Dash takes shape for 11.10 Unity

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Our goal with Unity is unprecedented ease of use, visual style and performance on the Linux desktop. With feature freeze behind us, we have a refined target render of the Dash for Oneiric, and here it is:

click for the full size render.

Scopes and Lenses

We’ve moved from the idea of “Places” to a richer set of “Scopes and Lenses”. Scopes are data sources, and can tap into any online or offline data set as long as they can generate categorised results for a search, describe a set of filters and support some standard interfaces. Lenses are various ways to present the data that come from Scopes.

The Scopes have a range of filtering options they can use, such as ratings (“show me all the 5 star apps in the Software Center please”) and categories (“… that are games or media related”). Over time, the sophistication of this search system will grow but the goal is to keep it visual and immediate – something anyone can drive at first attempt.

This delivers on the original goal of creating a device-like experience that was search driven. Collaboration with the always-excellent Zeitgeist crew (quite a few of whom are now full time on the Unity team!) has improved the search experience substantially, kudos to them for the awesome work they’ve put in over the past six months. Since we introduced the Dash as a full screen device-like search experience, the same idea has made its way into several other shells, most notably Mac OS X Lion. While we’re definitely the outsider in this contest, I think we can stay one step ahead in the game given the support of our community.

The existing Places are all in the process of being updated to the Scopes and Lenses model, it’s a bit of a construction site at the moment so hard-hats are advised but dive in if you have good ideas for some more interesting scopes. I’ve heard all sorts of rumours about cool scopes in the pipeline ๐Ÿ˜‰ and I bet this will be fertile ground for innovation. It’s pretty straightforward to make a scope, I’m sure others will blog and document the precise mechanisms but for those who want a head start, just use the source, Luke.

Panel evolution

In the panel, you’ll see that the top left corner is now consistently used to close whatever has the focus. Maximising a window keeps the window controls in the same position relative to the window – the top left corner. We have time to refine the behaviour of this based on user testing of the betas; for example, in one view, one should be able to close successive windows from that top left corner even if they are not maximised.

It’s taken several releases of careful iteration to get to this point. Even though we had a good idea where we were headed, each step needed to be taken one release at a time. Perhaps this might make a little clearer the reasons for the move of window controls to the left – it was the only place where we could ultimately keep them consistent all the way up to a maximised window with the title bar integrated into the panel. I’m confident this part will all be settled by 12.04.

As part of this two-step shuffle, the Dash invocation is now integrated in the Launcher. While this is slightly less of a Fitts-fantastic location, we consider it appropriate for a number of reasons. First, it preserves the top left corner for closing windows. Second, the Dash is best invoked with the Super key (sometimes erroneously and anachronistically referred to as the “Windows” key, for some reason ;-)). And finally, observations during user testing showed people as more inclined to try clicking on items in the Launcher than on the top left icon in the panel, unless that icon was something explicit like a close button for the window. Evidence based design rules.

Visual refinements

Rather than a flat darkening, we’re introducing a wash based on the desktop colour. The dash thus adjusts to your preferred palette based on your wallpaper. The same principle will drive some of the login experience – choosing a user will shift the login screen towards that users wallpaper and palette.

We’ve also integrated the panel and the dash, so indicators are rendered in a more holographic fashion inside the dash. Together with efforts to mute the contrast of Launcher icons the result is a more striking dash altogether: content is presented more dramatically.

Since we have raw access to the GL pipeline, we’re taking advantage of that with some real-time blur effects to help the readability and presentation of overlay content in the Dash, too. Both Nux in the case of Unity-3D and Qt in the case of Unity-2D have rich GL capabilities, and we’d like to make the most of whatever graphics stack you have on your hardware, while still running smoothly on the low end.

Growing community and ecosystem

A project like this needs diverse perspectives, talents and interests to make it feel rounded and complete. While Canonical is carrying the core load, and we’re happy to do so in order to bring this level of quality to the Ubuntu desktop user experience, what makes me particularly optimistic is the energy of the contributors both to Unity directly and to the integration of many other components and applications with the platform.

On the contribution front, a key goal for the Unity community is to maintain velocity in contributor patch flows. You should expect a rapid review and, all being well, landing, for contributions to Unity that are in line with the design goals. In a few cases we’ve also accepted patches that make it possible to use Unity in ways that are different to the design goals, especially where the evidence doesn’t lean very heavily one way or the other. Such contributions add some complexity but also give us the opportunity to test alternatives in a very rich way; the winning alternative would certainly survive, the other might not.

