Posted by: reformedmusings | April 23, 2011

Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Beta 2 and the Unity Launcher violate basic human factorsprinciples

I could not get Ubuntu 11.04 Beta 2 to load Unity on the LiveCD, so I had to install it on my test hard disk to take a look. I installed it over my KDE 4.6.x test setup, having decided I was through with KDE for the foreseeable future. You can read about my thoughts in this post.


The Natty beta installed easy enough. Each version of Ubuntu has sought to make installation easier, but honestly it has been pretty simple for several years now. I didn’t have any problems with the installation, but it installed the 173 version NVidia driver instead of the current one. After installation and reboot, Natty offered the Additional Drivers where I activated the current version. Strange but easy to fix.

Natty did a nice job of picking up my previous Gnome settings even though I installed it clean. I used my previous /home partition for this setup. It picked up my background, theme, and general system settings. Very nice. Although it picked up my last XPlanetX wallpaper, I of course had to install XPlanetX to get it to update.  Natty protested that the XPlanetX deb violated important conventions and might be dangerous. Under details, the only issue was that XPlanetX’ name wasn’t all lower case. Yep, pretty dangerous. I overrode the warning to install my favorite live HD wallpaper.

The Good

Natty beta 2 installed, picked up my previous Gnome settings

The Unity Launcher on the left side of the screen really assaulted my eyes because the default icons are HUGE. My AWN setup uses the smallest icons because that’s all I need. The huge Unity icons waste way too much room on the screen and seem very out of place.

That said, there’s an experimental setting under the Compiz Configuration Settings Manager for Unity where you can vary the icon size:

Unity plugin to CompizConfig

Unity experimental settings, including launcher icon resizing

I used it to get to the smallest size allowable, which is 32. They are still a bit big, but much better than the original 50:

Smallest Unity launcher icons that I could get

I also played with the launcher panel’s transparency, but that crashed the system big time, requiring a power cycle to recover. Don’t go there yet. Still a beta, so no big deal. They have a whole five days to fix it as of this writing.

Others have written in some detail about the launcher panel, so I won’t retread that ground but will toss out a few quick pointers. You can right click on some of the Unity applet icons to bring up menus or actions, like the application, place, and trash icons. Right clicking on app icons allows you to add (if they are executing programs) or remove them from the panel.

The Bad

Menus for the active application windows appear on the top panel rather than in the application. That’s cute, but it has its drawbacks. One of the strengths of Gnome is that you can set it so that the window over which you pass the mouse pointer becomes active. That allows you to look up something in one window and type or paste that data on another window just by moving the mouse pointer over it. That was awkward when I first tried it, but now use it all the time. You can still do that in Unity, but it can interfere with the unified menu on the top bar.

Here’s what happens: You have several windows open on the desktop. You want to use the menu from one, so drag the mouse pointer to the top Unity bar. However, on the way the pointer touches or passes over another app window. Now the Unity bar menu changes to the most recent application over which you passed – not what you had in mind. You can click on the desired application’s icon on the launcher panel to get the correct menu back, but it’s a pain and the same danger exists. Clearly, this needs more thought from the developers. Hopefully they don’t take away yet another useful capability to compensate.

Of course, the other shortcoming with this “unified” menu panel is that it can require significant pointer/hand movement in order to reach the menu. That just doesn’t make much sense to me from a human factors standpoint. Interfaces should minimize hand movement, not maximize them.

Speaking of lost capabilities, at this time Unity doesn’t support any user applets on the top or launcher panels. I have always put the weather, hardware temperatures, etc., on the panels. Now, nothing. That stinks. It seems like Unity is not yet ready for prime time.

The Ugly

In my opinion, the Unity launcher makes a huge and very basic GUI mistake. A major idea behind a graphical user interface is to allow the user to navigate and execute most all functions with just a mouse, or touch in the case of touch screens, with minimum movement. That’s simple enough. However, Unity violates this basic premise in a dramatic fashion.

