Monday, February 3, 2014

If I could change two things

I've been thinking about what I would change in GNOME if I could change one thing. I find this an interesting exercise; what small change would have the biggest impact? I decided that I would move the "application icon" menu from the GNOME top bar to the application window. I believe that one change would improve the usability of GNOME, because users would immediately associate the "application icon" as a second menu. The menu remains affiliated with the application, in a way not currently possible when the "application icon" menu is part of the black top bar (which might be on a separate physical display from the application window).

I started to consider what other change I might make in GNOME to make it better. I began to consider the functionality that is currently "hidden" from the user, which might be exposed by tweaking the interface. My biggest concern: alerts and information.

In the current GNOME design, alerts and information messages are effectively "hidden" below the bottom of the screen. Many users—especially those new to GNOME—are unaware where to find these alerts and information messages. When the alert or message first occurs, they "pop up" from the bottom of the screen, only to disappear after a brief interval. How to find these messages again, if you didn't read them the first time? Perhaps you were away from your desk for a short time (on the phone, meeting with a colleague, taking notes on your office whiteboard, etc) and you weren't even aware the alert or information message had appeared on your screen. How would you know to look for them?

If I could change a second thing in GNOME, I would place "alert" and "information" icons in the top bar, probably towards the right side of the screen near the network, volume, and battery menu icons. To highlight them to the user, I would use a color for the icon, which would easily stand apart from the usual white-on-black color scheme in the top bar. Alerts and information messages are important to the user, and therefore more immediate; they should be readily apparent in the top bar, and free from the white-on-black icon standard.

I've picked up two such icons from Wikimedia Commons, both in the public domain: Achtung (for the alert icon) and Information Icon. Building on my previous mock-up, here's a concept drawing using the alert and information icons:

Mock-up of gedit, Nautilus, and Terminal; based on GNOME 3.10.3

I'm pleased with the appearance of the information message icon, but perhaps a different alert icon would be better. To suit the current icon scheme, I think the icons need to be limited to two colors, such as the white-on-blue information icon. Perhaps a white "!" on a red circle for the alert icon would be better, but I'll leave that to a graphics designer. This is enough to demonstrate my point.

(You may also notice that I re-added the "×" in the upper-right, to close the window. I mistakenly erased that in my previous mock-up, when I added a slight highlight to the active window.)

Imagine that you had briefly stepped away from your desk, or for some other reason your attention was not on your desktop. When you returned, would you immediately notice that GNOME had something to tell you? In this mock-up, you can clearly see that GNOME has at least one alert message, and at least one information message. If you click on the icon, you might get a drop-down box (similar to the "application icon" menu?) that lists a summary of each message.

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