User Riots: What Does Not Work with Launcher Menus (Part 2)

Before I enter this subject, I would like to recognize the effort and great genius that the people who have worked with GUI design have done with Launcher Menus.  I am pleased to say that I have been an avid user of these small applications for all the years that I have worked with computers.

The subject matter of this article is a very unpleasant one for me. I am to critique the shortcomings of these menus and I feel that it would be necessary to clear a couple of things before I get started. First, the analysis being done right now focuses on the negative aspects of the launcher menus the way "I" see it. The article does not represent the work of a group of people, just me. Second, while the subject of this discussion is negative in nature, these are not to be taken as personal attacks against the people who so passionately worked on them. They are respected and thanked for their efforts. Third, I believe it is necessary to look at what "is not so effective" with these menus, in order to come up with a solution that can encompass all the negative aspects that these menus currently have. To be self-critical is a relevant element of design. The failures presented by these menu examples are to be thought of collectively and not individually. These are lacking elements that appear across many menus and different platforms.

Without further due, here are the areas that Launcher Menus deal with ineffectively.

Hand Position: Ergonomics
Various stats suggest that 85% of people are right handed. These could also be interpreted as the majority of people using computers are right handed as well. The majority of Launcher menus sit on the bottom left of the screen. It has been so for Windows since they created the Start Menu and for others after them, such as Gnome and KDE. I see a problem with this. First, although it is a simple pixel to find, it restrains the right hand. 85% of people have become used to an unnatural location for the Start Menu. Although some may argue that there are trackpads and all that, but truth of the matter is that most of the times, the screen cursors sits in areas that belong to the half where the hand is. In this case, the pointer will mostly sit on the right half of the screen because it is the right hand that is being used to control it. Then the right hand has to do an unnatural movement across to the left, and not only to the left, but down as well. It is trying to reach the Start Menu.

Probably then, the bottom left position for the Launcher menu is not the best. We might not feel it is a problem since we have become used to it, but I do not think it is well designed. It might work for left handed people but not for me.

Eye Position: Ergonomics
Another problem that I find (this is just personal experience) comes from the position that my eyes have to take in order to locate elements on the screen. A lot of times, the eyes have a natural tendency to place items from a screen higher so that the head and the eyes do not have to look down in order to see something. Every time, I have to look down to the bottom of the screen I squint a little and it seems more unnatural than having my eyes set close to the top edge of the screen. I actually feel very happy every time I use Macs, because they have the window menus at the top, although it is annoying to travel all the way down with the pointer to the dock to launch programs. In fact, a lot of action happens near the top edge of the screen. Applications have all of their editing elements atop which draws the eye to the top, and suddenly you have to launch a program. Then you look down and leave the position you were in.

Look at these ladies:
Well, these ladies show what I am talking about. Although these are pictures taken from stock images, they show something that happens all the time. Your eyes are generally wandering on the higher plane of the screen.

Crowdedness: Just TOO MANY!
One big problem that all these launcher menus have, and menus in general, is the one about sorting the elements withing the menu. How do you do it? what's the best method available? How does one manage the ever growing population of the launcher menus?

One thing that happens overtime, is that no matter how cool you are with your information, you will accumulate tons of it. It is no different with launcher menus. They get crowded fairly fast. Think of Windows, they have invented a couple of ideas so that they can manage your applications. From Windows 95 and on, they did not do much about it, the menus just got very big and covered the whole screen. The same happened with XP. But once Vista and then Windows 7 came on board, this changed. They decided to work more with favorites and seclude the rest of the applications inside the limited area of the start menu.

Although it looks better, it does not solve the problem. I actually think that it makes it worse. Because, now the menus cannot go all along the screen, rather they stay packed in, and hidden inside the launcher menu. As a help, Windows offers a search field at the bottom. But what if you do not remember how to spell your programs' names? or file names?


Spacing: Ergonomics?
I don't really know where this one goes, but it is a very hard one to explain. I just want to add this because I have always had issues with this one. I do not really know what is the right spacing between items on the list of programs and favorite applications, but I sure know what I don't like. So here it goes.
In the current windows 7 menu there are different kinds of spacing between the items list. The favorites and folder sections of the menu have more spacing than the menu with the programs. The programs are actually a little harder to pin down with the mouse pointer. Probably something should be done about that. But they are so many items (Don't get me started on how much trial software you get when you buy computers from the stores) that they need to pack them closer together to be seen.
On a Mac, the story is a little different but unsolved as well. They do not have a problem with spacing, necessarily, since the dock takes care of that fairly well. It is a more visual recognition approach and it works well. But just imagine what the dock will look like when you try to put the amount of items you have on a Windows start menu onto the dock. Then it becomes a problem.