Contrary to common prognostication, this community is shaping up to be happy and productive. For those who do so for love and personal interest, participating in such a community should be fun and stimulating, an opportunity to exercise skills or pursue interests, give something back that will be appreciated and enjoyed by many, and help raise the bar for Linux experiences. I’d credit Jorge and others for their stewardship of this so far, and my heartfelt thanks to all of those who have helped make Unity better just for the fun of it.

Outside of the core, the growing number of apps that integrate sweetly with the launcher (quicklists), dash (scopes), indicators (both app-specific and category indicators) is helping to ensure that API’s are useful, refined and well implemented, as well as improving the experience of Ubuntu users everywhere. Now that we’re moving to Unity by default for both 2D and 3D, that’s even more valuable.

Under the hood

In this round, Unity-3D and Unity-2D have grown together and become twin faces on the same underlying model. They now share a good deal of common code and common services and – sigh – common bugs :-). But we’re now at the point where we can be confident that the Unity experience is available on the full range of hardware, from lightweight thin client systems made of ARM or Atom CPU’s to CADstations with oodles of GPU horsepower.

There’s something of a competition under way between proponents of the QML based Unity-2D, who believe that the GL support here is good enough to compete both at the high end and on the low end, and the GL-heads in Unity-3D, who think that the enhanced experiences possible with raw GL access justify the additional complexity of working in C++ and GL on the metal. Time will tell! Since a lot of the design inspiration for Unity came from game interfaces, I lean to the “let’s harness all the GL we can for the full 3D experience” side of the spectrum, but I’m intrigued with what the QML team are doing.

318 Responses to “Dash takes shape for 11.10 Unity”

  1. What’s coming in Ubuntu’s new Unity Linux desktop | LINUX REVIEW Says:

    […] According to Canonical founder, Mark Shuttleworth a subsequent chronicle of Unity, that is due out in October, โ€œOur thought with Unity is rare palliate of use, visible character and opening on a Linux desktop.โ€ […]

  2. kikl Says:

    Dear Mark,

    I’ve been using 11.10 for quite a while and would like to share my impressions:

    1. The software centre looks spectacular. I haven’t tried syncing the apps across computers, but if it works as advertised, great!

    2. The dash: Huge improvement. You can really tell that user testing has been performed. Small changes such as integrating the ubuntu button into the launcher, maximizing and closing in the upper left corner like in any other window… The looks are great, love the transparency, the launcher becomes colourful, the panel icons change contrast, lots of polish. The filters and lenses (?) add usability. Great, great work!

    3. The global menu: I got used to it quite fast with maximized windows. Hiding the menu cleans up the GUI and lets you concentrate on work. It looks great once you know it’s there. I don’t know whether users are easily going to discover the feature. A short film or introduction during installation could help a lot. However, this is my first major complaint: Global menu with non-maximized windows is a usability nightmare!? Test it, test it, test it, you must get rid of it. I am sure the usability tests are going be unambiguous. Sorry, but copying bad apple features won’t get you anywhere. I imagine that it’s something you personally love, but think of the users (and business) first. So keep it for maximized windows and get rid of it for non-maximized windows. The menu (hidden or not) as well as the close/maximize/minimize icons must be connected to the non-maximized window the good old way.

    4. Stop/system settings. You have combined the Turn-off button with the system settings. Either you integrate a separate system settings icon into the top panel or you integrate the system settings into the dash. But the current solution doesn’t make any sense. I think a slick settings lens in the dash would be the right solution. The system settings are basically programs/applications. Therefore, the dash is the place to look for them. A notification area for attached devices could be part of the top panel. I do like the new “online accounts” menu in the system settings. So far it only works for google, but it’s a neat idea.

    O.K. I am an experienced user, so this is the feedback of a geek. I am going to test the 11.10 on my old mom, who is still using XP. I am going to set it up specifically for her needs and test how she copes with the changes.

    Wish you all the best


  3. Jason Says:

    Mr. Shuttleworth, can you please give users the option of using the “flat darkening” Dash? After using Oneiric Beta-1 and Beta-2, I am really not liking this new “colored” Dash. A setting that let’s users choose which they want to use would make everyone happy.