Unity launcher does not use a menu system in any meaningful sense. Instead, clicking on the application icon or the Ubuntu icon in the upper left of the screen brings up a search window:

Unity application finder

Across the top row, you find six of your most recently used apps. These will vary as you use different programs. The second row are six installed programs. The bottom row contains a few programs somebody would like you to download. If you desired application appears on one of the top two rows, you’re all set. But the chances of that amongst the 12 icons may not be that great. Note that there are two more most-used apps and 173 more installed in the screenshot. List them all? Sure, just click on the appropriate link, but be prepared for serious scrolling.

What Unity would like you to do is TYPE in the search box:

Typing for an app search in a GUI?

In this case, I searched for Gimp, which isn’t installed by default. Again, I’m offered up to six choices. In this case, I clicked on it and Unity opened the Software Center to offer the installation:

Installing GIMP after offered by a Unity search

Clever? Sure. But only if your desired app isn’t installed.

However, the idea that I cannot execute any installed application simply by clicking minimally through the interface violates the basic premise of a GUI. Now I have to take my hand from the mouse/trackball to type in a search box, then return my hand to the pointing device to execute the program. That’s a lot of wasted movement over the course of a computing session. Either that, or keep clicking similar to the KDE 4 menu setup.

What about right-clicking on the app icon for the menu? Sure, but you get the same display, just starting in that menu. If your app is one of the first six in the list, good for you. If not, either more clicking or typing will be required with commensurate wasted motion. Windows 3.1 did a better job, no kidding (yes, I’ve been around at least that long).

I also find some of the organizational choices counter-intuitive. I looked for quite a while for an Administration-like control application list. After giving up and moving to restart the system to finish Samba’s installation, I found System Settings at the bottom of the Shutdown menu list!!! What?????? What brainiac thought of that? We laugh at Microsoft for using a Start button to shut down the system. Now Ubuntu wants you to click the shutdown menu to find the system settings. That leaves me almost speechless. Almost.


I’m extremely disappointed by Unity’s violation of basic human factors design principles. The extra movements required simply to execute applications not lucky enough to make either the six most recently used or first six installed alphabetical list make no sense to me or anyone else familiar with human factors design.

Unity also feels rushed to release. It doesn’t support common (or any) user applets on either panel. Right-clicking on either panel does nothing. So, no weather, no hardware temperature monitoring, etc. A pretty big step backward.

Unity is basically one size fits all – take it or leave it. Customization is extremely limited – anathema to Linux and something that drove many of us from the unfinished KDE 4.0 to Gnome several years ago. Apparently Canonical learned very little from that fiasco, because this release of Unity doesn’t feel significantly more mature than KDE 4.0 was then.

Maybe Canonical lost the bubble, or simply bit off more than it could chew for Natty. Either way, I fear that Ubuntu 11.04 Natty will do considerable harm to Ubuntu’s desktop market penetration goals.



  1. […] yang melirik kelemahan deks­top Unity ini, misal­nya salah satu tulisan yang menarik adalah “Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Beta 2 and the Unity Laun­cher violate basic human factorsp­rin­ciple”, nah kita lihat saja bagaimana versi stabil­nya dirilis […]

  2. Very well written and thought out. Now, if Mark Shuttleworth would only pay attention! That 173 long list of applications you have to go through to find the app you want to use is a major turn-off. System 76 refused to ship Maverick netbooks because of Unity. I’m sure it hasn’t improved.

    • Thank you! Somehow I doubt that Mark reads our blogs. Even then, there seems to be a “cult” of true believership behind Unity’s design at Canonical. I think that Unity could be greatly improved by putting a complete right-click classic menu in the App widget. Or even make it the left-click. So simple a solution, but apparently antithetical to the designers.

      OTOH, perhaps some enterprising coder will produce such a menu system for the App widget as a replacement. If use widgets are ever supported, that would be another way to improve it.

      Of course, that won’t solve the other issues that I found. IMHO, the entire interface apart from the dock itself needs to be rethought in the light of GUI human factors considerations.

