Deconstructing Nautilus and rebuilding it better

If you’re an avid user of the GNOME Desktop Environment and follow the development of it, you may well be aware of one of the hot topics currently doing the rounds on the internet, and that is: The User Interface Of The Nautilus File Manager And Why Is It So Awful?

There may well be some of you out there who are currently thinking, “It’s not that bad…” to which my response is: in terms of user interface, there are much better file managers available for GNOME than GNOME’s default file manager (two, off the top of my head: Thunar, default for the Xfce Desktop Environment and PCMan File Manager, or PCManFM). Plus, if you’ve ever used a Mac with OS X, then what you’ll be looking at there is the King Of The File Managers.

But we can make it better…


The Deconstruction of Nautilus

I’ve labelled each individual element that is problematic or, at least, up for questionning:

  1. So we have these little arrows either side of the forward/back navigation arrows. What are they? Well, clicking on either brings up a history of your progression through the file system. What’s the problem? I’ve never once used them. Never. You’ve already got an at-a-glance visual indication of your progress through the file system and it’s the pathbar/location bar, right there, at number 8. So it’s duplicated functionality and takes up valuable space. They can be removed easily. However, if it’s in some way necessary to keep that History Navigation function it would be more elegant, in my opinion, to merely right-click either the forward or back button to bring up a history pop-up.
  2. Another Navigation Arrow, this is the Parent Folder button. If you’ve jumped from your Documents folder to another folder called Wallpapers then the Back Arrow and Parent Folder have different purposes, but are usually confused for having similar behaviours. Clicking the Back Arrow would take you back to Documents; clicking the Parent Folder Arrow would make you climb up the folder structure by one level i.e. in my case, clicking the Parent Folder Arrow from Wallpapers takes me to Pictures because: /home/hex/Pictures/Wallpapers. See? However, even this button is up for debate. It’s duplicate functionality again. How? You can climb up the parent folder structure, once again, using the pathbar/location bar buttons (8), making the Parent Folder button redundant.
  3. The stop button. More useful in web browsers, if you want to stop the web browser from loading a page, completely useless in a file manager, where file accessing times are considerably quicker than web browsing times. You simply never have an opportunity to stop the file manager from loading a page. It’s an old relic. I’ve never used the stop button.
  4. This is the reload/refresh button, which again has similar properties for web browsers; you “refresh” the window you’re on to see any changes that have occured in the current directory. I think there still is a need for a refresh function, but I feel it can be executed more elegantly. See the pathbar/location bar (8) again? You’ll note how the button currently selected is “Season 2”, indicating where we currently are in the file system. Now imagine a little refresh symbol right next to the “Season 2” text on the button. Just clicking that button would refresh the page. This means we can remove the standalone refresh button. More toolbar space has been saved.
  5. Home Folder button. Duplicate functionality again. See the sidebar? See the folder called “sam”? That’s your home folder. Just click that. Seriously, it’ll be fine. There’s no need to have another button for it.
  6. The Computer Folder button. It has a necessary function: it gives you an overview of your system devices as well as the file system. But this button can be better represented in the sidebar. I’ll expand on this one later.
  7. Search button. Very necessary and a crucial part of the file manager. We need to keep this function but redesign it. I like the way that KDE4.x’s file manager, Dolphin, has rendered this. A text entry bar. It invites you to enter search terms.
  8. The pathbar/location bar. Crucial to a file manager, it gives an at-a-glance visual indication of where you are and where you’ve been. I feel, though, that the function of the pathbar/location bar can be enhanced without overcomplicating it, and for the design and new functionality of the pathbar/location bar I feel that Dan’s Elementary Nautilus Mockup is heading in the right direction. Check it out. The image really does speak a thousand words. And so does he.
  9. Icon Zoom: does what it says on the tin. This control adjusts the size of your icons displayed. Useful and necessary, so that it follows Human Interface Guidelines, but can definitely be redesigned more intuitively. Again, check out Dan’s Nautilus mockup to see how he’s implemented this.
  10. This button changes the view mode of your file manager, the options being “Icon View”, “Detailed List” and “Compact View”. We need to keep this, but again it can be redesigned in a way to provide an at-a-glance, more economical interaction. Apple got it right with OSX’s Finder; you’ll note the four icons next to the back/forward navigation icons? They allow the user to quickly switch between different view modes. Very simple, economical and intuitive. You’ll find that Dan implemented a similar spec in his mockup.

