Canonical Voices

Posts tagged with 'design'

Steph

Last week was a week of firsts for me: my first trip to America, my first Sprint and my first chili-dog.

Introducing myself as the new (only) Editorial and Web Publisher, I dove head first into the world of developers, designers and Community members. It was a very absorbing week, which after felt more like a marathon than a sprint.

After being grilled by Customs, finally we arrived at Tyson’s Corner where 200 or so other developers, designers and Community members gathered for the Devices Sprint. It was a great opportunity for me to see how people from each corner of the world contribute to Ubuntu, and share their passion for open source. I especially found it interesting to see how designers and developers work together, given their different mind sets and how they collaborated together.

The highlight for me was talking to some of the Community guys, it was really interesting to talk to them about why and how they contribute from all corners of the world.

From left to right: Riccardo, Andrew, Filippo and Victor.

(From left to right: Riccardo, Andrew, Filippo and Victor)

The main ballroom.

(The main Ballroom)

Design Team dinner.  From the left: TingTing, Andrew, John, Giorgio, Marcus, Olga, James, Florian, Bejan and Jouni.

(Design Team dinner. From the left: TingTing, Andrew, John, Giorgio, Marcus, Olga, James, Florian, Bejan and Jouni)

I caught up with Olga and Giorgio to share their thoughts and experiences from the Sprint:

So how did the Sprint go for you guys?

Olga: “It was very busy and productive in terms of having face time with development, which was the main reason we went, as we don’t get to see them that often.

For myself personally, I have a better understanding of things in terms of what the issues are and what is needed, and also what can or cannot be done in certain ways. I was very pleased with the whole sprint. There was a lot of running around between meetings, where I tried to use the the time in-between to catch-up with people. On the other hand as well, Development made the approach to the Design Team in terms of guidance, opinions and a general catch-up/chat, which was great!

Steph: “I agree, I found it especially productive in terms of getting the right people in the same room and working face-to-face, as it was a lot more productive than sharing a document or talking on IRC.”

Giorgio: “Working remotely with the engineers works well for certain tasks, but the Design Team sometimes needs to achieve a higher bandwidth through other means of communication, so these sprints every 3 months are incredibly useful.

What a Sprint allows us to do is to put a face to the name and start to understand each other’s needs, expectations and problems, as stuff gets lost in translation.

I agree with Olga, this Sprint was a massive opportunity to shift to much higher level of collaboration with the engineers.

What was your best moment?

Giorgio: “My best moment was when the engineers perception towards the efforts of the Design Team changed. My goal is to better this collaboration process with each Sprint.”

Did anything come up that you didn’t expect?

Giorgio: “Gaming was an underground topic that came up during the Sprint. There was a nice workshop on Wednesday on it, which was really interesting.”

Steph: “Andrew a Community Developer I interviewed actually made two games one evening during the Sprint!”

Olga: “They love what they do, they’re very passionate and care deeply.”

Do you feel as a whole the Design Team gave off a good vibe?

Giorgio: “We got a good vibe but it’s still a working progress, as we need to raise our game and become even better. This has been a long process as the design of the Platform and Apps wasn’t simply done overnight. However, now we are in a mature stage of the process where we can afford to engage with Community more. We are all in this journey together.

Canonical has a very strong engineering nature, as it was founded by engineers and driven by them, and it is has evolved because of this. As a result, over the last few years the design culture is beginning to complement that. Now they expect steer from the Design Team on a number of things, for example: Responsive design and convergence.

The Sprint was good, as we finally got more of a perception on what other parties expect from you. It’s like a relationship, you suddenly have a moment of clarity and enlightenment, where you start to see that you actually need to do that, and that will make the relationship better.”

Olga: The other parties and the Development Team started to understand that initiated communication is not just the responsibility of the Design Team, but it’s an engagement we all need to be involved in.”

In all it was a very productive week, as everyone worked hard to push for the first release of the BQ phone; together with some positive feedback and shout-outs for the Design Team :)

Unicorn hard at work.

(Unicorn hard at work)

There was a bit of time for some sightseeing too…

It would have been rude not to see what the capital had to offer, so on the weekend before the sprint we checked out some of Washington’s iconic sceneries.

The Washington Monument.

(The Washington Monument)

We saw most of the important parliamentary buildings like the White House, Washington Monument and Lincoln’s Statue. Seeing them in the flesh was spectacular, however, I half expected a UFO to appear over the Monument like in ‘Independence Day’, and for Abraham Lincoln to suddenly get up off his chair like in the movie ‘Night at the Museum’ - unfortunately none of that happened.

The White House.

(The White House)

D.C. isn’t as buzzing as London but it definitely has a lot of character, as it embodies an array of thriving ethnic pockets that represented African, Asian and Latin American cultures, and also a lot of Italians. Washington is known for getting its sax on, so me and a few of the Design Team decided to check-out the night scene and hit a local Jazz Club in Georgetown.

...And all the jazz.

(Twins Jazz Club)

On the Sunday, we decided to leave the hustle and bustle of the city and venture to the beautiful Great Falls Park, which was only 10-15 minutes from the hotel. The park was located in the Northern Fairfax County along the banks of the Potomac River, which is an integral part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Its creeks and rapids made for some great selfie opportunities…

Great Falls Park.

(Great Falls Park)

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Luca Paulina

A few weeks ago we launched ‘Machine view’ for Juju, a feature designed to allow users to easily visualise and manage the machines running in their cloud environments. In this post I want to share with you some of the challenges we faced and the solutions we designed in the process of creating it.

A little bit about Juju…
For those of you that are unfamiliar with Juju, a brief introduction. Juju is a software tool that allows you to design, build and manage application services running in the cloud. You can use Juju through the command-line or via a GUI and our team is responsible for the user experience of Juju in the GUI.

First came ‘Service View’
In the past we have primarily focused on Juju’s ‘Service view’ – a virtual canvas that enables users to design and connect the components of their given cloud environment.

Service_view

This view is fantastic for modelling the concept and relationships that define an application environment. However, for each component or service block, a user can have anything from one unit to hundreds or thousands of units, depending on the scale of the environment, and before machine view, units means machines.

The goal of machine view was to surface these units and enable users to visualise, manage and optimise their use of machines in the cloud.

‘Machine view’: design challenges
There were a number of challenges we needed to address in terms of layout and functionality:

  • The scalability of the solution
  • The glanceability of the data
  • The ability to customise and sort the information
  • The ability to easily place and move units
  • The ability to track changes
  • The ability to deploy easily to the cloud

I’ll briefly go into each one of these topics below.

Scalability: Environments can be made up of a couple of machines or thousands. This means that giving the user a clear, light and accessible layout was incredibly important – we had to make sure the design looked and worked great at both ends of the spectrum.

Machine view

Simple_machine_view

Glanceability: Users need simple comparative information to help choose the right machine at-a-glace. We designed and tested hundreds of different ways of displaying the same data and eventually ended up with an extremely cut back listing which was clean and balanced.

A tour of the many incarnations and iterations of Machine view…

The ability to sort and customise: As it was possible and probable that users would scale environments to thousands of machines, we needed to provide the ability to sort and customise the views. Users can use the menus at the top of each column to hide information from view and customise the data they want visible at a glance. As users become more familiar with their machines they could turn off extra information for a denser view of their machines. Users are also given basic sorting options to help them find and explore their machines in different ways.

More_menu

The ability to easily place and move units: Machine view is built around the concept of manual placement – the ability to co-locate (put more than one) items on a single machine or to define specific types of machines for specific tasks. (As opposed to automatic placement, where each unit is given a machine of the pre-determined specification). We wanted to enable users to create the most optimised machine configurations for their applications.

