Simple desktops with Xubuntu

In 2012, I wrote an article about default configuration for an operating system and the challenges involved with it. For a related, but slightly different topic, I thought it would be useful to share some of my experiences in setting up environments for more or less technically limited people.

Please note that this is just a pointer and a suggestion and the needs and wants of real people may and will vary.

Relevant visual elements

Panel

The first thing I would suggest to do is to remove any unnecessary panel applets (and panels, where appropriate). Automatically hidden panels can be really hard to use, especially for those users who have limited experience with mice or other problems that affect hand-cursor coordination. These can vary anywhere from bad eyesight to difficulties with accurate movement or simply having a hard time understanding the concept of a cursor.

What is relevant in the panels for a simple desktop experience? If you are striving for the simplest possible configuration, I would say that you only need launchers for applications, window list of open applications, a clock and a shutdown button with no choice of logout, suspend or other actions. With this setup, I recommend using the confirmation dialog to prevent unwanted shutdown cycles.

When deciding which launchers to show, please remember that you can enable access to the full application menu on right-clicking the desktop. Because of that option, it’s not always worth the trouble to try to add a launcher for every application, especially if they are used only rarely. Consider picking ones that users need daily, weekly or monthly, depending on how much you want to avoid right-clicking.

I believe people that want or need a simple desktop don’t want to see anything that they think is irrelevant. This is especially true to indicators, because they use symbols that are more or less hard to understand for a technically limited person.

There are a few exceptions: If you’re setting up a laptop that’s actually unplugged now and then, you might want to show the battery indicator. If you have a laptop that needs to be used in various locations, you’ll want to show the network manager as well. If controlling volume is necessary, you might want to consider whether the sound indicator or shortcut keys (Fn+Fx in laptops) are the better choice.

Desktop

In addition to the panel launchers, it’s wise to add launchers for the desktop as well along with a shutdown button. Make sure the launchers user generic names instead of application names eg. Email instead of Mozilla Thunderbird. It’s usually wise to bump up the icon and label size up as well. If the users will not run several applications at a time, you can simply drop the panel and only use the desktop icons. If you want to show the clock without a panel, you can use a simple Conky setup. Conky is available in the Ubuntu repositories.

Other accessibility considerations

If the users have problems with their eyesight, there are a few things that can help make the system more usable for them.

The first one is adjusting the font and DPI settings. Bumping up the font size by just one step and increasing the DPI value makes the text more easily readable. Xubuntu has a very legible default font, even in smallish fonts, but it’s good to remember you can change the font as well

The other thing you can do is change the window border theme. The default Xubuntu theme is designed to be elegant and keep out of the way, but sometimes this is not ideal. If the user has a hard time seeing where a window ends and the other starts, it might be a good idea to try another window border theme. On the other hand, if too many buttons is the problem – or you simply don’t need or want to enable some features – you can remove some of the window buttons as well.

There is also many accessibility configuration options under the Accessibility tab in Window Manager Tweaks found in the Settings Manager. The one I tend to turn off is rolling up windows with the mouse wheel. This prevents the accidentally “disappearing” windows.

Accessibility version of Greybird?

Currently, Greybird, the Xubuntu default theme, ships two window border themes: a regular and a compact one. It has been brought up to discussion by me and others that we should ship an accessibility version as well. This accessibility version would sport bigger window buttons as well as a bigger border to grab for resizing the window.

So far, the accessibility on the drawing board phase and not much has been done yet, as it’s currently one of the most low priority items for the development teams of Xubuntu and Shimmer. That being said, all constructive feedback is welcome. Furthermore, if we see a lot of people asking for the accessibility version, it’s likely that its priority will be bumped up at least a little.

Smoother user experience

Since we are talking about a simple desktop experience, I can assume at least part of our target group is people who don’t either understand or want to understand why updating is important or how to install updates. For this reason, I’d simply turn on the automatical security updates but turn off all manual updates.

Depending on the situation, I would make sure apport will not pop up and ask to send new bug reports. It’s self-evident that bug reports are important, but if the user doesn’t understand or want to understand the importance, it’s better to turn any reporting that needs user input off. The possibility that these users with the simplest possible desktops would run into bugs that haven’t been already found is really rare. Moreover, the possibility of developers getting further information from these users are really slim.

While I don’t use autologin myself and can’t suggest using it for security reasons, setting it up might save a lot of frustration. But please, only use autologin after a good assessment of the situation and understanding the security considerations related to that.

Manual maintenance needs

Even though a system can run smoothly without daily maintenance, manual maintenance is sometimes required. I’ve been maintaining a few computers for family remotely during the years, and the two tools I’ve needed the most are an SSH server and remote desktop viewing ability – for which I’m currently using an X11vnc setup.

While SSH is usually fine for most of the regular maintenance, being able to view (and use) the desktop remotely has been an invaluable help in situations where the user can’t describe the issue accurately enough via text or voice based communication. This is even more useful if the computer is far from you and you have limited possibilities to access it physically.

