Rio Design Hackfest

Rio hackfest final photo

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a design hackfest in Rio de Janeiro, which was hosted by the good people at Endless. The main purpose of the event was to foster a closer relationship between the design teams at GNOME and Endless. Those of us on the GNOME side also wanted to learn more about Endless users, so that we can support them better.

The first two days of the event were taken up with field visits, first at a favela in Rio itself, and second in a more rural setting about an hour and a half’s drive out of town. In both cases we got to meet Endless field testers, ask them questions about their lives and computer usage.

After the field trips, it was time to hit the office for three days of intensive design discussions. We started from a high level, discussing the background of GNOME 3, and looking at the similarities and differences between Endless’s OS and GNOME 3. Then, over the course of three days, we focused on specific areas where we have a mutual interest, like the shell, search, Software and app stores, and content apps like Photos, Music and Videos.

All in all, the event was a big success. Everyone at Endless was really friendly and easy to work with, and we had lots of similar concerns and aspirations. We’ve started on a process of working closer together, and I expect there to be more joint design initiatives in the future.

I’d like to give a big thank you to Endless for hosting, and for sponsoring the event. I’d also like to thank the GNOME Foundation for providing travel sponsorship.

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A settings design update

Over recent months, a fair amount of work has been done on the design of GNOME’s settings. Quite a lot of this work is experimental, but I wanted to share the work in progress and explain some of the reasoning behind it.

A major feature of the latest settings designs is a rethink of the GNOME Settings “shell” (that is, the overall framework of the settings application). We want to move from the current model, that uses an icon grid and fixed window size, to one that uses a list sidebar for navigation, and has a resizeable window.

Settings

While icon grids are an established approach for system settings, they aren’t the only solution, and we have encountered limitations with them. The main drawback of the icon grid is that it is hard to promote some settings over others. We have quite a lot of settings, and some are more frequently used and more interesting than others. To make this easy for users to deal with, we want to make some settings more prominent than others, so that users are guided into the interface in a logical way, rather than being presented with a wall of stuff that equally competes for attention.

There are other issues with the icon grid approach. It is difficult to accommodate new settings panels, and some settings don’t fit well into the constrained space of the fixed size window. This also doesn’t work very well on convertible devices (primary windows really need to be maximized when in “tablet mode”).

Moving to a list sidebar and resizeable window will address these issues, and create a much more guided experience where the order of the settings becomes familiar through use. It will also make the Settings application feel much more integrated and like a single unit, rather than being a collection of separate parts. It should make it quicker to navigate and more inviting to browse.

Settings organization
Settings organization: this features a dynamic devices section, and groups the settings sections in order to aid navigation

Moving to a list-based approach for settings involves both design and implementation challenges, and it is definitely not going to happen tomorrow. However, this is the general direction that we are aiming towards in the long term. On the design side, it requires that a number of settings panels be redesigned in order to fit into the new shell. This isn’t actually a bad thing though: most of these panels are in need of some design love anyway.

In what remains of this post, I’ll review our plans for the groups of settings where we have planned changes.

Network

Network settings are notoriously difficult to get right. I think it’s fair to say that the current ones in GNOME could be better, and they’re something that I’ve wanted to take another run at for some time. One particular issue we want to eliminate is the overcomplexity of the settings for simple, common, cases. Many of the more advanced settings could be easier to use, also.

Networking is one area that is heavily impacted by the settings shell redesign plans. We want to split Wi-Fi and Mobile Broadband out into their own panels, leaving a general Networks panel for wired connections, VPN and network proxy settings. This allows the most commonly used network settings to be made more prominent and easier to access, which will make the settings more convenient to use.

Wi-Fi settings
Wi-Fi settings, featuring a simple connection settings dialog

Another goal for this panel is to make greater use of progressive disclosure. Again we’re focusing on the common cases, and making them easy – like changing a Wi-Fi password without being exposed to IP routing settings.

Advanced network configuration dialog.
Advanced network configuration dialog; the new design condenses six sections down to four tabs

We do also want to improve the advanced network settings too, of course: by making them more compact, reducing the amount of navigation that is required, and making them more straightforward to use.

View the full wireframes.

Sound

We’ve wanted to redesign the sound settings for some time, along with a redesign of how volumes work generally. Per-application volumes don’t work well for transient system sounds or when there are lots of multimedia apps open at once (this is especially an issue when browser tabs contain music or video), and the relationship between application and system volume often results in unpredictability. We plan to replace these with three more generic volume levels (media, alerts and alarms), which will merge system and application volumes.

Sound settings
Sound settings, with everything on one page

Another issue that we plan to address is the overcomplexity of the sound settings UI itself. This isn’t necessary for what is actually a fairly simple set of features. It also prevents being able to easily get an overview of the current configuration. These issues are addressed by the new designs.

Displays

The display settings were last updated for GNOME 3.10. These changes succeeded in redefining display settings as not just being about joining displays together. In particular, it put an emphasis on using displays for presentations, where there previously hadn’t been much concern at all. However, this design tends to work best when there are a lot of displays, which is obviously not the most common case, and can be a bit too much work to use.

