Yesterday, I wrote about Clear, an iPhone app whose menu-less, gestural UI breaks the traditional rules of “discoverability.” But hey, traditional menus aren’t a bad thing. In a point-and-click desktop GUI, they’re hard to improve on. But those crazy Linux hackers at Ubuntu are thinking different: They just announced that the next release of their popular operating-system distribution will replace the menu bar with a widget-like “heads up display” similar to Spotlight or Quicksilver. Here’s the demo:
The term “heads up display” is a bit overheated here–Ubuntu isn’t adding some kind of holographic augmented reality layer to its interface. It just means that instead providing of a persistent menu bar at the top of the screen, Ubuntu will let you use a keyboard shortcut to spawn a search-like text box into which you start typing the functionality or feature you want to invoke. Like Quicksilver or Spotlight, the system will start auto-suggesting items as soon as you start typing. You can select the one you like, or just type out the command yourself. Then the widget will disappear like a genie until you call it up again.
As a Quicksilver devotee myself, I’ll admit that a fluid, keystroke-driven UI has a definite power-user appeal. And you have to respect Ubuntu’s sheer boldness (although the traditional menu style will still be available if you want it). The idea that I can simply start typing my intent directly into a box, rather than scrolling through a drop-down list to find it, seems elegant and intuitive on the surface. Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu’s founder, awkwardly calls his system an “intenterface” (combining intent and interface). As Silicon Filter explains, “The HUD concept allows users to simply say what they want to do and then do it. Thanks to fuzzy matching and its ability to learn and then prioritize commands you regularly use, this approach should give advanced users an advantage over the menu system.”
That’s the keyword: “advanced users.” If you’re already an expert on what your app can and can’t do, sure, it’ll save time to just invoke system actions directly via the keyboard. (This is the whole appeal of command-line interfaces for power users, too.) But what if you’re not an expert? The HUD won’t help you at all–you’ll be stuck typing semi-random strings into the text box just to see what suggested options pop up, and you’ll never be quite sure if you’ve uncovered every option available either. Drop-down menus can be a pain to search through, too, but at least they let you know exactly what’s on offer.
Not only that: for non-expert users, menus are like flash cards for learning the language of the application. After all, even a mass-market tool like Photoshop uses some pretty technical labels beyond the standard “Save,” “Open,” and “Print.” If you don’t know the terminology of your own tools yet, how can you invoke them by typing? A HUD would have to be as smart as HAL in order to assist you in that scenario.
It sounds like Ubuntu will offer the standard-menu and HUD options in parallel, rather than one-or-the-other, so power users and n00bs will have their cake and eat it too. And Shuttleworth fully admits the HUD’s current discoverability shortcomings. But if I’m reading his announcement right, Ubuntu’s eventual intention is to replace the drop-down menu interface completely. For an open-source project, it’s an ironically Jobsian approach.