Naturally, you need to take security considerations into account when accessing a computer remotely. Making servers listen on unusual ports and securing with them firewalls is highly encouraged.

Summary

There are numerous opinions on the best desktop configuration, both in the look and feel. However, if you are setting a system up for somebody else, you will need to consider how they usually use the computer and how you could support their workflow to make the experience smoother.

Xfce allows a great deal of customizability by default. On top of that, the Xubuntu team has worked to bring the users even more tools that can help them configure their system. The options brought by these alone give you a vast amount of different things you can control. This article is just scratching the surface for even those options. If you want to go deeper, there is always more software on the Ubuntu repositories that can help you set up the system in the way you like it.

If you have other ideas and suggestions for simple and/or accessible desktops, feel free to drop them in the comments. If you write (or have written) a blog article about customizing Xubuntu, especially ones that cover accessbility issues, I’d like to hear back from those as well.

Happy configuring!

Find-a-Task, quickly! 1

The Ubuntu community team has recently set up Find-a-Task, which is a small tool that helps new contributors find a task to start working on. If you click around (long enough), you will also find Xubuntu tasks in there. How nice of us!

There’s one problem though… The content is unfortunately maintained in a private environment, and there’s no easy way to see all the tasks. What if you wanted to check if a very similar task, or exactly the same task, already exists?

Stop the clicking already! I wrote a simple Greasemonkey script that outputs the full index of Find-a-Task instead of showing you the different categories and tasks one by one. The easiest way to install the script is to click on the Raw -button on the Gist.

The team has only started gathering these tasks around the community. Some have already came in, but there’s room for a lot more expansion.

If your team wants to add some tasks, join the #ubuntu-community-team IRC channel on Freenode and shout your tasks out loud. The community team will update the tool with your tasks as long as you provide them the name, description, target URL and the desired category for each task.

Go add a task… quickly!

High priority projects list for artists

My inspiration for this article was that the Free Software Foundation is reviewing the High Priority Projects list. Briefly put, the goal of the list is to achieve more freedom in computing for everybody, focusing in projects with the broadest possible influence.

To learn more about the project and find out how to send your input, read the announcement on reviewing the High Priority Projects list.

In this article, I won’t be covering any projects that would really affect the majority of computer users. Instead, I will talk about some areas which are important for graphic artists, including those who are working with non-digital formats as well.

Support for color managed documents

There are two main aspects to color management: color management in documents and color management for monitors. Ideally, you want them both set up properly. Unfortunately, both of the areas are lacking in Linux.

Many of the applications support CMYK color profiles only partially, or do not support them at all. Being able to work in true CMYK with a specific color profile is crucial if you need to send your work to a professional printing service.

The lack of pretty much any kind of CMYK export from Inkscape is the breaking point for me. It is also the main reason I still work with proprietary software under a virtualized environment. I acknowledge there are some ways to product a CMYK color managed document in Scribus and have even done this a few times, but it isn’t a perfect workflow.

As far as I’ve understood, calibrating monitors and using ICC profiles for them and making software use them as well isn’t unproblematic either. However, I don’t understand these issues enough to weigh in; other online resources cover these topics better.

Close the gap to commercial software

As Inkscape, Scribus, GIMP and other projects prove, great free software for artists exists. However, there is still gaps to commercial software here and there. These gaps need to be closed in order to get more professional artists consider free and open source alternatives to the proprietary software they are currently using.

One of the aspects is making free software look and feel more familiar to people who use proprietary software. While I don’t think this should be the main goal, it’s one that would help people migrate the most.

The Shimmer project started the Huego project to help this goal. Unfortunately, due to lack of time, it has been quiet after the first commits. As always, contributions are welcome! On another, more positive note, Martin Owens has created a set of Photoshop Tweaks for Gimp which you can start using right now.

Today, Inkscape is already a very important part of my workflow already; the only case when I won’t even think about using it is if I need to create a rather complex CMYK document. Even in the smaller CMYK works I prefer it in the drafting phase, because I can get my ideas out of the system so much faster with it.

Finally…

As I said before, great free and open source software exists already and there are some software and hardware for color management. Now we simply need to make the software even better, to support the features artists need in their daily work and to give them the option to stop using proprietary software.

This will undoubtedly require both artists and developers to be interested enough to actually overcome the obstacles in the way and most importantly, work together. A masterfully built up software is useless if the artists don’t think it’s intuitive to use – in the same way as an idea of a great software in a head of an artist is if it’s not implemented in reality.

If you would like to shift your workflow towards free and open source software, but can’t because there isn’t an application avaialble – keep shouting out and support the developers who work hard to create more great software.

If you are a developer, keep on working what you think is important, and maybe we will some day have software that can help more people to switch to non-proprietary alternatives.

This article is part of the article series .