And this is what I am talking about. As the dock fills with more icons, they need to gather the horizontal space needed to accommodate all of them. The dock shrinks the icons and the user has to go through this long line of icons until you visually identify the one you need.

On Gnome, for exaple, the story is not about small spacing and hard to pin, but rather the spacing is sometimes too big.

This image explains what I am talking about. Look at the size of each item and each description. It gets to the bottom of the screen so fast that in many cases you have to scroll up and down to sift through this long spaced menu. I run Ubuntu some times and I really get annoyed by this, especially because Gnome has the "simplicity" idea with them making 1 application per task. It is very useful, I appreciate it very much, but they become crowded too fast on the launcher menus.

Lack of Simplicity
This idea is also hard to work out. It depends heavily on the user and his/her idea of simple. But here is mine. I do not think menus should have long labels. Some have opted for shortening the labels and only leaving the application name and the icon. Such as the OSX Dock. Others such as Windows prefer full names and Gnome and KDE prefer them all. The icon, the application name, and a descriptive label. That to me seems a little too much in view of the idea that people become used to an application's use and identifiers over time. I do not ever read a label description. I generally recognize the application because I know the name and recognize the icon. The problem on OSX though is that they hide it. You never the the application label until you hover the icons containing it, and on Windows I just have to squint very frecuently because the items defer in labeling so much that you find yourself with a few entries for "Firefox." Such as, "Firefox (priavate mode)," Firefox, uninstall," "Firefox, folder." And the list goes on and on.

On examples like these, you don't even see the name of the application. Ubuntu thinks that people recognize items mostly by what they do, and although it is a good strategy, I always think of people saying "hey, if you want to transfer music to your iPod, you just gotta pop iTunes open and plug it" as opposed to "hey, if you want to transfer music to your iPod, you just gotta pop the music player open and plug it." Odd, right?

Too much going on
One last thing I want to mention, and I am not sure how this could be achieved, but there seems to be a great deal of things going on with the launcher menus. On Windows, for example, the menu is comprised by Favorite Applications, Computer Settings, Shutdown Menus (I don't like this one really), Program List, Search Bar, User Name Identification and Picture, Networking, Printers, etc. On OSX, for example, the approach is the opposite. On the dock there is nothing more than icons, although these icons can be anything. In a sense, you could say that the OSX dock gets a lot of things going on but depending on th user's inclinations. On KDE and Gnome the thing does not get better, although there have been some good ideas out there trying to simplify categories and other things. 
But there is a prevalent idea among designers that launcher menus "need" to be "access-packed." You can go anywhere with your launcher menu. But Why? why can't I choose where to place my own things? or at leas, why can't I have more separated items. I believe, it is good to have many ways to access important elements in your operating system, but how many is enough? I get confused, maybe 'cuz I am pretty stupid, when there are so many ways to get somewhere. I find it interesting when I help friends for example to access, let's say, Windows File Manager with the key combination Win Key + E. They always did it with: start menu> Computer. It seems to me that users are willing to use one way of doing things even though there are more methods. They become used to one idea per action.

Now, one that really takes my time is Kickoff. I believe Kickoff is the biggest magneto inside openSUSE. They simply put everything in there. But all I do with it is to launch applications. Everything else, I can access through the file manager and other simple solutions.

Just check this out. Kickoff has: Favorite Applications, Recently Used (everything), My Computer, with all the folders you are looking for, All programs, Shutdown Menu. Additionally, it packs icons, application names, and descriptions. When you see folders, it gives you a sub label with the address location (which sometimes is too long to display completely). They also include the user name and machine name, a help button, a search bar, a search bar icon, and above all, they do tons of navigation trough menus. you go back and forth through them, especially through the programs section. If you have a ton of items, then you scroll a lot.

There are lots of areas that can be improved for launcher menus. I hope that by taking a look at the annoyances I have found in them, we can come up with positive solutions for users. I believe that openSUSE can regain control of the desktop.

Next episode is about the GOOD ideas that have come out of the launcher menus and in the last article, a solution for these research. The creation of concept launcher menus. Stay tuned and thank you all for your great support.