Drag and drop was a key interaction that we wanted to exploit for this interface because it would simplify the process of manually placing units by a significant amount. The three column layout aided the use of drag and drop, where users are able to pick up units that need placing on the left hand side and drag them to a machine in the middle column or a container in the third column. The headers also change to reveal drop zones allowing users to create new machines and containers in one fluid action keeping all of the primary interactions in view and accessible at all times.

Drag and drop in action on machine view

The ability to track changes: We also wanted to expose the changes that were being made throughout user’s environments as they were going along and allow them to commit batches of changes altogether. Deciding which changes were exposed and the design of the uncommitted notification was difficult, we had to make sure the notifications were not viewed as repetitive, that they were identifiable and that it could be used throughout the interface.

Uncommitted_SV

Uncommitted_MV

The ability to deploy easily to the cloud: Before machine view it was impossible for someone to design their entire environment before sending it to the cloud. The deployment bar is a new ever present canvas element that rationalises all of the changes made into a neat listing, it is also where users can deploy or commit those changes. Look for more information about the deployment bar in another post.

The change log exposed

The deployment summary

We hope that machine view will really help Juju users by increasing the level of control and flexibility they have over their cloud infrastructure.

This project wouldn’t have been possible without the diligent help from the Juju GUI development team. Please take a look and let us know what you think. Find out more about Juju, Machine View or take it for a spin.

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niemeyer

The qml package is right now one of the best choices for creating graphic applications under the Go language. Part of the reason why this is true comes from the convenience of QML, a high-level domain-specific language that allows describing visual components, events, animations, and content in general in a succinct and pleasing way. The integration of such a language with Go means having both a good mechanism for describing visual content, and a good platform for doing general development under, which can range from simple data manipulation to involved OpenGL content rendering.

On the practical side, one of the implications of using such a language partnership is that every Go qml application will have some sort of resource content to deal with, carrying the QML logic. Such content may be loaded either from files on disk, or from strings in memory. Loading from a file means the content may be organized in multiple files that directly reference each other without changing the Go application, and may be updated and tested without rebuilding. Loading from a string in memory means the content needs to be self-contained, but results in a standalone binary (linking aside – still depends on Qt libraries).

There’s a well known trick to have both benefits at once, though, and the basic solution has already been made available in multiple packages: have the content on disk, and use an external tool to pack it up into a Go file that is built into the binary when the content is updated. Unfortunately, this trick alone is not enough with the qml package, because the QML engine needs to know what resources are available and where so that the right thing happens when it sees a directory being imported or an image path being referenced.

To solve that problem, the qml package has been enhanced with functionality that leverages the existing Qt resource system to pack content into the binary itself. Rather than using the upstream C++ and XML-based resource compiler, though, a new resource packer was implemented inside the qml package and made available both under a friendly Go API, and as a tool that follows common Go idioms.

The help text for the genqrc tool describes it in detail:

Usage: genqrc [options] <subdir1> [<subdir2> ...]

The genqrc tool packs all resource files under the provided subdirectories into
a single qrc.go file that may be built into the generated binary. Bundled files
may then be loaded by Go or QML code under the URL "qrc:///some/path", where
"some/path" matches the original path for the resource file locally.

Starting with Go 1.4, this tool may be conveniently run by the "go generate"
subcommand by adding a line similar to the following one to any existent .go
file in the project (assuming the subdirectories ./code/ and ./images/ exist):

    //go:generate genqrc code images

Then, just run "go generate" to update the qrc.go file.

During development, the generated qrc.go can repack the filesystem content at
runtime to avoid the process of regenerating the qrc.go file and rebuilding the
application to test every minor change made. Runtime repacking is enabled by
setting the QRC_REPACK environment variable to 1:

    export QRC_REPACK=1

This does not update the static content in the qrc.go file, though, so after
the changes are performed, genqrc must be run again to update the content that
will ship with built binaries.

The tool may be installed via go get as usual:

go get gopkg.in/qml.v1/cmd/genqrc

and once the qrc.go file has been generated, the main qml file may be
loaded with logic equivalent to:

component, err := engine.LoadFile("qrc:///path/to/file.qml")

The loaded file can in turn reference any other content that was bundled
into the Go binary.

For a better picture, this example demonstrates the use of the tool.

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niemeyer

There were a few long standing issues in the yaml.v1 package which were being postponed so that they could be done at once in a single incompatible change, and the time has come: yaml.v2 is now available.

Besides these incompatible changes, other compatible fixes and improvements were performed in that push, and those were also applied to the existing yaml.v1 package so that dependent applications benefit immediately and without modifications.

The subtopics below outline exactly what changed, and how to adapt existent code when necessary.

Type errors

With yaml.v1, decoding a YAML value that is not compatible with the Go value being unmarshaled into will silently drop the offending value without notice. In many cases continuing with degraded behavior by ignoring the problem is intended, but this was the one and only option.

In yaml.v2, these problems will cause a *yaml.TypeError to be returned, containing helpful information about what happened. For example:

yaml: unmarshal errors:
  line 3: cannot unmarshal !!str `foo` into int

On such errors the decoding process still continues until the end of the YAML document, so ignoring the TypeError will produce logic equivalent to the old yaml.v1 behavior.

New Marshaler and Unmarshaler interfaces

The way that yaml.v1 allowed custom types to implement marshaling and unmarshaling of YAML content was slightly confusing and troublesome. For example, considering a CustomType with a keys field:

type CustomType struct {
        keys map[string]int
}

and supposing the goal is to unmarshal this YAML map into it:

custom:
    a: 1
    b: 2
    c: 3

With yaml.v1, one would need to implement logic similar to the following for that:

func (v *CustomType) SetYAML(tag string, value interface{}) bool {
        if tag == "!!map" {
                m := value.(map[interface{}]interface{})
                // ... iterate/validate/convert key/value pairs 
        }
        return goodValue
}

This is too much trouble when the package can easily do those conversions internally already. To fix that, in yaml.v2 the Getter and Setter interfaces are both gone and were replaced by the Marshaler and Unmarshaler interfaces.

Using the new mechanism, the example above would be implemented as follows:

func (v *CustomType) UnmarshalYAML(unmarshal func(interface{}) error) error {
        return unmarshal(&v.keys)
}

Custom-ordered maps

By default both yaml.v1 and yaml.v2 will marshal keys in a stable order which is increasing within the same type and arbitrarily defined across types. So marshaling is already performed in a sensible order, but it cannot be customized in yaml.v1, and there’s also no way to tell which order the map was originally in, as some applications require.

To fix that, there is a new pair of types that support preserving the order of map keys both when marshaling and unmarshaling: MapSlice and MapItem.

Such an ordered map literal would look like:

m := yaml.MapSlice{{"c", 3}, {"b", 2}, {"a", 1}}

The MapSlice type may be used for variables going in and out of the yaml package, or in struct fields, map values, or anywhere else sensible.

