Archive for December, 2008

Notifications, indicators and alerts

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Let’s talk about notifications! As Ryan Lortie mentioned, there was a lot of discussion across the Ubuntu, Kubuntu, GNOME, KDE and Mozilla communities represented at UDS about the proposals Canonical’s user experience design and desktop experience engineering teams have made for Ubuntu 9.04.


See the mockup as a Flash movie.

There are some fairly bold (read: controversial) ideas that we’d like to explore with, so the opportunity to discuss them with a broader cross-section of the community was fantastic. There were several rough edges and traps that I think we’ll avoid in the first round as a result, thanks to everyone who participated. Some of the things we work on in these teams are done directly with partners for their devices, so they don’t see this level of discussion before they ship, but it’s wonderful when we do get the opportunity to do so.

Some of these ideas are unproven, they boil down to matters of opinion, but since our commitment to them is based on a desire to learn more I think of them as constructive experiments. Experiments are just that – experiments. They may succeed and they may fail. We should judge them carefully, after we have data. We are putting new ideas into the free desktop without ego. We know those ideas could be better or worse than similar work being done in other communities, and we want to gather real user feedback to help find the best mix for everyone. The best ideas, and the best code, will ultimately form part of the digital free software commons and be shared by GNOME, KDE and every distribution. So, for those folks who were upset that we might ship something other than a GNOME or KDE default, I would ask for your patience and support – we want to contribute new ideas and new code, and that means having some delta which can be used as a basis for discussions about the future direction of upstream. In the past, we’ve had a few such delta’s in Ubuntu. Some, like the current panel layout, were widely embraced. Others, like the infamous “Ubuntu spacial mode”, were not. C’est la vie, and we all benefit from the evolution.

Experiments are also not something we should do lightly. The Ubuntu desktop is something I take very personally; I feel personally responsible for the productivity and happiness of every Ubuntu user, so when we bring new ideas and code to the desktop I believe we should do everything we can to make sure of success first time round. We should not inflict bad ideas on our users just because we’re curious or arrogant or stubborn or proud. Despite being occasionally curious, arrogant, stubborn and proud :-)

So, what are we proposing?

First, we are focusing some attention on desktop notifications in this cycle, as part of a broader interest in the “space between applications”.

I think Canonical and Ubuntu can best help the cause of free software by focusing on the cracks between the major components of the desktop. In other words, while there are already great upstreams for individual applications in the free software desktop (Novell for Evolution, Sun for OpenOffice, Mozilla for Firefox, Red Hat for NetworkManager), we think there is a lot of productive and useful work to be done in the gaps between them. Notifications are things that many apps do, and if we can contribute new ideas there then we are helping improve the user experience of all of those applications. That’s a nice force multiplier – we’re hopefully doing work that makes the work of every other community even more valuable.

Nevertheless, expect bumps ahead. Ideas we are exploring may / will / do conflict with assumptions that are present today in various applications. We can address the relevant code in packages in main, but I’m more focused on addressing the potential social disruption that conflict can create, and that’s more a matter of conversation than code.

Notifications are interesting, subtle and complex. There are lots of different approaches on lots of different platforms. There are lots of different use cases. We’re trying to simplify and eliminate complexity, while still making it possible to meet the use cases we know about.

There has been good work in the freedesktop.org community on notifications, and even a spec that is *almost* at 1.0 in that community, with existing open source implementations. Our proposal is based on that specification, but it deprecates several capabilities and features in it. We will likely be compatible with the current API’s for sending notifications, but likely will not display all the notifications that might be sent, if they require features that we deprecate. If this experiment goes well, we would hope to help move that FD.o specification to 1.0, with or without our amendments.

The key proposals we are making are that:

  • There should be no actions on notifications.
  • Notifications should not be displayed synchronously, but may be queued. Our implementation of the notification display daemon will display only one notification at a time, others may do it differently.

That’s pretty much it. There are some subtleties and variations, but these are the key changes we are proposing, and which we will explore in a netbook device with a partner, as well as in the general Ubuntu 9.04 release, schedule gods being willing.

This work will show up as a new notification display agent, not as a fork or patch to the existing GNOME notification daemon. We don’t think the client API – libnotify – needs to be changed for this experiment, though we may not display notifications sent through that API that use capabilities we are suggesting be deprecated. We will try to ensure that packages in main are appropriately tuned, and hope MOTU will identify and update key packages in universe accordingly.

Why a completely new notification display agent? We are designing it to be built with Qt on KDE, and Gtk on GNOME. The idea is to have as much code in common as we can, but still take advantage of the appropriate text display framework on Ubuntu and Kubuntu. We hope to deliver both simultaneously, and have discussed this with both Ubuntu and Kubuntu community members. At the moment, there is some disagreement about the status of the FD.o specification between GNOME and KDE, and we hope our efforts will help build a bridge there. In Ubuntu 9.04, we would likely continue to package and publish the existing notification daemon in addition, to offer both options for users that have a particular preference. In general, where we invest in experimental new work, we plan to continue to offer a standard GNOME or KDE component / package set in the archive so that people can enjoy that experience too.

The most controversial part of the proposal is the idea that notifications should not have actions associated with them. In other words, no buttons, sliders, links, or even a dismissal [x]. When a notification pops up, you won’t be able to click on it, you won’t be able to make it go away, you won’t be able to follow it to another window, or to a web page. Are you loving this freedom? Hmmm? Madness, on the face of it, but there is method in this madness.

Our hypothesis is that the existence of ANY action creates a weighty obligation to act, or to THINK ABOUT ACTING. That make notifications turn from play into work. That makes them heavy responsibilities. That makes them an interruption, not a notification. And interruptions are a bag of hurt when you have things to do.