Menu Spectrum: Understanding Start Menus Across Different Platforms

Here is the long awaited review of some of the developments on the launch menu sector. Please take notice that because of the great variety of menus out there, I will make mistakes in their names. They could be called "start menu," "launcher," etc. So please, bear with me through this post. Hopefully putting these menus side by side will help us make sense of what we use in order to launch applications on our operating systems.
It is important to understand these menus and the changes they have suffered over time. probably you will find valuable information that will aid us in making a better launcher application for openSUSE.

First of all, let's analyze what Microsoft did to work on this area.
Starting with Windows 95, where we find the first incarnation of the Start Menu.

Here the menu is located at Windowsthe bottom left of the window attached to the bottom panel. It contains a label that indicates what version of Windows you are using and also links to programs, documents and settings as well as additional useful activities to work with files. Finally as the very first link ascending is the shut down button. Can you see the difference, for example, with the latest Laucher on Windows 7? how the shutdown menu options are all included in the menu whereas Windows 95 only has shut down and would display different options with the shut down dialog instead.

Then along came Windows 98 with the more advanced incarnation of the Start Menu.

In this case, the Start Menu added a couple more links to the menu, which graphically remained the same. They added a "Log Off" link as well as a "Windows Update" link. If you notice also, the menu holding the Start Menu added extra links to applications such as Internet Explorer, Email, and also to quickly access the Desktop. To be honest with you, I hardly ever use the desktop button. It just does not do something useful to me. Because, what's something that you need to see on the desktop that you can't find on the Start menu? Very little. It could be useful if you want to quickly clear your desktop from windows that you don't want others or yourself to see.

Windows ME kept the same ideals as 98.

...and later came Windows 2000
they kept the same ideas from 95 to 2000. I guess their Start Menu invention was just too good to throw away. But then came Windows XP. It seemed at this time that Microsoft wanted to make things brand new. They had a revolution of their own and reshaped the menu that many use today. They have just tweaked a few things here and there but the ideas set on Windows XP are still present in Windows 7, for example.

If you notice, Windows wanted to make the menu prettier. In fact, the whole interface in XP was so... blue. (sorry, I can't get passed the strong blues all over the place). In the Start Menu they included a few innovations. They included a picture and a name of the user currently running the session of XP. The menu also got wider. They split the menu in two as well, one are for favorites and most used applications (they were added either manually or by tracking user habits) which by default included only Microsoft applications on it. At the bottom they enclosed the programs menu that expanded as you highlighted it. The right side of the menu contained three main areas of navigation, places, settings and help. and the bottom of the menu had the usual shutdown and log off buttons. This time Windows worked on size. They used bigger and more intuitive visual clues to find and work with the menu. The smallest icons found in it belonged in the category of programs, where they could have all the applications they wanted. The start button itself changed and turned green, with a bigger name on it, START.

Then came Windows Vista with its revamped menu. It had been too man years and the market pressure made Windows come up with something new rather fast. The menu changed again and new features were added. Can you notice how the menu "grows" over time but it does not "shrink" in options?

This time, Windows played on the side of its name. Windows contain glass and glass is what we got with Windows Vista. The whole interface was a mixture of dark tones and glassy effect. Translucency was the norm in the design and the Start Menu was not the difference. One could almost argue that Microsoft liked this "transparent" design because it would let you have an awareness of what you are doing on the background, thus minimizing the imponent presence of the menu on the desktop. They seemed to have tried to blend the menu into the desktop through the application of transparencies.
This time the Start button disappeared, instead they brought a circle with the Windows logo on it and some nice hover effects. People already understood what that bottom left corner was for and no one seems to have disagreed with this design decision. The also added a search bar to the menu. They must have figured out that people install lots of applications and navigating through them with expanding sub-menus can be difficult. The dual areas remained much like in XP and they also included a very tightly packed Shutdown Button. This time though, people did not like how you had to "discover" where the shutdown button actually was as well as the other options like suspend and hibernate. This time also, they changed the visual presence of the "Favorites" section and minimized the impact of the other "help" areas on the right of the menu.
They also condensed the Programs menu and kept it within the boundaries of the Vista Start menu. No more expanding sub-menus coming out from the Start Button and filling the entire screen.
Finally, we arrive at the latest creation from Microsoft, Windows 7. The menu seems to retain much of what was introduced in Vista.

This time, the menu added again some features. They turned the programs menu into a tree menu. They also added a secondary button (black arrow) on the Favorites section that once hovered, gives you a list on the right side of the menu, of possible actions you can do given a specific favorite application. Everything else is pretty much the same. But they also changed the panel. It turned into a very visually attractive bar with big icons that can be pinned to it. A dock of sorts.

