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Usability Nightmare: Xfce Settings Manager
Posted on: 2009-03-21 22:22:04

Quick! Where do you go to increase the text size in all your applications? Can you pick the right button on the first try? Do you feel lucky, punk?

I might try:
  1. Desktop, because it's at the top, I see it first, and text is a part of my desktop experience.
  2. Display, because that's where the setting is in Windows XP.
  3. User Interface, because everything I have ever wanted to change is a user interface setting.
  4. Panel, because I also want to change the text size on the panel.
  5. Window Manager, because windows can display text on them.
  6. Window Manager Tweaks, because I want to tweak to how text is shown.

Or maybe you're in the wrong settings manager. The first hurdle was in the Settings menu. Text settings aren't mentioned at all, although some things are in two or three places. I'm glad I'm not setting up a printer!

It turns out that we chose wisely. Unfortunately, in the Xfce Settings Manager, text sizes are distributed between two categories. Choose Window Manager for the window title bars, and User Interface for everything else.

Can't you come up with a better way of organizing settings than Windows 3.1? Has the state of the art in Settings dialogs not advanced since 1992?

At least Microsoft's control panel was unambiguous. It even had a description in the status bar of what you were going to click on.

Today's Usability Tips

  • Did you notice that I never mentioned the word font? New users might call things by different names. More people in the world know what "text size" means than "font size".
  • Manuals have gone the way of the floppy disk. Instead of writing a manual, spend time just watching someone use your software, so you won't need one in the first place.
  • People read the screen from the top down. Take advantage of this, and put the most common settings first.
  • If your software has many settings, thoughtlessly dividing them into categories is a sure way of making them more confusing.
  • If you are copying user interface layout from Windows 3.1, at least do it right.

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2009-03-22 02:11:43
Desktop is at the top because it is alphabetical you moron.

The reason the title bar text is set in Window Manager is because it is completely separate. A user could be using any number of window mangers with XFCE not just the default xfwm.

How does this relate to Windows 3.1's control panel at all? XP, Vista and even Win7 beta have this same layout. So if at any time there is a window with alphabetically sorted icons it is automatically a Windows 3.1 throwback?


2009-03-22 02:41:22
Rand, Blaming the user for being confused isn't going to solve anything.

As far as designing something intuitive, he's right. Human Factors, and that company in Cupertino has taught the industry that getting mad at users for not understanding how to use something only makes you look like the moron...

You explanation of why "it is what it is" is perfect, and makes a lot of sense, but you and i understanding it is useless to the other 99% of people who don't, and more importantly, don't care to.

The one thing i've learned and learned well is that users don't want to learn how something works, or even understand it. They just want it to work, and that's it. Designs that cater to that win, those that don't... are used by the other 1%.

If you're by some coincidence working on XFCE then that product is already a failure. You've been given a wonderful piece of feedback in spectacular detail and your first thought is to insult the author.

Some advice, read "Getting Real" by the developers of Ruby, and a Human Factors book or two... comeback and re-evaluate the feedback.


2009-03-22 02:42:07

It relates to 3.1 because in Xubuntu you can't fucking find anything. I love it, I thought the default themes were cool and it was nice and light, but I couldn't find a damn thing. Too cluttered.


2009-03-22 02:55:58
The problem with manuals is that so many of them have been half-assed manuals: poorly organized, poorly written, incomplete, incorrect, and obsessed with including images and Very Large Type.

If you can't write a decent manual, why in the world would anyone think you can deduce what users need from watching them use your software?

By all means watch a variety of users use your software -- and documentation -- and learn from that. Dismissing manuals as "having gone the way of the floppy disk" just indicates that you consider your users to be illiterate idiots, and if that indeed is your demographic, more power to you.

But be sure to tell them this, so everyone else knows to run away from the crap you're peddling.


2009-03-22 03:23:42
And yet it made complete sense to me the first time I used it on Xubuntu. They didn't "thoughtlessly" divide anything.

Like the file manager settings aren't a separate set of file manager settings you have to set. They're the same options you'd get in the file manager itself. Settings manager is just a convenience app to group stuff that is otherwise scattered around the system.

In Windows you have to go through Start Menu properties, right click+Personalize dialog, Control Panel, and Explorer+Tools+Folder Options dialog to find all the same stuff.

I don't understand how going through 4 different setting programs located in 4 different places is easier than just this 1 dialog box. Also, just the Control Panel in Windows has a thousand times more options. I have never found them all and I still get lost in there.

When you think about how Linux works, it actually makes complete sense. They're organized like that because you have a window manager program, you have file manager program, you have a desktop manager, you have a panel manager and they can all be swapped out for something else. All separate programs in Linux so they're separate icons.

It's really not that hard. You want to adjust the desktop then click Desktop. Want to adjust your panels click Panel. Want to adjust your keyboard click Keyboard. If you want to adjust your mouse then click Mouse. You want to adjust your sound then click Sound. They're even in alphabetical order for you. You'd almost have to be mentally disabled not to understand it.

