A notifications update

A couple of weeks ago I posted about ongoing work to redesign notifications in GNOME 3. Since then, the redesign has moved on a fair bit, so I thought that an update was in order. My previous post also generated a fair amount comment, and I’ve been wanting to respond to the questions and comments we received.

What’s happening now

Previously, I described a work-in-progress design that we have been pursuing in GNOME design. Since that post, the process has diversified, and we are exploring several variations on the original design. These different options are in a state of evolution, and we are developing and evaluating them in parallel. To help with this, Jasper has created a couple of rough prototypes that we’ve been testing.

I’m not going to go into the details of these different designs here – they’re in a state of flux, and it would take a fair amount of time and effort to go through each one. However, if you are interested, there’s plenty of activity in the usual places: check out the wiki, our mockups repository, or hang out on the #gnome-design or #gnome-shell IRC channels (note that details are necessarily incomplete as the design is in a state of flux).

Each of the designs we are considering have some basic things in common, like using a time ordered list for the Message Tray. They also share some goals, like simplifying the UI and code base. This has meant that the design project has been able to move forward in some areas, and our plans for the technical architecture have been moving forward.

Comments and questions

I read every comment that is made on my blog, as well as the responses I get on social media. Since there was a fair amount of feedback on my last post, I wanted to take the time to respond in a more structured manner than usual.

The first thing to say here is thanks for all the positive comments and encouragement. Most people seemed to think that the new designs were a step in the right direction, and I’m really happy about that. There were concerns and suggestions of course. These are the most popular ones that I saw:

Lock screen privacy concerns

A number of people raised privacy concerns about displaying notifications on the lock screen. This was largely the result of a misunderstanding (my fault!): the mockup I posted in my previous post featured detailed notification banners on the lock screen, and this led people to think that this was going to be a feature of the new design.

The current behaviour is to show notifications on the lock screen, but to only indicate the application which sent the notification – we don’t include the content of notifications on the lock screen by default. The new design didn’t involve us changing this policy, even though the mockup alone suggested otherwise.

That said, the comments about this did prompt us to re-examine how the current lock screen notifications design performs when notification content isn’t displayed, and we might well make some changes here.

Notifications getting in the way

The comments contained multiple reports of the existing toaster-style notifications getting in the way of what users are doing in applications. This was observed to be a particular issue when using chat clients, IRC or terminals.

We’ve been aware of this issue for some time, and it is something that we’ve attempted to resolve in the past. The designs that I presented last time around didn’t fix the issue, and one of the reasons why we’ve made the decision to investigate other options is to see if we can do better.

It should be noted that most notification systems involve popups appearing over applications, and an alternative design will likely have its own quirks. This is something we need to take seriously when considering major design changes.

Missed notifications

A number of people told us that they miss notifications with the existing GNOME 3 notifications, and this observation often prompted the suggestion that the new notifications design should include a permanent visual indication of pending notifications.

The issue of missed notifications is definitely an important factor that we are attempting to address, by changing the position, size and timing of notification banners. We are also hoping to introduce a priority setting for notifications, so that more important popups (like for chat messages) can be made more noticable. We are also considering an indicator for pending or missed notifications as a part of the design.

What about the top bar?

There were various requests that the top bar should be used for notifications. This is a complex question that touches on a fundamental part of the notifications design: if you give notifications a presence in the top bar, it is my view that notification banners need to be located in the same area of the screen, and this raises a whole other set of issues and questions.

GNOME 3 has historically had its notifications at the bottom of the screen (I mentioned some reasons for this in my previous post): it allowed notification banners to be expanded so that actions could be taken on them. In particular, this arrangement was designed to facilitate the chat integration features we see in GNOME 3 today.

Having a way to access notifications from the top bar would have a number of advantages. It would give you a discoverable click target, and the top screen edge has ergonomic advantages. It would also locate notifications amongst other system functionality. However, it would be a big change, which would require an even bigger redesign than the one I have already described. Nevertheless, it is something that we’re seriously looking at.

