Cinnamon Desktop UI design WTFs (1)

Out of the box, Cinnamon decides to group the taskbar buttons like later Windows did. It’s often a huge annoyance to people who hates context switching in our head (I like huge workspaces that I can see everything at once so I don’t overlook clues from the relationship between things I’m working on. This is how I find difficult twists in research problems that other people give up solving).

In Windows, you right clock the taskbar, get to settings and there’s a pulldown menu for you to decide whether and how the buttons are grouped. Easy. But Cinnamon still have the Linux smell: organize things that are logical to programmers but not users (Tektronix, DD-WRT, etc. does that too), then surprise users with poorly thought out default behavior.

This time it’s a can of worms that requires some web searching to find people with the same exact specific problem (it’s a sign of poor UI design if the users cannot guess from the UI how to do what they want).

  1. Needing to change whether buttons are grouped is common. It should not take a lot of steps to change the behavior, preferably a right click context menu
  1. I would have thought it’s under Panel Settings, but hell no, things has to be organized the way the code was designed (sarcasm). It turns out that the windows button grouping is handled by an Applet called “Grouped Window List”
  1. Some user suggested removing the applet altogether (turns out it’s wrong and unnecessary as turning it off will disable the taskbar altogether and there’s an option to disable it within the applet’s setting: the applet itself is the windows list, not just the grouping feature), but fuck by default the applet was not activated the settings button is dead. I have to go to the bottom navigation bar in the window and hit the ‘+’ sign to get to the settings so now there’s a check mark next to it and the setting (gear) button is now activated.

    They also did not dim the settings button (two gears) when the ‘grouped window list’ is not activated (bug?), which made me think I can configure an Applet that’s not in use. Not to mention the previous settings got cleared (reset) if I disable the Applet and re-enable immediately afterwards (bug?)!
  1. Now I can finally get to turn this shit off
Chris Rock’s #HNTGYAKBTP Step #4 (1. OTL, 2. UCS, 3. SI, 4. TTSO, 5. BP, 6. STFU, 7. GAWF, 8. DRWAMW)
  1. This is where I think the UI design’s really fucked up. After you activate/deactivate the “Grouped windows list” applet, the buttons aligned right instead of left (default)! WTF!?! Do not do shit to surprise users! There’s absolutely no freaking logical reason why the taskbar button alignment should change the default (or the current state) for any reason!
  2. To fix this, you have to so something similar to unlocking the taskbar in Microsoft Windows to move the task button bar. It’s easy in MS Windows as you just right click context menu on the taskbar to unlock and just drag the starting separator (the || bar on the leftmost where the taskbar starts) to specific position you wanted. In Linux/Cinnamon, you have to enter the ‘Panel Edit Mode’ to unlock the taskbar so you can drag things around:
  1. I was confused while dragging the task button bar because there’s no clear position markers of where the task button starts and where it can ‘snap to grid’. It’s easy to drop it to the center to align center, but to align left, you have to watch for the buttons you want to insert before to move around to tell if it was a valid place to drop your new taskbar position What a pain in the butt!

This UI design suck, and I can totally understand why they would do something like this because of my programming background. It’s very logical for the programmer to modularize it as one applet, but first of all, generic suffixes like -let and -get does not help users get what the name means: it’s geeks’ way to name abstract concepts without getting the essence of the use case.

In MS Windows, the ‘Applets’ are organized roughly the same as ‘Toolbar’, except Windows is slightly more specialized that they have a ‘Toolbar’, ‘Start Menu’ and ‘Systray’ as distinct concepts instead of abstracting them into a higher level object as in ‘Applets’.

The biggest gripe I have about Cinnamon’s design choices is that detailed position adjustment needs to be easily accessible it’s likely that user preferences may vary a lot.

  • By not having a separate Toolbar concept, they forgot to add direct ‘unlock grouped windows list (aka tasklist toolbar in MS Windows)’ option (context menu item). You have to click through ‘Preference > Configure’ to get to get to configure the ‘Grouped window list’
  • Since the ‘Grouped window list’ is a (container) ‘bar’ within a bigger’ bar’ (Panel), the position of the window taskbar is logically organized under the platform (the bigger bar, hence the Panel), therefore the unlock window taskbar setting belongs to Panel, not Applet. This makes sense to programmers who knows that the feature is conceptually organized as container objects, but this is hell of confusing for users if they have to reason through this when they are trying to do one of the most common things!
  • Unlike MS Windows, you cannot use the task buttons while you are in Panel edit mode. Panel edit mode (you enter a special mode where you drag objects into positions you like, but cannot actually use them, then freeze it after you leave the mode) is the same concept used in Interactive Broker’s Trader Workstation (TWS), which is a pain in the ass but I understand the massive work saved for the people who designs the code/UI. Of course it comes at the expense of user frustration.
  • The solution article was written in 2018 and I’m surprised I still need that in 2022!


GUI Paradigms (1): Redux (Flutter/React) translated to MATLAB

For GUI development, we often start with controls (or widgets) that user interact with and it’ll emit/run the callback function we registered for the event when the event happens.

Most of the time we just want to read the state/properties of certain controls, process them, and update other controls to show the result. Model-View-Controller (MVC) puts strict boundaries between interaction, data processing and display.

