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New GNOME Human Interface Guidelines now official – and obviously some people hate it

Update better aligned with GTK widgets but UI is controversial

Red Hat's Allan Day, a member of the GNOME design team, has said that the project's new Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) are now official.

The GNOME HIG, as Day explained back in May, was "fairly out of date" both in terms of technical changes for GNOME 40 and GTK (GNOME Toolkit) 4 and also what he called "contemporary design practice."

GTK 4.x was released in December 2020, and GNOME 40 in March this year, though many Linux distributions are still using GNOME 3.38. Day noted on Twitter that "the new GNOME HIG is now official. There's more work to be done, but I'm pretty pleased with it overall."

Allan Day from the GNOME design team tweets the guidelines are now official

A key change is that the design patterns all reference GTK widgets that can be used to implement the pattern, something Day described as an "effort to bring the HIG closer to the platform." There are more specialist widgets than before, again making it easier to implement the patterns, such as widgets for preferences windows. The new guidelines also cover tooltips, which were omitted before. Accessibility is no longer the subject of a separate guide, but is now part of the standard guidelines, "as it should be," said Day.

In 2019, Day spoke at the GUADEC event, GNOME's main annual conference, about the user experience (UX) strategy for the project. He conducted in-depth interviews with three groups of users about their choice of desktop, not limiting himself to GNOME users. "People's expectations have been raised: they are less inclined to accept poor quality software than they were in the past," he said in a series of posts based on the presentation. He highlighted the importance of polish and refinement, integration with cloud, and the relationship between developers and designers.

Despite the effort that has gone into GNOME 40 and the new HIG, the updates to GNOME are contentious. "I really like the GNOME 3.38 design… However, the GNOME 40 looks like the unproductive thing that gives you pain," said one user, while another called the HIG "Insanity specified… How else would you come up with a filechooser no one can use, or an OK-Button of a dialog in the window title bar." However, another said: "I think Gnome's Interface Guidelines are very well done… Daily use is nice and doesn't get in the way while using software. People coming from other OS get used to it quite easily."

The guidelines state that "primary menus are typically placed at the end (in Western locales on the right) of the header bar," and that "secondary menus are located in the header bar, and are used to contain actions and settings for a particular view or content item." The positioning of menus in the window's header bar has proved fiddly and counterintuitive for some.

An operating system in development, helloSystem, was inspired by early design guidelines for the Mac, including global menus as advocated by usability expert Bruce Tognazzini, formerly of Apple.

Inconsistency: GNOME Web (rear) has menus in the header bar, Firefox (front) does not

Inconsistency: GNOME Web (rear) has menus in the header bar, Firefox (front) does not

Few would argue against the idea that consistency of design and appearance helps users to navigate an operating system and its applications, so the guidelines are important. There is another issue, though, which is that many Linux applications are cross-platform and their developers have a difficult decision: is it better for their application to look and feel the same on all platforms, or to adopt the conventions of the operating system as far as possible? In practice there is a bit of both. Neither Firefox nor LibreOffice have menus in the header bar, to take two examples that are among the most popular Linux applications.

In a recent post on "apps getting worse", XML co-inventor Tim Bray noted that "any time you make any change to a popular product, you've imposed a retraining cost on its users." This means that any change will be resisted by some because it introduces new friction. Bray also said: "No PM [Product Manager] in history has ever said 'This seems to be working pretty well, let's leave it the way it is.' Because that's not bold. That's not visionary. That doesn't get you promoted." Although GNOME as an open-source project is not subject to these same constraints, there is still pressure to make bold improvements that may not always go down well with users. Microsoft has revamped the Start menu in the forthcoming Windows 11 and will no doubt face complaints from users now familiar with the Windows 10 Start menu, which itself was a reaction to complaints about Windows 8, which radically changed the popular Windows 7 Start menu.

One complaint about the new GNOME guidelines is that they embrace the idea of hiding less-used options and features for the sake of a simpler experience, saying "don't overwhelm people with too many elements at once. Use progressive disclosure and navigation structures to provide a guided experience." The downside is loss of discoverability, and the fact that some actions take more clicks or keypresses to accomplish, leading to complaints that the UI is designed to "make everything take as many clicks as possible."

The HIG for GNOME 3.38 said almost the same thing: "Use progressive disclosure to show controls when they are needed... showing every possible control all the time makes an application harder to use, since users have to navigate controls that are often not relevant. Instead, only show controls when they are needed." Right or wrong, that design principle is not exclusive to the GNOME 40 wave of changes. ®

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