In conclusion, as the creators of the Start Menu, I have to give it to Microsoft. They simply created something extremely useful and good for everyday use. They have kept their original ideas and have added visual effects and other good inventions to the menu. Much of what we have today in the world of alternative operating systems using graphical environments, comes from Microsoft.

What about the world of MAC. They are another great company with an awesome approach to computer gui design and it's worthwhile to see what they created when launching applications.

Starting with MAC OS

Here the applications menu idea was moved to the top along with the panel. I think this was a very smart approach to computing. If you think about it, the panel at the top along with the applications menu coming down from it work around the areas that the mouse pointer is usually at. Users do not have to drag the pointer from top to bottom (like on Windows) in order to reach that menu (although there are shortcuts, like the Window key) In this incarnation, the menu did not include any icons, just a very simple and basic menu with child menus coming down from left to right.

Later came MAC OS 9 with some new interesting features...

Here is something interesting. While MAC OS kept the top left applications menu, they added a few interesting features such as the control extensible bar at the bottom (or wherever you wanted it) to work with more technical features of the OS. If you notice also, the top panel does not house the active windows placed on the desktop, rather they are placed as a button (without a "host panel" to manage its presence on the desktop) at the bottom of the screen, if they are folders, and as a small applications menu window if they are running applications.

Next up, we have MAC OS 10/X with the introduction of what seems to be, the most clear visual clue that you are using mac, the dock.

This time the dock became the center of attention for MACs. It was big, adorned with nice looking icons and a zoom effect that would pop up on hover. Although it was a great invention, it was harshly criticized because, I think, of the minimalist approach and the zoom effect. Go here if you would like to read more about it.

Then other version of MAC have not changed the idea that much, they have instead added more features on top of the dock and the applications folder.

Leopard and Snow Leopard

Overall, the ideas coming from MAC OS have always been pretty straightforward, they have aimed at novice customers and the dock was the main bridge to link users faster with their most used applications and places. It was all customizable (the icons) by the user, meaning that virtually anything can be placed on the dock. I like the idea although I do think that it can be improved. For example, the fact that to launch applications is done at the bottom of the screen yet to work within the program you have to go all across to the top panel in order to reach the application's controls (I know this does not hold true for all applications, but I am just generalizing) is a little uncomfortable. But again, they are places easily locatable, top and bottom, that's it.

Then comes LINUX. As being a very diverse area of design and ideas from all over, Linux has generated very interesting design paradigms when it comes to the desktop. I will try to include the most visible ones, I am sure that I will be missing some, but given the size of research, I would rather work with the ones I consider most visible.

Starting with KDE we have a few ideas going around. The main ones though, are based on what Windows has done. I think that the main difference in KDE was just the fact that they grouped applications in categories. The main idea here seems to hide the populated menus from users by using categories.

This menu in KDE 3 is a good example of what they did before the 3 series. This one menu seems to come from Mandriva One. Notice just how similar it looks to the Windows Start Menu (before XP). I think KDE has always had this thing to them, that they can do everything that Windows does, plus more.

Along come other ideas, custom made menus for KDE. For example Tasty Menu:
I actually used this for a little bit. It was big, it contained a lot of programs around. But I did not like that after a while, I had to click too much to get to certain things. I also could not reach certain buttons too fast. I had to drag the mouse over an area of the screen that was too big. Just think of clicking the top corner to bring the menu down and then drag the pointer almost all the way down to the bottom panel to click "Shutdown." So I reverted to Kmenu.

Others have opted for the power of the Plasma desktop to create some launchers such as Lancelot.

Now, what you see here is a good idea of the menu. I like the tabbed interface for your programs. To me though, it looks very similar to what Tasty Menu wanted to do; to show you everything and yet lacking space to do so, so they reverted to proven ideas like sliding menus. Like the one for Programs. The Shutdown buttons are also at the bottom, something that can be worked out. It is overall a good idea, very flexible, very fast and simple. They play also with icons and visually recognizable items. They also include descriptions for items, but if you notice, they don't fit there all the way sometimes. Are they needed?

Gnome, for example has kept the Windows idea for a very long time. They do the same that KDE does with applications' categories.
This one example comes from a Fedora release. But the idea is the same. The Gnome Menu looks just like Kmenu except the spacing between the items. KDE's is thinner.

Then along came Ubuntu. they turned the Gnome Menu into something more broken apart in hopes of separating the sections' categories so that users find what they want faster. The idea has remained the same for a while, so I will just use one example.

