Xfce usability thoughts (was: Cobind desktop feat. Xfce)

Benedikt Meurer benedikt.meurer at unix-ag.uni-siegen.de
Mon May 31 16:29:29 CEST 2004

David Watson wrote:
> Hi Benedikt

Hello David,

I hope its ok for you if we discuss this on the mailinglist. This way 
everybody gets the chance to add comments/thoughts.

> I apologize for not getting back to you sooner. We've been swamped with 
> attorneys and  press for the last couple months. The memorial day 
> holiday provides a nice break from that!
> You'll find my brief summary on XFCE usability for novices below. Hope 
> the commentary is useful, this is basically what we've seen testing with 
> our users on 4.0.3. We are going to 4.0.5 on our beta release and are 
> watching the 4.1+ work which looks very promising. Keep up the good work!
>> Yeah, I just read a review on Cobind at flexbeta.net yesterday. It 
>> mentions the different installation procedure, from the screenshots it 
>> reminds me of the old redhat (6.0 IIRG) text based installer.
> I'm guessing you've seen the PC World review by now. It was very 
> positive with regard to XFCE. See the last paragraph here:
> http://www.pcworld.com/reviews/article/0,aid,116226,00.asp

No I haven't see that so far. Looking at the article, it gives a slightly 
wrong impression of Xfce. Xfce4 has not much in common with Gnome 1.x, its 
like comparing milk drinks with mosfets, both share some chemical 
characteristics, but thats all you can compare about them. Atleast thats my 
understanding, but I may be wrong.

>> So I do now :-). A feedback summary would be nice.
> The ability to close several instances of a single window from the 
> taskbar is something that users making the switch from Windows expect. 
> That is, right-click on the taskbar instance and select close to close 
> any N number of instances of a single program in one click. Not a novice 
> issue, but certainly one that we're seeing a lot of.

Thats a bit different from what we have now, and I'm actually not sure if I 
like the "one click - close all" method. What we have so right now is this:


To be fair, it is also questionable if this behaviour is good or intuitive, 
since one usually cannot distinguish the windows by title - just look at the 
two Terminal windows (ttyp2 and ttyp3). So the ability to close separate 
windows using the tasklist widget isn't that usefull at all usually. Therefore 
it may be worth adopting the windows way of "close all or nothing".

> Arbitration of the screen real estate between running application 
> windows and the panel is a problem for novices owing to difficulty with 
> z-order in general. They have no mental model for how this should work 
> and get confused with the overlapping of application windows and the 
> panel. Our de facto advice in this regard is to set bottom margin to 
> constrain sizing of application windows to the perimeter of the panel, 
> but not beyond. I don't believe that this would be difficult to set a 
> default for in the XFCE code. The behavior that I describe is consistent 
> with what I'm observing on Mac OS X 10.3. Plus the translucency of the 
> dock probably helps a little in this regard, ie. perception of z-order 
> for the novice. I have no real research there, just a hypothesis.

I noticed this as well. Window stacking seems to be very hard to understand 
for novice users, and its even harder to realize that the panel is just 
another window, nothing more and nothing less. With Aqua the panel behaves 
somewhat special in that it isn't possible to move it around using move 
handlers. That gives the user the impression that the panel is not simply a 
window, but something special, and IMHO thats what the user expects from a panel.

Anyway the problem that other windows (on the same layer) cover the panel 
should be fixed in 4.1, since the window manager and the panel now both 
support partial struts.

> The sizing of the panel icons and the panel itself would probably work 
> better if it could be scaled relative to screen width, like Mac OS X. 
> This is predicted mostly by fitt's law, that time to complete a task 
> depends on distance and size of target object. In this case, the panel 
> icon being the target object, the larger the icon, the less time to task 
> completion. On most of the systems that we test on, there is a large gap 
> between say the small and large setting for the panel. If the panel 
> could scale vector graphics to an arbitrary size between those two 
> extremes, then the panel icon size would be optimal (as large as 
> possible) relative to the screen size and number of objects on the panel.

Honestly I don't have any opinion on this topic. Olivier, Jasper, any 
comments/ideas here?

> We test on a few widescreen laptops, those that run something like 
> 1280x800. On these screens, the ability to have both the panel and 
> taskbar in vertical orientation would be very useful. Right now, I can 
> set the panel to vertical orientation, but not the taskbar. Some work 
> would probably have to be done to accomodate the icons in this view as 
> the desktop that I've seen doing this, such as KDE, don't handle it 
> optimally with regard to the width of the descriptive text that can be 
> accommodated when the taskbar is in vertical orientation.

Having the taskbar in vertical orientation doesn't seem like a good idea to 
me, but I dislike the panel in vertical orientation as well. There may be 
situations where this comes in handy. But for now I cannot think of any good 
way to handle a vertical tasklist (maybe rotate the text?).

> The nomenclature in the session control utility may be foreign to some 
> users - what is a client? I think most users expect "kill program" or 
> "kill application".

I removed the session managers tray icon and the session control dialog for 
now, since it caused to confuse novice users and even some advanced users got 
confused by the session control dialog, cause they didn't know anything about 
session management and they also didn't care about session management. They 
just want the thing to work.

> XFFM. I have a love/hate relationship with XFFM. On the one hand, I 
> think some of the ways that it works are fantastic, particularly with 
> regard to feedback and it's message status window. On the other hand, 
> it's management of screen real estate (not using the full width of the 
> screen and forcing to much vertical scrolling as a result) and font 
> sizing (too large on average) is maddening. When users adjust fonts from 
> the toolbar, they expect all of the fonts to change, not just the object 
> that has focus. Why not use GTK's combined tree/list view where the list 
> is displayed whenever you have child file objects, not directories? 
> Whatever they do with xffm in the 4.1+ branch, tell them not to get rid 
> of the status feedback message display. That's what makes it useful, 
> particularly on long network operations.

Edscott, any comments here?

> BTW, I was positively horrified to see that they are developing a start 
> menu functionality in 4.x - removing one of the last real 
> differentiators for XFCE.  I hope that is optional, as I'm not the only 
> person out here that thinks the usability of those menus is highly 
> questionable.

The whole menu thingy can be disabled.

The following text is from another mail from David:

 > One other thing that I forgot with regard to XFCE usability. The task
 > switching that is enabled by alt-tab would be much more useful if the
 > display of applications being switched was richer - color icons, program
 > name, not just title bar label. Again, see OS X 10.3. Our experience is
 > that users struggle to determine which app is being switched to out of
 > several because they cannot identify it visually and the title bar label
 > is often not consistent with it's name and thus, they are looking for
 > the app name when the alt-tab display is showing document name from the
 > title bar.

IIRC this has also been discussed, but I think its worth to rethink on this 
issue prior to 4.2.

> Hope this helps. Let me know if I can help in any way further.

Thanks for your help David, its very much appreciated.

> David Watson
> Cobind, Inc.


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