Let’s Rebuild a Better Nautilus

A Nautilus Mockup that aims to address the problems of its interface

So here we are – my reconstruction of the Nautilus File Manager, after addressing each of the problems above.

Firstly, please note that this is only a mockup. I’m no coder or programmer. I wish I had the coding skills, but all those letters and numbers whiz over my head. But perhaps what I can do is demonstrate a better interface through my skills as a GUI Designer. Let’s address the improvements here:

  • Single toolbar: the original Nautilus interface had two toolbars plus a menubar. It just takes up too much space that could be put to better use. This Nautilus has only one toolbar.
  • Hidden Menubar: I’m not going to take sides here on whether we should still be having a menubar in applications or not; it’s another minefield of opinions and flaming. I’m personally fine with a menubar inside the application, but I also happily use applications that tuck away the menubar under a single icon (think Google Chrome). But I do think that we should have the option here. In my mockup, all the menubar settings can be brought up with the settings icon (first icon after the pathbar). But if you would like to see the menubar permanently then this, too, should be an option.
  • Simpler Navigation: back/forward arrow buttons plus a location bar. That’s all you need. If you want a text editable pathbar displayed instead of a clickable location bar, then this should be an option in the settings. You can also see my implementation of the refresh function; a small refresh icon that sits itself inside the button that shows where you are. You just click the button and the directory refreshes.
  • Improved View Modes: after the settings icon, we have three view mode icons. A simple click allows you to instantly change from Icon View, Detailed List to Compact View. Just one click. That’s it.
  • Highly Visible Searchbar: there’s no denying what that bar on the right of the toolbar is, that’s where you enter text to search for. It even says “Search…”. Isn’t that handy?
  • Enhanced Sidebar: previously in Nautilus the sidebar was only used to display your “Places”, like your Home Folder, the Computer etc., and your bookmarks, or directories that you commonly view. We can do more with the sidebar without overloading it and keeping it very simple. The “Places” section displays our home folder plus bookmarks, and the “Devices” section clearly shows any devices on our system including the root filesystem (thus doing away with the Computer icon mentioned earlier). This section would also automatically update itself whenever new media is detected and mounted, such as inserting a CD or external HDD. There are two other sections in my Nautilus and they are “Recently Accessed” and “Commonly Accessed”. I will go into those later. Those are the really exciting features.
  • Icon Zoom: along with the usual status information in the status bar at the bottom we also have a highly visual and intuitive zoom slider on the bottom right. Simply sliding the slider from left to right increases or decreases the size of the icons. Much simpler but a more powerful way of interacting with icon sizes.

The keen of eye will note that this mockup of mine is not all that different from Dan’s Elementary Nautilus mockup and you’re right. In terms of user interface I think he’s got it bang on. Really, all that’s different in my version is a different theme, a separate search bar and a more enhanced sidebar. But now I’m going to present what I think are the really exciting features in this Nautilus mockup of mine…


