The future of virtual desktops

Gábor Lehel illissius at
Fri Feb 25 15:32:33 CET 2011

On Fri, Feb 25, 2011 at 2:44 AM, Aaron J. Seigo <aseigo at> wrote:
> On Thursday, February 24, 2011, Hans Chen wrote:
>> What I want to know is the following: Are there any plans or outlines
>> regarding how to proceed with virtual desktop (and activities)? Are they
> they are orthogonal concepts and i don't think we should at this time get too
> worked up about them.
> for those who don't use virtual desktops now -> not an issue
> for those who don't use activities -> not an issue
> for those who use both happily -> not an issue
> people who know virtual desktops but who are learning and using activities are
> the only ones really affected, and i think it's likely to be a "growing pains"
> issue as they adjust. it may just as well work itself out naturally.

Doing this kind of case-by-case analysis is a great idea: many times
something which sounds sensible in the abstract ends up looking quite
different when you look at the individual cases it applies to. But I'm
not sure if these are necessarily the most appropriate lines along
which we should be separating things into cases.

First of all, though, a question: what is the Plasma project's goal
with activities? I'm assuming the goal is to have people notice them,
be intrigued by them, start using them, benefit from them, and tell
other people about them, who then start the process anew; but maybe
that's mistaken and it's something different -- say, something more
modest like, "well it's there if people want it, but if they don't we
don't really care", maybe.

Going ahead with my assumptions, my concern is that the way things
usually work isn't "I'm using X / want to start using X" -> "let's
figure out what X is, understand it, and learn how to use it"; rather,
it's "X sounds really interesting, I understand how it might help
improve my experience/productivity" -> "let's start using it". In
other words, the part covered by "notice them, be intrigued by them,
start using them" above. If we view 'understanding' as a necessary
precondition for 'want to start using', rather than the other way
around, then the cases break down like this:

a) those people who are familiar with / understand / use neither
virtual desktops nor activies
b) those people who understand virtual desktops, but not activities
c) those people who understand activities, but not virtual desktops
d) those people who understand both of them

For (d), obviously there is no issue. For (c) (if there are people
like this at all), if the goal is to have people use activities, there
is also no issue. For (b) and especially (a), I think there would be
issues. Simply put, trying to understand two superficially similar but
fundamentally different things at the same time -- or even something
superficially similar to but fundamentally different from something
you already know -- can be very confusing. A lot of assumptions get
triggered by the superficial similarity, a lot of them very wrong, and
it takes a lot of time and pain before you realize which ones are
wrong, how they are wrong, and what you should be assuming instead.

For a familiar example, let's look at the time when both activities
(groups of plasmoids) and virtual desktops (groups of windows) were
presented spatially, as a grid. Both of them tried to occupy the same
mental area at the same time: switching between groups of things using
a spatial grid. No amount of explaining succeeded in making people
understand that really, the two are different. (And even having to
explain things is bad; it's much better if they are intuitive and/or
obvious.) The resulting confusion is a big part of why the evil
separate-activity-per-virtual-desktop option was born. Now, activities
are no longer spatial, which was a good decision; but instead
activities are invading the conceptual territory of virtual desktops
from a different direction: managing groups of windows.

My fear is that when people are confronted with two advanced features
which are both intended for grouping windows, the result will either
be that they get royally confused (as with spatial activities), or
that they go "eh, this is a bit difficult, I don't feel like dealing
with it right now", and then they never get around trying it, and
instead are just left with a vague negative impression.

I would assume that only a few very advanced users would really want
to use both at the same time; therefore my proposed solution would be
to move virtual desktops into the settings alongside other power-user
window management features like tabbing and tiling (though I'm open to
being persuaded of others). The case for activities could be made much
more effectively if you didn't have to detour into "how is this
different from virtual desktops, why do we have both" every half
sentence, and could instead say "activities are better than virtual
desktops: here is why". And then you could just say at the end "we
acknowledge that while activities are better for the majority of use
cases, there are still some where virtual desktops are useful; if you
want them, you can still turn them on in the settings". The whole
message is much simpler and clearer if you don't have to keep muddying
the two concepts together.

Going meta for a bit, I think it's clear that both of us are being
informed by our own experiences (or at least the whole thing is hugely
coincidental): you understand and appreciate both activities and
virtual desktops (not surprisingly, given that you had a hand in
implementing them), and you assume other people would be able to make
the distinction as well; whereas I find the distinction between the
two confusing (and I'm a hacker also!), and don't have the patience to
read mile-long blog posts explaining it, and assume that other people
would also have trouble with it. Do we have an actual, honest-to-God
usability expert around here somewhere? I think it would be a decent
idea to get an outside opinion.

> we don't know what their resulting work flows will be yet. that would be a
> matter for a field study or we can just wait and see. if/when we do know what
> the resulting work flow typically is for a virtual desktop and activities
> user, we can then take this topic up if we wish to.
> but imho right now it's "not an issue" :)
> --
> Aaron J. Seigo
> humru othro a kohnu se
> GPG Fingerprint: 8B8B 2209 0C6F 7C47 B1EA  EE75 D6B7 2EB1 A7F1 DB43
> KDE core developer sponsored by Qt Development Frameworks
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