Recently Mark Shuttleworth announced on his blog that Ubuntu 12.04 will include a new Heads-Up Display (HUD) interface that will eventually replace system menus. The stated rationale is that menus force users to memorize arbitrary paths to badly worded commands, take up screen real estate, and are slower when the user knows what they want.
While the HUD interface is certainly an interesting way of executing commands, it is hardly revolutionary. OSX has a similar feature that allows users to search a menu structure for a specific command.
An example of an interface completely driven by the keyboard is of course familiar to any computer programmer. The terminal or command line is exactly such an interface. While powerful, it has obvious usability flaws.
I’m surprised to see Ubuntu move in this direction given that their previous move to Unity was an effort to be relevant on touch devices like tablet computers. The HUD will be completely unusable on a tablet.
Additionally the learning curve for a casual user is likely to be too great. For a computer literate, educated adult, such an interface may make sense. But as computers continue to grow into people’s homes, we see that people who don’t speak English, people that are semi-literate, people that don’t have access to standard education are relying on computers for their everyday lives. For these people, such an interface would be disastrous.
Take the case of New Delhi physicist Sugata Mitra, who placed a computer with internet access into the hands of some children in rural India (see full story here). The children were able to figure out how to use the computer on their own terms with no instruction at all. It is for these people that the world’s leading free operating system should be designing for.