Naming Your App

So you’ve decided to make a new app for GNOME, and designed a great interface for it. Now you want to start building it, so you open Gitlab to create a new repository. But then, oh no — it wants a name for the repository. Existential dread sets in.

Naming things is hard, and naming user-facing things is even more so. App names are read, pronounced, heard, and remembered by lots of people. The name is, along with the icon, the most important identifier for your project. With this tutorial I hope to make finding a great name for your app a bit easier.

General Guidance

As the GNOME Human Interface Guidelines put it:

“An application’s name is vital. It is what users will be first exposed to, and will help them decide whether they want to use an application or not. It is a major part of your application’s public face.”

Finding a good name is not always easy, but putting in a bit of effort up-front is worth it, because renaming the app once it’s established is much harder and messier.

A good name should:

  • Consist of one or two simple nouns
  • Be related to the app’s domain (e.g. Celluloid for a video app)
  • Be short (less than 15 characters)
  • Be easy to pronounce
  • Make it easy to come up with a good icon (e.g. by referencing a physical object that could be used as the icon)
  • Use title case (e.g. Icon Preview instead of iconPreview)

A good name should avoid:

  • Using trademarks or names of other projects (e.g. GNOME MPV)
  • Having a “G” prefix (e.g. GParted)
  • Overly complicated names and acronyms (e.g. GIMP)
  • Puns and inside jokes (e.g. D-Feet)
  • Non-standard punctuation or whitespace (e.g. UberWriter)
  • Made-up words or word combinations (e.g. Inkscape)

The Process

Over the years I’ve been involved with naming a lot of projects, and at this point I have a process which consistently produces pretty good results. It more or less goes like this:

  1. Write down all the words related to the app’s domain you can think of
  2. Do a thesaurus search for some of those words to find even more related words
  3. When you have about 15, start picking out some of the best-sounding ones, and look at their other qualities. Are they too long? Easy enough to pronounce? Do they have any unintended negative connotations?
  4. Once you have picked a handful of favorites, do a quick check to see if the names are already taken
  5. Among the ones not taken, pick your favorite one

Of course, when naming an app which is part of GNOME itself, the rules are a little different because these apps have completely generic names describing their function or the type content they show (e.g. Files, Image Viewer, Fonts, Music). That’s a much more rare (and usually easier) case though, so in this tutorial I’ll focus on independent third-party apps.

Let’s look at a real-world example of this process. A few months ago I was involved in renaming an internet radio app. At the time it was called Gradio, which was a bad name for many of the reasons mentioned above, and we wanted a nicer name for the new, completely rewritten version of the app.

1. Brainstorm

So, internet radio. What words immediately come to mind?

  • Radio
  • Transmission
  • Stations

These are pretty generic, so let’s branch out a bit. As with most digital technologies it’s hard to find nice metaphors, but we can make use of the analog predecessor to it (i.e. analog radio). Are there physical objects related to that which we could use?

  • Receiver
  • Headphones
  • Antenna

Maybe something related to analog radio technology?

  • Transistor
  • Frequencies

What about names of people who worked on the technology?

  • Marconi
  • Hertz

2. Thesaurus

Now that we have a few words to start with, let’s plug them into a thesaurus and see if there are any good related words. This is usually pretty hit or miss, as most related words you’ll find will not be relevant to the domain or make sense as names. However, after a few searches I always find a few good options that I didn’t think of before.

Here are a few additional words from thesaurus searches:

  • Transmission
  • Shortwave
  • Wireless
  • Decibel

In this particular case we also had a branstorming session on Matrix with a group of people from the community, which produced a few more options:

  • Longwave
  • Shortrange
  • Hzzzzz
  • Spectrum
  • Waves

3. Pick the best ones

Now we have about 20 words, which is a good place to stop brainstorming and start looking at which ones would make good names.

This process is not very scientific, just look at each word and imagine it as the name of the app. In particular, pay attention to the length of the name, ease of pronunciation, and whether it sounds nice.

In this case, some of my favorites are:

  • Transistor
  • Hertz
  • Spectrum
  • Shortwave

They’re all relatively short, easy to pronounce, and sound good as app names. The main question at this point is whether we can use them or if they’re already taken.