The split the categories from one big menu to three smaller menus (of course, depending on the amount of applications that you have, my current gnome menu for preferences reaches all the way down to the bottom of the screen) and you also have to deal with the default Gnome's item spacing, which only gets reduced by custom styles. (I think this has been a complaint for a while, the lack of novice user style changes).

Other Gnome-based menus that look very much alike are the Mint Linux menu and the SUSE Gnome version menu. Take a look:

and SUSE...

The differences are mostly on the way they handle the display of applications. But the two pane system is the same. One side for Favorites and the other with Settings. They also seem to work on the side of simplicity, except their simplicity is big. These two menus take up considerable amount of screen space. I would not work with this on a Netbook.

Finally, openSUSE created Kickoff. I really like this menu. It has a good size, you can search through it fast and find what you need quickly. It contains tabs and the same categories found in other menus. There are also some ideas coming from the XP Start Menu. They only kept the categories contained within the space that kickoff uses. Not expanding menus.

I recall SUSE doings tons of talking about this menu and I believe, the result is a good one. However, I am convinced that we could go even further. To think outside the box to create something amazing. Take, for example, alternative operating systems. I love these ones, because they simply have no pressure to look and be like the rest. They are sometimes so small a platform that they do not want to feel so "mainstream" and "alike."

Take for example these menu from BeOS (I have to confess, I love this OS)

This one is very simple, all inclusive (places, favorites, and applications) and also a window tracker. It had the ability to dock the opened applications to it as a button. But I was a little taken back sometimes because of the arrow orientation from the menu. The child menus were appearing from right to left and yet the arrows pointing to the name followed the reading orientation, left to right. So my eyes would be expecting a child menu to the right and yet the showed to the left.

And of course, we have menus coming from the mobile world. Here are some examples:

I just put these three because they are good examples of what smart phones are doing today in order to put content on your fingertips. I like these ones a lot. They are so simple and they seem to be very free. By this I mean that when an application is installed, they are just added to the menu. You know what you just installed and where it will be, so smart phones have done away with categories, so to speak. They just "group" applications that are similar on the same screen. But it is very customizable, and users generally understand how to find them, and they do it fast.


The ideas presented in this list of "menus" is a very long one. I am probably going to set a record to myself with the longest entry so far, but it is necessary. This will be good food for thought. I will work with these and look for strength and weaknesses and talk about them accordingly. These menus represent the work of very talented people and the results have been quite remarkable. In fact, it seems that we just can't get rid of the "start menu" idea. It is still around since Windows 95 and it is here to stay.

PS: I did not include a lot of criticism on this post because I just wanted to gather them and put them on display. The criticism comes next.



Launching the Revolution: Kickoff's redesign ideas

The launcher menu paradox has almost been around ever since graphical environments were created. They provided a simple method through which users could access their applications pertaining to a particular task. Before the start menu, users had a folder view, generally, with the applications in a list. Earlier environments had to omnipresent shell which launched programs by just typing the name.

Later, along came Linux and graphical environments for it. Some of them have kept the basic idea of a start menu, like the one on Windows 95. KDE did it, Gnome did it and many others, even the high end ones like Enlightenment, did it. It should be admitted though that this is a very clever idea to work with. It is fast, simple, and very visually engaging. However, this launching model by todays standards seems outdated. At least, this is something that frustrates me every now and then because it is so common. It is time for a revolution, a change.

The first thing that we need to do in order to change the start menu is to understand it. I am sure that a lot of people have decided that it is just OK to imitate what others have done. This is not a bad thing, the launcher menu is something that's very clever already, but I want to see innovation. It is time to rethink the way we work with a launcher menu. It is important to remember that these ideas have developed in great length overtime and I do not intend to cover 100% of what has been done, but rather, focus on the things that saw the day of light. I will point out their strengths and weaknesses to ultimately work with the strengths to come up with the best possible idea about how to improve the start menu for openSUSE.
 This is the main reason why I have decided to split this study into 4 parts. It is such a daunting task that as I was doing my research, I realized that it will take very long to work something out that is useful and better than what we already have available for Linux.
The first part will be an analysis of the many ideas and projects that launched "start menus." the second part will cover the good aspects developed for start menus; the third article will talk about the usability and design problems and finally I will conclude with a proposal for a launch menu. This will be my idea on what openSUSE should do with their Kickoff menu.

So, wait for this first article to come out. It will be soon.

Thank you for your support.