Measuring Unity Usability for Ubuntu 11.04

The release of Ubuntu 11.04 is imminent, and with it will come a radically new type of desktop interface in the form of Unity. Will users love it or hate? A recent report from Canonical's design team provides some telling insights. Here are the highlights.

The report, by Charline Poirier of Canonical's design team, discusses both a number of major improvements that have been implemented in Unity since it debuted last year, as well as several problems which user testing reveals to be persistent on the eve of the Ubuntu 11.04 release.

What's Fixed

First, the positive: Since last October, when Mark Shuttleworth announced that Unity would become the default interface for all desktop versions of Ubuntu, expanding on its original role in the netbook-specific build, a number of major problems with Unity appear to have been effectively addressed by developers. Poirier's report mentions a number of improvements, the most remarkable of which include:
  • Performance: Users report a much smoother and responsive experience.
  • Multitasking: Confusion over how to switch between windows appears resolved.
  • Deleting files: In October, users reported difficulty understanding how to delete files -- a pretty major problem. In April testing, this ceased to be an issue.
  • Copy and paste: Another centrally damning problem, the inability to copy and paste between windows, has also been resolved since October.

What's Not

While Unity has come a long way since last October, it is not yet perfect. The report also pointed to several problems of significant import which may not bode well for users:
  • Users exhibit difficulty locating the "Rubbish Bin" and certain other icons.
  • Some actions lack sufficient feedback, which can contribute to perceptions of sluggishness.
  • The Ubuntu Software Center is not readily identifiable by many users, who mistake it for a system-control application.
  • The Dash, a major component of Unity's interface, does not appear easily recognizable, which could pose major usability problems, since the Dash is central to Unity's interfacing with the user.
Poirier also cited several less-pressing issues which, though perhaps not as serious as those listed above, remain to be fixed in Unity.

Fortunately for Canonical, the lingering usability issues listed above boil down essentially to problems related to intuitiveness and user expectation, rather than fundamental design flaws. Difficulty finding the Rubbish Bin, for example, could reflect users' prior experiences with other desktop interfaces as much as a deficiency in Unity itself -- and indeed, Poiriers discussed in her report notable differences between the way Mac and Windows users approached Unity.

Unlike fundamental flaws such as poor performance, problems stemming from lack of intuitiveness can be overcome with time, as users learn to become familiar with a strange interface. That solution is not as ideal as presenting a desktop that feels completely natural at first glance, but it at least means that most users should be able to learn to like Unity once they get used to it.

Moreover, although Unity is the central new feature of the upcoming release of Ubuntu, it won't be until the next long-term support (LTS) version of Ubuntu in April 2012 that Unity is likely to reach the desktops of a majority of non-geeky Ubuntu users, where usability issues can do the most damage. The 11.04 release will provide an opportunity to test Unity for users wishing to do so, but we can expect traditional GNOME 2.x to remain a major part of the Ubuntu experience for a while to come.

And Canonical developers therefore have some breathing room to enjoy as they prepare Unity to take on a truly influential role on open source desktops around the world. Stay tuned over the next year to see how the interface evolves as it approaches its major test, Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.

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