    My “preferred palette” is that the dash be dark/black. It provides a nice backdrop to display the icons and it helps me focus on whatever task I enabled the dash for. The new “Wash” effect has removed most everything I love about the Dash’s appearance. The Dash looks great in Natty and Unity-2D. But I’m really disappointed with the Dash in Oneiric’s Unity-3D ๐Ÿ™

    Just because I select a wallpaper with certain colors doesn’t mean I want everything to be that color. Besides, often I’ve got a maximized window open of an application that has some totally different color. Like if I have Gedit open or a webpage, then the background color is mostly white. Opening the Dash with this background results in awful icon-contrast and results in a Dash that has zero visual appeal. One of my favorite things about the Unity interface was Natty’s Dash. I feel like this has totally been undone with Oneiric because of this Wash effect.

    I am really, really hoping (begging) that you will give Oneiric users a setting that will let us use the “flat darkening” background from Natty (or Unity-2D) in Oneiric’s 3D Dash.

  4. Colin Says:

    I’ve used Ubuntu since it started. I’ve stuck with it and been impressed with the fantastic achievements.

    I just did a new install… I’m sorry to say it, but Unity is confusing, slow and coloured like a child’s toy.

    The classic Gnome interface has been very effective for me, logical, simple, word based. All the gee-wizz flashy Unity colours make it look like a kiddy interface to me.

    I don’t think it’s a step forwards. If you must go down the gaudy colour path, please keep a simple clean Gnome-classic version for business users.

    Cheers, Colin

  5. Emiliano Puddu Says:

    Dear Mark, I’m trying Unity and I will use it because I believe in innovation and I like you idea of Linux (and 200 000 000 people that will use it).
    I’m thinking about one thing: to use Unity at its best, I would remove the horizontal bar (heavy) and use only the side bar, but with menรน icons inside. In place of icons of libreoffice, one, and so on, I placed there icons of Accessories, Multimedia, System, Office, Configuration…once you click on them, the usual dash opens in the corresponding environment, showing icons of Word, Draw, Calc, Impress, for example…
    An additive icon showing the shutdown commands, connection status, chat, mail etc etc should be added.
    I have thought this because I think that the killapp of Unity is its emptyness, its lightness with respect to kde, gnome3 etc…but the horizontal bar in not perfectly style integrated to the side bar, which brings the real innovation…
    I hope I gave some interesting concepts.
    Best Regards,

  6. sibin Says:

    I hate Ubuntu 11.10 ,It is very slow on my computer.So i uninstall and install Ubuntu 10.10.Now everything is fine..Please tell more about Lubuntu and Xbuntu .Which is faster in my 6 year old ,Celeron based PC having 1GB RAM,200 GB HDD with no Graphics card …Please replay me………

  7. Ubuntu 11.10 for Productive People Says:

    […] reading Mark Shuttleworth’s blog, I’ve found strong feelings out there on Ubuntu’s default user interface. I agree with […]

  8. Peter Risdon Says:

    I’m afraid this is where you lose me as a user. I want my computer back. For ease of use, I’ll stick with my Mac. For development, some other Linux or maybe FreeBSD again.


  9. Andy Says:

    Mark: Why would you use a scrollbar at all with a touch interface? I’ve never used a scrollbar on my Android phone…

  10. mark Says:


    You wouldn’t use a scrollbar on a touch interface, that’s the point ๐Ÿ˜‰


  11. Roger Says:

    The temptation is to leap straight to criticism, but that would be unfair, because Ubuntu is not exactly alone in making changes that I dislike (Windows is going the same way), and I do appreciate many of the advances in Ubuntu that have made using a Linux desktop more viable.

    So, I would like to say first that I applaud the fact that Ubuntu has provided a version of GNU/Linux that, for the most part, works out of the box. Automatic detection and support of hardware was always a weakness in Linux that you have gone a long way towards solving. Similarly, I have generally positive views on the changes made to the startup and shutdown procedures. For the past several releases, Ubuntu has performed so much better than Windows on identical hardware ( where it used to be comparable, or even slightly slower ) that it is hard to believe.

    So, in general, I like Ubuntu, and I use it to the exclusion of other Linux distributions.

    But having said that, I have to admit that I am no fan of the current trends in the computer interface world. The two main drivers currently seem to be “search” based interfaces and “touch” based interfaces for small devices. Unity design seems to embody both of these trends, but at the expense of usability for normal window-centric devices.

    I am currently writing this using a device with a keyboard, a mouse equivalent and a screen with a resolution of 1900×1280. The unity interface is frankly abysmal on such a device. Leaving aside how the launcher works, there are several basic problems:

    1. Interface elements are tiny: Window borders are practically non-existent ( so they are difficult to use ), scrollbars tend to disappear whilst trying to use them unless the mouse movement is very accurate.