Zeitgeist and GNOME Activity Journal Integration

Ok, what the hell did I just say there? Well, if you follow the active development of GNOME as much as I do, you may have heard of two recent technologies actively being developed. They are Zeitgeist and the GNOME Activity Journal. What are they? Well, Zeitgeist is a little, unobtrusive daemon that ticks quietly away in the background and records every file you access, every image you edit, essentially every event you perform on your computer and keeps a chronological Journal of this information for other applications to use. This is the core engine that runs quietly in the background. The frontend to this is the GNOME Activity Journal – an application that allows you to browse and search through Zeitgeist’s recordings of your activities and interact with that information. One of the developers of the GNOME Activity Journal posted a very handy video showing it in action. I use it myself and it is very handy. I also use Docky2 on my desktop that has Zeitgeist interaction. One of the options when you right-click on a launcher in Docky2 is the Journal entry, that allows you to browse through recent events and files accessed in that particular application. A stroke of genius. Again here’s a handy little video demonstrating Docky2 with Zeitgeist integration.

So… where am I going with this?

I personally think that having a separate application, the GNOME Activity Journal, to browse through your events and files chronologically is superfluous. What I’m advocating is that Zeitgeist and GNOME Activity Journal get integrated inside the Nautilus File Manager. Use just one application to browse in different ways!

An image speaks a thousand words, so…

Here we have it: my mockup of Zeitgeist and the GNOME Activity Journal integrated inside Nautilus. You should be able to do everything you can in the current GNOME Activity Journal inside Nautilus, same interface and everything. You can access this particular browsing function simply by clicking the “Recently Accessed” section in the sidebar. This particular section can also filter the journal results as well. So if you just want to see a window showing what you’ve accessed Today, then simply click that in the sidebar. This would then bring up your recorded events that occurred today, but in more detail. This is a function already possible in the GNOME Activity Journal.


Going One Step Beyond…

This is not all that I’m suggesting though. Oh no. This next feature, I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure is possible; I’d basically need to have a chat with the Zeitgeist and GAJ devs to see if this particular method of journalling and searching is possible, but I’m going to suggest it anyway…

As well as being able to browse and search through events and files chronologically, the purpose of Zeitgeist and GAJ, I also feel that you should be able to perform a search of events that occur often. Consider: all good application/start menus usually have a “Favourites” section, essentially a list of applications you commonly use on your system (Windows Start Menu has it, KDE’s Kickoff and Lancelot also have it among others). But I feel we should be able to view a list of files, documents, images, websites etc. that get accessed frequently and present that information to the user in a simple way.

Case Study: let’s see that you’re a student studying for a PhD in a particular subject. Over the time of your study you’ll be creating a thesis that will be accessed, edited and updated over of the course of several years. Sometimes, it may be that you won’t touch your thesis for weeks at a time, but nevertheless it is the document that you access the most. It should be possible for the student to access a fast search showing the files that have been accessed and the events that have occurred frequently. In a Zeitgeist chronological search, your thesis may need some searching as you’ve not accessed it in a few weeks, due to research or whatever. In a Commonly Accessed search, the thesis would be the number one result.

Have I made a mockup? Of course I have!

In this mockup example of mine, clicking the “Commonly Accessed” section performs a search showing all the files, image, documents, websites or whatever that have been accessed the most. It would run from left to right, top to bottom and display immediately that which has been accessed the most. This is a mockup of what I would estimate a Commonly Accessed search on my system would bring up. Previews of images and music should be available for at-a-glance functionality. Again, like the “Recently Accessed” section, the “Commonly Accessed” section would have a couple of filters built into the sidebar, so that we can filter for images commonly accessed, documents commonly accessed or whatever. These filters should be set by the user.


That’s All For Now, Folks…

So there we have it. My critique of the current user interface state of the Nautilus File Manager, my solution and a way we can make Nautilus a much more powerful file manager using new and existing journalling technologies.

I would love to hear your thoughts, opinions and criticisms. I truly hope this has given you food for thought. Pass this around the net, let’s get it seen by people and hopefully someone in the right place, with the relevant skills may one day make these mockups a reality.

Ian Cylkowski aka Izo

Logo & Brand Identity Design, GUI/UX Design

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31 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. Kj,

    This is just great, nautilus can only get better.

