A Kubuntu-Netbook first time user's feedback

A. Rothman amichai2 at amichais.net
Sun Nov 1 00:39:27 GMT 2009


I just tried out the new kubuntu-netbook release, and wanted to share my 
thoughts - unfortunately made up almost entirely of 'constructive 
criticism' :-(

The following is copied/edited from the #kubuntu-netbook channel, which 
pointed me to this list, and is written as a real-world thought train, 
simple yet exaggerated/sarcastic, of a first time user - I hope no one 
gets offended by the style, but remember I took the (long) time to write 
it with the hope that it will ultimately be helpful and insightful, and 
in the hope to see this become a leading netbook distribution :-)

Disclaimer: I started off by trying out kubuntu-netbook in virtualbox, 
to check out the interface before I install it on the netbook. I realize 
this will be a slightly different experience than the real thing, but 
most of the feedback is about deeper design issues and unrelated bugs.

It's quite long, but covers many points. I hope somebody reads it.

After the first 30 seconds from my first login, my impression was: wtf? 
That's a damn bizarre interface, not what I'd expect for a simple 
netbook. It's not that it's different from what I'm used to; it's that 
it's different in an overly-complex, confusing, cumbersome and 
non-intuitive way.

After about 15 minutes more of playing around with it, and a tip or two 
from someone in the #kubuntu-netbook channel, I think I figured out how 
most of the interface works, after which my response was: wtf?

Let me guide you through my experience.

First, the menu. Nice large icons, good for a small display. It should 
be easier to navigate on a netbook than with the regular K menu, even 
with a touchpad, right? so there's the main menu categories, good. click 
on a category. The main icons are replaced with the submenu icons. ok. 
How do I go back up the hierarchy? No arrows there. The main categories 
are gone. No right-click. Can't click off the menu to reset it. wtf?

So, after a bunch of tinkering - what's that? a little house icon. Was 
it here before? I'm not quite sure, I was looking at the menu. But it 
looks familiar, like from a browser. On the very corner. Of the desktop. 
Like a 'my computer' icon in windows, or other such desktop icons, on 
desktops. What does it do?

Oooh! The house-shaped desktop icon, is nothing more than a back arrow 
for the menu! So instead of simple normal navigation, we now get to move 
all the way to the corner, click on a desktop icon, and move all the way 
back to the center (touchpads aren't the quickest way around). Want to 
look through the menus to see what's available? repeat this half a dozen 
times, sliding the touchpad back and forth from the center of the screen 
to the corner, stopping for clicks at each end, with the little house 
zapping in and out of existence. wtf?

Just off the top of my head: put the icon right next to the menu. Use an 
intuitive graphic, such as a back arrow, or a constant K-menu logo, or 
something familiar and intuitive. Or a stretched out arrow thing like in 
the regular K-menu, maybe horizontal on top of the icons. Even better, 
reduce the number of clicks necessary altogether - maybe a two-row menu, 
with the top being the main categories, and the bottom one being the 
sub-menu. it's intuitive, simple, static, requires less movement and 
fewer clicks (no need for a 'back' button at all). If for some reason 
you don't like a two-line menu (although there's plenty of space for 
that, even on a netbook) - u can use the single bar, and have a 
right-click go up one level in the menu. no need to use the touchpad to 
do that. The point is that u don't have to stray too far from the 
regular desktop K-menu - the standard navigation mechanism is already 
pretty good! Come to think of it, just take the normal K-menu and turn 
it sideways, moving the text into tooltips. No need to reinvent it from 

ok, on to the next thing - that transparent bar above it. For a new 
user, it's certainly bizarre. u can't click nor right-click on it. 
nothing to scroll. nothing drags in, nothing drags out. what is it? My 
first thought - it's the new taskbar! So I start a couple of 
applications, but nada. A few more tests, opening some apps, console, 
calculator, firefox. Oh wait! The firefox icon suddenly appears in this 
strange aquarium bar! maybe only some apps go there, and not others? 
Very strange. I click on it, and yet another firefox instance opens, not 
the running one. Hmmm. Maybe a right-click will explain something? Nope. 
If only there was some explanation somewhere, even grayed out text, a 
placeholder for what's to come, telling me what this thing is...