    2. The base themes lack contrast and interest. UI elements lack much in the way of visual cues and feedback ( space saving mania again ). As a side note, it would be better that all elements of the interface match. The visuals of the 3D Unity dash are at odds with everything else.

    3. Detaching the menu system from the application is plain nonsense. Just because Apple did it does NOT make it a good idea. If you want/need to save space in the application, have the menu as a drop-down from a button on the title bar. You can still merge the title bar with the bar across the top of the screen when you maximize , and it avoids having to go back and forth across the screen when a window is not maximized.

    4. Floating hints ( Tool-tips ) and pop-up menus exist for some elements and not others; help features do not seem to exist directly in any Unity element, and customization appears to be close to zero ( aside from the ability to drop links into the launcher ). This means that it is hard for a user to do anything to improve usability.

    5. Most of the Windows opened appear jammed into the top left of the screen, often with the launcher bar on top of it. This is not necessarily useful.

    Now, I understand that many of these criticisms would not apply if I were using unity on a 10″ touch screen with 1024×768 resolution. But I’m not. I have 5 devices that run Ubuntu, and none of them look like that. Conversely, I have one tablet device that does look like that, and it does not run Ubuntu, because there is no value in putting Ubuntu on it. It gets used for casual browsing, as its form factor and capabilities makes it useful for little else.

    I was going to now turn to the launcher and criticize its sudden loss of speed in 11.10: Initially I found that the the Dash Home took about 4 seconds to open after being clicked, and that logging out of the Unity shell seemed to hang for 10-15 seconds. Fortunately, this seems to be due to the 3D graphics driver used. After replacing the default open source driver with the ATI provided driver, everything works as snappily as I expected. Under the OSS driver the dash also looks different, maybe it was failing and falling back to 2D?

    The dash itself is visually attractive and functionally cool. Whilst it is aiming towards search-oriented launch, it is less so than the mess in Windows 7. I can see that for most of the time, the Dash COULD provide what I would consider a good experience.

    COULD but DOESN’T because, again, I can’t change anything about the presentation. Personally, I would find it most useful for the dash to present the “More/All Apps” screen ( with the filters twisty open ) directly, as I see no value at all to the dash home screen. Selecting a filter category is then akin to a selecting a sub-menu of apps in a given category, which is more familiar and useful. Searching for apps using text matching is only really useful when installing new ones, since you are unlikely to have that many in any given category actually installed.

    Speaking of which, I would also find it more useful to have “frequently used” and “installable” as collapsed categories, or better yet, a radio button ( as part of the filter? ) that allows selection of favorite / installed / available. If something is a favorite, you already know that, and have probably put it in the launch bar already, so it just wastes space and makes the interface look messy and confusing. Similarly, you are usually starting an infrequently used app, or looking for a new one, but not both. Putting everything in one window just isn’t helpful.

    When looking for documents or data, on the other hand, text matching could be much more useful given that there are potentially far more documents than applications. Categorization may well be insufficient.

    It may sound like that is all very negative, but it is not really. I do not have any issue with trying to introduce improvements or variants, but I doubt the wisdom of removing support for other proven options whilst the new code is still in such a raw state. Quite apart from usability issues and the lack of automatic / manual configuration, there are still significant functional bugs – for example, the categories have just disappeared from all my application selection screens, and the “search music collection” screen returns a meaningless selection when a category is selected but there is no search text.



  12. Rob Says:

    There are some good aspects to Unity, such as the lenses in dash, but overall it is inferior to Gnome 3 shell, in my opinion, and I’d rather see the devs work on other issues and just go with Gnome.

    One thing with Unity is the launcher on the desktop, which seems to me to be at odds with the overall design philosophy that Unity is heading toward. Why have the launcher there at all? You can hide it, of course, but then to get into dash you have to move the mouse to the edge of the screen to get the launcher to appear, and then click on the icon to go into dash. It is a pointless couple of steps when you could just mouse into the upper left like in Gnome 3 and dash open with that simple gesture. That’s one change I would certainly recommend to make Unity more attractive. Even though it is a minor feature in the grand scheme of things, it is a one reason I don’t use Unity. It just lacks some of the simple elegance of Gnome 3 shell.

    The icons in dash are overly large and ugly. Granted this is the case in Gnome 3 shell as well (though not quite as bad), and I had to edit a .css file to get the icons down to what looked like a professional desktop and not a cartoon one. I assume it can be changed in Unity as well, but you might consider making it more attractive by default.

