The Ubuntu Unity Dash – Some Modifications

My modifications of the Ubuntu Unity Dash interface

Followers and fans of the Ubuntu Operating System will be fully aware of the imminent release of the next version of the distro, codenamed “Natty Narwhal”, version 11.04.

Perhaps the biggest news about this next version of Ubuntu was the decision to shift the main desktop interface away from the traditional GNOME 2.x desktop that Ubuntu had previously used, and customised, and instead use the Unity desktop interface, previously only designed for netbooks. The netbook edition of the Unity interface looked like this:

The Ubuntu Unity desktop for netbooks in Maverick

Some protested at this dramatic change, others remain excited with anticipation (like me) and yet more settled on a Wait-And-See attitude (probably wise). Ever since the decision, development of the new desktop-oriented Unity interface has been frenzied and extremely active. We’ve already seen lots of changes and/or improvements to the Unity interface compared to its older, Netbook-only cousin (to name just a few: moving the shell from a Mutter backend to Compiz for effects; altering the appearance of the side-launcher and extending its functionality; subtle changes in the behaviour of the Indicator AppMenu and much more).

And while the changes and developments I’ve seen thus far render me hopeful for the later April release date, there are, nevertheless, a couple of ideas I’ve had that I, personally, feel would enhance the overall User Experience of Unity.

A Fresh Start

Like with most things in life, it’s best to start at the beginning. As ever, click the images for a bigger view.

My default Ubuntu Unity interface

Credit goes to Leonardo (aka leonardomdq) for the beautiful wallpaper here.

Keen observers will note that there’s not much difference here compared to the current in-development version of the Unity desktop interface. I’ve opted for the use of the excellent Faenza icons by Matthieu James instead of the default “Humanity” icon theme (though I understand one day there will be a new Ubuntu icon theme). The consistency of the icon shape reminds me of the iOS icon spec. Observers will also spot that the top panel in this mockup is themed more towards the Radiance Ubuntu theme rather than the current Ambiance-based theme. Currently, the top panel in the Unity interface is unthemeable, but I imagine that will change in future versions/editions of Ubuntu. Stability first, customisability second (ed: it would appear that Ubuntu developers are extremely fast these days).

Other than that, not an awful lot I’ve designed here is different from the currently in-development Unity interface.

Now, to activate the Unity “Dash” page, we need to click on the Ubuntu icon in the top-left of the screen…

Activating the Ubuntu Unity Dash

…and now the Ubuntu Dash interface appears.

My mockup the Ubuntu Unity Dash

The Differences

Right, so what’s different here, compared to the current Unity desktop? First is the issue of transparency. The Ubuntu Dash interface by default darkens the background image so that foreground and text objects are more visible. While this is a step in the right direction, I’ve always felt that wherever transparency is used, the background behind the transparent overlay should be blurred. This blurring of the background image removes sharp lines and reduces contrast; this particularly aids legibility of any text appearing on the screen. As you can see in this interface, there’s a fair bit of text.

I can demonstrate this better using a different background image.

The Ubuntu Unity Dash with a more detailed background

There’s an awful lot more going on in this rather magnificent background image. Note how the searchbox’s borders and shape has been confused and some of the icon labels and text is now harder to read.

Now let’s set a strong blur…

The Ubuntu Unity Dash interface with the detailed background blurred

The difference is startling. We can see improvements. The shape and border of the searchbox is much more visible and the darkened overlay plus background blurring allows all foreground objects and text to “pop” out a lot better (honestly, I hate that word, but it’s appropriate).

Another alteration I’ve made is with the icons. I’ve set a deep, strong shadow behind each launcher icon. This enables them to stand out from the background much better and helps to present themselves to the user as a primary object of interaction. The icons are also much bigger than is currently presented in the Ubuntu Unity Dash interface.

You’ll note that, compared to the current Ubuntu Unity Dash interface, the layout of my version is different. Here’s the current state of the Ubuntu Dash interface…

The current state of the Ubuntu Unity Dash interface

The first thing I think when I see this is, “There is a lot going on here”. In my mind, it’s too clustered. Useful, definitely; the dash presents the user with their most accessed apps as well as a list of all of their currently installed apps. Along the top of the Dash is a searchbox as well as filters to narrow the search of types of apps.

But there’s too much going on here. My mockup simplifies the Dash a lot more. I have borrowed the menu filtering system currently employed in the GNOME 2.x desktop and used it to filter the apps presented in the Dash screen. Not only does this simplify the interface more, it allows us to present bigger, more clear icons and enables those more used to the GNOME 2.x desktop to more easily navigate this interface.

My modifications of the Ubuntu Unity Dash interface

The current “place” of where the user is in the Dash is also clearly highlighted and easily identifiable and interacted with (The “Accessories” category of “Applications” in this instance).

