It’s Aliiiiive!

On February, I wrote a blog post entitled “Leveraging the Power of Choice“, in which I described an idea I had discussed with Àlex Fiestas about making it easy for users to choose between different Plasmoids for the same task (e.g. different application launchers, task managers, clocks, …). At the time of my writing the blog post, Marco Martin already had ideas about how to implement the feature, though he said that he wouldn’t have time to implement it before the Plasma 5.0 release. Shortly after Plasma 5.0 was released, Marco started implementation as promised. We decided it would make sense to start a thread in the VDG forum to collect ideas for the UI’s design. Together with several other forum users (most notably rumangerst and andreas_k) we fleshed out the design, which currently looks like this:

Image of Plasmoid alternatives switching UI draft

Plasmoid alternatives switching UI, latest draft

Fast forward to today, when Marco announced on the Plasma mailing list that “now the alternatives config ui has landed.”. It always feels great to see one’s ideas come to life thanks to the collaboration with developers and designers. Even now, though, input is still welcome in the forum thread!

Everyone who wants to switch between Plasmoid alternatives easily, look forward to Plasma 5.1!

Posted in KDE


I’m at a crossroads.

My scholarship runs out by the end of September (and my PhD thesis will be at least almost finished by that time), so now I’m at the point where I’ll have to decide what to do in the future.

There are plenty of jobs in the usability / user experience sector, but all which I’ve found mean working on proprietary software. However, when I compare my motivation for doing work which serves only a company and their customers with my motivation for working on Free Software which benefits potentially everyone, the differences are immense!

When doing work on proprietary software, I do what I’m asked for and I apply high quality standards (I’m still German, after all ;) ), but when I work on Free Software, I’m really excited and feel that I’m contributing to something bigger, which feels so much better!

Therefore, I’m not really eager to take on a job where I work on proprietary software, only being able to spend my spare time on what I really care about.

So I thought to myself “Hey, I have that blog which is read by a few hundred Free Software enthusiasts, maybe some of them know someone who might make my dream of working full-time (or at least part-time) on Free Software come true?

That’s why I’m asking you, dear reader: Do you happen to know of any organization which might hire (full- or part-time) or contract me for work on the usability of Free Software (preferably KDE software, but other Free Software would be okay as well)?

An alternative to working on FOSS would be working in the area of Open Access / Open Science, because that’s just as important to me as FOSS. Any pointers in that direction would be appreciated as well.

Thank you in advance!

UPDATE:  This is why I love the Free Software world: In other contexts, people help those they know personally (or maybe others they hope will help them in return later), but in the Free Software world when I post a blog post asking for help, I even get comments from people I haven’t met before, and even people from the press like Swapnil Bhartiya share my post on Google+ to help. Thank you all guys, you show me how awesome the FOSS world is!

Posted in General, KDE, User Experience

Which Tool Should we Use for User Interface Mockups?

When I read Heiko Tietze’s quite good introduction to Balsamiq Mockups over at the user prompt blog, I was reminded that I had considered introducing it as a tool for interaction design (not visual design, it’s not made for that) in KDE at some point.

What Heiko doesn’t mention in his blog post is that Balsamiq Mockups is free for open source projects. It’s possible to get individual licenses for Balsamiq Desktop for anyone contributing to open source software. However, the cooler point is that any open source project can get a free instance of myBalsamiq, which is the Software as a Service version of Balsamiq Mockups. The nice thing about it is that – like we’re used to from other SaaS solutions or from the awesome KDE Telepathy Collaborative Text Editing – multiple people can edit the same mockup collaboratively.

The downside, of course, is that it’s free-as-in-beer, but not free-as-in-speech. This was also the reason why it wasn’t really welcomed when I introduced it as an idea to the community a while ago. A free-as-in-speech alternative, as Heiko already mentioned, is Evolus Pencil. The downside of that is that it doesn’t support live collaborative editing (unless someone writes a Telepathy Tube for XUL applications) and it offers way less ready-made widgets than Balsamiq.

Having a standard tool for mockups within KDE would have the benefit that everyone could learn to use it and mockups could be shared or collaboratively edited in its format.