    Those are just aesthetic issues, but I think the presence of the launcher and the extra step to get to dash are important. The feel of how it works in Unity is just clunky. If Unity were changed to eliminate the launcher from the desktop entirely (or to at least allow it be eliminated, not just hidden), and a option to open dash by simply mousing to the corner of the screen, I’d at least give Unity another look. Right now, Gnome has the more elegant solution.

  13. arunmanoj Says:

    First of all the 11.10 release is g8! congrats & thanx 4 that! but 1 prob i am facing with the ubuntu 4 the past 1-1.5yr(s) is still there…The HIBERNATION is still not working in my laptop(dell vostro 3300)…this is very basic thing & ubuntu should/must solve this problem ASAP,(windows vista & 7)’s hibernation works fine without a hitch…

  14. Kikl Says:

    “Why have the launcher there at all?” Because it is supposed to provide a very quick access to your favorite applications as well as opened apps. Searching for them in the dash each and every time would be time consuming.

    The dash combines google like search and searching through categories and filters in a single and simple interface. I hope that third party developers are going to be able to provide individual lenses according to people’s preferences. But I feel there is one problem. You have to cover a lot of screen space with your mouse in order to accomplish you goal. Let me illustrate this.

    You start in the top left corner in order to open the dash. Then you wander down to the bottom in order to select the appropriate lens. Thereafter you move all the way to the right hand side in order to select a filter and finally you move back into the center of the screen in order to select the search result. Wow, after this odyssee across your wide and large screen you feel a little exhausted.

    Therefore, I think the buttons should be arranged differently. My suggestion:

    X-0 … Lens Lens Lens Lens
    Dash Filter (debending on selected lens) Search field (for typing)
    Dash Filter Results Results Results..

    If the lenses are in the top left corner, where the menu bar usually is, then the path to them is much shorter and users are accustomed to the position – the lenses provide additional functionality like a menu bar in an application. But keep the ikons, it’s much better than having text fields. Filters could be positioned right below the lens field. So then you just move down to the filter or start typing in the text field. If you don’t want to use the lenses at all, you can just start typing immediately – basically you don’t have to use the mouse at all. So in terms of mouse usage, this would be no drawback. This suggestion has one drawback, you have to drag an application across the filters to the dash in order to position it there. Alternatively, you open the app and then select it with your right mouse button in the dash. But hey, let’s see if someone has a better idea;-)



  15. Mike514 Says:

    I keep hearing how Unity supposed to be fast, but it’s a slow design. I used to be able to open a second browser in another workspace by clicking on the workspace icon at the bottom of the screen to switch to it, then clicking the browser button at the top of the screen – two clicks and I’m done. NOW I have to click on the workspace switcher button on the Launcher. Right click on the workspace where I want to open the new browser. Click on the Dash button because the browser button won’t open a second browser regardless of where you want it (took me 3 days to figure that one out). Click on Internet Apps. Click on the browser button. FIVE clicks. This is supposed to be faster?

    Unity reminds me of the old joke about Helen Keller’s parents punishing her by rearranging the furniture. Yes the old stuff is all there, but it’s in different places, and only the Unity team knows where and how to navigate it.

  16. mark Says:


    The specific issue you have is a bug in Unity that will be fixed in 12.04. Apps that support launching multiple windows will do so by default if you click on them in the launcher in a workspace which does not have that app running in it. So you’ll be back to: select workspace, select app.

  17. Kikl Says:

    Two more remarks about the dash if I may. The scroll bar in the dash is very difficult to use. Please add the work that you’ve been doing with scroll bars to the dash.

    Then I asked myself why people are so attached to the old gnome 2.x drop down bar. So I installed one for fun in the top panel in order to use it side by side with the dash. The main advantage of the old design is speed. You just mouse over a category and the results immediately pop up. In the dash a whole lot of clicking is going on. You click the lens, then you click filter results, then you click each and every filter. On top of that it’s just not as responsive. The dash offers many more options than the drop down menu, but it doesn’t offer its speed. Once you’ve addressed this issue the unity haters are going to repent;-)

    Unity (launcher, dash, top panel + global menubar) looks modern and slick. Nautilus now looks great too. Once you’ve polished the dash a little bit more, I think Ubuntu should start giving a little more love to the default applications and their integration. Thunderbird and Firefox are great. The lo-menubar for libreoffice. Gwibber and empathy need some love.

    Wish you all the best



  18. fd Says:

    Unity would be easier if each program had it’s own tab in the taskbar. Please please please please pleeeeeease implement this. Keep everything and have every program clickable in the taskbar.