4. Check if they’re taken

I usually start off by searching directly on Github, to see if there are other FOSS already projects using the name. If I don’t find anything there, I search for the name on on Duckduckgo, adding “app” or “open source”.

In many cases you’ll find something somewhere using the name already. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem if it’s an app/project/company in a different domain, but it’s good to avoid large projects and companies.

In this case, it turns out “Transistor” is already a radio app for Android. Since it’s an app doing something very similar, people might think our radio app is affiliated with this project, which we want to avoid.

Hertz” is the name of a car rental service. It’s a pretty big company, so best to stay away from that as well.

Spectrum” is already the name of a forum software (which looks really cool btw). The potential for confusion is low, but the project looks well-established with 6000+ stars on Github, so not a great option.

Shortwave” is used by a bookmarking app, and there are some search results related to actual analog radio software, but nothing that looks big or problematic. This seems like a viable option.

5. Pick a winner

At this point you probably already know which of the viable options you like best, so just go ahead and make it official. In our example,”Shortwave” won because it was short but distinct-sounding, related to the domain, a pronounceable English word, and not taken by any major projects or companies.

The Shortwave Gitlab repo with the new name

If you find that all your favorites are taken, go back to the first steps and do some more brainstorming. The perfect name for your app is out there, and you’ll find it!

Bonus: Good Examples

For inspiration, here are some examples of well-named third party apps in the GNOME ecosystem, and what makes their names great:

Fragments — A torrent app. The name is great because it’s unique among torrent app names (which usually reference water, e.g. Deluge), yet still clearly connected to the domain (BitTorrent splits up files into lots of tiny parts and sends them in random order).

Peek — A GIF screen recorder. The name is very appropriate since the app is for making short recordings of small parts of the screen. The app feels small, quick, and frictionless, which the name perfectly encapsulates.

Teleport — Sends files across the local network.  The idea behind Teleport is to make sending a file across the local network effortless compared to other methods, such as using web services or USB drives. Using a sci-fi metaphor in the name lends itself well to that.

Designing for the Librem 5

So you’re excited about the Librem 5 and GNOME going mobile, and want to start building an app for it. Of course, the first step is to design your app. This can seem quite challenging if you’re just starting out with a new platform, but fear not! In this blog post I’ll walk you through some of the most important UI patterns, and the process of going from idea to mockups step by step. Throughout this I’ll be using a read-it-later app as an example.

The GNOME design philosophy

Before starting to design for a platform, it’s good to familiarize yourself with the design philosophy of the platform. The GNOME Human Interface Guidelines have a “design principles” page which I encourage you to read in its entirety, but will paraphrase a few highlights from here:

Simplicity and Focus — Make sure you have clear goals for your app from the outset, and focus on those. Often it’s better to make a separate application to cover an additional use case rather than cramming too many things into one app (e.g. video podcasts are different enough from audio podcasts to be better off as their own app).

Search and Undo — If there are large amounts of content in your app, provide full-text search to make it easy to find things. Be forgiving about people making mistakes by making it hard to lose data, and never use a warning when you mean undo.

Avoid Preferences — “Just adding an option” often seems like a quick fix, but in most cases you’re just treating symptoms rather than the root cause. It’s better to figure out what that root cause is and fix the problem for everyone, rather than papering over the cracks with a preference. I highly recommend this article by Havoc Pennington on the topic.

Design Process

Now that we’re full of high-minded ideals, let’s jump into the actual design process. Let’s design a great read-it-later app.

We will follow the GNOME design process, which primarily consists of three steps (plus iterations):

  1. Define goals and non-goals for your app
  2. Collect relevant art, i.e. examples of similar apps to borrow ideas from
  3. Make sketches/mockups of the main views and user flows

1. Define Goals

The app we’re designing is going to be a native client for read-it-later web services (such as Pocket). These services allow you to store articles and other web pages that you are interested in, but don’t have time to read right now. That way you can catch up on all the stuff you saved later on, when you have more time. As such, our primary goals are:

  • Listing your saved articles
  • Providing a great, focused experience for reading articles in the app
  • Helping you actually catch up with your reading list
  • Storing articles offline, so they can be read without a network connection

Some non-goals, i.e. things that are out of scope for this application:

  • Social features
  • Content discovery

2. Relevant Art

The next step is to find some examples of existing apps that do similar things. It’s good to look at how other people have solved the same problems, what they do well, and what could be improved before jumping into designing a new app.