Since it would mainly be designers who would work with a mockup tool, the question is: What do you (interaction or visual) designers think? Would you prefer a quite mature, free-as-in-beer tool with collaborative editing, or a free-as-in-speech tool with less capabilities (but still good!), or do you prefer to use Inkscape for everything, even though it is much less comfortable to use for creating draft-level wireframes? Or do you use another tool which you think would be useful in general? Please name only tools which are at least free-as-in-beer and available on Linux.


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Posted in KDE

The Little Things

Most of the time, I blog about bold, more or less revolutionary ideas for KDE software which may or may not be realized at some point in the future. I do that because I think those may be the most interesting for you, dear blog audience, to read about.

The majority of my time spent on KDE, however, is spent working on details. To illustrate that work, I picked two examples of where I think I made a difference by caring about the details.

One of my favorite little details where I could help was with the “Send Later Agent” in Kmail.

BEFORE: Original design for the Send Later Agent

When I saw the original design for the dialog for setting up a job for the agent, I was immediately reminded of what I often said about user interfaces in the web-based software I once worked on: “It feels like the database is staring right at me through the user interface!” I had this impression whenever the user interface merely exposed all accessible database fields, without any consideration of what may be useful to the user in which situation, which controls belonged together, etc. Developers are usually incredibly smart people, but many tend to see things from a technical perspective. As long as there’s a control for every field users should be able to change, and a button for every action they might want to do, it’s fine for them.

The original design of the send later dialog was pretty much like that: It was plastered with buttons for pretty much every action you could think of, date and time was set with a single edit field with a spinner where users would have to enter a formatted date/time manually, controls were placed in a way that would make it almost impossible for users to see which ones belong together. Plus, if users would have accidentally clicked the most prominent of the three (!) confirmation buttons,  they would have sent an email which was meant to be sent later immediately, which might have lead to very embarrassing situations – or worse.

I liked the feature as such, as it allows you set up things like automatically sending birthday greetings every year or sending newsletters at a time where people are most likely to read them, but I knew the user interface had to change. After a little back and fourth with the developer (Laurent Montel) and Jos Portvliet via comments on the blog, we arrived at a much much simpler dialog with which users could still set up the same things, but in a much easier way.

Screenshot of Send Later dialog after feedback

AFTER: The dialog after our feedback was implemented

UPDATE: One anonymous commenter mentioned that the “Delay” checkbox in the released version (see below) doesn’t make much sense. I agree with him or her. That’s why above you see the version as it was posted on the developer’s blog after our iteration. As you can see, no “Delay” checkbox. However, that checkbox was put in there at some point between that screenshot was posted on the blog and the feature was released. I have no idea why. I’ll ask the developer and do another update when I have an answer.

Image of Send Later Agent after input

AFTER 2: The Send Later Agent as it was released

Another overhaul I recently contributed to was the dialog for joining a Jabber chatroom in KDE Telepathy. At their sprint in mid April, the KTp team focused on their group chat experience, one aspect of which was the aforementioned dialog. Like the Send Later Agent dialog, it allowed users to do anything they might want to do, but wasn’t optimized for typical user workflows.

Screen shot of Join Chat dialog before redesign

BEFORE: The Join Chat dialog up to KDE Telepathy 0.8.x

If users often joined the same rooms, they would either have to add them to the favorites (which would mean they had to enter the room address, click “Add Room” and then “OK” if they also wanted to join then, or else they’d have to change to the “Recent” tab every time they’d want to re-join the same room. The layout with the three buttons next to the listbox wasn’t optimal, either.

So we went ahead and streamlined it. I first thought “Okay, what are users most likely to want to do when they open the dialog?” We assumed that the majority of users have a few rooms they visit regularly or from time to time instead of joining completely new rooms very often. Therefore after selecting the account to use (which now also sports a label), users are now presented with a combined list of favorite and recently visited rooms (the checkbox next to the star will be gone in the final version) where they can just click a room and click “Join/Create” (now the button also has a label which says what it does instead of a generic “OK”). With this setup, users who don’t use too many different chat rooms don’t even need the Favorites feature because the list of recently joined rooms won’t get overcrowded anyway.

Screenshot of redesigned Join Chat dialog

AFTER: The Join Chat dialog after the redesign

Only if they don’t find the room they want to join in the list, they have to enter it in the edit box below. And only if they don’t know the (exact) name of the room, users would have to change to the Search tab (which got a few improvements as well, such as a combined start/stop query button instead of two separate ones).
Here as well, no features were added or removed, but the user interface is now optimized for realistic user workflows.