So, let's put that aside for now, figure it out later. Where are all the 
apps I just opened? The top-left corner of the taskbar says '11 running 
apps'. Where are they? No icons? No task buttons? Nope. No way to find 
them. Maybe click on this corner? It seems to give visual feedback for 
the click, but nothing happens. Oh well. So I turn to old habits, and 
eventually find alt-tab works. Glad that works, even if it's somewhat 
annoying to scroll through 11 apps like that. Ok, so not even tiny task 
icons to remind me what's running and let me switch apps with a glance. 
Let's move on.

Playing with the interface a few more minutes, I notice there's a little 
star icon in the menu items, and little minus sign in the favorites 
thing. It took a while to notice each, and figure out what they do, and 
what the mysterious bar does - favorites. Mainly, they're not too 
noticable. The human brain tends to ignore tiny things that fade in and 
fade out a tad off center from where you're looking at, especially when 
there are other effects going on at the same time (the whole icon frame 
fading in and out around it, while the mouse is also moving). That first 
time firefox popped into the favorites bar, I must have clicked the star 
by mistake without even noticing. Both the star icons and minus icons 
are sort of in the way of clicking on the icon itself! I found it a 
novel idea at first, putting a button-icon on top of an icon, but less 
than a minute later I found it to be more annoying and mistake-prone 
than useful. Especially with the knowledge that now I have to be extra 
careful about the exact placement of the pointer using the touchpad, not 
to hit the star, which makes the larger-than usual icons moot.

Again, the simple, known and intuitive approach could do the same, with 
not much more effort. No need to reinvent the wheel. Dragging an icon 
from the menu to the favorites makes it a favorite. Right clicking on it 
gives a 'add to favorites' option. Right-clicking on the favorite icon 
gives a 'remove favorite' option. Dragging the icon out of the favorites 
to anywhere outside it removes it as well. Note, in addition, that this 
action of adding/removing doesn't happen too often in one's computer 
lifetime, if at all. So having the add/remove icon buttons there all the 
time is just annoying and in the way, since u normally don't use them in 
daily work. These infrequent configuration items are exactly the place 
where it's ok to trade a tiny bit more mouse activity, in return for 
zero clutter during normal work. They should be invisible when I don't 
need them, and magically-intuitive to find and use when I do.

ok, let's move on. There's the desktop, which seems to do nothing. Can't 
click or right-click, can't drag icons onto it. It looks like there's no 
interaction possible with the desktop at all. Not quite a desktop, more 
of a wallpaper. So everything useful in the interface is tiny, hidden or 
squeezed, but half the desktop is wasted space. wtf?

So now I look at the task bar again. Let's explore! Hmm.. those two tiny 
little icons - a helpful tooltip says they can lock or logoff, very 
convenient. But why on earth are they so tiny? Less than half the size 
of an already tiny icon! Maybe because it's a netbook, and there's not 
much space to waste. But wait, this taskbar has a whole lot of wasted 
blank space on it, and the two main buttons on it are sooooo wide, 
horizontal real-estate doesn't seem to be the problem... nope. It's just 
another wierd 'let's do it different for no apparent reason' feature. 
Breaks the visual consistency and aesthetics, makes it harder to use. U 
could just as well make two normal looking, normal sized, standard 
icons. Ones u don't need a magnifying glass to be able to click on, with 
a touchpad no less.

ok, on to exploring these two big buttons which on other OSs would be 
tasks, but here seem to be something quite different. So there's an 
Applications button, which seems to be already selected. Makes sense. 
But wait! There's another applications button sticking on the right of 
the screen! Two different buttons with the same label! In different 
places! A usability gem! Wonderfully intuitive! They must do the same 
thing of course!

Let's click the right one. A little menu flies in. I don't know what it 
means - the button is clearly off the desktop, and unrelated to the top 
task bar. Just a tab hanging on to the side of the screen... let's click 
on the background somewhere to get rid of the menu, like in any other 
desktop. Nope, it won't go away. What if I click on the other 
applications button? Well, something's getting screwed up there. Make it 
go away. Ok, let's click the right applications button again (note how I 
can't just say 'applications' button, coz there's two of them?) good, 
the little menu flies away.

