GNOME 3 (Good Design)


The GNOME 3 desktop environment is one of many GUIs supported by Ubuntu OS. Upon starting GNOME 3 (which is to say turning on the computer or starting Ubuntu,) the user is faced with an environment that should not be too unfamiliar to any computer user (above.) The interface is minimalist, and the only visible aspect is the toolbar on the top of the screen. So users’ actions are restricted to what can be done through that. Considering that the user wants some sort of action, “Activities” seems a good starting place. When the user clicks or hovers on the menu this is what happens:

gnome3activitiesThe environment changes from the typical desktop state to what I will call the activities state. The desktop itself greys out to clearly indicate user’s interaction with the GUI is different than before. Also, notice the slight ripple animation around the cursor in the upper right. While the change in modes is obvious, the animation provides clear feedback that it was the “Activities” button that affected the change -not, say, the user’s hand accidentally pressing a button.

In the activities state, all currently running programs are arranged next to each other with no overlap and clearly labelled. Clicking any of the open windows will navigate back to the application in the desktop environment with the selected program active.  On the left hand side of the activities state is a dock, and on the right are a series of workspaces.

The workspace indicator allows users to scroll through what GNOME calls “workspaces” which are essentially different versions of the desktop environment. The windows in the bar are small mock-ups of the current workspaces, making visible which programs are running in each space. The user can navigate the list either by clicking on them or using the mousewheel (or the corresponding trackpad motion) in the direction that maps to their action.

The dock, while not a part of the traditional desktop metaphor, is a GUI feature that most users will have a conceptual model of due to its prominence in Mac OS. (Though, like many iMac features, Linux had it first.)  The dock is a list of currently running programs as well as ones that the user has favorited -which makes them always a single click away.  The last icon in the dock opens the complete list of applications. When GNOME first introduced this icon, I was not a fan. Before that particular update, the applications were accessed via a button at the bottom of the screen that was clearly labelled “Applications.” However, after getting a smartphone (which I did very late in the game) I realized that the grid icon is a commonly used symbol, and therefore is culturally constrained as an application launcher. I have come to believe that it is better to integrate the action into the dock because it constrains all actions related to launching applications to one part of the activities state (the dock) instead of having an arbitrary button elsewhere in the interface.

Upon clicking the launcher icon, the open application windows fade out and a grid of program icon takes their place. At the same time, the workspaces bar on the right side of the activities state slides away and is replaced by a series of dots indicating the number of pages of icons -another common signifier/signified in GUIs. Even after removing the cursor from the grid icon, it remains illuminated another clear indication of feedback. The animation clearly indicates that the user is now in another interactive state of the interface. Also, by having the dots take the place of the workspace indicator, the GUI hints that they afford the user similar navigation by clicking or scrolling.


Finally, if at any point in either the activities state or launcher, the user decides to type something, the text is entered into an ever-present bar at the top of the screen that reads, “Type to search….” The results are then displayed in a list that takes the place of the interface.  Matches can come from applications, system settings, or the user’s home folder -each type delineated by a horizontal line and a group icon (off to the left in the screenshot.)


What most impresses me about GNOME 3 is that it is a desktop environment, but it has vastly surpassed the the metaphor of the desktop. At one point GUIs mimicked our physical environment. The user shuffled through windows just as I would have to shuffle through the pile of books on my desk.  With GNOME 3 what the user gets is multiple desks that they can continually switch between, as well as the ability to search all at once. There’s an interesting maturing process here: from object to skeuomorph to abstraction.