Apart from these little before/after examples, I consider my work to be successful when I gained the trust of other contributors, because – due to a lack of organizational authority – trust is essential for usability work in a Free Software project.

That’s why I was very pleased when, for example, I heard  senior members of the KDE Telepathy team tell newer members to “Just do as Thomas says.” when it comes to detailed usability questions. Not because they are obligated to do so, but because the senior members trust, based on their experience with me, that what I say usually makes sense.
Usability professionals not only have to work well with developers, though, but also with visual designers. Therefore I was equally pleased when Jens Reuterberg told me that he likes working with me because “you’re a usability guy who hasn’t told me to go fuck myself… yet”.

Posted in KDE

Choose Your Own Experience – This Time it’s for Real!

As many of you have noticed, yesterday’s blog post “Freedom Maximized!” was indeed an April fool.

I had thought that if including KDE 2 as a choice hadn’t given it away yet, the completely over-the-top fake quote from Jens Reuterberg at the end (which he loved so much that it’s now his signature on the KDE forums) would make sure nobody took it seriously. Apparently, though, at least some people think I’m really nuts and Jens really talks like a Viking warrior, or they were so fascinated by the idea that they just ignored those not-so-subtle hints ;)

However, all those that like the general idea (and that was the majority at least of those that commented), do not despair: As with many jokes or lies, there was a kernel of truth in it! While we certainly do not want to faithfully recreate the experience of KDE 2 (or even KDE 3) with Plasma Next, Jens and I indeed have been thinking about offering users the choice between a set of pre-configured setups we’d like to call Experiences. Those would include things like Panel configurations, Plasmoids, application menu positions (in the window / in a Panel / in the window’s title bar / …), Plasma theme, widget theme, window decoration theme, cursor theme or the selection of KWin effects (like desktop/task switcher, animations, etc.). Part of the groundwork for this are the Plasma Look and Feel packages which go a great length in the visual department, but our idea goes way beyond that.

UPDATE: Credit were credit is due, these ideas did not originate completely in Jens’ and my head, they already started in a VDG forum thread, where user EraX had already posted a mockup of a Desktop Preset selection and configuration dialog. I supported the idea, but it wasn’t followed much further in the forum. I was still aware of the thread when I wrote this post, but admittedly I had completely forgotten about the mockup (otherwise we would have considered it when creating our own mockups). Thank you Hans for pointing it out to me and to EraX for inspiring us with the mockup!

UPDATE 2: Damn, the VDG forum is so full of awesome ideas that one just forgets too many of them! David Wright just brought another forgotten thread back to my awareness where he’d posted a mockup for something similar to an Experience manager as well!

Mockup of Experience Picker

This is a rough mockup of our idea for the Experience Picker as a last step of a distribution’s (post-)installation wizard

One obvious use of the Experiences would be to allow people who migrate from a different operating system or desktop environment to Plasma (or upgrade from the 4.11 version) and don’t want to re-learn everything to just select a pre-configured Experience that looks and feels familiar, while still offering all the advantages Plasma has over their previous OS or DE. People who are long-time KDE/Plasma users, have seen another OS or DE on screenshots or in action and liked it but still want to stick with Plasma should find Experiences just as useful.

We wouldn’t want to only offer Experiences modeled after other existing operating systems or desktop environments, of course. We see enough great examples of Plasma configurations made by our users to know that people can do things with Plasma that they can’t do with any other OS or DE. Therefore, you would likely see several fresh new Experiences created from scratch by our design community as well. And of course if people took the time to create Experiences similar to KDE 3 or 2 (or even 1, if they like), they could be selected, too, though they might not be shipped by default.

While we still want to offer users an Experience Picker right at the end of (post-)installation wizards, people should be able to select, install and of course customize Experiences later on, as well! For more details on that, head over to Jens Reuterberg’s post!

Posted in KDE, Uncategorized

Freedom Maximized!

