The Spectre of Math

May 12, 2012

Return to linear search

Filed under: Hacking,Linux,Technology — jlebl @ 5:02 pm

So … apparently searching an unordered list without any structure whatsoever is supposed to be better than having structure. At least that’s the new GNOME shell design that removes categories, removes any ordering and places icons in pages. The arguments are that it’s hard to categorize things and people use spatial memory to find where things are.

The spatial memory was here before with nautilus. It didn’t work out so great. No people don’t have spatial memory. For example for me, I use a small number of applications often, I put their launchers somewhere easy to reach. The rest of the applications I use rarely if never. No I do not remember where they are, I do not even remember what they are named. E.g. I don’t remember what the ftp client list, but I am not a total moron and I correctly guess to look for it in the “Internet” menu which is managable. Given I’ve used ftp probably once in a year, I do not remember where it is. Another example is when Maia (6 year old) needs a game to play. I never play games, but I have a few installed for these occasions. Do I want to look through an unordered list of 50-100 icons? Hell no. I want to click on “Games” and pick one. 95% or so of applications i have installed I use rarely. I will not “remember” where they are. I don’t want to spend hours trying to sort or organize the list of icons. Isn’t that what the computer can do for me? Vast majority of people (non-geeks) never change their default config, they use it as it came. So they will not organize it unless the computer organizes it for them. I have an android tablet, and this paged interface with icons you have to somehow organize yourself is totally annoying. One of the reasons why I find the tablet unusable (I don’t think I’ve turned it on for a few months now). That interface might work well when you have 10 apps, but it fails miserably when you have 100.

If I could remember that games are on page 4 (after presumably I’ve made a lot of unneeded effort to put them there) I can remember they are in the “Games” category. Actually there I don’t have to memorize it. Why don’t we just number all the buttons in an application since the user could remember what button number 4 that’s right next to button number 3 on window number 5 does. I mean, the user can use spatial memory right?

Now as for “that’s why there is search” … yeah but that only works when you know what you are searching for. I usually know what I am searching for once I found it. It’s this idea that google is the best interface for everything. Google is useful for the web because there are waaaaay too many pages to categorize. That’s not a problem for applications. Search is a compromise. It is a way to find things when there are too many to organize.

The argument “some apps don’t fit into one category neatly” also fails. The whole idea of the vfolder menus was that you could have arbitrary queries for submenus. You can have an app appear in every category where it makes sense. Now just because people making up the menus didn’t get it just right doesn’t make it a bad idea. Also now this leads to a lot of apps without any categories. The problem I think is with the original terminology. When I was designing this system I used “Keywords” instead of “Categories”. But KDE already had Keywords, so we used Categories, but you should think of them as Keywords on which to query where the icon appears. It describes the application, it doesn’t hardcode where it appears. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of understanding of this concept which always led to miscategorization. For example someone changed the original design to say some things were some sort of “core categories” or whatnot and that only one should appear on an icon and that there will be a menu with that name. That defeats the purpose. It’s like beating out the front glass of your car and then complaining about the wind.

Finally, what if I lend my computer to someone to do something quickly. No I am a normal person, so I don’t create a new account. And even if I do create a new account, the default sorting of apps is unlikely to be helpful. If someone just wants to quickly do something that doesn’t involve the icons on the dash, they’re out of luck if I have lots of apps installed. Plus at work I will have a different UI, on my laptop I have a different UI, and any other computer I use will have a different UI. I can’t customize everyone of them just to use them.

As it is, if I had a friend use my computer with gnome-shell they were lost. If it’s made even less usable … thank god for XFCE, though I worry that these moves towards iphonization of the UI will lead to even worse categorization. There are already many .desktop’s with badly filled out Categories field, so there will be less incentive to do it correctly.

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