← Back to team overview

unity-design team mailing list archive

Window switching


Hello Unity designing Community !

 I come from Ubuntu Brainstorm to expose to you a problem and the solution
which I've thought over for it.

As I figured it, Unity aims to reach some perfection in its design for
usability and clever layout which makes it little customizable but
personally, I think is does remarkably well. To be quite honest, after one
year using it, I can almost never feel as easy when I have to go back to
other desktops as with Unity. From Natty till Quantal, however, there is
only one feature – or missing feature – which I've felt as an impediment
for me or for a regular user, and it concerns window switching in the case
where an application has many windows. There is no possible direct way to
switch between the windows of one application using your mouse, it must be
done going through scale mode (or spread view). However nice-looking the
spread view is, it makes the process of switching repeatedly truly heavy
for the user: this is particularly problematic when doing office work or
student writings (speaking from personal experience!) where you must have
multiple Writer windows and PDF viewer windows opened, for example;
however, it is annoying even for more basic usage, for instance, since
firefox often pops out a Download dialogue box... This short video
summarizes the issue better.

This Brainstorm Idea suggests a solution to the matter.

(Solution 1 was aborted by its writer; I wrote #2 and #3; the comments give
more details about the solution.) In a nutshell, the idea is that, in the
case of multiple windows for one app, hovering over the launcher bar icon
of the application instantly reveals a list in text format of the opened
windows, which would look like the current right-click quicklist (or
whatever...), with the first opened one on the top and last one on the
bottom – very important. Possibly, we could also have it list windows in
other workspaces, which solves this further little issue. More explanations
can be found by reading the Brainstorm solutions as well as the comments.

Therefore, my little idea solves a fundamental inconsistency in the window
switching routines under Unity: why should it be so simple to go from my
opened Writer to my opened PDF viewer and back, whereas as soon as I have
oneDocument.pdf plus otherDocument.pdf, things must get more complicated
just since they are on the same app? I'd better install muPDF and Okular
along with Evince so that I can use one program for each PDF file and
switch more simply...

More seriously, this other window switching method is absolutely not
incoherent with the Spread mode method; it can be seen as “the concise
mode” vs “spread mode”: hover over the icon of the desired app, a light and
concise listing appears at once, click on this icon, your mouse-click
scatters the listed windows throughout the screen into “spread mode” so you
can view them – the current behaviour. It is absolute coherence and
complementarity. And very profitable for the ease of use of everyone.
(Alt+tab, however good it be, isn't a solution to this lack: you certainly
agree that a good DE mustn't force the user to necessarily turn to the
keyboard to perform the most basic actions, especially not with the
universal purposes of Ubuntu. Besides, alt+tab doesn't always help neither.)

Other OS's Desktop shells already do something similar. Under MS Windows 7,
hover over the launcher icon, then small window previews with window title
appear after a short delay, which enables direct window switching even in
the case of two similar windows; there's no need to completely follow that
in Unity, in my view, because those thumbnails are too small for choosing
easily – especially on small displays – Unity's spread view does a better
job, and the delay is excessive particularly if there is no complex
rendering (simply listing the window title). Linux Zorin OS does
approximately the same as MS Windows, which proves really nice for the
cases at hand. Even Mac OSX has a window title listing, in the top pane
“window” menu. Among its desktop shell category, it's only Unity that does
not allow direct window switching from the mouse. My solution for this is a
bit of the OSX way, but at the launcher icon level which is by far more
intuitive than a menu – and more consistent with Unity's lines too. (Gnome
Shell has got too far onto the tablet side, it's not in the same category,
it tends to be a tablet-only desktop shell – even though not presented as
such – but it makes normal-computer users uneasy in the long run; certainly
one of the reasons Unity was started, I guess!)

So, this long email just to expose a detail that turns out to be rather
important, for me but for others too obviously: I didn't initiate the
Brainstorm discussion myself, even though I had planned to. Of course, when
one needs to do such work where the problem occurs, changing to another DE
like Xfce, cinnamon or anything that lets you always switch windows
directly is pretty easy via lightDM... but should the default Ubuntu shell
accept to repulse office/studious users ? (and the problem actually rises
for many others too!) What I'm talking about is, I think, a weakness in the
base of the usability design, I really think it needs to be addressed in
one way or another. Hence my suggestion. I am aware that the current
designing efforts are made towards visual user-friendliness, working with
pictures or icons, and Spread view is coherent with this. My “concise view”
needs text listing rather than pictures, which may seem at first as opposed
to this “visual user-friendliness”; but we have to remember that letter
patterns are very recognisable visual entities, people normally identify
one word by its “look” rather than decoding it: it can very well fit the
purpose of optimizing repeated window switching, in the very cases I'm
talking about.

By the way, perhaps you already have one such project going on: if so, well
you can just take my email as a keen encouragement!

Reading the Brainstorm solutions and comments will give more important
details about the idea, but if you recognise my point as a problem and are
interested in my solution, I can provide you with an exhaustive and
thorough description of how I've reckoned it.

 Best regards,

 Brainstorm contributor Pascalio :)

Ps: I'm not in the mailing list so if you have the kindness to answer me,
you'll need to do so using my gmail address...

Follow ups