GNOME, Google and the UNIX user interface

Recently, after a flurry of annoying user interface issues, I’ve switched my RSS reader from Liferea to Google Reader. Interestingly, it turns out that Google Reader actually fits better with the traditional UNIX user interface concept, I’ve found.

What triggered this was an upgrade from Liferea 1.0.x to 1.4.4 as part of Ubuntu Gutsy; this brought with it a lot of changed behaviours, such as ‘drag-and-drop of feed URL to HTML view no longer subscribes’, and one crucial UI issue, ‘”Skim through articles” only works with ctrl+space’.

I’ve been a long-time UNIX user, dating back to the days where curses-based interfaces were the norm. As such, I tend to drive commonly-used applications using keyboard commands where possible. (This isn’t a purely UNIX thing; Windows has the phenomenon of the keyboard-wielding “power user”, too.)

Liferea was attractive, since it offered the ability to skim through articles quickly by just pressing the “Space” key; simply press space to page down, or to skip to the next unread article if at the end of the current one. Unfortunately, Liferea 1.4.x breaks this, and it wasn’t going to be fixed, since apparently a GNOME app shouldn’t behave this way:

GTK explicitely does implement as a key binding for several of it’s widgets. Rebinding means to break the default behaviour for such widgets (tree views, buttons, input fields). [….] Liferea as a web-browsing application should behave like any other web browser and like every other GNOME/GTK application as much as possible.

Now, I don’t know if it’s GNOME’s fault, or what, but for a UNIX desktop app to break with UNIX UI conventions, that’s a bad move in my opinion. I gave it a bit of argument in the bug tracker, but eventually gave up as I clearly wasn’t getting anywhere. :(

Instead, based on recommendation from friends, I gave Google Reader a try, and quickly figured out its extensive collection of keyboard shortcuts. Now, I’m skimming through my feeds in even less time than it took with Liferea, simply by hitting “ga” to go to my “all unread items” list, then “j”, “j”, “j” to skip through the postings one by one. Sweet!

It’s interesting to note that other Google web apps use the same concepts; Gmail also has a hefty set, and can be driven using them in a manner very reminiscent of the classic UNIX mailreader, Mutt. So, despite being designed with end-users in mind by extremely clever professional user experience designers, these apps still find space for power-user keyboard operation. Take note, GNOME.

Anyway, I’m not too bothered. Google Reader brings other benefits, such as fixing this bug: ‘please add ability to go to previous entry in Unread feed’, avoiding ‘constant memory leak requires daily restarts’, and, of course, the utility of being able to track the same set of feeds and keep track of which items I’ve read in two places (work and home).

If only it was open source ;)

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  1. David Malone
    Posted December 20, 2007 at 15:51 | Permalink

    After reading (some of) the thread in the bug report, I thought I’d see what Safari on OS X does when you press space. It actually acts much like a Unix app, and pages down a screen.

  2. Posted December 21, 2007 at 10:52 | Permalink

    space is the de facto standard for “next”. that works in thunderbird (go to next unread if at end of message, or page down message), firefox (page down), less, …. Note I use thunderbird for reading feeds.

    I was disappointed with the last gnome release actually in Fedora 8 and Gutsy. Too much compromised in the name of HIG, and many usability bugs.

    As for my blog, 1% use liferea, 1% use thunderbird and 25% use google reader.

  3. Posted December 21, 2007 at 12:00 | Permalink

    I think the Liferea developer accepts that ‘space’ has a certain behaviour; unfortunately, his belief is that the correct behaviour changes based on what area of the app’s window is focussed. So ‘space’ will do a different thing if the feed list is focussed, compared to when the HTML view widget is focussed.

  4. Posted December 23, 2007 at 14:44 | Permalink

    You might prefer n over j. N operates similarly to j, but doesn’t open the entry. It’s quicker if you have a lot of feeds on your list and don’t typically read every entry. :)