Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hands-on usability improvements with GNOME 3.16

I downloaded the GNOME 3.16 live demo image and experimented with what the latest GNOME has to offer. My focus is usability testing, so I wanted to explore the live demo to see how the usability has improved in the latest release.

From my 2014 study of GNOME's usability, usability testing revealed several "hot" problem areas, including:

Changing the default font in gedit or Notes
Testers typically looked for a "font" or "text" action under the gear menu. Many testers referred to the gear menu as the "options" or "settings" menu because they previously affiliated a "gear" icon with settings or preferences in Mac OS X or Windows. Testers assumed changing the font was a settings, so they looked for it in what they assumed was a "settings" menu: the gear menu.
Bookmarking a location in Nautilus
Most testers preferred to just move a frequently-used folder to the desktop, so it would be easier to find. But GNOME doesn't have a "desktop" per se by default, and expects users to use the "Bookmark this Location" feature in Nautilus. However, this feature was not very discoverable; many testers moved the target folder into another folder, and believed that they had somehow bookmarked the location.
Finding and replacing text in gedit
When asked to make to replace all instances of a word with another word, across a large text file, testers had trouble discovering the "find and replace text" feature in gedit. Instead, testers experimented with "Find" then simply typed over the old text with the new text.
How does the new GNOME 3.16 improve on these problem areas? Let's look at a few screenshots:


GNOME 3.14 saw several updates to the gedit editor, which continue in GNOME 3.16:

The new gedit features a clean appearance that features prominent "Open" and "Save" buttons—two functions that average users with average knowledge will frequently access.

A new "three lines" icon replaces the gear menu for the drop-down menu. This "three lines" menu icon is more common in other applications, including those on Mac OS X and Windows, so the new menu icon should be easier to find.

The "Open" menu includes a quick-access list, and a button to look for other files via the finder.

The preferences menu doesn't offer significant usability improvements, although the color scheme selector is now updated in GNOME 3.16.


The updated Nautilus features large icons that offer good visibility without becoming too overwhelming. The "three lines" menu is simplified in this release, and offers an easier path to bookmark a location.


I uncovered a few issues with the Epiphany web browser (aka "GNOME Web") but since I don't usually use Epiphany (I use Firefox or Google Chrome) I'm not sure how long these problems have been there.

Epiphany has a clean appearance that reserves most of the screen real estate to display the web page. This is a nice design tradeoff, but I noticed that after I navigated to a web page, I lost the URL bar. I couldn't navigate to a new website until I opened a new tab and entered my URL there. I'm sure there's another way to bring up the URL bar, but it's not obvious to me.

I'll also add that taking screenshots of Epiphany was quite difficult. For other GNOME applications, I simply hit Alt-PrtScr to save a screenshot of my active window. But the Epiphany web browser seems to grab control of that key binding, and Alt-PrtScr does nothing most of the time—especially when the "three lines" menu is open. I took several screenshots of Epiphany, and about half were whole-desktop screenshots (PrtScr) that I later cropped using the GIMP.

EDIT: If you click the little "down" triangle next to the URL, you can enter a new URL. I don't like this feature; it obscures URL entry. Basic functionality like this should not be hidden in a web browser. I encourage the Epiphany team to bring back the URL entry bar in the next release.

Other changes

Notifications got a big update in GNOME 3.16. In previous versions of GNOME 3, notifications appeared at the bottom of the screen. Now, notifications appear at the top of the screen, merged with the calendar. You might consider this a "calendar and events" feature. The notifications are unobtrusive; when I plugged in my USB fob drive, a small white marker appeared next to the date and time to suggest a new notification had arrived. While I haven't reviewed notifications as part of my usability testing, my heuristic evaluation is that the new notifications design will improve the usability around notifications. I believe most users will see the new "calendar and events" feature as making a lot of sense.

However, I do have some reservations about the updated GNOME. For one, I dislike the darker colors seen in these screenshots. Users don't like dark desktop colors. In user interface design, colors also affect the mood of an application. As seen in this comparison, users perceived the darker colors used in Windows and GNOME as moody, while the lighter colors used in Mac OS X suggest an airy, friendly interface. This may be why users at large perceive the GNOME desktop to have poor usability, despite usability testing showing otherwise. The dark, moody colors used in GNOME provoke feelings of tension and insecurity, which influence the user's perception of poor usability.

I'm also not sure about the blue-on-grey effect to highlight running programs or selected items in the GNOME Shell. In addition to being dark, moody colors, the blue-on-grey is just too hard to see clearly. I would like GNOME to update the default theme to use lighter, airier colors. I'll reserve a discussion of colors in GNOME for a future article.

Overall, I'm very pleased with the usability improvements that have gone into the new GNOME release. Good job, everyone!

I look forward to doing more usability testing in this version of GNOME, so we can continue to make GNOME great. With good usability, each version of GNOME gets better and easier to use.
GNOME icon: Wikimedia commons


  1. About Epiphany's URL bar, you can click on wherever the url bar used to be that It will be shown. This design decision is probably towards Chrome's "origin-chip"

  2. Thanks for that link. It's an interesting design/security tradeoff. If Epiphany's preference is to keep the existing feature, I would suggest an improvement that the first time Epiphany "hides" the URL, it could display a little infobox next to it that says "click here to enter another location" or something similar.

