Posts Tagged ‘gnome’

An Observation in UI Design

Montag, Juni 12th, 2017

Reading the GNOME Human Interface Guidelines gives a good idea on how to arrange elements and reduce complexity. The HIGs also emphasize on having a clear goal which helps in deciding which elements need to be arranged at all. But I did not grasp the wideness of being purpose-driven for this goal of the application which might then mean to abstract from technical details on the way. So now I try to explain this observation here.

I think there are two opposite paradigms one can follow in UI design, and thus what users can expect from UIs. This is not a thorough research on the topic, so you can leave a comment if you have insights to share on whether this view is mistaken.
Maybe you will find your own examples during reading if you try to think about image, audio and video formats and their parameters, or network connection and encryption stuff in UIs.

The first paradigm is to make features accessible in the UI. This could just mean showing technical choices and configuration values coming from an API or command line tools. The UI serves as big toolbox with few limits, allowing to be creative and meet various use cases. But from the viewpoint of a newbie it is a big frustration to use these kind of applications because the options don’t have a meaning. Reaching the point where all implications of the parameters are understood is not possible in a few minutes. The whole research task for appropriate parameters has been offloaded to the user.

Therefore, the other paradigm comes into play and thinks from the main purpose of the UI and what elements it needs to reach the goal. That’s what I expect in GNOME. The technical details go to the background and may not be found as UI elements anymore. This needs clever ways to find optimal parameters, or studies of the technical and social/psychological conditions to reduce the workload for the user. First this looks like hiding ‚features‘ and configuration options (i.e. technical details) but it might be good to take a step back and look at the state of IT. Is it really necessary that everyone fiddles around with the available technical options? Can the decision for a configuration value be automated or evaluated? And how did we get into the situation of having so many competing ’standards‘ and a rag rug of solutions for the different layers involved and all this strange legacy stuff needed for compatibility.

Maybe we first need to work on a algorithms, libraries and single standards in order to be able to reduce UI complexity. But it’s not always possible to find unique technical solutions for the whole planet and we have to expose some of this strange acronyms and abbreviations in the UI and hope that users have an idea of their meaning. The result is a mixed approach of both paradigms where necessary.

Example: The format dialog in GNOME Disks

In the specific case of the format dialog for pen drives or hard disks you could simply decide to make features of the command line tools available in the UI. This would involve to expose the choice of the filesystem type and if it should be contained in an ecryption layer. Not speaking of overwhelming non-default parameters this toolbox is already hard to understand. For the new design of the format dialog I first proposed this toolbox paradigm approach (even if preference of the tools is indicated and not all are directly visible):

Assessing every option for the given use case and conditions is a lot of work and sometimes a final judgement can’t be made concerning issues with inter-OS compatibility, snapshots, Linux file permissions, encryption and performance (storage type, in-kernel drivers).
With the Opus audio codec joint efforts came finally to a good general solution, maybe too late.
But for filesystems it’s much more complex and the operating systems also have significant differences.

So if we want to use the result-oriented paradigm, we already see the problem that the UI has to guide the user through these OS compatibility issues. But this still means abstracting from selecting a concrete filesystem type and focusing more on use cases which are tied to filesystem choices (here still visible in brackets). The UI does not have to differ too much but important is the base idea. Here we see Allan’s design:

Ext4, NTFS and FAT are the current default filesystems in Disks but maybe exFAT is already more relevant and could e.g. replace both NTFS and FAT or even cover a distinct use case – that needs further research.

But also for Linux-only use cases there are other filesystems than Ext4 which could replace it as default choice or at least cover special demands like snapshots or being suited for flash storage.
Listing all these use cases would almost have the same effect like listing the filesystems with explanation, and that is what should be avoided for a common formating action of an external hard drive to back up some files.

A pragmatic middle path would e.g. as above show swap partitions and XFS for large amounts of data.
Yet I would argue that once people set up swap partitions or e.g. Btrfs volumes they can just handle the toolbox paradigm during that step. So as remembered from install wizards, the format dialog could do a paradigm shift and expose the toolbox if a custom filesystem setup is chosen instead of the defaults:

I think that this flexibility is needed because I don’t see a single filesystem to emerge soon which fits all the demands. But I would highly appreciate if people do not have to think about filesystems anymore because operating systems switched to let’s say Btrfs in collaboration and even your digital camera can handle it.

With this fallback available there is less pressure in finding optimal choices for the major use cases.
It can be observed if they need to be adjusted instead of campaigning for agreement on e.g. a single Linux-only and also a single inter-OS filesystem.
Still it would be nice to find out how user interaction can be reduced and less options presented by e.g. user surveys or applying automatic constraints based on the context.

GNOME Disks spins up for GSoC

Mittwoch, Mai 17th, 2017

This year’s Google Summer of Code features many valuable open source organizations and GNOME is one of them.
In GNOME’s project list you can find Disks, the GNOME utility for dealing with storage devices.
I’m happy that it worked out, because at first it was not in the list of ideas. The fact that Disks was considered unmaintained bothered me, but also was a big hint to finally get involved instead of mere bug reporting. So the plan emerged to propose working on two key features: Resize and repair filesystems.

Getting in contact with people through open bugs, IRC and the mailing lists went well and I’m grateful for the support (extra thanks to Michael!). Ondrej stepped in as mentor and made this possible, I already learned a lot and just took over maintainership. In the rest of this post I write a bit about the GSoC project outline and recent development in GNOME Disks.

Goal:
GNOME Disks should support repairing and resizing filesystems through UDisks, thus
enabling non-root users to safely set up their devices from a graphical interface.

Motivation:
GParted does not use UDisks, runs only as root and thus not under Wayland.

Outline

  • Work out new D-Bus interface functions in cooperation with the UDisks team so that
    UDisks offers resize/repair through libblockdev (FS plugin) and is also tooling aware by
    probing relevant binaries. The exact solution is to be negotiated, since Cockpit might
    make use of it too.
  • Use that new UDisks functionality in GNOME Disks, design and implement UI (follow
    HIG, good progress indication)
  • Focus on supporting just a few filesystems in the beginning

The first task is to rework the format dialog, which should stick with the principle to offer just a few sane defaults but also not forbid to choose others (list available filesystems and find a good solution for missing tooling).



(Needs Radio Buttons for the selection.)

Development News

Translation work is constantly going on – great to see that!

I’ve set up a GNOME Wiki page as website for Disks.

A bug preventing unmounting and locking is fixed as well as a bug in the format dialog.

Taking care of loop devices:

  • Explain the auto-clear option, i.e. detaching loop devices if they are not mounted anymore
  • Disable auto-clear during operations if it would lead to unwanted detachment
  • Create a new empty disk image from the AppMenu

UI improvements:

  • Show UUID
  • Hints for passphrase missmatch
  • Indicate maximal FS label length
  • Explain the meaning of the mounting and encryption options, i.e. overwriting the session defaults with fstab/crypttab entries
  • Use mimetypes for disk image selection (welcome Mitchell as new contributor!)

There are many ways to contribute to GNOME, please support the Outreachy by spreading the word!