Ubuntu Wants to Replace Menus with a HUD

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Ubuntu, the popular Linux distribution, has been experimenting with a number of interface designs lately. Today, the project's founder Mark Shuttleworth announced that the next major version of Ubuntu, 12.04 LTS, will feature a replacement for the menu bar. This "Head-Up Display" (HUD) is more akin to well-known Mac utilities like QuickSilver and Alfred. The idea here is to eventually replace the global menu in Ubuntu's Unity interface – which is similar to the menu bar at the top of the screen in OS X – with a more keyboard driven "vocabulary UI" approach that can understand the user's intent without having to search through an application's menu system.

Ubuntu 12.04 will still feature traditional menus, but introduce the HUD as an alternative to the current design.

Shuttleworth notes that Ubuntu's user testing found that most users spend a lot of time navigating menus, either to learn about a program's functionality or to take an action. Menus, says Shuttleworth, serve two functions: "They act as a standard way to invoke commands which are too infrequently used to warrant a dedicated piece of UI real-estate, like a toolbar button, and they serve as a map of the app’s functionality, almost like a table of contents that one can scan to get a feel for ‘what the app does.’"

Just Type

In order to improve on this concept, Ubuntu wants to create a system that allows users to express their intent. Current menu-driven systems, says Ubuntu, require users to read too much, even though they already know what they want to do. They are hard to use from the keyboard (unless you already know an application's shortcuts) and "force developers to make often arbitrary choices about the menu tree."

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.

One problem this approach doesn't solve, though, is giving users an idea of a program's capabilities. At least with regular menus, you can figure out what an app can actually do by just browsing through the menu tree.

Ubuntu has been widely criticized for its move to the relatively non-standard Unity interface. This announcement today will surely have its critics as well, though I have to give Ubuntu some props for trying relatively radical new things – something more established mainstream companies like Apple and Microsoft can't really do at this point.

Frederic Lardinois founded SiliconFilter in 2011. Before starting this site, he wrote about 1,500 articles for ReadWriteWeb. His areas of interest are consumer web and mobile apps, as well as Internet-connected devices like cars, smart sensors and toasters. You can reach him at [email protected]

14 COMMENTS

  1. Type in “undo” to UNDO something?

    Sheesh.

    Or, press Ctrl+Z or whatever the Ubuntu equivalent is.

    Ridiculous concept and execution.

    Maybe for text-heavy apps this makes sense…but for anything requiring mouse movement, it’s far easier/faster to either use normal keyboard shortcuts and/or right-click and/or click on drop-down menus.

    BTW – If anyone was that obsessed with speed and workflow regarding illustrations, they would be using Adobe Illustrator, not some crappy Inkscape program. Sheesh.

    • Command-based interfaces can use both control keys and text commands. In the case of “undo”, it will indeed require less key presses to use the control key combination than to bring up the HUD, then type “undo”.

      But what about the song selection example? A limitation of control keys in command interfaces is that there’s only so many combinations one can use – or expect the user to memorise.

  2. Sounds interesting – way to go to Ubuntu for forging ahead and innovating.

    However, as an Ubuntu user, I’d like to humbly suggest that they also put some emphasis on quality as well. I’ve been using Ubuntu on the desktop for a few years now, and unfortunately each and every version some things break, not always receiving fixes in due time. For instance, Unity’s first version was utterly broken, and personally I still find Gnome 3.0 far superior over it.

    To be clear, they are doing amazing work and I’m not writing to disparage the project or the people working on it. I’m just asking that this time they put more emphasis on polish and QA, since the devil of getting this type of stuff right is always in the details.

  3. This excites me. It looks like they’ve done some good API stuff. I think this + a Siri like voice command that can learn and use the same commands would be great. You could use voice commands on your tablet/tablet like device and keyboards commands on your laptop/desktop or when you are in public. But the same commands either way. Good work Ubuntu, I’m excited.

  4. Back to command-line? (albeit with auto-fill)… Only as long as you keep the GUI menu for affordability discovery.

  5. @josefajardo I am liking the hud, but I use spotlight and launchy quite a lot anyway… is it too keyboardy for you?

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