So let’s check out the competition:

Pocket on Android (screenshots by me)

Pocket on Android has a lot of features, and a pretty complicated interface. It has lots of categories, social features, a discover section, text-to-speech, and much more. I’ve personally never used most of these features, and they make the app feel quite cluttered. In my experience Pocket is also not very good at helping me get through the list of things I’ve already saved. It feels like it mostly wants me to discover new things to save (and then not read).

Clearly there are some lessons to be learned here for our app.

Instapaper on iOS (screenshots from App Store listing)

I’ve never used the app myself, but judging from screenshots, Instapaper’s UI feels a lot saner and more focused than Pocket. I also really like the rich article previews in the list view and the nice typography.

Wallabag for Android (screenshots from Google Play listing)

Wallabag is a self-hosted alternative to Pocket and Instapaper. This Android client for it (also called Wallabag) is not very sophisticated UI-wise, but it’s a good example of a very simple native client for this kind of service.

Structurally, these apps are all quite similar: a main view with a list of articles, and an article view that just displays the article in a clean, readable format.

Depending on the service, there are multiple lists for different types of articles such as Archive, Highlights, Favorites, Notes, etc. To keep things simple, and because we’re targeting Wallabag first and foremost (since it’s the only self-hosted service), we’re going with only three categories: Unread, Archive, and Favorites.

This means that our application is going to have four main screens we need to design: the three article categories mentioned above plus a reader view, which displays the article content.

3. Sketches/Mockups

Now that we have a basic idea of the structure of the app, we can finally dive into designing the UI. Personally, I like starting off with sketches on paper and then move to Inkscape for more detailed mockups, but you can use any tool you’re familiar with. You don’t need to be good at drawing or a particular application for this, just find a way to visualize your ideas which works for you :)

If you’re using Inkscape for mockups, you might want to check out the GNOME mockup template which contains some common layouts and patterns to use in your designs. If you are looking for GNOME-style symbolic icons for your mockups, you can find them here, here, and here.

When it comes to the layout of an interface, one of the first things to consider is what navigation structure makes the most sense for the type of content you have.

The most common navigation patterns in GNOME apps are the Stack, the View Switcher, and the Sidebar List.

Example of Stack navigation in GNOME Photos

The Stack pattern is when you have completely separate views with no shared UI, and a back button to go back to the overview. This is what Photos does for navigating between the stream of photos and the detailed view of an individual photo, for example. There is a bit more friction to switch between views than with other patterns, but it’s also more focused. This pattern is great for situations where you don’t switch between views a lot.

View switcher in GNOME Clocks

The View Switcher is for cases where there are a small number of views that are equally important or need to always be easily accessible. It’s used in GNOME apps such as Clocks, Music, and Software as the primary navigation. On the desktop, this switcher is always in the headerbar, but there’s work on a new adaptive version of it, which moves to the bottom of the screen for mobile. This is not quite ready yet, but will hit a version of Libhandy near you soon™.

Sidebar List in Fractal

The Sidebar List is for cases where there are a lot of views that you need to switch between often. For example, it’s used in Fractal for the room list, because it gives an overview of all rooms and allows for quick context switching. Of course, on mobile there’s not enough space for a content pane and a sidebar, so there is a Libhandy widget called Leaflet, which transforms from a Sidebar List on desktop to a Stack on mobile.

Experimental branch of GNOME Settings using HdyLeaflet to switch between Sidebar List and Stack navigation

For our read-it-later app, we need navigation to switch between the different lists (Unread, Archive, Favorites), and to switch between list and article views.

The former is a small set of views that we want to be easily accessible, so a view switcher is a good fit. Since we can’t use the shiny new adaptive view switcher widget yet, we can use a plain old view switcher in the header bar for now (though we can already design the UI with the new switcher in mind).

For the latter we could either use a stack or a sidebar list (using the Leaflet widget so it works on mobile). Since we want this app to be a focused reading experience and switching back and forth quickly between articles is not a very common use case, a Stack is probably the best solution here.