Below the two rows of apps, and above the searchbox, you’ll find a little white dot indicator; this, like the iOS interface, shows the user what app category page they are on and how many pages of this category there is.

The page indicator on the Ubuntu Unity Dash interface

In this instance, there is only one available page of apps in the “Accessories” category. If there are a lot of apps in a particular category, they will be spread out over more pages, indicated by more dots, with the current page dot highlighted for clarity.

Multiple pages indicated in the Ubuntu Unity Dash interface

You’ll also note the searchbox. It’s function is to find and/or filter the apps you need, depending on what you type. In the current version of the Ubuntu Unity Dash, the searchbox is integrated with the rest of the clickable app filters/categories. But I think the searchbox should be much more visible, prominent and a separate entity from the app categories.

In my mind, the searchbox in this Ubuntu Unity Dash mockup should have similar powers to the awesome Synapse launcher. This would mean, of course, that the search and find functionality should be powered by Zeitgeist, the event logging engine that’s gaining so much popularity in the GNOME desktop world. If you don’t know what Zeitgeist is:

Zeitgeist is a service which logs the users’ activities and events, anywhere from files opened to websites visited and conversations had.

It makes this information readily available for other applications to use. It is able to establish relationships between items based on similarity and usage patterns.

It is extremely useful and very, very awesome. This means that, when the Ubuntu Unity Dash is activated by the user, who is searching for a certain file they’ve been working on, they can just start typing the name of this file into the searchbox and—BOOM!—there is the file they need, which is then launched in the application relevant to the file. Very fast and very intuitive. This functionality should be more prominent in the Ubuntu Unity Dash.

We Are Heading In The Direction

Overall, there aren’t many major changes that I’m proposing to the Ubuntu Unity Dash interface. It’s already looking pretty good and recent developments signal more excellent and very intuitive features are on their way. But, as with most things in the opensource world, there is always room for improvement.

Disagree with some of my ideas? Or perhaps you feel that a couple of my suggestions could be expanded further? The comment box below is made for you.

Ian Cylkowski aka Izo

Logo & Brand Identity Design

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18 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. SolidSlash,

    Excellent. This is exactly how Unity should look. I love the way you cleaned the dash interface, it looks extremely smooth and still very usable. Huge kudos, I hope the Unity devs will notice your work.

  2. Nick,

    Join canonical design team NOW! k thnx bye

  3. Blur is a good idea, but won’t work with most contemporary Linux video drivers *sniff*.
    That “applications-places-system” thing is a bad idea. You know, gnome-panel has an almost ideal launcher: first of all, it requires less clicks than any other thing to launch any app. But that’s true only for “string” view. When you make it a single button, the additional click you have to do kills everything. Your idea is essentially the launcher from gnome-panel, which is a great idea I’m longing to see in Dash, but you chose the wrong variant of it.

    Hopefully, the solution is already designed, and being implemented. It’s Slingshot from Elementary project. That’s a good clone of gnome-panel’s menu.

  4. Experimental dash blur support added to the latest Unity! The key is hidden deep in GSettings (formerly GConf), it’s /apps/compiz-1/plugins/unityshell/screen0/options/dash_blur_experimental

  5. Gustav Carstensen,

    Fan Fucking tastic.

  6. Excellent news ! Thanks ! 😉

    I just would like to know where you find all your wallpapers ? 😀

  7. Felix,

    I’m totally annoyed about the new Dashboard in Ubuntu 11.04 Unity. I can’t find anything and the structure is totally weird. I’m also using the older netbook edition on my netbook which is structured way much better than the current application ‘menu’.

    How did you change your Unity look&feel to the desgin you presented in the screenshots? I’d love to have my Desktop like that. Or is it just an experimental approach?

    • Izo,

      This was merely a mockup, Felix, prior to the full release of Ubuntu Natty. From my own point of view, I quite like Unity’s Dash, but then I’ve had a long time of using keyboard-driven apps such as Gnome-Do, Kuper and, more recently, Synapse. Unity’s Dash is an evolution of these, in my view.

  8. “There is a lot going on here” <– I can't agree with you more. I hope they make it better come Oneiric Ocelot. Without typing in anything, which I'm sometimes too lazy to do, it takes me longer to find that app I'm looking for. Also, they should not put apps in there that are available in the System Settings. It should just be applications that doesn't have to do with changing the system behavior/appearance. These should be separate. All in all I just love where Ubuntu is heading.

  9. The “dash’s” app filter is great, but there is a issue that still unsolved… How can I tell
    Ubuntu the type of some App installed by me? I want STS (SpringSource Tools Suite) be shown
    when the “Development ” filter is selected, however until now I don’t figured out how.

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