The Spectre of Math

May 28, 2009

user interface nonsense

Filed under: Hacking,Linux,Technology — jlebl @ 3:36 pm

I have to rant a bit about user interface.  I have a jukebox pc at home and it was until recently running rhythmbox.  I was not completely happy with it, but it mostly worked OK.  The one thing that was bugging me was shuffle, which did not actually shuffle.  It played the same songs over and over.  Next time you pressed play, the old songs would go back. I upgraded the thing to Jaunty and then shuffle completely wen beaserk.  My wife claims the thing wanted to play chuck berry only for the week I was gone, which I now have to believe.  It was even playing chuck berry when she clicked on something else.   Finally the thing broke completely.  Rhythmbox refused to even start.  I had to wipe all its gconf settings.  that was the last straw, rhythmbox is out.  Unfortunately it is not a robust piece of software.  For example I have to manually wipe the library database from command line for it to rescan.  Now you could say that it should always “just work” but it doesn’t.  The decision to not include a “rescan library” button or menuitem somewhere means that the software is not built for robustness.  It obviously is not built to handle corner cases (though using easytag with default config is not a corner case I don’t think).  Also the whole interface does not seem built for people who want to just play music.  It is built for people who want to spend time browsing their music library and waste time building playlists.  And then it breaks the moment I am not home and cannot manually rescue it, meaning it is not ready for regular users.  I installed songbird.  It is a bit offputting that the interface is a webpage and its widgets are different from everything else (consistency be damned, but for whatever reason this was a disease music players had for eternity).

My other rant is about the removal of the quit/logout/shutdown item from the system menu in Jaunty.  What the hell.  It took me a reasonably long time I was supposed to click on my own name to log out.  Yeah, that makes sense.  I think user interface is too full of cryptic icons.  “A word is worth a thousand icons” should be a motto for interface designers.   I think someone thought the exit button (A green running person in the theme I am using, not sure what is it in other themes, what the hell does that have to do with shutdown or logging off?).  That’s another thing.  If you only rely on an icon for the user interface, then if some theme gets it wrong, it really screws up the user.

Plus the user switch applet is given all too much prominence on the panel.  Why is it telling me who I am logged in as.  I would be 99% of all desktop computers have a single login.  Why are neurons and code being spent on something that worked reasonably well years ago?  Look at windows, it has TONS of horrible interface design, inconsistency, and general brokenness.  But to some degree it does all the essential things people want to do.

I must have had a similar rant 10 years ago when lots of time was spent on themes and other such nonsense before the desktop actually worked.  There are many places in academia where linux has made lots of inroads (math being one of them since most things mathematicians use are working on linux, and some better than on windows).  But for example in chemistry, both the academia and industry (this is a huge number of installed seats) will not switch until openoffice integrates with the chemistry drawing tools well for example.  What I am saying is that time could be better spent if larger installed base is really the goal.  The desktop is GoodEnough(tm), what we need is applications that work reasonably well and work well together.  (Well we also need well working hardware drivers which is still sometimes an issue even for older hardware and X).  There is no point in getting it perfect, leave it for the “star trek future.”  For example spending time on rewriting GDM seemed to me like a perfect waste of time.  I may be a bit biased, but there is an example where the new version is untested and doesn’t have many what I would consider essential features.  Its advantage is that “it uses dbus” … uhhhh OK … so what, as a user I don’t give a damn.

Oh well, this rant is a waste of time I bet.  I just felt I need to get some frustration out.

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