Binary values

Strings in YAML must be valid UTF-8 or UTF-16 (with a byte order mark for the latter), and for binary data the specification defines a standard !!binary tag which represents the raw data encoded (encrypted?) as base64. This is now supported both in yaml.v1 and yaml.v2, transparently. That is, any string value that is not valid UTF-8 will be base64-encoded and appropriately tagged so that it roundtrips as the same string. Short strings are inlined, while long ones are automatically broken into several lines and represented in a proper style. For example:

one: !!binary gICA
two: !!binary |
  gICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgI
  CAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICAgICA

Multi-line strings

Any string that contains new-line characters (‘\n’) will now be encoded using the literal style. For example, a value that would before be encoded as:

key: "line 1\nline 2\nline 3\n"

is now encoded by both yaml.v1 and yaml.v2 as:

key: |
  line 1
  line 2
  line 3

Other improvements

Besides these major changes, some assorted minor improvements were also performed:

  • Better handling of top-level “null”s (issue #35)
  • Marshal base 60 floats quoted for YAML 1.1 compatibility (issue #34)
  • Better error on invalid map keys (issue #25)
  • Allow non-ASCII characters in plain strings (issue #11).
  • Do not catch unrelated panics by mistake (commit a6dc653f)

For obtaining the yaml.v1 improvements:

go get -u gopkg.in/yaml.v1

For updating to yaml.v2, adapt the code as necessary given the points above, replace the import path, and run:

go get -u gopkg.in/yaml.v2

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Luca Paulina

Come and meet us at dConstruct

Ubuntu is sponsoring the dConstruct “Living with the network” event on the 5th of September at the Brighton Dome. Stop by for a chat with the team, grab some goodies and enter our competition for a chance to win an Ubuntu Phone.

nexus4_hero_shots

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niemeyer

As detailed in the preliminary release of qml.v1 for Go a couple of weeks ago, my next task was to finish the improvements in its OpenGL API. Good progress has happened since then, and the new API is mostly done and available for experimentation. At the same time, there’s still work to do on polishing edges and on documenting the extensive API. This blog post aims to present the improvements made, their internal design, and also to invite help for finishing the pending details.

Before diving into the new, let’s first have a quick look at how a Go application using OpenGL might look like with qml.v0. This is an excerpt from the old painting example:

import (
        "gopkg.in/qml.v0"
        "gopkg.in/qml.v0/gl"
)

func (r *GoRect) Paint(p *qml.Painter) {
        width := gl.Float(r.Int("width"))
        height := gl.Float(r.Int("height"))
        gl.Enable(gl.BLEND)
        // ...
}

The example imports both the qml and the gl packages, and then defines a Paint method that makes use of the GL types, functions, and constants from the gl package. It looks quite reasonable, but there are a few relevant shortcomings.

One major issue in the current API is that it offers no means to tell even at a basic level what version of the OpenGL API is being coded against, because the available functions and constants are the complete set extracted from the gl.h header. For example, OpenGL 2.0 has GL_ALPHA and GL_ALPHA4/8/12/16 constants, but OpenGL ES 2.0 has only GL_ALPHA. This simplistic choice was a good start, but comes with a number of undesired side effects:

  • Many trivial errors that should be compile errors fail at runtime instead
  • When the code does work, the developer is not sure about which API version it is targeting
  • Symbols for unsupported API versions may not be available for linking, even if unused

That last point also provides a hint of another general issue: portability. Every system has particularities for how to load the proper OpenGL API entry points. For example, which libraries should be linked with, where they are in the local system, which entry points they support, etc.

So this is the stage for the improvements that are happening. Before detailing the solution, let’s have a look at the new painting example in qml.v1, that makes use of the improved API:

import (
        "gopkg.in/qml.v1"
        "gopkg.in/qml.v1/gl/2.0"
)

func (r *GoRect) Paint(p *qml.Painter) {
        gl := GL.API(p)
        width := float32(r.Int("width"))
        height := float32(r.Int("height"))
        gl.Enable(GL.BLEND)
        // ...
}

With the new API, rather than importing a generic gl package, a version-specific gl/2.0 package is imported under the name GL. That choice of package name allows preserving familiar OpenGL terms for both the functions and the constants (gl.Enable and GL.BLEND, for example). Inside the new Paint method, the gl value obtained from GL.API holds only the functions that are defined for the specific OpenGL API version imported, and the constants in the GL package are also constrained to those available in the given version. Any improper references become build time errors.

To support all the various OpenGL versions and profiles, there are 23 independent packages right now. These packages are of course not being hand-built. Instead, they are generated all at once by a tool that gathers information from various sources. The process can be tersely described as:

  1. A ragel-based parser processes Qt’s qopenglfunctions_*.h header files to collect version-specific functions
  2. The Khronos OpenGL Registry XML is parsed to collect version-specific constants
  3. A number of tweaks defined in the tool’s code is applied to the state
  4. Packages are generated by feeding the state to text templates

Version-specific functions might also be extracted from the Khronos Registry, but there’s a good reason to use information from the Qt headers instead: Qt already solved the portability issue. It works in several platforms, and if somebody is using QML successfully, it means Qt is already using that system’s OpenGL capabilities. So rather than designing a new mechanism to solve the same problem, the qml package now leverages Qt for resolving all the GL function entry points and the linking against available libraries.

Going back to the example, it also demonstrates another improvement that comes with the new API: plain types that do not carry further meaning such as gl.Float and gl.Int were replaced by their native counterparts, float32 and int32. Richer types such as Enum were preserved, and as suggested by David Crawshaw some new types were also introduced to represent entities such as programs, shaders, and buffers. The custom types are all available under the common gl/glbase package that all version-specific packages make use of.

So this is all working and available for experimentation right now. What is left to do is almost exclusively improving the list of function tweaks with two goals in mind, which will be highlighted below as those are areas where help would be appreciated, mainly due to the footprint of the API.

Documentation importing

There are a few hundred functions to document, but a large number of these are variations of the same function. The previous approach was to simply link to the upstream documentation, but it would be much better to have polished documentation attached to the functions themselves. This is the new documentation for MultMatrixd, for example. For now the documentation is being imported manually, but the final process will likely consist of some automation and some manual polishing.

Function polishing

The standard C OpenGL API can often be translated automatically (see BindBuffer or BlendColor), but in other cases the function prototype has to be tweaked to become friendly to Go. The translation tool already has good support for defining most of these tweaks independently from the rest of the machinery. For example, the following logic changes the ShaderSource function from its standard from into something convenient in Go:

name: "ShaderSource",
params: paramTweaks{
        "glstring": {rename: "source", retype: "...string"},
        "length":   {remove: true},
        "count":    {remove: true},
},
before: `
        count := len(source)
        length := make([]int32, count)
        glstring := make([]unsafe.Pointer, count)
        for i, src := range source {
                length[i] = int32(len(src))
                if len(src) > 0 {
                        glstring[i] = *(*unsafe.Pointer)(unsafe.Pointer(&src))
                } else {
                        glstring[i] = unsafe.Pointer(uintptr(0))
                }
        }
`,

Other cases may be much simpler. The MultMatrixd tweak, for instance, simply ensures that the parameter has the proper length, and injects the documentation:

name: "MultMatrixd",
before: `
        if len(m) != 16 {
                panic("parameter m must have length 16 for the 4x4 matrix")
        }
`,
doc: `
        multiplies the current matrix with the provided matrix.
        ...
`,

and as an even simpler example, CreateProgram is tweaked so that it returns a glbase.Program instead of the default uint32.

name:   "CreateProgram",
result: "glbase.Program",

That kind of polishing is where contributions would be most appreciated right now. One valid way of doing this is picking a range of functions and importing and polishing their documentation manually, and while doing that keeping an eye on required tweaks that should be performed on the function based on its documentation and prototype.

If you’d like to help somehow, or just ask questions or report your experience with the new API, please join us in the project mailing list.

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Iain Farrell

Verónica Sousa's Cul de sac

Verónica Sousa’s Cul de sac

Ubuntu was once described to me by a wise(ish ;) ) man as a train that was leaving whether you’re on it or not. That’s the beauty of a 6 month release cycle. As many of you will already know, each release we include photos and illustrations produced by community members. We ask that you submit your images using free photo sharing site Flickr and that you limit your images this time to 2. The group won’t let you submit more than that but if you change your mind after you’ve submitted, fear not, simply remove one and it’ll let you add another.

As with previous submissions processes we’ve run, and in conjunction with the designers at Canonical we’ve come up with the following tips for creating wallpaper images.