UPDATE: This was an April fool’s post! However, we actually do plan to realize its basic idea. For more about that, see the next post

Whenever you introduce bigger changes to something people like, you’re certain to leave some people behind. GNOME had that experience with GNOME 3, where the resentment from users unwilling to adapt to change lead to forks like Cinnamon and MATE as well as GNOME’s partial backpedaling in the from of GNOME Classic/Fallback. Windows 8 got so much flak that it seems like with every 8.X release they’re moving back a little towards the Windows 7 way of doing things.

And KDE knows what happens when you alienate a group of users since the moment when the anger of some people over KDE 4 lead to the first prominent fork of KDE software, the Trinity Desktop Environment.

Now with Plasma Next, we of course want to introduce some fresh new concepts (otherwise, what would be the point of doing something new?), but we still don’t want to alienate our current users. That’s why we want to give users the opportunity to choose whether they want an all new experience, or stick with what they know. However, since we know that our users like choice, we shouldn’t stop there. Trinity shows that there are some people who still want the experience from the 3.x days, so why not give them what they want? And while we’re at it, I’m sure there are some folks who still nostalgically look back to the KDE 2 days, so we should serve them the experience they like, too!

That’s why I came up with the idea of a “Choose Your Plasma Experience” dialog at the end of the installation process of distributions shipping Plasma:

Proposed dialog Choose Your Plasma Experience

Proposed dialog “Choose Your Plasma Experience”

The chosen experience would affect the Plasma theme, the selected Plasmoids, Panel config, widget theme, window decoration and everything else that makes up the desktop experience, even down to the available features! In case of popular demand, we might even integrate KDE 1 support, though it would pain me to have to put five screenshots in that dialog ;)

To move this idea from bold words and mockups in a blog to actual software, of course I need developers and designers on board. I talked to Àlex Fiestas about the plan and he said that though recreating the KDE 2 or 3 experience certainly won’t be easy since it was made with totally different technology in a totally different age, he agrees that it’s worth the effort if it makes our users happy. Jens Reuterberg from the Visual Design Group understandably would love to see the results of his team’s work in Plasma Next to be used by everyone, but prefers to see Plasma Next smash the competition to pieces in the war for the user’s favor, and stand victorious on the battlefield of design!

So with both developers and designers on board, we can set out to give our users more freedom than they ever expected!

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Posted in KDE

Squid Kung Fu – Or “Can I have more hands, please?”

Squid Kung Fu

(“Squid Kung Fu”, CC-BY by Windell Oskay)

The image above as well as its original title reflects both what my work for KDE currently feels like and what I’d frequently wish for these days: More arms to reach out to all the people I’m currently working with. It is exciting, inspiring, exhausting, all at once.

Currently, I’m not deeply involved in a particular project, but instead I’m involved in lots different things at once. Here are some examples of things I do (in the order they came to mind):

  • Coordinate between the Visual Design Group and the Usability group (Jens Reuterberg usually calls us “the HIG group, but we do more than writing HIGs), currently specifically the effort to integrate Visual Design Guidelines which Andrew Lake is currently writing into the Human Interface Guidelines. It makes sense that Jens started the VDG as a separate group, but we agree that in the long term, there will have to be a single user interface / user experience / whateveryoucallit group which consists of both (visual) designers and usability experts (and developers with a particular affinity to GUI development), because creating a great user experience is an interdisciplinary effort. That’s why it’s important that Jens and me talk often to keep “our” groups in sync
  • Try to keep up with the amazing creative energy materializing in the VDG forum (Jens mentioned that already in his latest blog post) to give input whenever I feel it’s necessary
  • Read the Plasma mailing list to provide input on things such as the new Desktop Effects control module
  • Play the role of the client in a university project which creates a modernized UI for KAddressbook
  • Read through several GSoC proposals (especially those related to Plasma Active)
  • Work on the HIG themselves, of course
  • Read the KDE Telepathy mailing list to give input on anything UI-related

The fact that I’m feeling like a squid-man shows two things:

    1. There is a hell of a lot of awesome stuff currently happening in KDE, these are exciting times indeed!
    2. We have too few usability people. Heiko Tietze is putting great effort into the HIG (without him, not much would have happened since I rebooted them) and Björn Balazs helps where he can as well, but there is only so much they can squeeze in around their contract work at User Prompt. Therefore, if you know someone with a background in usability / user experience who would be interested in working with our fantastic community, just point them towards me!


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Posted in KDE

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