Status icons

Status icons are another outstanding issue that we received feedback about. There are known interaction issues associated with them in GNOME 3, and this is something that we want to resolve. One of the major issues here is the problematic nature of the status icon API – if we are going to deal with the problem properly, we need to establish a new API and give applications time to port over to it. We are currently working on a plan for this.

What next?

Notifications are complex, and we are taking the time to make sure that any design changes that we make are a genuine improvement. As I mentioned, we are currently working with a number of designs. Once we’ve developed one of them to a state where we are happy with it, I’ll try to post another update with details.

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11 Responses to A notifications update

  1. anonymous says:

    +1 for moving notifications to the top bar. That would be amazing! I know it’s a big change, but don’t let status quo bias hide from you how great this change would be.

    • Daniel says:

      Agreed, get it over and done with sooner rather than later. Would save a lot of time and would allow you, the GNOME team, to revise the design and get perfection sooner.

      In all honesty, I do not think it would be a massive and breaking change for users, considering almost every other desktop environment does it this way too.

  2. About “Notifications getting in the way”: I think this could be offset somewhat by not centering them horizontally, but flushing to the right for LTR languages and to the left for RTL languages. Usually, chat clients and similar programs contain short messages, and they are near the beginning of the line. By moving the notifications to the other side, the chance of overlapping is reduced.

  3. Fabio says:

    Glad the notification issue is being worked out. The message tray at the bottom has never quite worked for me …
    Thinking about how and where to put notifications, I thought about the area where the clock is usually displayed, the middle of the top bar (kind of how Android does it). Then, I looked at your design repository, and was positively surprised that you have already looked at that (clock-experiment is what I mean).

    Whereas I like the clock-experiment the most so far, I would suggest splitting the popup menu for calendar and notifications (instead of providing two buttons at the top of the popup) though – or even moving the clock to the right of the top bar by default, making the notifications feature most prominent in the middle of the top bar, where they are easily discoverable and noticable. (One could then also completely get rid of the bottom tray thingy.)
    Thinking about chat messages in notifications, I would treat them like the new clickable header bar in gnome-web: When the message appears on the top bar, click the message to open an input field instead of the message (on the top bar itself), needing no additional space (compared to the current implemtation that would be awesome, that chat toaster only gets in the way, and focus seems to be a problem.)

    Well, that is my opinion, but you are of the designers 😉 Keep up the good work.

  4. Adonis K. says:

    Great work on this man, also thanks for the constant updates.
    I’d also like to add my +1 to “Notifications on topbar”

  5. romu70 says:

    Thanks a lot Allan for your work and for sharing.

  6. marciosr says:

    I think status icons are different of notifications. Status icons have to stay in top bar permanently, except to some hide the ones never accessed, like windows does.
    The extension top icons does that. The main concern about it is the style of third party apps icons, but someone give us a idea of some layer of change the color saturation. Particularly it doesn’t bothers me. Is more easy convince developers to add monochromatic icons then they adopt a new api.
    Notifications on top or on button for me isn’t a problem, but mixed in to calendar is a bad design.

  7. Kevin Kofler says:

    There is already a new API for status icons, it’s called the Status Notifier spec and it’s used in production by at least KDE Plasma and Unity. It has wide support from existing applications, too. Please do not reinvent the wheel with an incompatible spec!

  8. Stefan says:

    Great to see things improving. Thanks!

  9. HRomano says:

    I’d also prefer having notifications in the top bar. However, instead of hiding the indicator within clock’s menu, a (maybe colored?) reminder could just sit at the right of the clock (the notification symbol followed with a number of notifications).

  10. Wolf says:

    Hi Allan, just a thought: How about having notifications on the right side? It would fit the content best and would take the least screen real estate.

    And to reveal, “pressure” on the right side would start to slide the pane out. In a way that it would allow to “peek” below at the notifications but not entirely open them. That would make for an awesome effect and would be useful, too. Enough “pressure” would entirely open the notifications tray.



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