This means that our main screens will look something like this:

Quick pencil sketch of the layout for the list and article screens

Article List Screens

Now that we have a basic navigation structure we can design the individual screens in more detail. The three article list screens are basically the same lists with different content.

The main purpose of these screens is to provide a nice, legible list of the saved articles that entices people to catch up with their reading list. In order to do this we’re going with a comfortable layout including article title, preview, and some information about the article.

To help people catch up with their saved articles, we should also try to make the content as interesting as possible. A simple reverse-chronological list of saved items is quite boring, and I’ve noticed in my own use that I often scroll down the list randomly to discover older articles. A potential way to build this into the core experience would be to show the reading list in randomized order, and show the most recently saved articles at the top in a separate category. I’ve tried that in the mockups below.

Mockups of the Unread, Archive and Favorites screens (the latter two are structurally identical, though of course in the real app they’d have different content)

In terms of actions, we need to expose search and selection mode (for operations on multiple elements), as well as the application’s primary menu. The primary menu contains global app-level things such as Help, Preferences, and About.

In selection mode we need the ability to move articles to Favorites and Archive, and delete them from our reading list. Since this is not essential functionality though, we won’t be doing designs for it yet. If you want to learn more, have a look at the selection mode page in the GNOME HIG. The same goes for search (relevant HIG page).

Article Screen

The article screen’s job is pretty straightforward: provide a great reading experience for the saved articles. Since many websites kind of suck in this regard, a reader mode (like Epiphany and Firefox have) should be the default view whenever possible. However, since there’s no guarantee that a given article will be rendered perfectly, we need some way to show to the website with its native styling when necessary.

We also need a way to move an article to Favorites and Archive, delete it, and share it. The most important actions are usually exposed directly in the header bar, but for less important actions (or if there’s not enough space), we can use a secondary menu.

Mockup of the article screen

Desktop

We now know more or less what the app looks like on mobile, but what about the desktop? As with responsive web design, if you design your app for mobile first, it’s usually pretty easy to make it work well on larger screens too.

In this case, since we don’t have any sidebars or other complicated layout elements, the main change happening at larger sizes is that the content column width grows with the window, until it reaches a maximum width comfortable for reading. This can be implemented by wrapping the content area in an HdyColumn. The view switcher also moves up to the header bar, and there is a close button on the right side.

Desktop mockups of some screens

There’s more…

What we now have is the basic structure and most important screens of the application, but that’s of course far from everything. We don’t yet have designs for login and account settings, empty states, first run experience, errors, search, and a number of other things. I wanted to stick to the basics for this post, but perhaps I could expand on these things in future blog posts if there’s interest.

It’s also worth noting that mockups are never final, and interfaces almost always change during implementation, as you learn more about use cases, the underlying technology, and other constraints. Ideally you’d also do some informal user testing on real people, and get feedback on the design that way.

I hope this has been useful as an introduction to designing apps for the Librem 5 (and GNOME more generally). If you have any questions feel free to drop by on #gnome-design on IRC/Matrix or the Librem 5 apps Matrix room (#community-librem-apps:talk.puri.sm).

If you want to play with the mockups I made for this tutorial, here’s the source SVG.

Restyling apps at scale

tl;dr: If you want to change how an app looks, you need a designer in the loop.

Over the past few months we’ve had a lively debate about “theming” in GNOME, and how it affects our ecosystem. In this discussion I’ve found that there is a divide between people who design and/or develop apps, and people who don’t. I have yet to see an app developer who thinks the current approach to “theming” can work, while many people who aren’t app developers are arguing that it can.

After a few long discussions I started to realize that part of the reason why there’s so little agreement and so much drama around this issue is that we don’t agree what the problem is. Those who don’t work on apps often can’t see the issues with theming and think we want to remove things for no reason, while those who do are very frustrated that the other side doesn’t want to acknowledge how broken everything is.

The basic issue we’re arguing about is whether it’s possible to restyle applications automatically, at scale, without breaking them. In this post I’ll try to explain why I think that it isn’t possible, and why trying to do it is hurting our ecosystem.