  3. I have been trying a few different distros and desktop environments. I tried Fedora 14 with gnome 2 and Fedora 15 with gnome 3 and with kde.

    Gnome 2 is the best but that is the past (unfortunately.) I was surprised at how similar looking gnome 3 is to unity. It doesn’t matter which you use! They both use the same design concept.

    To me they look like they were designed for tablets.

    My two cents,

    • Thanks for offering your observations! Agreed on tablets. The tablet metaphor doesn’t necessarily fit a desktop environment.

      Interesting observation on Gnome 3. I haven’t tried Gnome 3 yet, but I understand that it doesn’t support applets yet either.

      Natty has been released. It will be interesting to see the comments on Ubuntu’s forums.


  4. Dreamweaver no longer works under Wine. At least not as it should. I can no longer close folders or files. What’s up with that?

    Lots of nice pop and fizzle on the desktop though.

    • Hi Wayne,

      Not sure. What version of Ubuntu and Wine are you running? Did you update Dreamweaver, Ubuntu, or Wine before the problem occurred?


      • Figured out the problem, to an extent. It seems that I can’t point the cursor directly at the file to open or on the “X” to close. I have to point the cursor approximately on the line below the file in question, or at a comparable point below the “X”. It’s as if the mouse is mis-calibrated. Weird.

        • That is weird. Don’t think I’ve ever heard of that problem. Have you tried disconnecting then reconnecting the mouse while the computer is on? That would re-initiate the driver.

          • No, good idea, but didn’t work. Mouse is wireless, on my laptop.

            Still has the same problem. Someday I may reinstall DW.

            • Hmmm. Interesting.

              Look forward to seeing you in June!

  5. […] posted my impressions of Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal beta 2 with Unity here, and it generally wasn’t pretty. From the comments and upon reading other reviews after I […]

  6. […] posted here on my initial impressions of Ubuntu’s new Unity interface, then on my trials trying to get it […]

  7. […] posted on my not-so-great experience with Ubuntu 11.04 Natty and Unity here, here, and here. In the latter, I achieved a useful level of function when I augmented Unity with […]

  8. Hey it’s not all bad!

    You can use the windows/command/super key to bring up the launcher thing and you can use lil’ arrow next to shortcuts to put that nonsense away, making it look a bit nicer.

    You can also just type part of the name of the application name and press enter to open! No need to switch to the mouse! So if you wanted to open gedit you can hit super, type ‘ge’ and hit enter. Probably faster than using menus!

    Mind you, I do see that you’re actually talking ‘the idea that I cannot execute any installed application simply by clicking minimally through the interface violates the basic premise of a GUI’. So I guess my observation here is not exactly, uh, relevant.

    • Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

      True, you can use the super key to bring up the master lens and then start typing to find an app. But that’s using the keyboard. My point is that a GUI shouldn’t need the keyboard to perform basic functions. Unity does. So in my humble opinion, Unity violates the very idea of what a GUI is supposed to be.

      I think that Unity may work fine for small screens like a cell phone or small tablet, but it seems totally out of place on a desktop whose primary input device at the OS level is a mouse/trackball or other pointing device. But as always, YMMV.

  9. I think Unity will be great once they get all the bugs worked out and change some defaults and stuff. I wouldn’t use it as is, but I think Canonical is on the right track with Unity… it’s just that Unity isn’t ready yet.

    Meantime Xfce has made some big strides with their new desktop! Editable menus (at last!), true transparency, improvements to the Thunar file manager (though I still prefer PCManFM), and other wonders to delight the user. I think alot of folks will discover Xfce in their search for an alternative to Unity and say, “whoa! Why has this been such a well-kept secret!?”

    • Greetings Sir Robin,

      I’m going to try Xfce in a virtual machine. I’m a big fan of my customized setup on top of Gnome 2.x, but Gnome 2.x will go the way of the Dodo bird in the next year or so.

      I still like Krusader as a FM, but it does take a lot of KDE libs to get it to run in Gnome.

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