Ok, so now let's try the top applications button. And this newspaper 
thing. Newspaper? Which one? Click to find out. So what do we have in 
the newspaper? Two totally empty squares. Lovely! And a yellow square, 
which I recognize as the post-it notes thing. Of course, it's a 
newspaper! Where else would my post-it notes be? And a calendar, in this 
newspaper. I'll let that one slide. I see clicking the clock in the 
taskbar still works if I really need a calendar, as it does across all 
operating systems. But ok, I don't mind an extra calendar, in the newspaper.

And finally, a bit of kde news headlines. Karmic has been released! :-)

So the label 'newspaper' doesn't quite make sense for what this 
place/page/desktop/screen does. I'm not sure what to call the whole 
concept either (not just the newspaper this time, but also the 
applications thingy), since the apps one looked like a desktop but was 
actually a menu, and this one is... a bunch of unrelated stuff nicely 
aligned together. Are they two desktops? not quite. Workspaces? sounds a 
bit better, but still not sure. Hey, maybe the newspaper can be called a 
workspace! But then, what's the applications thing called? A desktop 
it's not. A workspace too? nah, it's just a menu. but the thing on top 
is a menu too! This is all too confusing. Let's try moving things around.

Hey! I can drag the newspaper button on to the applications button, and 
it switches to it! nice. Then I must be able to do the same the other 
way around! Oh wait, no. Trying to drag the apps button on to the 
newspaper causes it to just slide right back. Strange indeed.

Ok then. Back to the right-side button which duplicates the label of the 
top button, I now figured out what it does - it pops up a menu for 
configuring the desktop area, even though it looks visually outside of 
it and unrelated to it. It's a configuration menu. Something that's used 
pretty rarely, and doesn't need to take up precious real-estate all the 
time. And again, no need to be counter-intuitive and reinvent the wheel. 
A simple right-click on the desktop (workspace?) could bring up this 
little menu, like in any other OS. There's not enough room for seeing my 
running apps, but I have to see the configuration-menu button stuck on 
the side of the screen all day? (Yet another) wtf? If only my running 
task icons were placed here in these nice tabs... now *that* would be 

The little search box is a great idea. Dunno why it makes the little 
menu-house icon appear though. Weird. I was gonna end with that, but 
just found out there's no quick way to close the search box with the 
touchpad - u need to aim for the little x button. Too bad clicking 
anywhere else (e.g. desktop) doesn't make it go away, like pop-up stuff 
usually behave. Same for that desktop-configuration menu button, as 
previously mentioned.

Well, I think I'll end here. When this bunch gets sorted out, I'll give 
it another round :-)

For the meanwhile, my netbook will enjoy the standard desktop edition 
(well not for sure, because of dropped GMA500 support, but I'm really 
tired of windows xp after almost a decade, so I'll see what I can do).

To conclude:

Having a netbook edition doesn't mean u have to make everything up anew. 
The only differences from the desktop experience should be less mouse 
(touchpad) movement to accomplish things, and making better use of a 
small display's real-estate. That's it.

New paradigms are not good simply because they're novel and different - 
they have to actually do a better job. Breaking well established 
guidelines and user-intuition built over decades (e.g. using right-click 
for context/configuration menus, using drag and drop, etc.) will simply 
turn people off. That was my reaction, and that was the reaction of 
others in the #kubuntu channel. They gave it one usb-boot/vm shot, said 
'wtf?', and trashed it. Imagine a colleague/friend borrowing your 
netbook for a minute to check her mail. I think the goal should be, in 
60 seconds, to have her say 'wow that kubuntu thing is really cool! I 
wish I had that too!', rather than 'my coffee break is over and I still 
didn't find where the browser disappeared... you and your weird 
gizmos... can't u use normal windows like everybody else?'

I know it's not an official kde release yet (although it does look like 
an official kubuntu release), but I took the time to write my experience 
up in the hope that all this will be thought through and sorted out 
before the next release, so kubuntu-netbook will provide a genuinely 
upgraded and more productive experience on netbooks than the alternatives.

If you got this far, may u be blessed with a fun and joyful day to 
compensate for this :-)

Thanks for you time and efforts,


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