    Also, I suggest a tooltip when you hover your pointer over the page title (where the URL should be) that says "click here to enter another location" or similar. That should help with discoverability.

    1. Hey Jim,

      Would be nice if you could file bugs in Ephy's bugzilla product for the suggestions you have so that we can discuss it. Otherwise things get lost on the webs.

    2. Michael captured the usability issue here as a bug in Epiphany's bugzilla, and I said in another comment that I found a few more issues might/not be bugs, so I'll submit them to bugzilla too.

  3. No, the URL bar should always be something you can type in. Bring back the URL bar.

  4. As Felipe already said, you do not have to hit the triangle (as you said in your correction), you can click anywhere on the URL or the title to bring up the URL bar. However, I agree that this is not very discoverable. One idea would be to just show an outline/a shadow of the URL bar when hovering over the right area with your mouse cursor (not sure that would be pretty, though).

    Somewhat offtopic, but still related to Gnome usability: my (least) favourite two Shell bugs (I have not checked if these still exist in 3.16, though I expect they do):

    * Drag and drop between two windows is pretty broken: consider this case:
    + I have one fullscreen Files window in the background and one smaller Videos window in the foreground
    + I now want to watch a video file that is in the current Files view
    + I start dragging the video file and immediately (on mousedown) the Files window goes into the foreground -- hence my drop target, the Videos window is gone
    + The workaround for this is dragging from Files to Activities, then wait for the overview to open, then drag onto the Videos window thumbnail, then wait for the overview to go away and the window to come to the foreground (1/2 second), then drop. This is cumbersome and takes ages... and all would be easier, if windows didn't come to the foreground on mousedown but on mouseup.

    * The overview is not very efficient for selecting windows:
    + All Gnome windows are light grey (except those that are dark grey), which makes it harder to pick out the right one, there are at least two improvements that I can see: ship something like [1] by default and allowing people to create windows of different colours (as you can e.g. on Android/OS X/IOS, [2] achieves something like this)
    + The Overview throws you of your current task, same as the Windows 8 start screen does (and Microsoft is changing that in Windows 10, so it is not fullscreen anymore...)
    + The Overview is not always fast to load, especially when the computer is busy with something


    1. Try gnome-tweak-tool, disable "Automatically raise windows" or whatever it's called.

    2. Thanks for the tip, David, though that does not seem to help ...
      The setting sounds like it toggles whether new windows/alerts will push themselves to the foreground automatically or can open in the background. (Have not looked up if that is really what it means.)

    3. I think what you describe with "one fullscreen Files window in the background and one smaller Videos window in the foreground" is a difference between click-to-focus and focus-follows-mouse. GNOME is a click-to-focus system - as are Windows and Mac OS X.

    4. @some guy: Dragging from a background window to the foreground window actually works on Windows, because background windows (= Files) are only raised on mouseup (i.e. letting go of the mouse button), but since in the case of dragging, the mouseup happens later, in the already-foreground window (= Videos), that one remains on top. (Can't say anything about OS X, since I never get to use that.)

      Focus-follows-mouse does not have all that much to do with it and if I understand the concept correctly, it would actually hurt, since even just moving the mouse over the background window would bring it to the foreground.

    5. The overview also requires extra mouse movement to switch windows, making it more likely to get carpal tunnel syndrome. IMHO the overview is tied with the decision to write the whole shell in Javascript as the biggest design flaw in GNOME 3. And CSD windows are close due to how broken is the implementation.

    6. You're right about this "bookmark" feature being obscure. I've been poking around Files (Gnome 3.14.3) for 5 minutes now and can't find it anywhere. Or is it new for 3.16?

  5. Michael CatanzaroMarch 26, 2015 at 9:33 PM

    Hey Jim, thanks for your suggestions for Epiphany! It's already been mentioned that you can click anywhere in the title box to get the location entry, but it's pretty clear that we have a usability problem. I've added your suggestions to this bug:

  6. @felipe: Chrome's origin chip extracts the _globally_ _unique_ domain name from the URL and gives it visual prominence in the user interface.

    Gnome 3.16 _deemphasizes_ the globally unique domain name by giving it a grey color and placing it directly below the much larger, black bold faced _local_ html page title.

    Just imagine registering "" and making an index.html page with the title "". Which users are the most likely to get tricked-- the Chrome users or the Gnome Web users?

    I'm not saying that Chrome's anti-phishing UI is a panacea. But that Gnome Web screenshot is about as far as one could be from the origin-chip design.

    1. Michael CatanzaroMarch 27, 2015 at 9:12 PM

      I agree. It wasn't designed as any sort of security feature. But I think we should follow Chrome's lead here: there's no real value in displaying any portion of the URL besides the hostname in the subtitle, and also a security indicator. URLs are only interesting if you're going to copy them, and to do that you already need to switch to the location entry.

  7. @Michael: Thanks! I also found a few other issues in this version of Epiphany that might be bugs - or might be because I was running from a live ISO. I'll submit them to bugzilla.

  8. Michael CatanzaroMarch 27, 2015 at 9:10 PM

    Bug reports are much appreciated, thank you!