  2. larry,

    This is finder in gnome theme

    • Izo,

      @larry: thanks for the comment. I think its advisable to look past the one or two Finder UI elements I’ve borrowed and focus on what’s important: Zeitgeist integration and the reduction of duplicate functions.

  3. icyj,

    I love it! Hopefully it comes to fruition!

  4. DST,

    IMHO it would be better to remove “Back/Forward” buttons, not the “Up” button.
    I’ve never used the forward button even once, not in my internet browser, nor in my file manager.
    The back button in file-browsers is plain confuzing, where the up buttom is always behaving consistently “Take me to the parent folder”.

    As for refresh and stop, well, refresh is certainly needed, since there is a lot of times where you create/modify files and the changes are not reflected (this mostly happens over smb but if you’re using it alot it’s an issue). Stop, I don’t know, if the remote FS dissapeared, nautilus usally hangs anyway.

    From looking at your mockup, which is graphically impressive, I’d say, maybe it’s not really that nautilus has problems, but maybe OSX would be a better choice for you?

    • Izo,

      @DST: thanks for the comment. I think removing the back button would be a bad move as the back button offers a different functionality to the up button. Also, regarding me moving to OS X, that won’t happen because OS X is such a closed platform, but it’s clear, just through looking at these comments and checking out the threads on the internet, that there IS a problem with the Nautilus interface, hence my attempt to fix it.

  5. turbomettwurst,

    i really disagree with you, you do have a couple of nice ideas but in general this goes way to much in the direction of finder.
    The Finder for osx is the biggest piece of garbage i have used in my entire life.
    pressing enter on a folder renames it instead of entering it, folders and files are not separated. The maximize (or rather “choose best size button”) is utterly useless and it goes on…
    The best one can do is stay away as far as possible from any concept finder uses…

    About Nautilus:
    The Stop is there for a reason and it IS needed. Access slow nfs/sshfs or whatever drives with large quantities of files in it and you’ll learn to love it.
    Please never ever add the retarded recently accessed files crap from osx. Its annoying and it reveals data i do not want to be revealed.

    what i would consider useful is a smartordered list of often used folders, but certainly not files. Recently used i do not need.

    What Nautilus could really use is a optional second pane like dolfin or Pathfinder have and the ability to toggle buttons on and off. I myself do not need refresh since i use F5, so i could remove it.

    my comment is a bit of an unordered rambling but my point is:
    Do not make the mistake of taking your usage habits and imposing them on others.
    Gnome and Nautilus in particular have lots of potential for optimization.

    The Fileroller integration is way to simple for my taste.
    Drag and drop needs to work from gnome apps to kde apps and vice versa
    The ability to assign hotkeys to frequently accessed folder.
    The retarded “nautilus draws (and replaces) the root desktop” has to go.
    Those are issues that need adressing imho.

    Maybe collect ideas from a couple of users and rethink the design concept with your new found knowledge of usage patterns?

    • Izo,

      @turbomettwurst: thanks for the comment. To address your points:
      1. We’ll have to agree to disagree about Finder.
      2. The use for the stop button has been mentioned many times by those, similar to yourself, who use Nautilus to access remotely other file systems. It is in this case that DanRabbit’s elementary-nautilus redesign is better than mine. Don’t forget, these are just mockups and are in no way a Final Product.
      3. Regarding recently accessed: the inspiration for that doesn’t come from OS X but from the Zeitgeist journalling engine; it’s a proposal to integrate Zeitgeist into Nautilus and I’ve found that people who have been introduced to Zeitgeist have found it a VERY handy piece of searching technology.
      4. Regarding my usage habits onto others: do not presume that these mockups are the results of only MY usage habits. I have found many GNOME users made similar complaints to myself.

      Thanks again.

  6. phiphi,

    I miss the tree-view in the side panel. What about similar view mode icons at the bottom of the side panel

  7. Rickard Lindroth,

    All I can say is wow. I really like this design. Why waste space when there is no need with some clever design.