So, we have a three-prong line of attack.

  1. We want to make notifications truly ephemeral. They are there, and then they are gone, and that’s life. If you are at your desktop when a notification comes by, you will sense it, and if you want you can LOOK at it, and it will be beautiful and clear and easy to parse. If you want to ignore it, you can safely do that and it will always go away without you having to dismiss it. If you miss it, that’s OK. Notifications are only for things which you can safely ignore or miss out on. If you went out for coffee and a notification flew by, you are no worse off. They don’t pile up like email, there is no journal of the ones you missed, you can’t scroll back and see them again, and therefor you are under no obligation to do so – they can’t become work while you are already busy with something else. They are gone like a mystery girl on the bus you didn’t get on, and they enrich your life in exactly the same way!
  2. We think there should be persistent panel indicators for things which you really need to know about, even if you missed the notification because you urgently wanted that coffee. So we are making a list of those things, and plan to implement them.
  3. Everything else should be dealt with by having a window call for attention, while staying in the background, unless it’s critical in which case that window could come to the foreground.

Since this is clearly the work of several releases, we may have glitches and inconsistencies along the way at interim checkpoints. I hope not, but it’s not unlikely, especially in the first iteration. Also, these ideas may turn out to be poor, and we should be ready to adjust our course based on feedback once we have an implementation in the wild.

We had a superb UXD and DEE (user experience design team, and desktop experience engineering team) sprint in San Francisco the week before UDS. Thanks to everyone who took part, especially those who came in from other teams. This notifications work may just be the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a very cool tip :-)

One or more of our early-access OEM partners (companies that we work with on new desktop features) will likely ship this feature as part of a netbook product during the 9.04 cycle. At that point, we would also drop the code into a PPA for testing with a wider set of applications. There are active discussions about updating the freedesktop.org specification based on this work. I think we should be cautious, and gather real user testing feedback and hard data, but if it goes well then we would propose simplifying the spec accordingly, and submit our notification display agent to FreeDesktop.org. Long term collaboration around the code would take place on Launchpad.

The user experience and design team at Canonical includes a few folks dedicated to web technology. At the moment, there is a substantial effort under way to reshape the Launchpad UI now that we have the core capabilities for cross-project bug tracking, code publishing and translation in place. We want to make it more obvious how to get something done – especially for new users – and we want to make it feel snappy and responsive when making small changes to your project data.

In the design discussions, we spent a lot of time working on a new approach to “dialog boxes, wizards and workflows”, trying to solve a thorny problem in user interaction: how do you make it easy to do something complex? There are lots of cases in Launchpad where you need to get lots of ducks in a row before you can do something. For example, you might need to make sure there is a team with specific people in it before you subscribe that team to a bug. Or you might need to create a new milestone while triaging and scheduling work on bugs in your project.

Currently, that means jumping all around Launchpad in a way that assumes you know exactly how those pieces work. You need to go to one place to register a team, and a completely different place to setup a milestone. That means that lots of people don’t use capabilities in Launchpad, because they need to understand the whole system before they can get something small done. Every time someone bumps their head on that, we fail! And that’s the problem we set out to solve.

We came up with a nifty approach, which we call morphing dialogs, that ensures the user always has the minimum number of choices to make, and still allows for complex variations on a process in a way that feels quite natural for users.

The key ideas behind morphing dialogs are:

  • Only show one primary decision at a time, and make it obvious what that is. Sometimes, there are several directions you could take in order to get something done, but there is usually a single normal path for users to follow, and we always want users to be able to do the easy things easily.
  • Give users a sense of how far they are in the process, but don’t be too dogmatic about that, since getting one thing done often involves stepping off to the side to take care of preliminary business and those detours can also require several steps.

Here’s an example movie, which shows a person linking a blueprint to a bug. They need to search for the right blueprint, which they can do across a couple of projects simultaneously. In this mockup, they add GNOME to the list of projects that they look for the blueprint in, and when they can’t find it, they go to register a new blueprint for what they want. In the end he decides to go back and pick one from the search results. None of this involved a page load, and the round trips to the server are much cheaper than loading full pages, since we can just get what we need in highly optimized way.

You can see a couple of the key ideas coming through in the movie.

Note the “progress bar” – the green line – is not particular large or obtrusive. It’s also not obviously a progress bar, until one has done a few multi-step processes. Note also that you can have detours; you can step off to one side to get something done, like register a team or register a new blueprint, and those detours get their own progress indicator which is separate from the main one.

We had a major sprint recently that brought the whole Launchpad team together for two weeks while we did a deep dive into JavaScript and AJAX. We picked YUI 3, the next version of Yahoo’s UI toolkit for the web, as a foundational layer for this AJAX effort, and we wanted to bring everyone up to speed on the processes for designing, building and testing web client apps. It was a lot of fun.

In particular, we wanted to unify the web service API’s that we already publish with this AJAX work, so that it would be easy to write web browser code that could talk to the exact same API’s we publish for developers who are integrating with Launchpad. That’s now possible, which means that any API we use for AJAX work will also be available to developers writing their own tools to access Launchpad directly through the web services.

Thanks to the awesomeness of YUI 3, the team is now hard at work turning those ideas into reality. Given that YUI 3 is right on the cutting edge (some would say bleeding edge!) we’re focusing on pieces that don’t depend on complex widgets – those will only start to fall into place next year as YUI 3 emerges from development.

Over the next couple of months you will see pieces of this puzzle land in successive Launchpad monthly releases (or daily, if you’re on edge.launchpad.net and a beta tester). Initially, the AJAX bling will just enable inline editing. In six to nine months, the more complex pieces should have land. And by then Launchpad’s web front-end will also be open source.