Monthly Archives: March 2010

Random UX change for the sake of… change?

If you’re making a highly visible change in the operating system UI that affects every running application, it seems fair to ask that it’s done for a good reason and that there is empirical data that supports it. Or, if no empirical data is available, that the change is made to make the transition to your OS smoother for users of competing OSes.

The new placement of window controls in Ubuntu 10.4 (beta)

This is why Ubuntu’s recent change to move the window control buttons to the left side of the window in the latest beta confuses me, because it appears that a chance has been made for no real purpose whatsoever other than a vague hint that it’s preparations for “some innovative options” on the now empty right side. But those experiments won’t start until version 10.10, due out in October 2010.

There are a couple of problems I see with this redesign:

  1. The Ubuntu layout is not just about switching from right to left — it’s introducing a completely unique layout never before seen in an OS. See how the Close button is still on the right side of the button group while the buttons were moved to the left side? This means that neither Windows nor Mac OS users will benefit from the change, as both user groups will have to relearn things here.
  2. The actual icons/symbols on the maximize and minimize buttons are also completely different from both Windows and Mac OS.  While Windows uses a horizontal line to represent minimize, and a square box to represent maximize, Mac OS uses colors instead (yellow to minimize, and green to maximize/zoom). Again, this means that neither Windows nor Mac OS users will benefit from the Ubuntu change, which uses some stylish arrows instead (pointing up to maximize and down to minimize). The icons make little sense (isn’t maximizing more about changing the size of the window, rather than the direction? does minimizing a window always move it down — what if your task bar is at the top like I have it?). To make it even more bizarre, once a window is in a maximized state, the icon for restoring the window looks like the actual maximize button in Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP/Vista/7.

Ubuntu’s design lead Ivanka Majic tries to explain why the changes were made, but fails completely. She instead lists some questions they were asking themselves without providing any answers:

- Why do Mac OS and Windows have the buttons where they do?

- What was the functional reason behind the Mac OS choice (or the Windows position for that matter)?

- Why, when most application menus are top left should the window controls go top right?

- Why, when we read left to right is the most destructive action first?

So, what are the answers? Given that I haven’t seen any, allow me to guess:

  1. Mac OS and Windows have different conventions.
  2. I don’t think there were any serious usability studies behind either of the choices.
  3. Why not?
  4. Because it’s the most common action on a window?

It’s things like this that makes me skeptical of so-called usability experts when they think they can get away with changing things for the mere sake of change, without any evidence whatsoever that it’s a change for the better.  Majic ends her blog post about the window control button placement by indicating the true reason why they went for a completely unique arrangement:

Personally, I would have the max and min on the left and close on the right.

Update: My insanely sharp colleague Jennifer Boriss writes about this topic more elegantly from a user experience expert perspective.