Ubuntu’s HUD: Why It’s A Terrible Idea

I just read another article proclaiming why HUD (Head Up Display) is a great idea. The gist of it is that

  • HUD learns on the job improving its performance with use.
  • HUD allows you to search for menu items by hitting Alt + search terms
  • HUD is faster and easier to use/learn.

In fighter aircraft the idea of HUD was to allow a pilot to see important stuff while looking through the windscreen for important stuff allowing intricate operations without taking the eye off either. That‘s a good thing. Ubuntu’s HUD is not.

There are times when searching is useful, say, when you have a zillion things on the table and you need one of them quickly but that’s not what menus are about. A properly designed menu allows a few choices to bring you to what you need. The emphasis is on few.

I use XFCE4. Suppose I want to examine a download from the GUI. I click on the menu icon for file manager, “Downloads” and I am there, in two clicks. HUD wants me to type Alt,Downloads, ten clicks and maybe it will learn and get me there sooner or later with two clicks, Alt+D. What if I have Downloads, Debian, Deals, Donald, Donations etc. in my file system. I now need more clicks with HUD than with simple menus. That’s not faster. It’s slower. Further, if I want, I can make an icon for Downloads and be there in one click. I know what I want and can do a better job than HUD can do learning from me.

Further, if I start to work on a new project, the searching may keep pulling me towards the wrong directory and it will take some frustration to have it relearn. Lather, rinse and repeat. I don’t want my system to fight me. I want it to do what I want every time right away.

Further, suppose I fiddle with HUD and come to a folder with 1000 files and I don’t know the filename or much about the contents? How smart is HUD going to be? I want a search engine or database to do what I want. I already have that on my system, I don’t need an extra one from Ubuntu.

In applications, if you have so many options that you need a search engine to guide you, you have feature bloat. Not a good idea. Not fixable by using a search engine but by proper design of the menus in the program. Suppose you are in a graphics programme. You may have 937 operations at hand but you can probably get to any of them in 2 or 3 menu operations. If you cannot, you need to re-balance the decision trees. Ideally, one should not have more than a few choices at each level of the menu-tree. e.g. tools, selection, 1,2,3,4,5 choices. That takes three clicks and you’re there. If you have to search, do you even know what to search for? What happens when both you and the search engine are learning on the job? Wasted motion. Searching only makes sense when you have a huge array of choices and you are incapable of narrowing down the choices easily the way you have been reading text since pre-school.

HUD is Big Brother all over again trying to define IT so that we will be dependent on Ubuntu to function. HUD is an unnecessary bit of candy for the GUI. Simpler and familiar is best. Otherwise we or HUD will be constantly learning to walk when we want to run. Having three ways of doing everything is certainly overkill/bloat, a waste of resources.

I will finish with a story from the North where for a thousand years Inuit have been competing with polar bears. There, the elders tell the young folk, “When a polar bear charges, dodge right. They are right-handed.” Of course, polar bears may not be right-handed but leaving people with a single choice sure does make them faster at choosing it. IT should always be about speed/economy of getting the result. I don’t like HUD for that reason. It may be useful for some people in some situations but it is far from ideal generally. I suspect in hugely complicated systems where there are way too many files and menu-items, HUD would make sense. My PC with a few favourite apps is not that situation. PCs are general-purpose machines by and large and people and what they do changes. For maximum efficiency the way they use their machines should not change but remain familiar and constant.

HUD is not like replacing M$’s crappy OS with a sleek OS like GNU/Linux. It’s more like replacing a gate with a locked door. We should not have more fiddling to pass through. If we have to fiddle to change we should only do it once, not every time we want to do something.

see Ubuntu’s HUD Explained: Why it’s a great idea

see A First Look At Ubuntu Linux’s Head Up Display

Shuttleworth: “hiding the menu before we had the replacement was overly aggressive. If the HUD lands in 12.04 LTS, we hope you’ll find yourself using the menu less and less, and be glad to have it hidden when you are not using it. You’ll definitely have that option, alongside more traditional menu styles.”
see Beyond the desktop: Ubuntu Linux’s new Head-Up Display

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
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17 Responses to Ubuntu’s HUD: Why It’s A Terrible Idea

  1. Ch says:

    “Windows 7 has built-in multiple desktops now?”

    Even better: Windows has “no-need-for-multiple-desktops” built in!


  2. Kozmcrae says:

    “Microsoft copied from Microsoft, KDE4 copied from Microsoft. All’s like it should be.”