  1. Images shouldn’t be too busy and filled with too many shapes and colours, a similar tone throughout is a good rule of thumb.
  2. A single point of focus, a single area that draws the eye into the image, can also help you avoid something too cluttered.
  3. The left and top edges are home to Ubuntu’s Launcher and Panel so be careful to consider how your images look in place so as not to clash with the user interface. Try them out on your own desktop, see how they feel.
  4. Try your image at different aspect ratios to make sure something important isn’t cropped out on smaller/ larger screens at different resolutions.
  5. Take a look at the wallpapers guidance on the Ubuntu Wiki regarding the size of images. Our target resolution is 2560 x 1600.
  6. Break all the rules except the resolution one! :D

To shortlist from this collection we’ll be going to the contributors whose images were selected last time around to act as our selection judges. In doing this we’ll hold a series of public IRC meetings on Freenode in #1410wallpaper to discuss the selection. In those sessions we’ll get the selection team to try out the images on their own Ubuntu machines to see what they look like on a range of displays and resolutions.

Anyone is welcome to come to these sessions but please keep in mind that an outcome is needed from the time that people are volunteering and there’s usually a lot of images to get through so we’d appreciate it if there isn’t too much additional debate.

Based on the Utopic release schedule, I think our schedule for this cycle should look like this:

  • 08/08/14 – Kick off 14.10 wallpaper submission process.
  • 22/08/14 – First get together on #1410wallpaper at 19:30 GMT.
  • 29/08/14 – Submissions deadline at 18:00 GMT – Flickr group will be locked and the selection process will begin.
  • 09/09/14 – Deliver final selection in zip format to the appropriate bug on Launchpad.
  • 11/09/14 – UI freeze for latest version of Ubuntu with our fantastic images in it!

As always, ping me if you have any questions, I’ll be lurking in #1410wallpaper on freenode or leave a question in the Flickr group for wider discussion, that’s probably the fastest way to get an answer to a question.

I’ll be posting updates on our schedule here from time to time but the Flickr group will serve as our hub.

Happy snapping and scribbling and on behalf of the community, thanks for contributing to Ubuntu! :)


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Jussi Pakkanen

There are usually two different ways of doing something. The first is the correct way. The second is the easy way.

As an example of this, let’s look at using the functionality of C++ standard library. The correct way is to use the fully qualified name, such as std::vector or std::chrono::milliseconds. The easy way is to have using std; and then just using the class names directly.

The first way is the “correct” one as it prevents symbol clashes and for a bunch of other good reasons. The latter leads to all sorts of problems and for this reason many style guides etc prohibit its use.

But there is a catch. Software is written by humans and humans have a peculiar tendency.

They will always do the easy thing.

There is no possible way for you to prevent them from doing that, apart from standing behind their back and watching every letter they type.

Any sort of system that relies, in any way, on the fact that people will do the right thing rather than the easy thing are doomed to fail from the start. They. Will. Not. Work. And they can’t be made to work. Trying to force it to work leads only to massive shouting and bad blood.

What does this mean to you, the software developer?

It means that the only way your application/library/tool/whatever is going to succeed is that correct thing to do must also be the simplest thing to do. That is the only way to make people do the right thing consistently.

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Tom Macfarlane

Mobile Asia Expo 2014

Following the success of our new stand design at MWC earlier this
year, we applied the same design principles to the Ubuntu stand at
last month’s Mobile Asia Expo in Shanghai.

MAE_2014_stand

With increased floor space, compared to last year, and a new stand
location that was approachable from three key directions, we were
faced with a few new design challenges:

  • How to effectively incorporate existing 7m wide banners into
    the new 8m wide stand?
  • How to make the stand open and approachable from three sides
    with optimum use of floor space and maintaining the maximum
    amount storage space possible?
  • How to maintain our strong brand presence after any necessary
    structural changes?

Proposed layout ideas

MAE_drawing_1

MAE_drawing_2

MAE_drawing_3 Final layout
The final design utilised maximum floor space and incorporated the
positioning of our bespoke demo pods, that proved successful at MWC.
Along with strong branding featuring our folded paper background
with large graphics showcasing app and scope designs and a new aisle
banner. The main stand banners were then positioned in an alternating
arrangement aligned to the left and to the right above the stand.

MAE_drawing_4

Aisle banner

Ubuntu_hanging_banner_Preview

MAE_stand_front

MAE_stand_back

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Inayaili de León Persson

Latest from the web team — June 2014

We’re now almost half way through the year and only a few days until summer officially starts here in the UK!

In the last few weeks we’ve worked on:

  • Responsive ubuntu.com: we’ve finished publishing the series on making ubuntu.com responsive on the design blog
  • Ubuntu.com: we’ve released a hub for our legal documents and information, and we’ve created homepage takeovers for Mobile Asia Expo
  • Juju GUI: we’ve planned work for the next cycle, sketched scenarios based on the new personas, and launched the new inspector on the left
  • Fenchurch: we’ve finished version 1 of our new asset server, and we’ve started work on the new Ubuntu partners site
  • Ubuntu Insights: we’ve published the latest iteration of Ubuntu Insights, now with a dedicated press area
  • Chinese website: we’ve released the Chinese version of ubuntu.com

And we’re currently working on:

  • Responsive Day Out: I’m speaking at the Responsive Day Out conference in Brighton on the 27th on how we made ubuntu.com responsive
  • Responsive ubuntu.com: we’re working on the final tweaks and improvements to our code and documentation so that we can release to the public in the next few weeks
  • Juju GUI: we’re now starting to design based on the scenarios we’ve created
  • Fenchurch: we’re now working on Juju charms for the Chinese site asset server and Ubuntu partners website
  • Partners: we’re finishing the build of the new Ubuntu partners site
  • Chinese website: we’ll be adding a cloud and server sections to the site
  • Cloud Installer: we’re working on the content for the upcoming Cloud Installer beta pages

If you’d like to join the web team, we are currently looking for a web designer and a front end developer to join the team!

Juju scenariosWorking on Juju personas and scenarios.

Have you got any questions or suggestions for us? Would you like to hear about any of these projects and tasks in more detail? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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Inayaili de León Persson

Making ubuntu.com responsive: final thoughts

This post is part of the series ‘Making ubuntu.com responsive‘.

There are several resources out there on how to create responsive websites, but they tend to go through the process in an ideal scenario, where the project starts with a blank slate, from scratch.

That’s why we thought it would be nice to share the steps we took in converting our main website and framework, ubuntu.com, into a fully responsive site, with all the constraints that come from working on legacy code, with very little time available, while making sure that the site was kept up-to-date and responding to the needs to the business.

Before we started this process, the idea of converting ubuntu.com seemed like a herculean task. It was only because we divided the work in several stages, smaller projects, tightened scope, and kept things simple, that it was possible to do it.

We learned a lot throughout this past year or so, and there is a lot more we want to do. We’d love to hear about your experience of similar projects, suggestions on how we can improve, tools we should look into, books we should read, articles we should bookmark, and things we should try, so please do leave us your thoughts in the comments section.

Here is the list of all the post in the series:

  1. Intro
  2. Setting the rules
  3. Making the rules a reality
  4. Pilot projects
  5. Lessons learned
  6. Scoping the work
  7. Approach to content
  8. Making our grid responsive
  9. Adapting our navigation to small screens
  10. Dealing with responsive images
  11. Updating font sizes and increasing readability
  12. Our Sass architecture
  13. Ensuring performance
  14. JavaScript considerations
  15. Testing on multiple devices

Note: I will be speaking about making ubuntu.com responsive at the Responsive Day Out conference in Brighton, on the 27th June. See you there!

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Inayaili de León Persson

This post is part of the series ‘Making ubuntu.com responsive‘.