The most common schematic for MVC is a circle showing the cycle of Controller->Model->View, but in practice, it’s the controller that’s the brains. The view can simultaneously accept user interactions, such as a editable text box or a list. The model usually don’t directly update the view directly on its own like the idealized diagram.

MVC with User Action

With MVC, basically we are concentrating the control’s callbacks to the controller object instead of just letting each control’s callback interact with the data store (model) and view in an unstructured way.

When learning Flutter, I was exposed to the Redux pattern (which came from React). Because the tutorials was designed around the language features of Dart, the documentation kind of obscured the essence of the idea (why do we want to do this) as it dwelt on the framework (structure can be refactored into a package). The docs talked a lot about boundaries but wasn’t clearly why they have to be meticulously observed, which I’ll get to later.

The core inspiration in Redux/BLoC is taking advantage of the concept of ‘listening to a data object for changes’ (instead of UI controls/widget events)!

Instead of having the UI control’s callback directly change other UI control’s state (e.g. for display), we design a state vector/dictionary/struct/class that holds contents (state variables) that we care. It doesn’t have to map 1-1 to input events or 1-1 to output display controls.

When an user interaction (input) event emitted a callback, the control’s callback do whatever it needs to produce the value(s) for the relevant state variable(s) and change the state vector. The changed state vector will trigger the listener that scans for what needs to be updated to reflect the new state and change the states of the appropriate view UI controls.

This way the input UI controls’ callbacks do not have to micromanage what output UI controls to update, so it can focus on the business logic that generates the content pool that will be picked up by the view UI controls to display the results. In Redux, you are free to design your state variables to match more closely to the input data from UI controls or output/view controls’ state. I personally prefer a state vector design that is closer to the output view than input controls.

The intuition above is not the complete/exact Redux, especially with Dart/Flutter/React. We also have to to keep the state in ONE place and make the order of state changes (thus behavior) predictable!

  • Actions and reducers are separate. Every input control fires a event (action signal) and we’ll wait until the reducers (registered to the actions) to pick it up during dispatch() instead of jumping on it. This way there’s only ONE place that can change states. Leave all the side effects in the control callback where you generate the action. No side effects (like changing other controls) allowed in reducers!
  • Reducers do not update the state in place (it’s read only). Always generate a new state vector to replace the old one (for performance, we’ll replace the state vector if we verified the contents actually changed). This will make timing predictable (you are stepping through state changes one by one)

In Javascript, there isn’t really a listener actively listening state variable changes. Dispatch (which will be called every time the user interacts using control) just runs through all the listeners registered at the very end after it has dispatched all the reducers. In MATLAB, you can optionally set the state vector to be Observable and attach the change listener callback instead of explicitly calling it within dispatch.

Here is an example of a MATLAB class that captures the spirit of Redux. I added a 2 second delay to emulate long operations and used enableDisableFig() to avoid dealing with queuing user interactions while it’s going through a long operation.

classdef ReduxStoreDemo < handle

    % Should be made private later
    properties (SetAccess = private, SetObservable)
        state % {count}
    methods (Static)
        % Made static so reducer cannot call dispatch and indirectly do
        % side effect or create loops
        function state = reducer(state, action)        
            % Can use str2fun(action) here or use a function map
            switch action
                case 'increment'
                    fprintf('Wait 2 secs before incrementing\n');
                    state.count = state.count + 1;
    % We keep all the side-effect generating operations (such as
    % temporarily changing states in the GUI) in dispatch() so
    % there's only ONE PLACE where state can change
        function dispatch(obj, action, src, evt)
            % Disable all figures during an interaction
            figures = findobj(groot, 'type', 'figure');
            old_fig_states = arrayfun(@(f) enableDisableFig(f, 'off'), figures);      
            src.String = 'Wait ...';
                new_state = ReduxStoreDemo.reducer(obj.state, action);
                % Don't waste cycles updating nops 
                if( ~isequal(new_state, obj.state) )
                    % MATLAB already have listeners attached.
                    % So no need to scan listeners like React Redux            
                    obj.state = new_state;
            % Re-enable figure obj.controls after it's done
            arrayfun(@(f, os) enableDisableFig(f, os), figures, old_fig_states);                        
            src.String = 'Increment';
        function obj = ReduxStoreDemo()
            obj.state.count = 0;                        
            h_1x  = uicontrol('style', 'text', 'String', '1x Box', ...
                              'Units', 'Normalized', ...
                              'Position', [0.1 0.3, 0.2, 0.1], ...
                              'HorizontalAlignment', 'left');                          
            addlistener(obj, 'state', ...
                        'PostSet', @(varargin) obj.update_count_1x( h_1x , varargin{:})); 
            uicontrol('style', 'pushbutton', 'String', 'Increment', ...
                      'Units', 'Normalized', ...
                      'Position', [0.1 0.1, 0.15, 0.1], ...
                      'Callback', @(varargin) obj.dispatch('increment', varargin{:}));                             
            % Force trigger the listeners to reflect the initial state
            obj.state = obj.state;
    %% These are 'renders' registered when the uiobj.controls are created
    % Should stick to reading off the state. Do not call dispatch here
    % (just leave it for the next action to pick up the consequentials)
        % The (src, event) is useless for listeners because it's not the 
        % uicontrol handle but the state property's metainfo (access modifiers, etc)
        function update_count_1x(obj, hObj, varargin)            
            hObj.String = num2str(obj.state.count);