Window Controls on the Right Side

Matthew Paul Thomas mpt at
Fri May 1 14:52:02 UTC 2015

Hash: SHA1

John Moser wrote on 30/04/15 03:23:
> ...
> First and foremost, the biggest red flag you'll ever find in the UI
> design sphere is "Apple blahblahblah".  This statement comes out of
> people who have no clue what they're talking about, so make an 
> appeal to authority--typically the authority of the 
> least-successful product produced by the least-successful desktop 
> computer OS manufacturer.
> Folks seem to forget that Apple's OSX is the only broadly-marketed,
> consumer-targeted alternative to Microsoft Windows, and is
> completely trounced by them;

There have been dozens of desktop computer OS manufacturers less
successful than Apple -- for example, Acorn, Be, Commodore, Google,
IBM, Sun, and every company that has ever released an OS based on
Gnome or KDE. "Broadly marketed" is assuming the question -- the
reason many of the systems are no longer marketed is that they were
unsuccessful. Success or failure of an OS is not so much a red flag as
a red herring: generally, Windows has demonstrated that good design is
not necessary for success, while OS X has demonstrated that it is not

> Back in 10.04, Ubuntu tried moving the controls to the left.  This 
> met with huge resistance, largely in the form of complaining, 
> whining, and people putting the controls back where they belong.

That is similarly assuming the question. The only reason you think "the
controls ... belong" on the right is that around 1993, someone at
Microsoft decided to add a close button alongside the minimize and
maximize buttons on the right of windows in Windows. This change showed
up in Encarta 95 on Windows 3 (flouting the standard of where the
controls "belonged" on Windows, rabble rabble!), and then in Windows
95 and later. From then until OS X in 2001, Windows was pretty much
alone in having all its visible window controls on one side of the
title bar. For example, Mac OS 7~9, AmigaOS, BeOS, and twm all split
the controls across left and right.

In both Windows and OS X, putting the controls all on one side (a)
increases the risk that you'll close a window when you mean to minimize
or maximize it, (b) makes centered titles look imbalanced in the title
bar, and (c) causes ugliness when a window doesn't have maximize and/or
close functions, because you end up with buttons that are either
permanently insensitive (as in Windows and OS X) or
inconsistently-placed (as in Ubuntu). These problems could be avoided
by splitting them across left and right, as Canonical's then-head of
design suggested: "Personally, I would have the max and min on the
left and close on the right."

If we *were* going to put them all on one side, the right would be a
bit easier, for Windows refugees to migrate to, than the left would.
That's a valid reason that is obscured by talk of where they "belong".

> ...
> I said most people are right-handed, and that the easiest way to 
> tilt your wrist or move your arm was out and away.  The top-right 
> of your screen is the easiest area of the screen to access--go 
> ahead, try it. Those of us with civil rights in Elbonia will find 
> I'm completely correct; lefties will find confusion, followed by 
> the realization that they're using the wrong hand.

Apart from the Fitts's-Law-derived conclusions that the easiest pixels
to hit are (a) the one you're at right now and (b) the four corners,
I'm not aware of any research on this. Do you know of any?

> A year later, in 11.04, Ubuntu released the Global Menu.  Three 
> days before 15.04, Ubuntu reversed a decision to disable the
> Global Menu by default, after preening themselves with talk about
> the new Locally Integrated Menus--i.e. pre-11.04, non-Apple menus.

As far as I know, there was no "decision" to disable global menus by
default in 15.04, it was just a mistake. Locally Integrated Menus are a
red herring: they don't solve the primary problem of menus being
invisible by default. Last month's SRU introducing the
com.canonical.Unity always-show-menus setting is a first step toward
solving it, but long-term, having a setting for something like that
would demonstrate indecision.

> ...
> First, if the window is maximized, the menu is obviously in the 
> same place on the screen.  If not, you have multiple windows, and 
> it takes *two* *mouse* *clicks* to click a menu.