I mean, if I had a suggestion on how to make it simpler I would surely give it instead of being a stuck up Linux snob because I hate those people, but honestly, this time, I really cannot see how to make this any easier than it already is. If anyone can explain a better idea than this I will bow down and say yes I'm sorry, settings manager really is completely retarded.

David Steinlage

2009-03-22 04:41:50
I couldn't agree more. I've used XFCE on a few occasions and this is something that annoyed the hell out of me. I would speculate this disasterpiece is the result of hard-headed linux devs who deserve to be bitch slapped by me simultaneously. HEY XFCE DEVS!!! Stop resembling those dorks from Southpark who never want to talk to each other after disagreeing on how many episodes of the original Star Trek there were.


2009-03-22 04:45:16
This is open source software. It's more expensive than pirated commercial software, because you can't steal it. It's more expensive than legal commercial software because you can't own it for money. You have to pay for it with your own personal contributions. STFU (Survey The Fine UI) and fix it yourself.


2009-03-22 05:14:41
“When you think about how Linux works, it actually makes complete sense.”

Maybe so, but what about the 6.76 billion people who don’t care about how Linux works and never will? The success of an operating system is inversely proportional to how much people need to think about how it works.

A better idea would be to arrange the settings so that people didn’t need to care about which pixels on the screen are drawn by the “window manager program”, which are drawn by the ”file manager program”, which by the “desktop manager”, and which by the “panel manager”. So that, for example, people could use a single setting to change the text size used by all those components, instead of having to change it in four separate places. (That doesn’t necessarily mean the individual settings shouldn’t exist too, but the all-in-one setting should be most prominent.)

For the general problem of categorizing settings, look up “card sorting” with your favorite Web search engine.


2009-03-22 05:22:24
man.. flame on

who the fuck expects to magically go to a setting that will increase the font size in all their applications?

what the fucking hell programs do you use where you even have a default fucking font size? and you think it's the OS's responsibility to define that font?

the problem is, mister usability, you just may be weird. As in, nobody has predicted _your particular use case_ and hence has not made the software custom tailored to your particular use case.

not to mention that xfce is not meant for people like you. Install ubuntu, or help them dumb things down for your sort, if for some reason you can't abide by gnome. They have better things to do than deal with your fucking usability rants.


2009-03-22 05:47:33
Well done on highlighting the pain-inducing shitness of most Linux window managers. They make me rage every time I use them.

Your most impostant point is why are they still so bad? Do the devs not care about the users? Are they incompetent UI designers? Yes and yes, in different measures for different dev teams. And this is why Linux will never be good enough.


2009-03-22 05:54:25
I think you guys are missing the point, Font is just an example (it _may_ be an extreme example, I personally dont think it is). The point is that if you are designing a interface, to make it more user friendly you can use some of the tips he gave.

Human Computer Interaction is an interesting field, it goes into the psychology of how people interact with computers, so flame the author for critising your favourite application is a pretty useless exercise, especially when he offers solutions.

To say it makes sense to you is also a bit of a pointless exercise, as you (and the others who understand it) could be a very small subset of all possible users. Applications, if want to have a big uptake, should be designed for the majority of users.


2009-03-22 06:12:12
“not to mention that xfce is not meant for people like you.”

Ah, silly me. I read on XFCE’s Web site that it aims to be “user friendly”, and I made the mistake of believing it. If you’re an XFCE developer, maybe you could fix the Web site to remove that part? If you’re not, though, I doubt the XFCE developers would be happy with you representing them that way.

“Install ubuntu, or help them dumb things down for your sort, if for some reason you can't abide by gnome.”

Actually, my day job at Canonical is helping to smarten up Ubuntu both for “my sort” and for the millions of other people who use it. And I sincerely hope you *aren’t* an XFCE developer, because if you are, that’s a bad sign for Xubuntu.


2009-03-22 06:18:11
Great criticism!

Though i would argue that XFCE's disregard for making useable software is actually good, as it opens up a whole new market for people who actually have an *incentive* for writing good useable software.

2009-03-22 07:55:22
A lot of responses seem to be saying something akin to 'it's impossible to do this' ie. it's impossible to organise font settings well.

I'm pretty sure that if I checked in GNOME it would go something like:


And then I'd have a list of window elements and font-types.

As for using other window managers, if I'd installed a new window manager I'd expect to look at its manager for theming options. That would be intuitive.

Charlie / Free Gamer

2009-03-22 08:01:38
How did this make reddit ? What a troll.

I know, go make your own desktop for free, PUNK.


2009-03-22 08:31:20
Did you try the 4.6 release? It moves into "Appearance". Useless rant by you.


2009-03-22 08:46:02
That's actually a nice comparison. Never thought about it, but the settings menu is really somewhat convoluted.

But then, XFCE isn't actually targeting newbie users. I'd say it's currently used by more educated Linux users, who actually enjoy tinkering with their system. Still, I also sometimes got confused by the settings panel. Then again, I do not change settings on a daily basis. A little peeking every other month maybe? So, not that big of a deal for me.