There are no themes, just CSS

A fundamental misconception a lot of people have is that GTK 3 supports theming. This is not true, as there is no clearly defined theming API. There are CSS stylesheets, but they were only ever meant to be used by the platform and app developers. The platform stylesheet is called Adwaita (“the only one” in Sanskrit) for a reason.

However, some people (inlcluding major distributions) have been using custom stylesheets as a hacky approximation of “themes” for so long now that nobody even remembers that they are not a real theming API.

An older version of GRadio with Ubuntu’s Ambiance theme

Since CSS is a huge API surface, which is used by both app developers and “theme” developers, it’s very easy for the two to conflict. This leads to apps looking broken unless you manually do QA for every app/theme combination.

“You’re exaggerating, it’s not that bad.”

One of the most frustrating things about the current situation is that to users, it looks like it almost works. For the most part, third-party themes look and work okayish, there are just a few small bugs here and there. A button with too little contrast, an underline clashing with a border, a really large loading spinner. Not that big a deal, you’d think.

However, this view of the situation misses a few really important realities:

  1. App developers are doing a lot of bug fixing to account for “theming”, because people complain to them when their app is broken on certain distros. The current situation essentially forces developers to fix bugs for setups they never intended to support in the first place. They’re not happy about it, but they’re doing it because they don’t want their users to have broken apps.
  2. App developers are trying hard not do anything innovative or visual in their apps, because they know it will break with other stylesheets.
  3. “Theme” developers are fixing a lot of bugs for edge cases in individual apps in their stylesheets. Of course, this is a never-ending task because as soon as a new version of an app is released, something will very likely be broken again.

All of this only kinda sorta works because we have very few apps. If we ever hope to grow our ecosystem past a few dozen apps things have to change, because maintaining a “theme” gets less sustainable with every new app.

There is also the question of what your definition of “broken” is. Some people think that things like these are acceptable:

Date picker in Calendar on Pop OS: There are double arrows left of the month and year labels.
“New Folder” dialog in Nautilus with Ambiance: There’s an invisible “Create” button in the top right.
Gedit on Pop OS: There’s a brown rectangle sticking out of the window at the top, and the widgets at the top of the sidebar look awkward and don’t make sense in this configuration.

I believe this is nowhere near ok. App developers put a lot of effort into making sure their apps look and feel right, fixing bugs, and doing QA. Having distributors change their apps (often in ways that break things) with no QA before users get to experience them is developer-hostile, and would be unacceptable in any other context.

Can you imagine Samsung restyling every third-party app on their phones, without testing them, and when Instagram complains that the text on their buttons is illegible Samsung just shrug and say “Sorry, but branding is very important to us. Why don’t you change your app?”.

“But it’s fine as long as you follow best practices!”

This is a common sentiment among some people. “If only app developers followed best practices, used CSS variables, and derived their colors from theme colors, everything would be fine”, the argument goes. While it’s true that these things are important and make apps more flexible in terms of appearance, this doesn’t come close to solving the entire problem.

If every app only used default GTK controls, in very simple layouts, with no custom widgets or in-app CSS, then best practices would perhaps be enough to prevent apps from breaking. But the reality is that a) this is not the case, and b) we really don’t want it to be the case.

Human Interface Guidelines are just that: guidelines. They have to be implemented manually, they change and evolve over time, and the best apps on any platform push their boundaries in some places and experiment with new patterns (which then sometimes make their way back into the HIG).

This kind of experimentation means that it’s impossible to “theme” apps automatically. Visual design and interaction design are very closely linked, so if you want to change the style, you need a designer to actually think about what a widget should look like.

For example: How should the Pop theme know what a “flat” variant of the new Nautilus path bar should look like? It’s impossible to do this automatically, because it’s a new pattern.

The new path bar in Nautilus
The new path bar in Nautilus with the Pop OS theme (completely broken)

This is not a rare situation, even among core GNOME apps. Many of the apps I’ve personally worked on have their own equivalent of the Nautilus path bar. And that’s the way it should be. Apps have different needs that sometimes require custom solutions, and this experimentation is good for the ecosystem. However, it also means that automatic restyling is impossible.

“But what about Adwaita Dark and High Contrast?”

