Saturday, April 24, 2010

Workspaces, Part iii - Square Block, Round Hole

I just finished creating a rather large and messy looking spreadsheet, collating date from the first approximatively 24 hours of responses to the questions I posted on OMG! Ubuntu, and the results have been rather interesting. While I don't have all the hard facts and numbers completely added up, there were some very distinct trends that I found, even from several people who read the previous two posts and disagreed that their use lined up with the paradigm I had discussed. I'll put another post up with the hard facts at some point tomorrow, once some more responses are in and I have time to count them all (seriously, it was about 2 hours of scrolling and reading and retyping summaries and whatnot) and present them in a nice visual way.

But I wanted to look at some basic issues going on here.

Virtual Desktops are supposed to expand the visible work area, to increase ability to work in multiple areas in the same way that some would just use one. But what did I see? Over and over and over again, I saw users who explained their use of multiple desktops in two ways; as a way to basically just avoid minimizing particular apps, and when the first workspace gets to crowded or cluttered.

Why is this bad? Its overkill. Its suboptimal. Its using a sledge hammer to build a birdhouse; pruning shears to trim hair. Its a weak visualization and more complicated then it needs to be.

Why, do you ask? Doing a rough estimate of the responses I have thus far, I'd guess that about %75 use an entire workspace for a single full screen app, which is not accessed or looked at for any reason during much of the work flow, unless the song in rhythmbox or banshee needs changed, or if a new email shows up. Probably %80 put some sort of IM or social on its own workspace, just hanging out in case some new notification showed up, again, in the form of one app for one whole workspace.

This is, really, indicative of the silliness of how we are currently using virtual desktops. I've had 75 people respond so far, and only 3 stated they did not or didn't need the virtual desktops. Many were in a glee about their desktops, but then admitted they only use 2 or 3 of the 4, 5, or 6 they had activated. These were also most likely to have workspaces devoted to only one app.

So what makes more sense? It seems clear to me that the paradigm of switching to an identically-equipped workspace, with the same available tools and decoration and appearence, for the sake of one simple quick task, makes no sense, yet we do it anyway. I catch myself making use of a second desktop to simply hide update manager from having to have one whole icon in my dock or panel. Isn't this rather silly and a poor application of spatial constructs?

I think we're trying to make our need, lets call it a need for a focused workspace, be forced into the only solution we have, which is simply a separate workspace. There is overlap; there is shared functionality, but they are not suited to one another to begin with.

So what do we need? Its a question I've repeated over and over again, and will continue to do so as I look at what we try to use desktops for, and what we really desire.

I'll be crunching numbers basically all day tomorrow to show you guys some graphs and percentages and what not of what I've found this far from your responses. If you want to take a look at the responses everyone gave, take the link above, or heck, this link works too.


  1. As you say, the spatial nature of virtual desktops is not that useful for separating tasks - in part because it's badly implemented, anyway.

    Having one window per virtual desktop is not silly, it's a perfectly natural way to *focus in one application at a time*. Which is what the modern desktops mess doesn't support apart from the maximized window mode. Virtual desktops should support this "one or two applications at a time" and make it easy to achieve.

    So the real reason many people (myself included) uses workspaces is the windows-hiding functionality, used to show just the windows relevant to the current task. That's the real gem to be supported in any new system meant to replace or enhance virtual desktops.

    I suggest three features to help with a time-based, instead of a spatial-based organization of windows in tasks:

    - Dim the workspace outside of the current selected window to help focus on it, while the mouse is inside the window boundaries. Just like the Lightbox script does to show images in webpages. This would alleviate the need to change to a new workspace just so one can work with one app without distractions. (Compiz has a module to achieve this effect, but it doesn't have the "mouse outside of focused windows" effect that would allow using more than one window at once).

    - An easy way to multi-select several windows to move them into a new, fresh, empty workspace (maybe even have them reordered into a grid layout). This covers the need to use two or three apps without all the other unneeded applications cluttering the desktop and the task bar.

    - An easy way to show together windows that were put to different groups. The main problem with virtual desktops is that they are all or none - either you have a window in all workspaces or just one.

    This doesn't mix well with human workflows, which will need different groups of active windows to be selected on-the-flu. Any organization scheme that requires windows to be classified upfront will fail - they should be easy to reclassify just in time.

  2. I actually very much agree with you! I was not intending to say that the user is silly to want to move desktops to focus on one task at a time, thats exactly why I use it, actually. If anything, thats the primary reason that I think they should stay, in a slightly modified form.

    My point is (and perhaps unclearly, since this is all still groundwork and not final polished ideas) that its not a good implementation to move to a whole new workspace, not not do any work, but to simply change the song, or look at a new email. Its really not silly, its the very best way that we currently are able to navigate in such a way.

    "So the real reason many people (myself included) uses workspaces is the windows-hiding functionality, used to show just the windows relevant to the current task."

    Absolutely agree. Thats why I use it. Thats why just about every Ubuntu user I personally know uses it. A good number of those I asked used it that way, whether they were really aware or not.

    I will likely be looking in my next post at the specific numbers of the questions asked, and my thoughts on the specific implication of the results. Hopefully this will clearly lead to a new set of rules that will guide the workspace.

    I don't know if you're excited about the announcement from Mark Shuttleworth concerning the removal of the notification area, but I am excited just about the fact that there are going to be a set of consistent rules over an out of control area, and this will hopefully lay ground work for a more consistent set of window rules.


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