A wit said of Google Wave “if your project depends on reinventing scrollbars, you are doing something wrong.” But occasionally, just occasionally, one gets to do exactly that.

Under the Ayatana banner, we’ve been on a mission to make the desktop have less chrome and more content. The goal is to help people immerse themselves in their stuff, without being burdened with large amounts of widgetry which isn’t relevant to the thing they are trying to concentrate on. And when it comes to widgetry, there are few things left which take up more space than scrollbars.

For example, I spend plenty of time in a full screen terminal, and it’s lovely to see how clean that experience is on Natty today:

…but that scrollbar on the right seems heavy and outdated. We took inspiration from mobile devices, and started exploring the idea of making scrollbars be more symbolic, and less physical. Something like this:

Of course, since the desktop isn’t often a touch device, we need to think through pointer interactions. We wanted to preserve the idea of keeping content exposed as much as possible, while still providing for pointer interaction when needed. We also decided to drop the “one line scroll” capability, while preserving the ability to page up and down. Take a look at the result:

Overlay Scrollbars in Unity – implementation from Canonical Design on Vimeo.

The design work behind this has been done by Christian Giordano, who worked through the corner cases (literally) and provided a mockup for testing purposes. And the heavy lifting for Natty is being done by the indefatigable Andrea Cimitan, who is currently polishing up a gtk implementation of the concept for the release. Christian put together a blog post on the subject, and a great video which talks through the design process and a few of the challenges and solutions found:

Overlay Scrollbars in Unity from Canonical Design on Vimeo.

Code is available on launchpad, bzr branch lp:ayatana-scrollbar and in a PPA:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:ayatana-scrollbar-team/release; sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install liboverlay-scrollbar-0.1-0
LIBOVERLAY_SCROLLBAR=foo gnome-appearance-properties

Well done, guys.

162 Responses to “Ayatana overlay scrollbars: something truly Natty”

  1. Myq Says:

    no, this is not good. i’m sorry, but you’ve missed the point. if i want to scroll, i now MUST mouse to the area of the indicator. old-skool scrollbars allowed me to click in the region where the indicator is no in order to scroll screen by screen. that option is gone now.

    yes, i know everything can be done with the keyboard anyway. that’s not the point. you have REDUCED not only the size, but also the options and the speed with which the scroll bar can be used. if you are going to make the scrollbar worse, then just take it out and force people to only use the keyboard.

    it’s crippled, not improved.

  2. Prateek jadhwani Says:

    Hey Mark…dat was one hell of an improvement dat u made in Unity..but i guess only a couple of apps are able to use overlay scrollbar in GNOME3, since i installed it over 11.04. Still i wud like to get sum help so dat i can hack gnome3 for enabling dis feature. Even firefox, Nautilus and Empathy arent able to use dis feature.

  3. Pekka Says:

    How this eye-candy is supposed to work with touch screen? These overlay scrollbars require pixel-perfect clicks and drags. I end up mostly doing drag and drop instead of scrolling.

    If you want to ape Andrdoid or IOS, please do it properly.

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  5. Damon Says:

    Totally hate unity and the badness transfers to Xfce4. I use a laptop, not a damn tablet. Give me back my scroll bars. Did I say I hate Unity, I am totally livid.

  6. physopty Says:

    I use a trackpoint on a notebook which is faster and more precise than a touchpad. Even a touchscreen – while nice for certain surfing and navigation tasks – will never replace a well-engineered trackpoint. I even prefer to deactivate touchpads since they interfere with natural hand rest position.

    Regarding the overlay scrollbars, it is most annoying that the overlay appears only when getting close to the indicating vertical bar. So it requires to navigate the pointer to that tiny vertical bar, rather than simply move to the right border of the text area. This is difficult and slows down work a lot.

    Devices with touchscreen are fashionable now, and touchscreens might become standard also for notebooks used to work rather than just play and surf around.

    So I am pretty much against this new fashion of overlay scrollbars. It should at least be easy to switch them off, but better be discarded as it is one more step on the way to unfunctional notebooks (just as the move from 4:3 to widescreen was – also driven by movie consumers but not professional users).

    However, it may be good with a touchsreen and well-engineered trackpoint combination but without a touchpad. Or allow the touchpad to operate as large 2D scroll-control (and nothing else).

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  8. jim Says:

    I will say this with huge amount of respect for your dedication and creativity, however I have a huge problem with Ayatan scrollbar. I currently use Ubuntu with Gnome 2.32.

    At the minimum, you should give users a choice to select the look-and-feel such as you get with Firefox 6.0, where if there is more text than the window size, the scrollbar is shown ***all the time, and has good ***contrast color so it is highly ***visible.

    I am not a game player, I am a programmer. There are three most common things I do on my computer. One is searching for files. Two is programming within some IDE. Three is trying to find bloody scrollbars. In fact, I estimate I am looking for scrollbars about 200 times per day. Yes I can understand that real estate is limited on the screen. I measured several of my windows and found out that typical width of a window is 150mm, and the height is 100mm. The vertical scrollbar if it were always visible take 3mm width and 100mm height. Horizontal scrollbar would take 3mm width and 150mm length. So the two scrollbars have area (3*100 + 3*150) and the window area is (150*100) so the ratio is 750/15,000 = 5%. So by making the scrollbars invisible you saved 5%.

    To put it differently, I have to hunt with my mouse over the edge of the window repeatedly until I can see the invisible scrollbar. To put it yet differently, it is very bad idea to try to save 5% and making the window unusable because I can’t find the bloody scrollbar.

    Again I have great deal of respect for all the Gnome programmers, but please give user an option to see the scrollbar all the time if there is hidden text in the window and make the scrollbar highly visible by providing proper contrast. It should require very little code since persistently visible scrollbars are easier to design. Use the look-and-feel of Firefox 6.0. I am so desperate that I am looking into installing xfce or KDE.

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  10. David Says:

    overlay scrollbars are terrible. I have a desktop, not a silly tablet!

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