KDE 4.2 usability issues – Part 2

Okular (PDF/document viewer)

KDE

I really like Okular, it is part of the reason why I am trying KDE. I only have three small remarks about it:

  • The leftmost bar with “Contents”, “Thumbnails”, “Reviews”, “Bookmarks” is a little to big for my taste in the default setting. Why not rotate the labels and make the icons smaller? Just look at how it’s done in Amarok 2.0 with the the Collection, Internet, Playlists and Files panes.
  • Why is “Configure Backends…” a seperate menu entry in Settings? Please merge it into the options dialog.
  • The Editor settings in the options dialog should be removed and Okular should use the editor set in the global KDE preferences. UPDATE: I realize this can be useful if you want Okular to open your LaTeX source at the line you are currently viewing the resulting PDF. But more explainations for this settings and an option to use KDE’s default editor would certainly help.

Besides that small problems the Okular developers have really done a great job!

System Settings

This area really needs work! The first thing you notice is that System Settings are separted in General and Advanced. Generally this is no bad idea, but the way KDE does it is really confusing. Why ist Network Managment and Printer Configuration advanced stuff? Every user needs it.

The categorization and many item names are misleading. Some need merging. My proposition:

Look & Feel: Appearance, Desktop & Screensaver, Notifications & Sounds, Window Behavior, Accessibility
Personal: About Me, Regional & Language, Passwords (instead of KDE Wallet), Desktop Search, File Associations & Default Applications, Session & Services (merge Service Manager and Session Manager)
Hardware: Display, Keyboard & Mouse (merge with Input Actions), Sound (instead of Multimedia), Printers, Network & Internet (merge Network Settings and Network Managment), Power
System: Software, Fonts, Data & Time, Login Manager

Remove: Sharing (does actually nothing, could be added to About Me), Akonadi configuration (I really see no sense in configuring the path to a MySQL server, if some users need this please make it an external program to run from Konsole), Audio CDs (move into application that rips them), CDDB Retrieval (same as Audio CDs), Desktop Theme Details (add to Appearance), Digital Camera (should not be needed in times of plug and play), Hardware (has actually not much to do with real hardware, really nothing a user should change, the distribution should configure that, please make it an application to be run from the Konsole), KDE Resources (I don’t really understand that one, I supposed Akonadi was now in charge of calendars, addressbooks and such things, please remove it or explain what it does.)

The Advanced tab can therefore be completely removed.

UPDATE: After a long discussion on the KDE usability mailing list we came to the conclusion that the Advanced tab has its purpose but it really needs clean up, more explaining labels and a warning that users should not touch advanced options if they don’t have very special needs. In my opinion it should only be accessible via a shell command (to protect it and hide KDE’s not so nice parts) but others disagree.

I will now go through the most important settings.

Appearance

Generally all appearance panes (except Fonts and GTK Styles and Fonts) provide the ability to choose a theme. However this is done in very different fashions. Style and Windows provide a combobox but Colors and Splash Screen use a list with different preview locations. I suggest to change all panes to a layout similar to the Splash Screen pane. List on the left with buttons for theme installation under it, option tabs on the right with preview underneath visible from every tab.

 

Style

Remove Fine Tuning tab and merge it into first tab. Add tab for merged Desktop Theme Details.

Color

Okay!

Icons

Just merge Advanced into new layout.

Fonts and GTK Styles and Fonts

Should be moved to the bottom because they do not follow the layout of the other panes.

“Install scrollbar fix…” seems to be an ugly hack, is this really needed? I have never used it and my Firefox works fine. UPDATE: “Advanced” would be a proper place for such an option.

Windows

Rename to Window Borders. Merge Decoration Options and Buttons into new layout.

Splash Screen

Okay!

Emoticons

Okay!

Desktop & Screensaver

Please add the appearance settings from the Plasma desktop, i.e. right clicking on desktop->Appearance Settings….

Move Launch Feedback to Notifications & Sounds.

Furthermore the size and alignment of controls is inconsistent, for example compare size of “Number of Desktops” in Multiple Desktops and “Start automatically after” in Screen Saver.

 

Please add a new pane called Desktop Edges and combine the Screen Edges properties from Desktop Effects, Screen Saver and Window Behaviour. This would combine all the scattered “screen edges” options.

Ironically KDE provides use with an option to NOT use it’s own sound system.

Notifications & Sounds

Remove System Bell pane, instead add an option per event to ring the system bell.

Remove the tab “Player Settings”, the KDE notification system should always use the KDE sound system. What’s the sense of a common KDE soundsystem when nobody uses it?UPDATE: Another solution I’d be happy with is moving this setting to “Advanced” options.