That isn't correct. It takes 1 + n clicks, where n = the probability
that the menu item you want is for a window different from the focused
one. So, probably about 1.1 clicks on average, varying depending on
the kind of work you're doing.

> With LIMs (you know, *normal* menus), you just click File on the 
> window; with Global Menus, you have to click the window, then go 
> back and click File at the top.

That isn't correct either. Locally Integrated Menus are not "normal
menus"; menus in the title bar are unlike Windows, OS X, or any other
system or app I've seen, except the eccentric iTunes for Windows.
Regardless, with Locally Integrated Menus you have to focus the window
before you can open a menu -- just as you need to do with the global
menu bar.

> These days, even standard Windows 7 is so screwed up that I'm not 
> sure what window I've got selected; right now, on Ubuntu, the only 
> difference between this window and the Thunderbird main window is 
> this window has black title bar text and controls, while every 
> other window on the screen has medium-dark gray text and controls. 
> Back in the day, the title bar would be an entirely different 
> color.  You can be pretty sure the user will have to stop and 
> verify he's looking at the right menus before he can click with 
> confidence.

This is one of the reasons that a dark theme is a poor default. A light
theme can, and Radiance does, make the title bars of unfocused windows
darker. As well as distinguishing focused vs. unfocused windows, it
looks fairly realistic: the implied light source is in front of the
display, so windows further away are darker. But in a dark theme,
inactive windows can hardly be darker than the active one, and being
lighter would look bizarre. So all Ambiance can do is make them
flatter, a small difference.

> Second, people don't work the way Canonical has suggested.
> A screen is meaningless.  Say it with me:  The screen is 
> meaningless. People don't know where they are on the screen.  They 
> know they're working on a specific window; LIMs are part of that 
> window, and share a consistent spatial relationship with that 
> window.  Everything in the window shares a specific spatial 
> relationship with that window--mostly with the top and left of
> that window.  The window may resize or move around, but most 
> things--including the menus and controls--share a specific spatial 
> relationship with the top and left of that window.

When people are concentrating on a specific window for long periods,
that window is usually maximized, full screen, or nearly so. So the
distinction between what is inside or outside the window is small, and
nor is the top-left corner particularly more "spatial" than the other

> ...
> Canonical has been backpedaling on Global Menus for several 
> releases, giving configuration options, then heavily considering 
> just turning that crap off.  They have not come out and claimed 
> anything about good UI design; they've just shuffled around 
> uncomfortably.

Yes, we're in an Uncanny Valley between in-window and global menus.
In-window menus are horrendously slow. But our global menus don't have
the visibility, focused-window distinction, or pointer acceleration
necessary for them to work well. Those three issues are not difficult,
but nobody has done the work.

> Now we're talking about controls being in the top left.
> I'll make this simple.
> The top of the screen is easy to hit:  throw the pointer that way 
> haphazardly.  The top of a window is *not* easy to hit.  Grouping 
> the controls around the single most important universal element of 
> a modern UI--the freaking FILE MENU--is a good way to get errant 
> clicks coming out your ass.

I doubt the "File" menu is the most important universal element, but
yes, putting window controls right next to menus is an unnecessary
risk. In the menu bar it's also frustrating, because with the Launcher
on the left, the controls are out of alignment with the rest of the

> ...
> We're going to have these arguments repeatedly, and we're going to 
> keep having them until people stop going "YEAH THIS WILL BE COOL, 
> LIKE THE NEW UI!"  Maybe one day, we'll have competent UI designers
> set up end-user focus groups and take actual metrics of what does
> and doesn't work, instead of having some self-absorbed 
> pseudo-dictator make shit up and claim it's good UI practice.
> End rant.

The reason for moving the controls to the left was made clear by Mark at
the time: "Moving everything to the left opens up the space on the right
nicely, and I would like to experiment in 10.10 with some innovative
options there."

Those innovative options were, of course, windicators and netbooks.

- -- 
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