to it.

Show Applications

This is thrown in the iconic application bar in Activities, and it brings up the full listing of applications available to the user. The button is immovable. It doesn’t belong there. Again, it feels like there was a desire to shove this somewhere, but no particularly apt place came forth.

It’s a useful feature. But as any Sesame Street alumnus could tell you, “one of these things is not like the others.” It should be elsewhere.

Conclusions

On the whole this is another solid release of GNOME. While I understand some of the concern by others regarding the direction of the UI, I still think that most of their concern is overreaching.

Specifically, they seem obsessed with the alleged obsession of GNOME developers to make things useful with a tablet. Having never used a tablet, I can’t say how useful the current designs would be.

But I can speak to the usability of a touch-based mobile device. So far it’s a lame experience. Way too many times have I clicked the wrong link. I can’t tell where a link goes, which is important to judging if it’s worth clicking or passing. Typing is difficult to begin with, made worse by ineffective input editing tools (if I misspelled “misspelled” as “nisspelled” then it’s faster for me to erase the whole word than try to get the cursor to the “n” and fix it).

If the GNOME developers are eroding these sorts of problems in a product that will see any tablet/touch device adoption, then they deserve praise, so long as they’re cognizant of the needs of the desktop/laptop platforms as well.