    Windows 7 has built-in multiple desktops now? Way to go Microsoft!

  3. Ch says:

    Regarding HUD, I agree with you. However:

    “Menus scale.”

    Yes – up to a point. The original CUA guidelines said that a menu should have no more than 7 columns with up to 7 entries each. Look at your LO applications, and they have a bit more than that. As the MSO team found out the hard way, at several hundred entries the menu model just breaks. Rule of thumb: If people can’t find an entry in ~100 menu entries, you better optimize your menu layout. At several hundred entries, there is no good layout. Except people to ask you “Can’t you add function XYZ to your application ?” years after you added that function, because they can’t find it.

    The MSO solution – ribbon and backstage view – works pretty well in MSO 2010 (2007 was a “first try”), so expect to see it elsewhere soon. The Ubuntu solution – use a search engine to find functionality – appears just wrong to me.

  4. Ambleston Dack wrote, “YAWN! Yet another blog jumping on the Ubuntu hating band wagon”.

    I do not hate Ubuntu GNU/Linux. I have it on one or two PCs in my home although the majority run Debian GNU/Linux. I also installed it in a new high school a few years ago. In the past I have criticized Ubuntu for building in features that made it less efficient on thin clients (bloat and busy widgets and breaking upgrades) but lately Canonical is making changes for the sake of changes. I even like their “cadence” release but forcing users to make radical changes that are incompatible with other systems for no great benefit is questionable. It’s not a matter of hatred, just practicality. I like IT that works for me and others. There are many cases where HUD is not optimal. Menus scale. HUD does not. While searching scales, the user having to search does not, it just takes longer.

    One more analogy. Suppose we imagine HUD calling 911 in an emergency. Conversation goes like this:
    caller: I need firemen at 456 west 87th street.
    911: what’s the emergency?
    caller: searching for emergency… an unforeseen occurrence (dictionary); Oh wait, that’s not right Mom was frying potatoes earlier. … Crisis; conjuncture; exigency; pinch; strait; necessity… Yes! It was necessary to get out of the house.
    911: Why did you get out of the house?
    caller: …A structure intended or used as a habitation or shelter… Why? … For what cause, reason, or purpose; … It was hot and smokey inside.
    911: You mean the house was on fire?
    caller: Yes! The house is on fire.

    Sometimes searching is just inefficient. The human mind can parse things much faster than search engines because search engines don’t have all the background information. A tiny branch in the logic takes things off in the wrong direction and ultimately comes to a list. If the lists are short, let the human do the searching by hand-eye coordination, something they have been practising for decades.

    I don’t need to create a distro which meets my needs. It already exists, Debian GNU/Linux. If something like HUD ever makes into Debian GNU/Linux, I trust it will be optional and I can go on using what works for me with little fuss. When GNOME and KDE made radical changes, I had XFCE4 and other possibilities which do what I need doing. If I need to search I have a bunch of proper search engines and APIs I can code with the options I need. With BASH, I search a lot to save typing and slow choices using CD and ls. With the GUI, I want to point and shoot. I have 1.5 million files on my PC and I can find them all very quickly. I know whether to search by contents or by filename or both. Ubuntu does not. I will choose the appropriate tool for searching.

  5. onesandzeroes wrote, ” HUD has nothing to do with navigating the file system”.

    The file manager in most GUIs that I have seen in GNU/Linux is an application. Executables are also files. The same technology will be used for finding contents of documents, and files by name.

  6. Brian Kennedy wrote, “this idea of lock-in that you have makes no sense.”

    Ubuntu GNU/Linux is a very popular distro, so the number of users exposed to HUD will be large. Users familiar with Ubuntu may well know how to upgrade their systems and many will do so without investigating HUD first. We saw how M$ leveraged the installed base of DOS and Lose 3.1 into monopoly in Lose ’95. We saw M$ make strange choices to differentiate itself from competitors for no legitimate information processing/computer science reasons, just to lock people in. HUD is like that. People used to it will find reverting to other distros “a jarring experience”.

