Open Source

How the open source community reacts to poor design

In the true spirit of the open source way, a movement has started to help Ubuntu Unity improve its new desktop. But can this effort actually make a difference? Read on to find out what's going on.

As you well know, I've been going off a lot lately on how Canonical and Ubuntu made quite the mistake with Unity. Not only has it seemingly had the opposite effect of its name, it was quite poorly designed. Unity is filled with design flaws (such as the window menu system and the horrible new scroll bars that don't always work) that make its usage less than ideal.

But a fraction of the open source community sees that, instead of revolting, why not attempt to offer up suggestions to help improve the new Ubuntu default desktop. This "movement", started by Arian van Gend, is called "Community Proposed Unity Design". It doesn't have a website, or a slogan, or even a clever graphic. Instead, what it has is a document outlining possible changes that should be made to Ubuntu Unity in order to improve it's functionality. The goal of the document is not to attack the Unity designers, but instead to support them by offering a "centralized community design document that streamlines suggestions for users." And, in the spirit of open source, the document is, as you would expect, open source (it's a Google Doc that anyone can view, and either email suggestions or use the Google Chat function to chat with the author about your suggestion.)

Some of the improvements include:

Different Dash views (the Dash is the "dashboard" by which searches and applications can be found). By default the dash view is clunky and needs serious improvement. The community sees this and highly suggests different types of dash views be available. One particular Dash improvement that should seriously be considered is:

The Dash should only be accessible from the Ubuntu button on the top left. This focuses the Dash functionality in one place, and avoids cluttering the launcher, which should be used only for applications, Lens Quick Drops, and their state. A Lens Quick Drop is an Launcher item that can perform some action on objects of a certain type.
And this improvement would make using the dash much more user-centric:

Clicking the Ubuntu button should open the Dash in its universal search state. It should also change the Launcher content to a list of Lenses, displayed in a similar fashion as other items on the Launcher. The first of these Lenses should always be the Universal search Lens. The other Lenses will be manipulable in the same way application launchers would be, meaning they can be reordered, removed, and have quick lists.
The document goes on from there, discussing the different types of lenses (various views used by the dash) such as:
  • Application lens
  • Search
  • Files/folders
  • Contacts
  • Conversations from social networking
When dealing with the Global menu, the document nails the issues:
  • Touch unfriendly.
  • Hard to discover for new users.
  • Hard to quickly find the right menu (it’s not visible initially).
  • Application title looks strange when cut off.
  • Menu seems too separated from the application sometime.
  • Root apps aren’t integrated.
  • Actually Global Menu show the application menu for the active Windows.
The possible solutions to these issues the document suggests are:
  • Show the separation between application title and menu differently;
  • Always show the menu itself (it’s not that distracting since our focus is usually somewhere else. This also fixes the findability issue and is more touch friendly;
  • Make it easy to switch application focus from the application name in the panel. This makes it easy to reach a menu on an application, different from the focused one, and mitigates the time lost when traveling up to the menu and the wrong application was focused.
  • All our windows must integrate to Global Menu, not root’s one distinction.
  • A good solution will be to use Global Menu for applications, like MacOS does. This has major benefits for applications with multiple windows, like Empathy (Contact and Chat) or the GIMP. In this case, if we are chatting and the Contact Windows are not focused,  we don’t have to make it active before accessing its menu.

The document continues on to discuss:

  • Third-party and existing indicators
  • Dynamically adjusted workspaces
  • Overlay scroll bars
  • Keyboard shortcuts/mouse gestures/touch actions
  • Pan-space (alternative to multiple workspaces)
  • Minor feature tweaks

So, yeah...this community really gets the issues surrounding Unity. But, unlike some communities, the open source community knows how to drive what they've been given to newer and better places. This highlights the true spirit of the open source community -- not only what they are striving for, but how they are approaching their task.

I applaud Mr. van Gend and his effort. I certainly hope the Unity developers look at his document with an eye on improving the Unity desktop, as the suggestions made within are quite good.
What do you think? Do you have suggestions for the Unity desktop that should make it into Arian's document? If so, share them with us, before you share them with van Gend.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website


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Unity is a big boondoggle; Xubuntu works beautifully.


I like a UI that is easy to use and stays out of the way. I love Gnome because it is neatly organized and easy to use. Unity sucks because they went the "dock" route like Windows 7 and Mac's. I hate the dock regardless of what OS it is on, it takes up too much space and it is not always obvious when you have something open. Web browsers for example have gotten a clue and have made the UI smaller to get it out of the way. However for some reason desktops have decided to do the opposite.


Right now it looks like they are trying to dumb the UI down for the masses. As for me: I use computer for software development, not for storing music & photos, I don't need that on the dasboard, and I don't care if 90% of Canonical's target market does. I want desktop to be as configurable as possible. Well, OK, maybe I'm wrong, maybe Canonical will make Unity more configurable some time in the future, but until then, I'm using Kubuntu. KDE is still pretty crashable, but at least it looks fancy.

Alpha_Dog it's community. They are a resource and a curse, depending upon your viewpoint and attitude. This community will try your effort and find every fault. If you have an ego invested in your project instead of merely time, money, and effort, it will hurt. Among the critics there are seasoned testers and programmers willing to lend a hand. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to listen to the criticism and convert these to bugtrac listings and feature requests. Those allies you find in this community you must unite under your banner to do battle with the laundry list of issues. As any good commander, you must lead, but also listen to these troops. They are your veterans and if you demonstrate that you are listening and heading in one general direction they will help you win the war. On the other hand, if you do not listen because you are perched on a throne, they will still slay dragons, but under someone else's banner, even their own. Once victorious, they will be the heros and the kings on the throne will be forgotten as their project forks. Simply put, if canonical listens, they may yet win the day. They have a lot of issues (mostly political) and there still is much work to do even if all the issues Mr. van Gend and others brought up are addressed. If Canonical chooses not to listen and fix these issues, Ubuntu may become a footnote in history as their codebase forks. Within two years there will be a new distro in popular use which many will swear is better than sliced bread, just as Ubuntu was.

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