The point that the dark and high contrast variants of Adwaita can be seen as GTK 3 kinda sorta supporting themes is technically accurate, but misguided. Adwaita variants may technically just be different stylesheets, but this is just an implementation detail. There are very clear differences between them and third-party “themes”.

  1. They are very very close to Adwaita code-wise, and therefore much less likely to break.
  2. There’s a finite number of them, and they are part of the platform. This makes them a tangible target for developers to test for and support, which is completely different from third-party “themes” which just apply random CSS to every app without any QA.
  3. They are part of the same design language, so they require very little extra work to adapt to from a design point of view. If you follow the best practices mentioned above, often no work at all.
GNOME Builder with Adwaita Dark

“But what about consistency? I want all my apps to look the same!”

“Consistency” is a word you hear a lot in debates about theming, but it seems to mean different things to different people.

To some, consistency effectively means “everything should use the same colors”. This is relatively easy to achieve for some apps, even across toolkits, if you simply provide a “theme” for each toolkit.
However, this “consistency” is very shallow. Just because a Qt app uses the Adwaita colors it doesn’t automatically fit in with the GNOME platform. UI patterns are much more important, and they can’t be changed with theming. There is no magic that can redesign menu bar apps with header bars.

No matter how hard you theme these, they will never look native on GNOME

Real consistency can only happen by design, and requires the app developer to build it into the app at every step. If you want all your apps to look the same, only use apps built for your platform’s HIG. “Fixing” apps after the fact with theming isn’t really making your system more consistent, but it’s hurting app developers a great deal.

Of course, even the very shallow “everything uses the same colors” consistency is impossible to enforce across all apps and toolkits. Apps like Blender, Telegram, or Steam don’t respond to system theming at all, and even Firefox and Chromium only do so in a very limited fashion.

“But users *want* themes!”

“Users” want a lot of things, but just because you want something impossible that doesn’t make it possible. In this case, it’s important to be aware of the costs of giving complete visual freedom to “themes”, both in individual app developer effort, and chilling effects on the ecosystem. If given a choice between customization and more, better apps, I’m confident the majority of people would prefer the latter.

Would it be nice if there were a way to be able to restyle every app to make them look like Material Design, or macOS, or Windows 95, and have them all look as if they were built for that style? Absolutely! I would love that! However, as I’ve tried to explain in this blog post, this is simply not realistic.

So, what can we do?

As the recent discussions have shown, talking about solutions before we agree what the problem is isn’t very productive, so for now I’m mostly interested in making sure we’re all aware of the problem and its various facets. There are several different stakeholders with different perspectives on this issue, and making progress will mean making some hard choices. At this year’s GUADEC we had a Theming & Ecosystem BoF where we talked about a number of potential directions, and I hope we can move forward on that path.

No matter what we come up with though, I think it’s crucial that we start taking the needs of app developers seriously. Developers are the lifeblood of any platform, and we’ve been treating them very poorly. If we want to grow our ecosystem and actually compete with other major platforms, we need to fix that.

Note: The examples in this post have been chosen because the themes in question ship with major distributions, so app developers tend to get complaints about them. It’s not my intention to single them out, this problem applies to all third-party themes equally.

Banquets and Barbecues

tl;dr: We’re splitting up Fractal into two separate apps: One to replace IRC, the other to replace Telegram.

This is an in-depth post on the thinking behind the split of the Fractal app, which was decided at the hackfest in Strasbourg last week. For more information about the hackfest, have a look at my other blog post.

1-1 woes

One of the biggest problems with Fractal at the moment is that 1-1 messaging is pretty terrible. Since the rooms in the sidebar are sorted by most recent activity, high-traffic public rooms (such as GNOME IRC channels) tend to drown out rooms with less traffic, such as 1-1s and small groups. This is problematic because the signal-to-noise ratio in 1-1 chats and small groups tends to be much higher than in high-traffic public rooms. This leaves the user constantly searching for the rooms they care about, while the rooms they don’t care about are always at the top.