I’ve therefore recently been experimenting with how to modify the current design to optimise it for the two display case – which is when these settings are most commonly used. These designs are still fairly experimental, and aren’t particularly connected to the settings shell redesign that I’ve discussed above.

Display settings: two connected displays, joined
Display settings with two joined displays

The new designs attempt to bring the most important settings to the front, without requiring the user to delve into dialog windows every time. They are also structured around global modes, rather than purely consisting of per-display settings: this should make it clearer what’s going on at any one time.

View the full wireframes

Users, keyboard, printers

The changes to the Users, Keyboard and Printers settings are fairly similar, and aren’t as sweeping as some of the other design proposals. Each of these settings panels currently includes a selection list of its own, which wouldn’t work so well with the new settings shell that we’re planning. We are therefore looking to remove these selection lists. In some cases this has some real advantages, like in the Users panel, where it enables us to provide a better experience when there is only one user on the system (which is the case a lot of the time). In others it is more of a simple reorganisation.

All of the designs include various refinements and improvements on the existing designs. There are a lot of visual improvements to the printer settings, for example, and there’s improved feedback for changing shortcuts in the keyboard settings.

Conclusion

In this post, I’ve outlined the general direction that we are hoping to take with GNOME’s settings. There isn’t a fixed roadmap for any of these changes, and it might be some time until they are all implemented. However, we are making progress. One part of the plans has been implemented during the current GNOME development cycle, with the new Mouse and Touchpad settings panel, and I’m hopeful that we will continue to make push forward with this in the future.

One reason for publicising these plans when they are still at an experimental stage is to get feedback, so we can improve the designs before they are implemented. So, if you do have any thoughts on this, please get in touch, either through the comments on this post, IRC, or via one of the relevant design pages.

Design Hackfest in Rio de Janeiro

In a week and a half, a bunch of us that are involved in GNOME design will be heading to Rio de Janeiro, in order to spend some time with the good people at Endless. (If you don’t know them yet, Endless are selling computers for the developing world, all of which run a GNOME-based operating system. Their latest device, the Endless Mini has been getting some good press recently.)

This is going to be a great opportunity to develop closer relations with the Endless designers, and to learn more about the GNOME users that are using Endless devices. Coming from the wettest December on record in the UK, it will also be a welcome opportunity to see a bit of sun and blue sky.

More details can be found on the wiki. This event is kindly being sponsored by Endless.

Shortcuts love

Keyboard shortcuts can be a powerful feature, particularly for actions that are repeated often and are consistently available. In GNOME 2, shortcuts could be learned through menu bars, but we moved away from these with GNOME 3. There were a number of reasons why we did this, and it was a good thing, but it did leave users without an easy way to learn keyboard shortcuts. This is something that we’ve wanted to address for some time, and are now finally resolving.

Builder Shortcuts

Thanks to Christian Hergert and Matthias Clasen, GTK+ master now includes GtkShortcutsWindow: a window which, unsurprisingly, shows the shortcuts for an app. They have some nice features, like search and animated paging. They also provide ways to show shortcuts that belong to different views or modes, and they can provide information on touch gestures as well as keyboard shortcuts.

Files Shortcuts

For GNOME 3.20, we’ve set ourselves the target of adding shortcuts windows to as many key GNOME applications as possible, so they are consistently available. We’re making good progress: 13 apps already have them.

The new shortcuts windows are a really convenient way to find and explore application shortcuts. You’ll be able to access them through application menus, or by using one of the two dedicated shortcuts: Ctrl+? and Ctrl+F1.

Photos Screenshots

This effort is prompting us to review the keyboard shortcuts for each of the applications, and in some cases we’re adding a lot more of them. So if you use shortcuts a lot, 3.20 should be a good release for you.

The new shortcuts windows need review and refinement: if you are interested in this feature, please give them a try and provide feedback. And, if you are responsible for a GNOME application and would like to add a shortcuts window of your own, guidelines and more information can be found on the GNOME goal page.

Content apps hackfest

Last week I attended the Content Apps Hackfest in Madrid. A group of about 12 us met for three days to work on GNOME’s content apps: Documents, Files, Music, Photos and Videos. The goal for the hackfest was to make as much progress with these apps as possible, although we also ended up talking about other apps, due to who was in attendance.

I mostly helped to review the state of some of the apps, and worked on designs for new features. This included helping to work out a roadmap for Photos, working on designs for series grouping and properties pages in Videos and reviewing our plans for Files (as well as discussing various bugs we have there). I also ended up reviewing some design work for Polari and for Web.

In all it was an extremely productive trip. It always amazes me how much quicker and easier it is to work on design face-to-face. The other really nice thing about the event was that it gave application authors the opportunity to get together and work more as a team. This is really motivating, and is something we’d like to promote more in the future.

Madrid was a great location for the hackfest. I’d like to extend a big thank you to Medialab Prado for being excellent hosts: it’s a fantastic facility that does a lot of interesting things.

Finally, I’d like to thank the GNOME Foundation for helping with the cost of attending the event.