Plasma Active: The Mobile Interface That Works

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 31, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

To express myself mildly, I'm not a fan of interfaces for mobile devices. At best, they seem clumsy makeshifts, tolerable only because nothing better is available. The only exception is KDE's Plasma Active, which not only works well on tablets, but, with its recently released version 3.0, remains the only mobile-inspired interface I can tolerate on a workstation – and that includes Unity and Windows RT.

What makes Plasma Active so well-designed? Probably, it gets a boost from the fact that in the last five years, the KDE community has developed two other interfaces, the KDE 4 release series and Plasma Netbook, and gained some design expertise in the process. All three of these interfaces extend the standard desktop metaphor rather than discarding it, making them comfortable to use. 

Also, these interfaces share much of the same technology under the hood, and run the same apps (or at least minor variants), which means that if you know one, you should be quickly comfortable in the others.

However, you could make similar generalizations about Unity. What makes Plasma Active standout are a number of simple but effective design elements.

Design elements
To start with, Plasma Active's designers realized a point that sounds obvious but is overlooked surprisingly often: the smaller the space, the more you need the navigational aids need to be consistent and obvious. Accordingly, the current Activity's name always displays in the upper left corner. The tabs that pull out from each side are located in the same position on the left and right of the screen – Activities on the right, recommended actions for the current Activities on the left – and the icons for modifying the current Activity are in a single row below the system icons on the panel.

Most of all, icons and text are large, making them easy to find. Admittedly, running on a workstation, their large sizes may make you feel that you are running an interface for either children or the visually-impaired, but this impression is faint and doesn't affect functionality, so it seems an acceptable tradeoff for the effectiveness of the navigational aids on a smaller screen. If nothing else, they remove any danger of eyestrain. 

At any rate, the OS X-like spinner rack for Activities has enough Wow Factor to compensate. Activities, as you may know, are a task-oriented form of virtual desktops. On each Activity, you can add a custom set of icons and widgets for the task at hand.

Activities have never really captured users' imaginations on workstations or laptops, in part because KDE has struggled to figure how to display them effectively. The spinner rack solves the problem, and Activities seem especially appropriate for a tablet interface, because tablets are used more often for task-oriented activities such as web browsing or chat, rather than for productivity such as writing or graphic design, which often require using more than one application at the same time.

However, Plasma Active's greatest strength is its general design. Small screen sizes mean that any mobile interface has to change screens frequently. Most interfaces do just that, which means that in a few selections you can be so far from the home screen that only a Previous icon enables you to return. Even when you've been using the interface for months, you can still have moments of hesitation if you make the mistake of stopping to think.

By contrast, in Plasma Active, new screens slide out from the edges of the display. Instead of paging back through previous screens, a single touch of a finger returns you to your starting point. What's more, Plasma Active is completely consistent on this point, so you can learn how to navigate in a matter of seconds. Moreover, as a result of this consistency and simplicity, you need noticeably fewer finger taps or mouse clicks for most actions.

Becoming More Active
Plasma Active works because it is simple enough to fade into the background. Unlike other mobile interfaces, it doesn't leave you feeling that you are dealing with it more than the apps that you really want.
Unfortunately, I know of no device that comes with Plasma Active installed. It is supposed to ship with Vivaldi (http://aseigo.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/a-small-update-on-vivaldi.html), KDE's long-delayed tablet, but, for now, you will have to install it for yourself – preferably after scanning the list of hardware that it is known to support (http://community.kde.org/Plasma/Active/Devices). 

With any luck, eventually it might be available in the KDE standard complilation, much as Plasma Netbook has been. At the very least, as I have urged several times before, the spinner rack might be added to standard KDE – it is by far the most usable way to display Activities that I have seen.

Meanwhile, you can install it on a USB drive, or in a virtual machine if you want to test it. Who knows? If nothing else, you might learn a thing or two about interface design.

Comments

  • Hi

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  • icon & font sizing

    The problem of font sizes & icon sizes not remaining same as applications & GUIs move from device to device is not that simple. Granted, sizes should be fixed in actual size, not fixed in pixels but same problem also is seen as screen resolutions change. Modern GUIs & browsers do not well adapt to high resolution screens or to limited vision.
    We routinely set system fonts at 12 to 24 points, same for GUI & browser fonts, to enable reading without eye glasses. Then we get text on text, text overlayed on graphics, text truncated for not fitting in fixed size boxes & other effects making text not readable.

    My cynical thought is all programmers use 1366 X 768 screens, 9 point fonts, 20 15 vision & never ask grandmother how she reads it.
  • personal taste

    To me the demos looked like a ton of clutter that i don't want on a mobile device ... And that's not because plasma isn't doing the layout well - it's because it's doing things that i don't need to do on a mobile device. And i don't really imagine this approach working on a 4" screen either.

  • sizes

    At some point it might be worthwhile to stop using pixels and start using inches or centimeters to specify the size of on screen elements. Then your buttons on the desktop are a reasonable size, and your buttons on the smaller tablet screen are bigger in relation to the screen size. If you setup your responsive design well enough it will flow well between versions.
  • resizeable

    "Most of all, icons and text are large, making them easy to find. Admittedly, running on a workstation, their large sizes may make you feel that you are running an interface for either children or the visually-impaired, but this impression is faint and doesn't affect functionality, so it seems an acceptable tradeoff for the effectiveness of the navigational aids on a smaller screen. If nothing else, they remove any danger of eyestrain. "

    Wouldn't it be good to be able to change the font size according to the size of the display - nowadays we have tablets and phones using the same display technology, and they might be better suited (depending on the app) to appearing bigger or smaller to either maintaina fixed physical size, or resize to fill the screen area. If this could happen, then surely running the interface on a workstation could be done with a smaller font to make it look more natural on a desktop.
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