Desktop Window Managers Turn Computing into Target Practice

Posted on Jun 20, 2007

In all earnestness, many programmers try to develop programs these days for non-technical people. Such programs it is believed, have been aided by advances in GUI technology. In the early days it was the trackball, mouse, and pointer. Then slowly we had windows and buttons starting to take over our lives. In many cases it has been a useful and pleasant feature in many contexts, but the recent crop of advancements are pushing things into the realms of overkill.

I’m talking about all the work going into window managers like Compiz, Beryl, and the new KDE Plasma. Eye-candy is the feature-du-jour it seems and each of the newest window managers are taking it as far as modern hardware can. We now have features like wobbly windows, 3D accelerated desktop switching, and now icons with buttons.

My main gripe with all this is that we’re starting to use the mouse as a crutch and it’s giving us back problems. Many of the new features in modern window managers require precise action with a pointer and an interface device like a mouse. It’s like target practice; sometimes you will miss. We’ve all clicked, “the wrong menu item” and had to wait two minutes to shut down the office application we “accidentally” opened. The new interactive icons in KDE 4 Plasma only serve to worsen the experience: now icons have buttons to click on that do things!

Only now, there’s no label and the buttons are context sensitive.

I don’t know how this is supposed to make things easier to use. Semiotics need to make sense intuitively, but these new features make things feel more like simply neat ideas. Some things just don’t make sense to express visually. In my experience, I’ve found it far easier to use text commands to operate on a file rather than surfing visually through a pile of them and then using a bunch of target-specific gestures to manipulate the file I want to work on. Often times it takes to long to find the file visually and I’ll waste my time if I miss any one of the clicks in the gesture series.

Most programs use the GUI as a first level of contact with a user until the user is comfortable learning the hot-keys to bypass all the inefficient pointer navigation. Why haven’t we researched ways to make the more efficient navigation easier to use when it really is the more intuitive choice?

[tags]gui, eye-candy, desktops, window managers, productivity,