When working on a responsive project you’ll have to test on multiple operating systems, browsers and devices, whether you’re using emulators or the real deal.

Testing on the actual devices is preferable — it’s hard to emulate the feel of a device in your hand and the interactions and gestures you can do with it — and more enjoyable, but budget and practicability will never allow you to get a hold of and test on all the devices people might use to access your site.

We followed very simple steps that anyone can emulate to decide which devices we tested ubuntu.com on.

Numbers

You can quickly get a grasp of which operating systems, browsers and devices your visitors are using to get to your site just by looking at your analytics.

By doing this you can establish whether some of the more troublesome ones are worth investing time in. For example, if only 10 people accessed your site through Internet Explorer 6, perhaps you don’t need to provide a PNG fallback solution. But you might also get a few less pleasant surprises and find that a hard-to-cater-for browser is one of the preferred ones by your customers.

When we did our initial analysis we didn’t find any real surprises, however, due to the high volume of traffic that ubuntu.com sees every month even a very small percentage represented a large number of people that we just couldn’t ignore. It was important to keep this in mind as we defined which browsers, operating systems and devices to test on, and what issues we’d fix where.

Browsers (between 11 February and 13 March 2014)
Browser Percentage usage
Chrome 46.88%
Firefox 36.96%
Internet Explorer Total 7.54%
11 41.15%
8 22.96%
10 17.05%
9 14.24%
7 2.96%
6 1.56%
Safari 4.30%
Opera 1.68%
Android Browser 1.04%
Opera Mini 0.45%
Operating systems (between 11 February and 13 March 2014)
Operating system Percentage usage
Windows Total 52.45%
7 60.81%
8.1 14.31%
XP 13.3%
8.84 8.84%
Vista 2.38%
Linux 35.4%
Macintosh 6.14%
Android Total 3.32%
4.4.2 19.62%
4.3 15.51%
4.1.2 15.39%
iOS 1.76%
Mobile devices (between 12 May and 11 June 2014)
5.41% of total visits
Device Percentage usage (of 5.41%)
Apple iPad 17.33%
Apple iPhone 12.82%
Google Nexus 7 3.12%
LG Nexus 5 2.97%
Samsung Galaxy S III 2.01%
Google Nexus 4 2.01%
Samsung Galaxy S IV 1.17%
HTC M7 One 0.92%
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 0.88%
Not set 16.66%

After analysing your numbers, you can also define which combinations to test in (operating system and browser).

Go shopping

Based on the most popular devices people were using the access our site, we made a short list of the ones we wanted to buy first. We weren’t married to the analytics numbers though: the idea was to cover a range of screen sizes and operating systems and expand as we went along.

  • Nexus 7
  • Samsung Galaxy S III
  • Samsung Galaxy Note II

We opted for not splashing on an iPad or iPhone, as there are quite a few around the office (retina and non-retina) and the money we saved meant we could buy other less common devices.

Testing devicesPart of our current device suite.

When we started to get a few bug reports from Android Gingerbread and Windows phone users, we decided we needed phones with those operating systems installed. This was our second batch of purchases:

  • Samsung Galaxy y
  • Kindle Fire HD (Amazon was having a sale at the time we made the list!)
  • Nokia Lumia 520
  • LG G2

And, last but not least, we use a Nexus 4 to test on Ubuntu on phones.

We didn’t spend much in any of our shopping sprees, but have managed to slowly build an ever-growing device suite that we can test our sites on, which is invaluable when working on responsive projects.

Alternatives

Some operating systems and browsers are trickier to test on in native devices. We have a BrowserStack account that we tend to use mostly to test on older Windows and Internet Explorer versions, although we also test Windows on virtual machines.

browserstackBrowserStack website.

Tools

We have to confess we’re not using any special software that synchronises testing and interactions across devices. We haven’t really felt the need for that yet, but at some point we should experiment with a few tools, so we’d like to hear suggestions!

Browser support

We prefer to think of different levels (or ways) of access to the content rather than browser support. The overall rule is that everyone should be able to get to the content, and bugs that obstruct access are prioritised and fixed.

As much as possible, and depending on resources available at the time, we try to fix rendering issues in browsers and devices used by a higher percentage of visitors: degree of usage defines the degree of effort fixing rendering bugs.

And, obviously: dowebsitesneedtolookexactlythesameineverybrowser.com.

Read the final post in this series: “Making ubuntu.com responsive: final thoughts”

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Inayaili de León Persson

This post is part of the series ‘Making ubuntu.com responsive‘.

All our designs are created using the Ubuntu font, and the websites are not exception. Ubuntu.com was already using a carefully refined and tested typographic scale that we have evolved over the years.

Early in the project, we had decided that the large screen view of the website would be kept, so we would be reusing the original styles (with some updates and clean up) and it became the typographic scale for the desktop view.

Adjust as needed

When working on the pilot responsive projects like Ubuntu Insights and canonical.com, we’ve used that original scale and reduced it, keeping the proportions.

After some device testing to adjust paragraph size for comfortable reading, we settled on having the base font size modified at our grid breakpoints to 14px, 15px and 16px.

By keeping the proportions of the sizes though, it was easy to see that some font sizes and margins were too large in proportion to others at small screens — especially the larger headings like h1 —, so we tweaked these as needed to improve readability.

A typographic scale can serve as a guide, but you don’t have to stay married to it: adjusting sizes to what feels better is an important step in making sure your text is comfortable to read at various sizes — and the best way to test this is on the actual devices!

Testing devicesTesting ubuntu.com on various devices.

Use ems

Our typographic scale is defined in pixels, but the sizes are specified in ems in our CSS so they can be scalable.

Small, medium and large spacingDifferences in the typographic scale from small to large screens.

Reuse existing patterns

We have a weekly designers meeting where we talk about new patterns we’re working on in our separate projects across the entire design team. This way, we minimise the risk of creating new patterns when existing ones are in place, and when something new is created it can be shared with the rest of the team to use.

So we made sure to show our updated typographic scale and get everyone’s feedback on it, including designers from the apps and platforms teams. The best part was that we had reached similar conclusions about which sizes worked best in small screens (the variation was in the decimals) so we were all being consistent when it came to mobile!

Remember fallback fonts

Even though web fonts are widely supported now, some browsers, like Opera Mini, just don’t support them, so it’s always a good idea to look at your site across various devices and browsers, and turn off the font-face declarations to see if the fallback fonts that you’ve declared look as good as you can make them and match as closely as possible with the original font. By doing this you’ll make the transition between the fallback font and the web font once it’s finally loaded less obvious and less jarring for the user.

Opera MiniOpera Mini, without the Ubuntu font.

Conclusion

There are a few simple things you can do when transitioning from a fixed-width to a responsive website. The focus should be to improve readability, so it’s vital to check as many pages and screens of your site in different devices. And remember that picking a typographic scale is not as simple as taking numbers out of a generator: you have to see it in action and adapt it to your project.

We’d love to hear how you handled typography in your responsive projects — leave your thoughts in the comments area!

Read the next post in this series: “Making ubuntu.com responsive: our Sass architecture”

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Jouni Helminen

Malta Sprint

Our Apps and Platform teams took part at a design/engineering sprint on the beautiful island of Malta in May, and we thought we would share some pics to show a peek into “behing the scenes” and people working on the apps and operating system.

The sprint itself was a great experience, with over 150 people, engineers and designers, working together and planning out the next steps. Refined designs for mobile apps such as Browser, Camera and Telephony suite (Dialer, Contacts and Messaging) were unveiled and implementation got well underway, and on the platform team Scopes are starting to look really beautiful on the phone. There were plenty of tech demos and talks ranging from Cloud to Convergence to Mobile to Internet of Things – it was great to see everyone hacking, designing and discussing together about super exciting things. A good reminder that although Canonical has grown in size, at the core it still feels like a startup in a good sense.