    People who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Eternal vigilance and all that…

    “unduly stagnant” is a strange viewpoint of IT that works for millions. Change for improved performance makes sense and I encourage it. HUD in a fighter jet makes sense. HUD on the desktop does not. HUD on a mobile device without a keyboard would be insane. I thought Ubuntu was headed for mobile devices.
    “Ubuntu’s new Unity shell will play a key role in Canonical’s plans to bring the Ubuntu user experience to smaller screens. The platform already has preliminary tablet support, including experimental functionality for touchscreen-based window management. It seems likely that the Qt-based Unity 2D experience will serve as the mobile implementation. The Qt Quick user interface design framework is well-suited for building touch-friendly mobile experiences.” see Shuttleworth: Ubuntu is heading to phones and tablets (October 2011)

  7. Brian Kennedy says:

    HUD is not significantly different from Kupfer, Gnome Do, Quicksilver, or any other contextual application launcher, so this idea of lock-in that you have makes no sense.

    Further, just to tackle this one point thoroughly because it’s so strange, is HUD supposed to be so inferior to triple layer menu trees that everyone will flee from it or is it supposed to be so good that you’d be “locked in” and never want to learn a giant menu hierarchy again after using it? You can’t have it both ways.

    Lastly, Ubuntu has explicitly said that you’ll be able to have your 937 menu options conveniently split into only 9.37 lists of 10 lists of 10 items if you prefer that to HUD, so what is the problem with some very modest innovation in what is otherwise an unduly stagnant area of UI design?

  8. clavi says:

    > Switching back and forth from mouse to keyboard is a
    > waste of time. Stick with one or the other.

    Pointing devices are fast, if the developer able to solve to move cursor less, and click less (when navigating in the menu). In a complicated application it’s a difficult problem to solve.

    Try vim, awesomewm, and you will change your opinion. HUD will be good for the power user not for the beginners (both for applications without well predefined shortcuts) .

  9. onesandzeroes says:

    As far as I know, HUD has nothing to do with navigating the file system. It just deals with the application menus (File, Edit, View, Tools, etc.) for the application you’re currently using.

    It’s kind of hard to take your criticism seriously when you don’t even seem to understand what the purpose of the HUD is.

  10. Hanson says:

    “This is KDE Alpha 1”

    It’s of course “KDE4 Alpha 1”. Just adding it, in case you can’t find out yourself.

  11. Hanson says:

    “Win7 was basically a copy.”

    Hahahaha! OK, a little more serious now.

    This is KDE Alpha 1 in a YouTube video from 2007/05/12:


    You may know notice that the menu is NOTHING like Windows 7.

    This is Windows Vista RC1 in a YouTube video from 2006/10/03:


    You may notice (starting at time 0:39) that the menu is NOTHING like KDE Alpha 1, but VERY MUCH like the Windows 7 menu.

    Conclusion: Microsoft copied from Microsoft, KDE4 copied from Microsoft. All’s like it should be.

  12. morgan says:

    Re : notzed

    Don’t you mean KDE4 menu rather than Windows 7?

    Win7 was basically a copy.

  13. Ambleston Dack says:

    YAWN! Yet another blog jumping on the Ubuntu hating band wagon. If you think everything from Canonical is a bad idea, here’s a novel suggestion, write your own distro and see if all the haters will love your idea! Simples 🙂

  14. fmo wrote, “when you could do everything from a terminal”.

    That is key. The new system will require a lot more typing like going back to the terminal. Switching back and forth from mouse to keyboard is a waste of time. Stick with one or the other.

  15. fmo says:

    Why don’t you give them a chance to prove themselves?

    HUD is a first take at trying to bring something new to our interfaces.

    It just reminds me of people complaining about GUIs and saying how useless it was when you could do everything from a terminal.

    Give it a chance, it’s Opensource, worst case scenario you have the choice not to use it.

  16. notzed says:

    My read on it is that the dud only replaces the application menu, it is not a global search.

    It’s really just a ‘windows 7 start menu’ for applications, which is in turn just a ‘crappy broken command line’ to replace a menu.

    The thing is, the problem it’s trying to `fix’ – badly designed mega-menu’s – is exactly the use-case where it will fail the most. Most people primarily use an application which barely even need a menu: i.e. a web browser, and therefore the dud serves no purpose there at all.

    Given that ubuntu has been all about non-keyboard interfaces for a while, it seems a really odd choice too. Obviously he’s thinking of speech input, but I can’t see that working very well as a general user interface mechanism. Actually the idea you can even have identical applications running on a desktop computer vs a hand-held keyboardless computer is quite absurd: and if you have to redo the front-end for each device anyway, why try to shoe-horn them both to using a menu system which is retrograde on both.

  17. Hanson says:

    For once I can agree with you.

    On HUD. Not on your Inuit story and your urge to make every post a “That other OS sucks” post, even if there’s no connection at all, like in this case.

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