Less is more. But still less.

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

One of the driving mantras for us is “less is more”. I want us to “clean up, simplify, streamline, focus” the user experience work that we lead. The idea is to recognize the cost of every bit of chrome, every gradient or animation or line or detail or option or gconf setting. It turns out that all of those extras add some value, but they also add clutter. There’s a real cost to them – in attention, in space, in code, in QA. So we’re looking for things to strip out, as much (or more) as things to put in.

I’m not sure we’ll go as far as Microsoft has with their new Windows Phone 7 UI (links to .PPTX), which uses a design language called Metro. It’s radically pared back, and very cool work. It will be interesting to see if they’ve gone too far, or if users take to the more abstract feel of it.

It’s not hard to get people enthusiastic about the idea that less is more. However, it’s quite hard to get people to agree on which bits can be less. It turns out that one person’s clutter is another person’s most useful and valued feature.

Less, it turns out, is still less.

So, for example, consider tooltips on the panel. In bug #527458, there’s some discussion about a decision I made to deprecate tooltips on panel indicators. For quite a lot of people, that’s a little less too far.

On that particular decision, we’ll have to let time tell. For the moment, the decision stands. I’m the first to admit fallibility but I also know that it would be impossible to get consensus around a change like that. If those tooltips are, on balance, really just clutter, then unless someone is willing to take a decision that will be unpopular, they will be clutter forever. And it’s easier for me to make a decision like that in Ubuntu than for virtually anybody else. I apologise in advance for the mistakes that I will certainly make, and which others on the design team may make too, but I think it’s important to defend our willingness to pare things back and let the core, essential goodness shine through. We have to balance innovation and change with clarification and focus. We can’t *stop* innovating and changing, and we have to be willing to remove things that someone will miss.

The bug is a good place to continue the discussion about that particular issue. But I thought it would be useful to issue a call to arms, and invite suggestions from people on the Ayatana list as to what elements of the existing Ubuntu desktop can be trimmed back, on balance making the whole better.

There’s a growing awareness and excitement about the importance of design in free software. A few years ago, folks laughed out loud when it was suggested that design is a good thing for the free software community to build expertise in.  And it’s been slow going, admittedly. It’s hard to bring clarity in a crowd. Or mob. We’ve been doing our part to lead that at Canonical and in the Ubuntu community, both through internal work and through public forums. If you’re interested in design and Free Software, then Ubuntu and Ayatana and related forums are great places to participate. And your participation is welcome!