It is an interesting time coming up to the release of the phone hardware, and these two weeks at Malta were a brilliant opportunity for all teams to sync up, work hard and squeeze in some R&R in the evenings too. Sun, great grilled seafood and the historical buildings of Valeta – it was fantastic to work in such a beautiful setting, and we cannot wait to get all the new goodies in the hands of people.

IMG_2665

20140522-DSC05138ubuntu_team

20140519-DSC01071

20140519-DSC01063

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 23.22.09

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Benjamin Keyser

Cueing up users

The bottom edge swipe gesture is simple and accessible for users, so it’s strategic for application developers. By giving instant access to the most needed settings, controls, and views through the bottom edge, app developers have a powerful tool for crafting more useful and usable experiences.

In earlier postings we’ve talked about how the bottom edge can be harnessed effectively, but helping users to get curious about this special place on the interface is the key to unlocking the full value of an app. The solution is simple and elegant: smart cues.

What is a cue?

1-telephone_bottom_edge_hint

On first glance, the bottom edge cue is just a tiny label space that pops up when an app is opened, looking much like a simple tab or handle. When the user grabs it, or simply swipes up, anywhere along the bottom edge, the edge is activated normally.

The cue component can stay on screen as a label, or retract to a minimal handle that doesn’t clog the screen or distract from the user’s primary task. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the cue can become an app indicator bar, reminder the user about which settings are currently selected.

How to cue

For many apps, the bottom edge is ideal for providing a simple, always-accessible way for users to compose a new item like a message, note or add to a list of things. A cue for this purpose can be as straight forward as a “Create New” text label that slides up when the app is loaded to remind users of the action, but then retracts neatly to either a simple handle, or altogether, as the user interacts with other parts of the application. The minimized cue can remain on top of the screen if desired, providing users with an unobtrusive but persistent cue.

Combination cue and indicators

2-camera_bottom_zoom

While a simple cue such as “create new” may be just right sometimes, but in some cases where settings or controls are located in the bottom edge, cues can work even harder, providing the user with an indicator bar of current setting. For example, in the camera app, the bottom edge cue shows the current flash setting and whether GPS tagging of photos is enabled. If the user triggers the bottom edge, controls for all of these settings are revealed.

Please and cues

Before you finalize your app design, think about how the bottom edge can help you deliver the most pleasing and effective user experience. Part of this plan should include the best use of the bottom edge cue, either as a label, a settings indicator, or both. Make it easy for users to discover what the bottom edge can do, and get more from your application.

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Inayaili de León Persson

This post is part of the series ‘Making ubuntu.com responsive‘.

Deciding how you’re going to handle responsive images is a big part of most responsive projects — also, one that usually causes many headaches!

We had really interesting discussions within the team to try to find out which options were out there, being used by other people, and whether those solutions could be useful (and possible) for us.

There is a range of solutions and opinions on this matter, but ultimately it’s all down to the content and types of images your website actually has to handle, and the technical and resource limitations of your team.

We tried to keep an open mind as to what would be possible to achieve within a very small timeframe: we wanted to find a solution that would work for our content, that would be achievable within our deadlines, and obviously, that would improve the experience of the visitors to our site.

Making an image inventory

Before discussing any potential solutions, it’s important to understand exactly what type of images are used on your site, how they are created, who creates them, how they are added to the site and in which locations, how the images play with the content and whether there are different levels of importance (UI icons, purely decorative images, infographics, editorial images, etc.).

You might realise you only use UI icons and vector illustrations, or that all your images are decorative and secondary, or even that all your images are photos commissioned to professional photographers and photojournalists that add great value to your content and designs. It’s only after doing this inventory that you’ll have sufficient information to decide what to do next and what your site needs.

On ubuntu.com there are five different types of image assets:

  • Pictograms: from an existing set of pre-approved pictograms, created in various formats, in a small subset of colours
  • Illustrations: usually created using two or more pictograms, or in a similar style, in vector format
  • Photography: these can be product shots of devices, screengrabs of our operating system and applications, and sometimes other types of photographic images
  • Logos: not only Ubuntu and Canonical’s own logos, but several partner logos
  • Backgrounds: these can be anything from dot patterns to textured backgrounds

Ubuntu image arsenalPictograms, illustrations, photography, logos and backgrounds are part of the image arsenal of ubuntu.com.

The pictograms and illustrations are always created in vector format and can easily be exported to an SVG. Similarly, many of the logos we use on the site can be sourced in an SVG format, but many times this isn’t possible. The photography and backgrounds used on the site, however, are usually provided to us in bitmap format, that lose definition when scaled up.

With this inventory in mind, we knew we’d have to come up with different solutions for the different types of assets rather than a single solution for all images.

Scalable vectors: pictograms, illustrations and logos

We investigated the possibility of creating a font for our icons and even started this process, but quickly decided that the lack of consistent browser support wasn’t acceptable.

The decision to move from GIF and PNG icons to SVG was relatively straightforward for us, as all our icons and pictograms are created in vector format from the outset. This would allow us to have crisp, scalable icons in most browsers, whether the device has a retina screen or not.

It was at this point that we thought it would be a good idea to finally introduce Modernizr into our toolset. With Modernizr we could target browsers that don’t support SVG and serve them with a PNG image replacement.

We did run into some browser support issues, mainly with Opera Mini which doesn’t support background-size (necessary if you’re scaling the same image asset instead of creating copies at different sizes) but does support SVG. To solve this problem, Ant wrote a JavaScript snippet that detects Opera Mini and adds the class .opera-mini to the body of the document. He will be covering this in more detail in a following post in this series.

Opera Mini rendering issuesOpera Mini’s SVG rendering issues.

We have explored the possibility of dynamically changing the colours of our SVG pictograms, but haven’t yet found a solution that is compatible across browsers — we’re open to suggestions!

Bitmap formats: photography and backgrounds

This is where things usually get trickier: how do you create a balance between serving users the best quality image they can get and saving their bandwidth?

Ideally, we’d have had the time to add the ability of images to be called on the fly in the size needed, so that the user didn’t have to download a size that was not intended for his or her screen size. This is something that we still want to work on, but just couldn’t justify to be added to the scope of this first iteration of the responsive transition.

Eventually we decided to use Imager.js — made by the BBC News developers — for responsive imaging in the markup. We chose this solution as it has simple syntax and is being used in production on high traffic websites, so it was proven to work. It seemed like a simple solution that fit our needs. In simple terms, the script runs through the page, looking up placeholder elements and replacing them with the closest available image size based on the width of the container.

CSS helper classes

We’ve created three CSS classes that can be used to hide/show images and other elements according to the size of the viewport:

  • .for-small: only shows in the smallest media query viewport
  • .for-medium: only shows in the small and medium media query viewports
  • .not-for-small: doesn’t show in the smallest media query viewport

These classes give us enough flexibility to decide which images should be visible based on our breakpoints in cases where we need more control. This means if we change the breakpoints, the classes will inherit the change.

File size

Initially we were planning on creating several versions of the images on the site, for small, medium and large screen sizes, but we found out that some of the current images on the site had a much larger file size than they needed to — for example, some transparent PNGs were being used when transparency was not a requirement.

With the limited time available, we opted for focusing on reducing file sizes as much as possible for existing images as a priority. This way, we’d make our pages smaller but small higher density screens would still see crisp images, since at smaller sizes they’d be reduced to about half their original size.

You can see a comparison of the file size per section of the site before and after this process.

