New Ubuntu look too destructive

New Ubuntu look too destructive

Summary: Take a good hard look at your screen and ask yourself if it is possible to accidentally close an application while reaching for the File menu. In most cases the answer is a clear no, but for users of Ubuntu, it has become a very real and dangerous use case.

TOPICS: Open Source

Take a good hard look at your screen and ask yourself if it is possible to accidentally close an application while reaching for the File menu. In most cases the answer is a clear no, but for users of Ubuntu, it has become a very real and dangerous use case.

All the fuss began in March when the decision was taken to refresh Ubuntu's look and branding, which included a set of new default themes that moved the trio of minimise, maximise and close buttons from the PC standard right-hand side to the left side of the title bar. Suffice to say that despite the positives of the updated Ubuntu look, users overwhelmingly detested the movement of the window buttons — as shown by the over 630 comments, the vast majority of which are intensely negative, on this bug report.

Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's founder and patron, responded to the criticism by saying that moving the icons to the left opened up the space on the right of the title bar for experimentation further down the line, and thanking users for their feedback but reminding them that Ubuntu was not a democracy and the design team had made its decision.

At this point I was liking the cut of Shuttleworth's jib, I didn't necessarily agree with it but I did respect the Ubuntu team's willingness to try something new and take a decision that they knew would not be popular — even if the details of any future experimentation remained nebulous. By telling the throbbing masses to essentially "STFU and trust us", I assumed that there was a grand usability plan that Ubuntu was executing and that given time and a couple of releases it would show its full benefits to the naysayers.

I forced myself to use the new Ubuntu theme for the past few weeks — in particular the dark "Ambiance" theme. Initially I was aghast at what the desktop had become and struggled with the new button placement. Over time I have adjusted to the new placements, but it does take conscious thought to pick out the icon you want, there is no muscle memory yet and there are many right-side flashbacks to deal with. To get around this, Alt+F4 has gained renewed importance in the speedy closing of windows.

One positive of the move to the left is that I have not closed a window by accident; there's been a lot of accidental maximising, something I put down to thinking the close button should be on the outside, and lots of initial confusion on differentiating between the maximise and minimise icons — but no accidental destructive operations, which is a good usability principle.

Come 1 April and Mark Shuttleworth issued a final decree stating that the buttons would remain on the left side but that the final ordering would be from left to right: close, minimise, maximise.

Exactly what my brain was expecting it should be: I should be pleased with this decision. Unfortunately I am far from pleased as I have discovered an unpleasant side effect of Ubuntu's new window buttons, that may go someway to explaining some of the accidental maximising.

Look at the below screenshot. If the pointer is where it is and the mouse button is depressed, it acts on the maximise button. The target area of the maximise button would be twice the width of any of the other buttons on there, and it comes a complete surprise as there is no indication that the area to the left of the button will invoke it.

Ubuntu Screenshot

Screenshot (Credit: Chris Duckett/

In its current form, this is a minor annoyance as it is simply resizing the window it is acting upon, but once the close button is moved to the left, the target area of the most destructive button will be double the others — this has the potential to bite many an unwary user.

This sort of behaviour is an artefact from having curved window decorations. It works in a right-handed set-up as the space between the immediate right of the close button is on the right hand side and typically far away most other interface elements, such as menus and scrollbars.

But by moving the close button to directly above the File menu, an already crowded area of the desktop, Ubuntu got dangerous. At least having the close button on the inside meant it was difficult to hit by accident. Now Ubuntu has put an ejector seat button next to regular functionality.

The mob may have received some compromises from Shuttleworth, but Ubuntu has now taken a step which means everyone will lose something. Whether it be data, tabs, or that important email they were writing.

Topic: Open Source


Chris started his journalistic adventure in 2006 as the Editor of Builder AU after originally joining CBS as a programmer. After a Canadian sojourn, he returned in 2011 as the Editor of TechRepublic Australia, and is now the Australian Editor of ZDNet.

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  • Uhh doesn't Mac's filemanger etc have the close and minimise buttons in the top left corner, I supposed it gets around the menus by having them activate in the top bar, or in some other arbitrary location.
    I am sure you will be able to change this, it is kind of like whinging about windows always putting the taskbar down the bottom, linux is about choice and will probably give you more choice than you know what to do with.
  • Yep, this new arrangement is more Mac-like, which means I'll probably have less trouble with it than most. But I agree with Chris that the file menu being so close is dangerous. Remember, the *save* function is in the file menu. As you point out, the Mac file menu is distant from the window controls. Even maximizing a window leaves the file menu offset to the right of the close button by quite a bit.

    The extended active area of the leftmost button feels like a bug to me. But if it's intentional, then my view of Ubuntu's design dictatorship would get just a little bit more jaundiced. (Not that they have anything over Apple in that regard.)
  • I'm not sure about you, but I've simply installed the "ubuntu-tweak" package (which is not currently in the official repository, but it's easy to add - see for full instructions - these should apply to Lucid, too). It allows a lot of handy tweaks on Lucid, including full control of the placement and order of buttons.
  • 99% of all the themes currently for ubuntu will automatically put the buttons on the right and not the left so the easiest thing to do is change the theme. you can also change it using gconf2 if you are so disposed.
  • I can see how it's easy to accidentally hit the close button from the proposed new position, but I don't fear the result. What happens anyway with most applications if you accidentally close unsaved work? A dialog box allowing you to cancel.

    More of an annoyance than a real problem in my book.
    Fat Pop Do Wop
  • I'll do 1st thing to change this "innovation". As I have never used Mac so its an irritation for me. Thank god there are ways to change this.
  • Good catch. This is primarily a bug, in that the active area should not be twice as large for the corner control as for the other controls. The close proximity of the File and corner control (now the close button) is something we will address in 10.10. Cheers, Mark
  • When I tried out the Ubuntu 10.04 beta, I attempted to get those buttons back on the right by changing the theme. It seems it's not theme-specific (as it ought to be), and they stayed on the left for every theme I applied.

    Also, the new default theme made some text nearly impossible to read. Now I'm running the Kubuntu 10.04 beta and I'm much happier with it.
  • "Take a good hard look at your screen and ask yourself if it is possible to accidentally close an application while reaching for the File menu."

    Yes, and I've done it a few times before. Unfortunately, I have to run Windows at work. If you click on the application's icon (above the file menu) and then click it again, it closes the program. Not sure how it is with Vista, but XP and prior versions have had this "feature" for a while. Ubuntu merely halved the number of clicks required.
  • Ahhhh! They included an option that changed the buttons from right to left! My life is over! The world is exploding in tragedy! I can never be happy again! I'm gonna kill myself! I'm gonna kill two myselfs! I'm gonna go back in time and kill myself before I ever learned of this tragic news! Oh bare ruined choir, where late the sweet birds sang!

    *rend rend rend rend*

  • Close button in the top left corner worked well enough on the Amiga a few decades ago. No reason why it should not work just as well in Ubuntu this year.
  • The LHS close button worked well on the Amiga because the a) the menubar ran across the top of the screen, b) it was only shown while holding the right mouse-button, and c) the titlebar of a window was rarely near the top of the screen because Workbench had no maximise buttons on its windows. In other words, this design decision really does suck.
  • Since Windows 95 you can place the taskbar anywhere you want just by dragging it there.
    Mel Sommersberg
  • Haha! Well observed, PP.
    But beware, lest thy fear unmans thee, sirrah.
    Go, prick thy face, and over-red thy fear,
    Thou lily-liver'd boy.