  8. Jose,

    Exelent, I would love to have these, even explorer on windows its smarter than the actual nautilus

  9. JDR,

    It’s a cool design, if only the GNOME project guys could see it, maybe they would take these designs into the software. Good luck.


  10. hyperactivething,

    I do hope Gnome developers are aware of this! I hadn’t noticed Nautilus had so much obsolete elements on its UI.

    A couple of things though,
    1. The tree view is a feature I use very much indeed. I would miss it very much if it were taken out. Is there a particular reason why you deemed it unnecessary?
    2. The zoom slider is not that intuitive for me. It should have an icon.

    Also, to address the issue with the stop button, maybe in case of remote directories, the stop button can be added next to the refresh button.

    You’ve got some great ideas here!

  11. @JDR I may not be a GNOME guy but I am part of the Zeitgeist project. We created proof of concept implementations of all the zeitgeist related ideas in this post. I am not big on the approach I took using the existing zeitgeist fuse solution, and would like implement this using GVFS.

    Another big thing is zeitgeist adoptation. It is much easier for developers to take advantage of zeitgeist in their projects* than it is for zeitgeist developers to go around and write patches for codebases they are not familiar with. I just hope more people see it that way.

    *projects with a extensive plugin systems are possible exception to the rule.

  12. Izo,

    @Randal: Haha, that’s incredible! I can’t believe this is happening and so quickly! ^_^

  13. keo,

    I am really excited to read this!

    I hope the GNOME people read this.

    Nautilus is the major reason that I don’t switch to linux from XP wich in my opinion has the best file manager because is highly customizable with plugins like findexer and tweak ui and ting that make the life easier with a MAXIMIZE button

    Finder is good, really good design and simplistic UI, but missing max button, and system dialogs are a crap

    I know there is available so many file managers but no one of these meets all I need, UI design in linux is very awful (sorry, is a point of view)

    Your mockup is a all I need, if someone needs some more it must be available a zone of settings, like firefox to drag and drop that is needed (UP button, search input, … )

    I agree with some points in the comments like arrow between folders, you have plans to send this to gnome and make a update with a some points of commenters?

    # sorry for my english, but thank you so much for your mockup!

  14. You know what, I have not been this excited about using Nautilus as I am now having seen these mockups. A+++

    Absolutely gorgeous! There may be some things that need tweaking here and there, but the overall direction is clearly inspired.

    The words that come to mind upon seeing these renditions are “slick smooth, clean, clear and functional” … Good job!

  15. kikl,

    Hi, I really like your mockup. Cleaning up duplicated functions is great. I would however like to see these functions implemented:

    cut/copy/paste/delete/rename (file manipulation)

    I guess the context menu when right clicking could do. But this must also be cleaned up. I think there is space at the bottom to implement these buttons.

    I really like the way you cleaned up the places bar as well as the recentley and commonly accessed options. That is near perfection!

  16. pet,

    – address bar – It catches user’s attention (the directory’s content should do that).
    I recommend to deemphasize it – DanRabbit’s “elementary Nautilus” has done it especially well.

    – address bar – I do not get what does the color on the last folder indicate. Get rid of it. This might be enough to deemphasize the address bar (see the point above).

    – back and forward button – the right click function might not be discoverable. I suggest adding a ~4px down-pointing triangle between the left-right arrows which would open history.
    This has a benefit of preventing a mistake when user jerks a bit while clicking near the boundary.
    (The history would list Forward and Backward items combined, see Google Chrome).