1-1 chats are quickly drowned out by high-traffic public rooms in the sidebar

One way to solve this problem is having a favorites group for “important” rooms. This is a feature Fractal has had for a while, and it does solve some of the problems with a room list sorted purely by recent activity. However, it only works well for rooms that are important over long periods of time, and needs to be managed manually. 1-1 chats are often brief, and there can be many of them in parallel. Putting them in favorites doesn’t make sense in many cases, as it would balloon the size of the favorites group, and require lots of manual work when starting or ending a conversation.

The “obvious” solution would be doing what Riot does: Having a separate group of 1-1 rooms in the sidebar, and thereby keeping the 1-1 conversations in one consistent place. However, this creates more problems than it solves. In practice, it results in multiple groups of arbitrary length competing for real estate in the sidebar. If you have a lot of 1-1s, this means that you’ll be able to see very few rooms (even when most of the 1-1s are old and not relevant at the moment). In Riot, this group is capped at 10 visible rooms by default, but that’s still not great if you only need 2 of them at the moment. The category can be collapsed, but then you can’t see which 1-1s have new messages, and it also means lots of busywork collapsing/expanding the group. Clearly this isn’t an ideal solution, which is why we were very hesitant to go down this path.

Riot’s separate 1-1 category doesn’t really solve the problem, because old 1-1s take up a ton of vertical real estate when it’s expanded

A way out?

As we were discussing this issue over the past few months, I started looking more closely at the way people use different messaging tools. One thing I found puzzling is that despite the fact that Matrix theoretically supports the use cases covered by popular apps like Whatsapp and Telegram, few people are actually using it to replace those apps. Instead, they use it to replace IRC and Slack.

Why? My theory is that most chat rooms fall in one of three categories:
Private Chats, which include 1-1s and small groups; Team Chats, which are larger, but still private and invite-only; and Public Rooms, which are basically like IRC.

Team Chats and Public Rooms share many characteristics: Both have relatively high amounts of traffic, and there’s a lot of noise. The main difference is that Team Chats are private and the members rarely change (e.g. a company’s internal Slack), while Public Rooms can be joined by anyone at any time, and there is no expectation of privacy (e.g. #gnome-hackers on IRC).

However, Private Chats have relatively little in common with the other two categories: They are low-traffic, and have little or no noise. This may sound like a small difference, but I think it’s the reason why 1-1s suck in Fractal/Riot/IRC, and why people aren’t using Matrix to replace Telegram.

The Banquet and the Barbecue

I’ve come to the conclusion that one app can’t cover all the use cases that the Matrix protocol supports, and still provide competitive UX. If you design an app to deal with lots of high-traffic rooms (e.g. Riot as it is today), it will suck for 1-1s, so people will use something else for those. Similarly, Telegram is primarily designed for 1-1s and small groups, which is why it’s a terrible experience if you have many high-traffic groups.

If we want Matrix to succeed as more than an IRC/Slack replacement we need multiple apps, each focusing on a distinct use case. For messaging, I think the most important distinction to make is between what I call the Banquet and the Barbecue.

Slack is one of the most widely used apps covering the Banquet use case

The Banquet is a big, loud place. There are tons of people, and you don’t know many of them. Lots of things are happening all the time, and it’s hard to keep track of everything. This is what Matrix is currently mostly used for. Slack, IRC, and Discord are also all in this category.

iMessage is a good example of an app focused on the Barbecue use case

The Barbecue is at the other end of the spectrum: It’s a calm, private environment where friends, family, co-workers, and other acquaintances hang out. Conversations are mostly between 2 or 3 people, slow, and often very personal. Telegram, Whatsapp, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and a myriad of other chat apps are optimized for this use case.

Fracturing Fractal

Now, what does this mean for Fractal? After a long discussion on Thursday, we decided to split up Fractal into two separate apps with different interfaces, each containing a subset of the user’s Matrix rooms.

Exactly how rooms will be split between the two apps is not 100% clear yet. 1-1s are clearly Barbecue, public rooms are clearly Banquet, but private groups could go either way. For these cases we may need a way to explicitly move rooms between apps. The distinction should probably be part of the Matrix spec, so the intent for a room to be a Barbecue or Banquet room could be set when creating a room, and persist across devices.

The two apps will share practically all the internals, and even large parts of the interface. However, the split will allow us to do some things differently in each app to optimize the interfaces for the different use cases. Some of the changes we’re considering are a bubble-style message view in the Barbecue app, and more room categories (such as low-priority) in the Banquet app’s sidebar.