 

Window Behavior

Window Behavior

Rename this to “General”. Move “Active Desktop Borders” to new Desktop Edges pane in Desktop & Screensaver.

Window Specific

Add an explanation what this pane does exactly.

About Me

Password & User Account

I would expect this to display my own addressbook card. What is SMTP server for? “At Password Prompt” really does not belong here, please put it into the Password settings.

Paths

Users would expect Desktop path in the Desktop & Screensaver pane. Autostart path should be moved to Session & Services.

Accessibility

The options “Use System bell whenever …” and “Use KDE’s system notification mechanism whenever …” should be removed and replaced with KDE notifications setup for that events. (after adding system beep as possible notification)

File Associations & Default Applications

Default Applications

Consistency should be improved, at the moment each default application pane uses a different mechanism to choose an application. Nearly same situation as in the Appearence settings. Why are no web browsers selectable?

File Associations

Okay!

Regional & Language

Country/Region & Language

It does not fit into the area and is displayed with a scrollbar (see screenshot!). If it really does not fit resizing the window would be acceptable but displaying a horizontal scrollbar for a panel with controls in it is the last thing a window should do. Besides that there are the usual inconsistencies (control width). Why does KDE use two completely different method for selecting “Country or region” and “Languages”? Just display both of them as lists.

Keyboard Layout

I would never expected to find that here. Please move/add it to “Keyboard & Mouse” settings. Keyboard layout is a property of the hardware not of the country you live in or the language you speak.

What is the “Disable Keyboard layouts” option for? Does my keyboard stop working when I select it? Perhaps you mean “Use system layout”? But how to set the system keyboard layout?

My keyboard layout is disabled, but I’m still writing this text! What does this option really do? Does an average user need it?

I stop here with my discussion of KDE’s system preferences. There a lot more issues there I haven’t discussed, but I hope I managed to mention the most important things.

UPDATE: I would like to point out that most developers of the preference panes did a good job. The inconsistencies are not a fault of the individual developers but merely a result of KDE’s decentralized development process. Nevertheless I hope that some UI guidelines get established and developers sit together to improve the overall “KDE preferences experience”.

Conclusion

None of the above issues makes KDE unusable. However together they really degrade the whole KDE experience. Even if users do not notice these problems consciously they have a strange feeling when working with KDE. They become unsure of what will happen when they perform certain actions. KDE makes users feel unsure. Most users I know who tried KDE went either back to GNOME or MS Windows, because they always had a subtle feeling of dislike for the interface.

KDE definitely has potential. Its main advantages over GNOME are its use of a modern programming language (C++) and a state of the art GUI toolkit (Qt). Now that Qt has been released under the LGPL we can expect that much commercial software will use it and therefore integrate well into the KDE desktop. The modular architecture (KParts) opens interesting possibilities not available in GNOME. In fact one can say that KDE is technically superior over GNOME in most areas.

Despite that nearly all distributions have dropped KDE as the default desktop and focus on GNOME although writing programs for it is quite difficult (using object oriented C hacks).  The GNOME developers focused on polishing and improving their user interface (please do not confuse user interface and usability with eye candy) instead of adding more and more (partly useless) features. UPDATE: In fact SUSE Linux Enterprise was the only distribution to drop KDE support, others used GNOME as their default desktop from the beginning.

I hope that KDE developers realize that they should focus on the overall user experience and stop implementing new features and eye candy for the next releases. UPDATE: I noticed that most problems apply to old KDE applications (these ported from KDE 3 or earlier), the newer ones seem to be designed with usability in mind (Dolphin, Konqueror, Gwenview). The KDE team seems to be on the right path but there are still many things to do. Now that KDE 4.2 is feature equivalent to KDE 3.5 I hope the developers will focus even more on fixing the usability problems.

Most issues do not require hard work but can probably be fixed in less than a month. Useless or very rarely used features should be removed or moved to the “Advanced” settings panel. All dialogs especially the preferences and system settings need some serious cleanup.

UPDATE: I wish to thank the KDE developers from the KDE usability mailing list for the fruitful discussion, their inputs on these problems(see archive for details) and their willingness to fix the mentioned issues. Realizing that KDE has come a long way since 3.5 I also wish to stress that this article should not be seen as a rant about KDE but a detailed listing of problems that need fixing from an end user point of view. As a blog is not an ideal place to discuss such matters I would be happy about a KDE usability wiki where users can upload screenshots of usability problems and post their opinion on how these issues should be fixed. I certainly plan to write another article about some KDE applications (e.g. KMail, Kalender, Kopete, KMix).

I am certain the KDE developers will be able to solve the usability issues and provide a seamless Linux desktop experience.