Section Size before Ubuntu 14.04 LTS release (KB) Size after Ubuntu 14.04 LTS release (KB)
Homepage 434 193
About 1460 1787
Cloud 2809 2304
Desktop 3794 2571
Download 2921 3990
Management 991 1102
Partners 2243 2320
Phone 6943 2021
Server 1483 636
Support 679 480
Tablet 3318 1829
TV 603 733

We obtained these sizes using a combination of YSlow and PhantomJS.

Some of the sections were expanded for the Ubuntu 14.04 LTS release in April, which justifies some of the increases. The desktop, phone and tablet sections, however — the worst offenders — saw a significant reduction in file size, mainly from switching to the most appropriate file format instead of all PNGs.

Another way to create more consistency and file size savings across the site was the introduction of a pictogram and logo package. Instead of creating pictograms ad-hoc as needed, we now have a defined set of pictograms in a central location that can be reused across the site, in all its different colour variations. Because the pictograms and many of the logos are provided in an SVG format, they can be scaled to the size that is needed.

Ideas for the future

Despite the visible improvements, there are plenty of things we’d still like to explore in the way we handle images in a responsive world.

We are currently working on an asset server that will allow us to dynamically request different sizes and formats of assets (for example, SVG to PNG), which we can offset, crop, etc., right from the src property, also being far more cacheable with long expiry times. It will also make it easier to share assets, as they will be located at a permanent URL and will become findable through a database and metadata, which should encourage reuse.

These were the solutions we came up with and worked best with your timescales and resources. We’d love to hear how you’ve handled images in your responsive projects too, so let us know in the comments!

Read the next post in this series: “Making ubuntu.com responsive: updating font sizes and increasing readability”

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Inayaili de León Persson

This post is part of the series ‘Making ubuntu.com responsive‘.

One of the biggest challenges when making the move to responsive was tackling the navigation in ubuntu.com. This included rethinking not only the main navigation with first, second and third level links, but also a big 3-tier footer and global navigation.

Navigation in large screens

Footer in large screensDesktop size main navigation and footer on ubuntu.com.

1. Brainstorming

Instead of assigning this task to a single UX designer, and with the availability of everyone in the team very tight, we gathered two designers and two UX designers in a room for a few hours for an intensive brainstorming session. The goal of the meeting was to find an initial solution for how our navigation could work in small screens.

We started by analysing examples of small screen navigation from other sites and discussing how they could work (or not) for ubuntu.com. This was a good way of generating ideas to solve the navigation for our specific case.

Guardian, BBC, John Lewis navigationSome of the small screen navigation examples we analysed, from left to right: the Guardian, BBC and John Lewis.

We decided to keep to existing common design patterns for small screen navigation rather than trying to think of original solutions, so we stuck with the typical menu icon on the top right with a dropdown on click for the top level links.

Settling on a solution for second and third level navigation was trickier, as we wanted to keep a balance between exposing our content and making the site easy to navigate without the menus getting in the way.

We thought keeping to simple patterns would make it easier for users to understand the mechanics of the navigation quickly, and assumed that in smaller screens users tend to forgive extra clicks if that means simpler and uncluttered navigation.

SketchesSome of the ideas we sketched during the brainstorming session.

2. Prototyping

With little time on our hands, we decided we’d deliver our solution in paper sketches for a prototype to be created by our developers. The starting point for the styling of the navigation should follow closely that of Ubuntu Insights, and the remaining tweaks should be built and designed directly in code.

Ubuntu Insights navigationNavigation of Ubuntu Insights on large and small screens.

We briefed Ant with the sketches and some design and UX direction and he quickly built a prototype of the main navigation and footer for us to test and further improve.

Initial navigation prototypeFirst navigation prototype.

3. Improving

We gathered again to test and review the prototype once it was ready, and suggest improvements.

Everyone agreed that the mechanics of the navigation were right, and that visual tweaks could make it easier to understand, providing the user with more cues about the hierarchy of the content.

Initially, when scaling down the screen the search and navigation overlapped a small amount before the small screen menu icon kicked in, so we also thought it would be nice to animate the change of the amount of padding between widths.

We also made sure that if JavaScript is not available, when the user clicks on the menu icon the page scrolls down to the footer, where the navigation is accessible.

Final navigation prototypeFinal navigation prototype, after some tweaks.

Some final thoughts

When time is of essence, but you still want to be able to experiment and generate as many ideas as possible, spending a couple of hours in a room with other team members, talking through case studies and how they can be applied to your situation proved a really useful and quick way to advance the project. And time and time again, it has proved very useful to invite people who are not directly involved with the project to give the team valuable new ideas and insights.

We’re now planning to test the navigation in our next quarterly set of usability testing, which will surely provide us with useful feedback to make the website easier to navigate across all screen sizes.

Read the next post in this series: “Making ubuntu.com responsive: dealing with responsive images”

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mark

This is a series of posts on reasons to choose Ubuntu for your public or private cloud work & play.

We run an extensive program to identify issues and features that make a difference to cloud users. One result of that program is that we pioneered dynamic image customisation and wrote cloud-init. I’ll tell the story of cloud-init as an illustration of the focus the Ubuntu team has on making your devops experience fantastic on any given cloud.

 

Ever struggled to find the “right” image to use on your favourite cloud? Ever wondered how you can tell if an image is safe to use, what keyloggers or other nasties might be installed? We set out to solve that problem a few years ago and the resulting code, cloud-init, is one of the more visible pieces Canonical designed and built, and very widely adopted.

Traditionally, people used image snapshots to build a portfolio of useful base images. You’d start with a bare OS, add some software and configuration, then snapshot the filesystem. You could use those snapshots to power up fresh images any time you need more machines “like this one”. And that process works pretty amazingly well. There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of such image snapshots scattered around the clouds today. It’s fantastic. Images for every possible occasion! It’s a disaster. Images with every possible type of problem.

The core issue is that an image is a giant binary blob that is virtually impossible to audit. Since it’s a snapshot of an image that was running, and to which anything might have been done, you will need to look in every nook and cranny to see if there is a potential problem. Can you afford to verify that every binary is unmodified? That every configuration file and every startup script is safe? No, you can’t. And for that reason, that whole catalogue of potential is a catalogue of potential risk. If you wanted to gather useful data sneakily, all you’d have to do is put up an image that advertises itself as being good for a particular purpose and convince people to run it.

There are other issues, even if you create the images yourself. Each image slowly gets out of date with regard to security updates. When you fire it up, you need to apply all the updates since the image was created, if you want a secure machine. Eventually, you’ll want to re-snapshot for a more up-to-date image. That requires administration overhead and coordination, most people don’t do it.

That’s why we created cloud-init. When your virtual machine boots, cloud-init is run very early. It looks out for some information you send to the cloud along with the instruction to start a new machine, and it customises your machine at boot time. When you combine cloud-init with the regular fresh Ubuntu images we publish (roughly every two weeks for regular updates, and whenever a security update is published), you have a very clean and elegant way to get fresh images that do whatever you want. You design your image as a script which customises the vanilla, base image. And then you use cloud-init to run that script against a pristine, known-good standard image of Ubuntu. Et voila! You now have purpose-designed images of your own on demand, always built on a fresh, secure, trusted base image.

Auditing your cloud infrastructure is now straightforward, because you have the DNA of that image in your script. This is devops thinking, turning repetitive manual processes (hacking and snapshotting) into code that can be shared and audited and improved. Your infrastructure DNA should live in a version control system that requires signed commits, so you know everything that has been done to get you where you are today. And all of that is enabled by cloud-init. And if you want to go one level deeper, check out Juju, which provides you with off-the-shelf scripts to customise and optimise that base image for hundreds of common workloads.

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Inayaili de León Persson

This post is part of the series ‘Making ubuntu.com responsive‘.

A big part of converting our existing fixed-width desktop site to be responsive was to make sure we had a flexible grid that would flow seamlessly from small to large screens.