    – editable vs click-able location bar- checkout Windows Vista – it does the both functionality and does not require a preference setting

    – status bar – it says “75.3 Gb” — I bet you meant “GB”

  17. jenningsthecat,

    I find this so frustrating – improvements to Nautilus that are alomost entirely cosmetic, while basic functionality that has been missing or broken for years goes unaddressed. How about click-and-drag selection, so we don’t have to use both mouse and keyboard to select multiple files? How about a complete integrated search capability, so it’s not necessary to launch a separate app to look for files in a date range or files containing specified text? How about a tree view that eliminates the triangles beside empty directories, so it’s immediately obvious that they’re empty without having to click on them? And speaking of clicking in tree view, why doesn’t right-click highlight the directory being clicked, as it does in the list-view/icon-view pane?

    I like Gnome, and I really don’t like KDE 4.3 and its K-Bloat, yet I may dump Gnome and move to KDE simply because Dolphin is a much, much more complete file manager than Nautilus, and I use my file manager a lot. So please, encourage Nautilus developers to work on the basic features and functionality first. Issues of screen clutter, esthetics, and redundant buttons should be adressed AFTER the basics are all in place.

    PS Please don’t get rid of the tree view option! A lot of us rely on it!

  18. Nödel,

    Cool mockup! Looks exactly as my dolphin looks since a year.

  19. Doso,

    hello can i put it your desing now in my nautilus? your work is amazing well done

    sorry for my english

  20. Hello,
    speaking of commonly accessed directories, you should check autojump¹. It’s a bash/zsh script that « remind » your most used « cd » path. Once you go in a first time, ou can use the « j foo » to go to the « foo » directory. Autocompletion work.
    Once you’re used to it, you realy can use the « cd » anymore !
    Having such a mecanism in nautilus would be realy great.

    [1] :

  21. Marco Carolli,

    Please, I wanna see it in the next Ubuntu.
    It looks perfect and integrates well with the new boot color scheme.
    It’s easy, elegant, has windows controls on the right where they’re supposed to be.
    An icon revision would be (for the music in particular) would be good as well.

    Please make it real! ^ ^

  22. RaiCoss,

    Why aren’t you on the GNOME design team? This looks fantastic. Its colour scheme would also work fantastically with ubuntu’s new overall look.
    This is as close to matching OSX’s attractiveness as I have have ever seen.

  23. Saulnic,

    It’s a good idea¡¡
    Linux for the 2020

  24. First it looks like a lot of bad ideas being imported from Mac’s Finder.

    Second I think this is because the Linux community suffers badly from cultural cringe. The assumption that the way we do it is not as good as the folks overseas. GNOME’s Nautilus is very good as it is, yes it needs improvement, but not so much on the Visual side.

    Address missing functionality, include functionality, by default, that currently requires the user install after system install, but don’t mimic Finder.

    I use the back and forward buttons a lot, and the Up button, they are, in fact very logical, The up button takes me to the current parent, back and forward work exactly the same as back and forward on the Web browser. I dislike the button view on the location bar (i’d never ask for it to be removed, some people prefer it), and always use Text View, showing my full path.

    Most recent files is just stupid, you don’t need to have most recent files, it just makes it too damned easy for someone with access to your desktop to view private information.

    Although turbomettwurst rambles a bit, the comments are right on the mark. Don’t make your usage patterns the benchmark for others.

    I use Mac Windows and Linux (KDE, GNOME and XFCE), each has a filemanger with strengths and weaknesses. What we are seeing here is a demonstration of someone who prefers Finder, wanting to impose that on GNOME. There are many things done wrong on Finder (it is certainly NOT king of anything), and some of those are what are being proposed here.

    More importantly things that would be really useful on Nautilus are being ignored. Things like Dual panels, extremely useful. Better integration of file management functionality, like the ability to manipulate images in situ (an ad on script currently), improved openwith dialogs, and the ability to edit them would be good also.

    A more functional Send to with more options, and a bit more obviousness to it. Never, never remove the tree view, that’s would be plain stupidity.

    The suggestions, I certainly hope that is all they are, here, are far from making Nautilus better.

  25. I really like the mockup theme. I hope I can use it…

  26. you clearly copied Finder and between Finder and Nautilus I prefere Nautilus.


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