For more details on the split have a look at the blog posts by Daniel, Eisha, Julian, and Adrien.

Messages and Discussions

How exactly the apps will be branded (and what will happen to the Fractal name we all love) is still being decided, but there is some consensus to move to GNOME-style generic names. The Barbecue app will almost certainly be called “Messages”. For the Banquet app there’s less agreement, but my current favorite is “Discussions”.

Early-stage mockups showing what the two different apps could look like

The Fractal brand will not go away though: We’re thinking of keeping it around as the name of the community project that develops both GNOME Matrix apps, and/or using it for the backend powering both apps.

There are lots of details to be figured out in this transition, both from a design and an implementation perspective, but I’m very excited about this new direction. If you’d like to join the effort, come talk to us on Matrix.

Note: I have no illusions that this change will magically get everyone to leave Whatsapp/Telegram/iMessage and move to Matrix. In the short term, the goal is simply to make Matrix 1-1s a good experience. That said, if we ever want Matrix to make inroads with the general public, I think a move in this direction is an important precondition.

UX Hackfest London

Last week I took part in the GNOME Shell UX Hackfest in London, along with other designers and developers from GNOME and adjacent communities such as Endless, Pop!, and elementary. We talked about big, fundamental things, like app launching and the lock/login screen, as well as some smaller items, like the first-run experience and legacy window decorations.

I won’t recap everything in detail, because Cassidy from System76 has already done a great job at that. Instead, I want to highlight some of the things I found most interesting.

Spatial model

One of my main interests for this hackfest was to push for better animations and making better use of the spatial dimension in GNOME Shell. If you’ve seen my GUADEC Talk, you know about my grand plan to introduce semantic animations across all of GNOME, and the Shell is obviously no exception. I’m happy to report that we made good progress towards a clear, unified spatial model for GNOME Shell last week.

Everything we came up with are very early stage concepts at this point, but I’m especially excited about the possibility of having the login/unlock screen be part of the same space as the rest of the system, and making the transition between these fluid and semantic.

Tiling

Another utopian dream of mine is a tiling-first desktop. I’ve long felt that overlapping windows are not the best way to do multitasking on screens, and tiling is something I’m very interested in exploring as an alternative. Tiling window managers have long done this, but their UX is usually subpar. However, some text editors like Atom have pretty nice graphical implementations of tiling window managers nowadays, and I feel like this approach might be scalable enough to cover most OS-level use cases as well (perhaps with something like a picture-in-picture mode for certain use cases).

Tiling in the Atom text editor
Tiling in the Atom text editor

We touched on this topic at various points during this hackfest, especially in relation to the resizable half-tiling introduced in 3.26, and the coming quarter-tiling. However, our current tech stack and the design of most apps are not well suited to a tiling-first approach, so this is unlikely ot happen anytime soon. That said, I want to keep exploring alternatives to free-floating, overlapping windows, and will report on my progress here.

Header bars everywhere

A topic we only briefly touched on, but which I care about a lot, was legacy window decorations (aka title bars). Even though header bars have been around for a while, there are still a lot of apps we all rely on with ugly, space-eating bars at the top (Inkscape, I’m looking at you).

Screenshot of a full-screen Blender window with a title bar
On a 1366x768px display, a 35px title bar takes up close to 5% of the entire screen.

We discussed possible solutions such as conditionally hiding title bars in certain situations, but finally decided that the best course of action is to work with apps upstream to add support for header bars. Firefox and Chromium are currently in the process of implementing this, and we want to encourage other third-party apps to do the same.

Screenshot of Firefox with client-side decorations
Firefox with client-side decorations (in development)

This will be a long and difficult process, but it will result in better apps for everyone, instead of hacky partial solutions. The work on this has just begun, and I’ll blog more about it as this initiative develops.

In summary, I think the hackfest set a clear direction for the future of GNOME Shell, and one that I’m excited to work towards. I’d like to thank the GNOME Foundation for sponsoring my attendance, Allan and Mario for organizing the hackfest, and everyone who attended for being there, and being awesome! Until next time!

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