March 17, 2012 · General, News · Email This Post

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A key part of any operating system user interface is how it enables the user to switch between multiple tasks. In most desktop operating systems tasks are encapsulated into windows, and the most frequently used method of multi-tasking is window switching. Desktop OSs have multiple methods of window switching (e.g Alt-tab, clicking on indicators, notifications, etc…) however the most common means of window switching is via using what is variously termed a Launcher, Taskbar or Dock. Traditionally there has been a 1:1 correlation between each window and its representation in the Taskbar (see Windows2000 or Gnome2).

With Windows XP, Microsoft introduced a way to aggregate multiple windows that belonged to the same application into a single task bar button. This change was primarily focused towards personas who made heavy use of multi-tasking; this feature only switched on when the number of windows represented in the Taskbar exceeded the length of the Taskbar. It gave the benefits of increasing the number of windows that could be comfortably represented in the available task bar space, and reduced the time and effort it took the user to visually scan a crowded Taskbar and identify an application. The cost of this change was that an additional click was required to switch to a window that was not the most recently focused window of that application.

Unity’s current window switching functionality

Fast forwarding to 2009, when working on the original designs for Unity we knew that window switching was one of the key areas of any OS’s user interface, and we set out to design a window switching paradigm that would surpass the utility and usability of the contemporary competition at the time (Windows 7 and OSX Snow Leopard). The Launcher was only 50% of that equation, the other 50% was a set of functionality we termed the ‘Spread’.

The Spread designs were completed, prototyped and tested well before the launch of Unity with 11.04, but unfortunately due to the huge number of other items that needed to be completed before we could launch a brand new desktop shell, the decision was made to postpone the development of this feature and use the Compiz equivalent of this functionality as a stop-gap measure.

While using the Compiz window switching functionality enabled us to hit 11.04 launch deadline, there are a number ways in which it could be improved. Since then many many bugs, mailing list and forum postings have also requested the same set of functionality that was postponed as a result of this decision. Requests we frequently receive include:

Please make it easier to tell one window from another, all terminals look very similar!
Make it easier to select windows using keyboard navigation and shortcuts
I would like to be able to easily close windows from the window switcher view
Can you make it clearer to see which application’s windows are currently being displayed (in the switcher view)?
I find it difficult to see which window is currently focused in the window switcher view, can this be improved?
Can you find a way to make window switching faster?

Window switching requirements

After researching the window switching problem space and examining the use cases that a window switcher needs to support, we distilled the findings into a set of design requirements. These were:

To aid window identification, the window previews should to be as large as possible, taking maximum advantage of the available screen real estate.
Window switching needs to be very intuitive and easy to understand for new users. In user testing, a user who has never used Ubuntu before must be able to switch windows without encountering any difficulty.
More experienced users should be offered an accelerated method of ultra-fast window switching.
Users should be presented with all the information that is pertinent to making a window switching decision, but no more.
The window switching mechanism should follow the activity/task hierarchy, in order to minimise time needed to identity the required application, support intensive multi-tasking use cases with very large numbers of windows, simplify the Launcher ordering problem, and make the most efficient use of the Launcher’s screen real estate.

Via Canonical

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9 Comments to “Introduction to task switching in ubuntu”

  1. sdi says:

    The “global menu” needs to be replaced/deleted… huge confusion


  2. Andrew P. says:

    I’m still using GNOME 2 on Ubuntu 10.04, and from what I’ve been reading, once support for Lucid Lynx ends, have no plans to migrate to a later version with the Unity interface. More likely, I’ll migrate to Debian. The instability of Ubuntu is getting to be a real problem, as older software no longer runs on later releases and I spend more time just tweaking and learning the software that I already have. I’m also hearing that many programs that were written for GNOME 2 won’t run properly — or at all — on GNOME 3. Linus Torvalds has been quoted as saying that GNOME 3 is an “unholy mess”. Maybe after 4-5 years of work GNOME 3 will eventually become what GNOME 2 is now, but I don’t think I have the patience to wait for it. Having Canonical split off and promote Unity over GNOME is just fragmenting the Linux community ever more and dissipating manpower that could have been used to good advantage to clean up GNOME 2.


  3. Webdesigner says:

    Agree totally with previous post. Have been using Ubuntu in parallel with main Windows OS, liked the distro for what it was, ease of installation, inified upgrades for system and supported installed software. The new Unity interface is illogical, too simplified and too complex for familiar tasks, total failure. Can’t hold a candle either to Windows or to OSX.


  4. Stephen C says:

    I’m still confused as to why people even think Unity is close to Gnome 2 in terms of useability. It isn’t, it is way behind. I just can’t understand why Gnome 2 or Gnome Classic isn’t the default desktop, and leave Unity as an alternative desktop that people can play with until it “matures”.


  5. qorrow says:

    From what I see and hear about the upcoming release 12.04 and the way Ubuntu ignores users feedback, I switched to Mint with Cinnamon interface. What exactly I like about Mint is that they give a great concern of users needs and requirments and this is definitely a key to success.


  6. Stephen in Swords says:

    The beauty about Linux is that everyone has a choice. I have been using Ubuntu since 2008 after completely wiping my Windows. i bought a new laptop last year and didnt keep windows. If i am honest I was dragged kicking and screaming from Gnome 2 to to Unity but now that I have, WOW!. Unity is the finest operating system there is and i wish folks would would stop giving it a hard time. It is what it is and its getting better (I cant wait for 12.04). Just get over it and make you choice. I have tried other distros recently to see “if the grass was greener” and it certainly is not. UNITY IS THE BEST.


  7. OttifantSir says:

    Haven’t seen this so called Spread, first time I hear about it actually, but from the description in this article, it seems to me like Spread is a copy of task switching in Gnome Shell. Before Unity I used Compiz task switching, but I can’t understand where Canonical screwed it up for everyone. Before Unity I could let my mouse lie dormant for days, and after Unity I can hardly do anything without my mouse. Before Unity I had a desktop that I understood and could manouver with quick keys. After Unity, even after having tried it for over a year, read several articles, looked at different settings, tried installing several different lenses and scopes and on and on, I still don’t understand how to use Unity, still don’t understand how it might be changed to suit my needs. It took less time for me to learn how to do Batch-programming in DOS more than 20 years ago with no computer experience at all than it has taken me to learn to use Unity. The difference is that I understood and was fairly decent at Batch-programming, while I haven’t understood anything but how to pin a launcher in Unity. I realize I am not a representative part of the usergroup, but with more than 20 years of computer experience, I’d expect to understand more of a desktop system after using it for more than a year.


  8. Hodenlecker says:

    For people who use the mouse mostly, Unity is a holy mess. Task switching sucks if you have to put your fingers on the keyboard for every little task switch. It sucks! The Unity launcher also now is unusable since Canonical removed the dodge function completely.


  9. Rishad says:

    In gnome (Ubuntu 10) I could toggle between 2 tasks quickly with Alt-tab. In Ubuntu 12.04 Unity Alt-tab rolls between the running tasks. For example I have these 3 tasks running:
    browser + terminal + ide.

    If I want to switch between ide and terminal quickly I used to be able to press Alt-tab and Alt-tab again will toggle between these 2 tasks (ignoring the browser task).

    Now Alt-tab will roll over all the tasks sequentially.


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