From the start, we decided that we were going to approach the move as simply as possible: we wanted the content our grid holds to become easier to read and browse on any screen size, but that doesn’t necessarily mean creating anything too complex.

Our existing fixed-width grid

Before the transition, our grid consisted of 12 columns with 20px gutters.

The width of each column could be variable, but we were working with 57px columns and 40px padding on each side of the main content container.

GridOur existing fixed-width desktop grid.

Inside that grid, content can be divided into one, two, three or four columns. In extreme cases, we can also use five columns, but we avoid this.

Grid overlaidOur grid laid over an existing page of the site.

We also try keeping text content below eight columns, as it becomes harder to read otherwise.

Adding flexibility

When we first created our web style guide, we decided that, since we were getting our hands dirty with the refactoring of the CSS, we’d go ahead and convert our grid to use percentages instead of pixels.

The idea was that it would be useful for the future, while keeping everything looking almost exactly the same, since the content would still be all held within a fixed-width container for the time being.

Using percentagesA fixed-width container holding percentage-based columns.

This proved one of the best decisions we made and it made the transition to responsive much smoother than we initially thought.

The CSS

We used Gridinator to initially create our basic grid, removed any unnecessary rules and properties from the CSS it generated and added others we needed.

The settings we’ve input, in case you’re wondering, were:

  • Number of columns: 12
  • Column width: 57px
  • Column margins: 20px (technically, the gutters)
  • Container margin: 40px
  • Body font size: 16px
  • Option: percentage units

Gridinator settingsScreenshot of our Gridinator settings.

We could have created this CSS from scratch, but we found this tool saved us some precious time when creating all the variations we needed when using the grid.

You can have a peek into our current grid stylesheet now.

First prototypes

The first two steps we took when creating the initial responsive prototype of ubuntu.com were:

  • Remove the fixed-width container and see how the content would flow freely and fluidly
  • Remove all the floats and positioning rules from the existing CSS and see how the content would flow in a linear manner, and test this on small screen devices

When we removed the fixed-width container, all the content became fluid. Obviously, there were no media queries behind this, so the content was free to grow to huge sizes, with really long line lengths, and equally the columns could shrink to unreasonably narrow sizes. But it was fluid, and we were happy!

Similarly, when checking the float-free prototype, even though there were quite a few issues with background images and custom, absolutely positioned elements, the results were promising.

Float free prototypeOur first float-free prototype: some issues but overall a good try.

These tests showed to us that, even though the bulk of the work was still ahead of us, a lot had been accomplished by simply making the effort to convert our initial pixel-based columns into percentage based ones. This is a test that we think other teams could be able to do, before moving on to a complete revamp of their CSS.

Defining breakpoints

We didn’t want to relate our breakpoints to specific devices, but it was important that we understood what kind of screen sizes people were using to visit our site on.

To give you an idea, here are the top 10 screen sizes (not window size, mind) between 4 March and 3 April 2014, in pixels, on ubuntu.com:

  1. 1366 x 768: 26.15%
  2. 1920 x 1028: 15.4%
  3. 1280 x 800: 7.98%
  4. 1280 x 1024: 7.26%
  5. 1440 x 900: 6.29%
  6. 1024 x 768: 6.26%
  7. 1600 x 900: 5.51%
  8. 1680 x 1050: 4.94%
  9. 1920 x 1200: 2.73%
  10. 1024 x 600: 2.12%

The first small screen (360×640) comes up at number 17 in the list, followed by 320×568 and 320×480 at numbers 21 and 22, respectively.

We decided to test the common approach and try breakpoints at:

  • Under 768px: small screen styles
  • Between 768px and under 986px: medium screen styles
  • 986px and up: large screen styles

This worked well for our content and was in line with what we had seen in our analytics numbers.

At the small screen breakpoint we have:

  • Reduced typographic scale
  • Reduced margins and padding
  • Reduced main content container padding

At this scale, following what we had done in Ubuntu Resources (now Ubuntu Insights), we reused the grid from the Ubuntu phone designs, which divides the portrait screen into 40 squares, horizontally.

Phone gridThe phone grid.

At the medium screen breakpoint we have:

  • Increased (from small screen) typographic scale
  • Increased margins and padding
  • Increased main content container padding

At the large screen break point we have:

  • The original typographic scale
  • The original margins and padding
  • The original main content container padding

Small, medium and large screen spacingComparison between small, medium and large screen spacing.

Ideas for the future

In the future, we would like to use more component-specific breakpoints. Some of our design components would work better if they reflowed or resized at different points than the rest of the site, so more granular control over specific elements would be useful. This usually depends on the type and amount of content the component holds.

What about you? We’d love to know how other people have tackled this issue, and what suggestions you have to create flexible and robust grids. Have you used any useful tools or techniques? Let us know in the comments section.

Read the next post in this series: “Making ubuntu.com responsive: adapting our navigation to small screens”

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Inayaili de León Persson

This post is part of the series ‘Making ubuntu.com responsive‘.

If you’re transitioning a fixed-width website into a responsive one with several time and resource constraints, updating all your content to be mobile-friendly will likely not be an option.

It’s important to understand what your constraints are and work within them. This is what makes a good designer great — you could even say it’s the definition of our jobs.

This was certainly our case: very early in the process of converting ubuntu.com into a responsive site we knew we wouldn’t be able to edit the existing content. We did, however, follow a few ‘content rules’, and this is something you can define within your projects too.

Evergreen content

We created the Ubuntu Insights site to hold dated content like case studies, news and white papers, and to keep a constant influx of fresh content into ubuntu.com and other Ubuntu sites. Not only did creating Ubuntu Insights allow us to keep ubuntu.com fresh, it gave us a place to move a lot of the detailed content that previously existed on the main site to. We end up with fewer pages and also with shorter pages, which is one of the challenges of converting a site to be responsive with no content updates: the pages become too long.

Ubuntu InsightsThe latest iteration of Ubuntu Insights.

We’ve been working on this project for a few months now, and will be releasing its final update soon, which will include a dedicated press area.

No content or information architecture updates

Once you go back to work you’ve completed some time ago, it’s natural that you start seeing lots of things, big and small, you want to improve. However, when the scope of a project is really tight (and which project isn’t?), it’s important not to fall into temptation.

Updating the structure and content of the website in preparation for making it responsive was not an option for us, as that would involve a fair number of people and time that were not at our disposal.

We decided to flag anything we’d want to look at again in the future, but moving things around was out of the question.

A couple of sections of the site were going to suffer some changes that might impact content and information architecture, but those had been flagged at earlier stages, and we knew to only start reviewing and working on those later on in the responsive project.

No hidden content

A decision we made early on was that we weren’t going to hide any content from small screens.

We could still use common patterns like accordions and tabs to show content in a more digestible format, but all content should be available in small screens, just as it would in larger screens.

AccordionAccordions chunk the content nicely at smaller screen sizes.

Future plans

Improving the content on ubuntu.com will be a gradual process. As new pieces of content are added and updated, we’re now making sure that content is optimised for a smaller screen experience, being mindful of endless scrolling and keeping the message clear and focused on each page and section of the site.

Looking at mobile first has already pushed us towards simplifying our content. We’re trying to think about shorter, more carefully written text that relies less on images and animations. This includes paring down on charts, cutting out text that really is there to support images, and considering the reason for existence of any new fourth-level pages.

In the future, we’ll likely want to do a content revamp of the entire site, but that’s a huge project on its own and probably one that deserves its own series of posts.

We’d love to hear about your experiences and tips on improving content for a responsive iteration of your sites: add your thoughts in the comments section!

Read the next post in this series: “Making ubuntu.com responsive: making our grid responsive”

Reading list

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