However, if Xubuntu is meant for the masses, a bit more UI optimization might be in place. I like the Win3.1 comparison. And maybe some tooltips might already suffice to help XFCE newbies.


2009-03-22 09:07:59
try check any win vista / 7 control panel.

more options and configurations.



2009-03-22 09:27:51
Why haven't you mention Mac System 1.0? There was much simplier Control Panel DA, than in Windows 3.x. Operating Systems are constantly growing, with more and more new features and possiblities. And it's ok, that these features are controllable not only via $ sudo nano ~/configs/some-config.

Also, just look at Windows Vista's or XP's Control Panel. It is a True Labyrinth of settings, screens, icons (most of them looks really awfull), small descriptional texts under icons. So much to look and read to perform any simple change. No any Linux' window manager can't beat Vista/XP in that. So you'd better complain on Vista, not XFCE.

I'm using Enlightenment 16, if you are curios.


2009-03-22 09:28:18
>When you think about how Linux works, it actually makes >complete sense. They're organized like that because you >have a window manager program, you have file manager >program, you have a desktop manager, you have a panel >manager and they can all be swapped out for something >else. All separate programs in Linux so they're separate >icons.

So if i'm going to use another window manager, like homosexual Enlightenment 16, i'll be able to access its settings via that "Window Manager" item? No? Than why we cant have more user-friendly control panel?

Michael Wales

2009-03-22 09:46:33
I just recently installed Xubuntu on an older laptop and I am experiencing the same situation. I spend most of my time just trying to find what I am looking for (although I attribute most of this to my relative inexperience with linux desktop environments). Most of my *nix experience comes from web server build-up and administration.


2009-03-22 10:50:00
Speaking of usability: providing a link titled "Back to Main" as the only way to reach your frontpage from a post is definitely not a good practice.


2009-03-22 11:56:19
The advantage for XFCE however is that it is SIMPLE.

Even if you cant find the settings on first try - which should be improved - XFCE as a whole REMAINS simple to use.

This is different to Gnome, because Gnome does have a lot more stuff and as such cannot remain as simple anyway.


2009-03-22 11:59:41
I think the deep problem is that many open source projects are technically driven. Programmers are rarely 'people-people' and often don't encourage non-technical/non-programmers to become involved in projects. I cannot think of a single linux-related project that wouldn't benefit from a usability group, a couple of psychologist, some skilled writers and a few graphic artists. A knee-jerk defensive response is natural to most left-brainers because we have problems relating to other people's difficulties. Just because something works technically doesn't mean people can work it. If we want people to use the software we create and aren't just mentally masturbating then we desperately need right-brainers on the team.


2009-03-22 12:06:58

"Getting Real" was not written by the developers of Ruby. Those folks developed Ruby on Rails.


2009-03-22 12:17:16
OK, first of all: you apparently have a thing for UI design, so obviously that's what you're focusing on. However, just like you, _everybody_ has its pet peeve.

Now, please realize that the software development team of Xfce consists of, I believe, about seven people, could be less. The UI Design team of Xfce consists of, IIRC, exactly *zero* people. The fact that the settings categories are alphabetical is because the developers didn't realize it could be better, *not* because they dono't care about the users or something. That, and the few developers simply haven't got the time to incorporate every suggestion a non-developer makes into Xfce.

Furthermore, this settings manager is obviously not modeled after Windows 3.1's, it's just what the developers thought most appropriate.

Also, a new version of Xfce has recently been released that will be included in Xubuntu 9.04 that revises the Settings Manager a little bit (with some usability improvements, even though it doesn't solve the issues mentioned here). User Interface settings is called Appearance, for example.

Speaking of which, Jim Campbell is working very hard to provide good documentation for Xubuntu (there actually already is very good documentation available) and is looking to collaborate with upstream Xfce so you can also find it at that website.

And again, giving the users a clue is a priority of the developers, but they have *a lot* of priorities and they can't live up to them all. Luckily there are commited users like Jim who try to remedy this.

As for the settings being in two different locations: yes, that's not that ideal in terms of integration, if you look at the Xfce website, it says:

"Xfce 4.6 embodies the traditional UNIX philosophy of modularity and re-usability. "

More power to you, a little bit more time spent looking for little options like this, which you probably won't do that often anyway.

Also, I think it's unfair to compare this to Windows 3.1 which had far fewer options. Categories aren't a bad thing per se - if you'd list all options in one page, that'd be confusing as hell. Still, if you like that, you can try editing them all in one place with the new Xfce's xfconf system ;)

Oh, and another thing I really like: you can easily hop in to the #xubuntu chatroom and ask where a setting is. I'm usually around there and I know my way around, so yay for community :)

(I hope I kinda got my message across, this is about the longest comment I ever wrote and it's really rambly and unstructured, but I needed to get that off my chest and I really don't feel like re-reading and revising it like I would, say, a blog post.)

Marty Fried

2009-03-22 13:26:30
But who is still using Windows 3.1? In fact, who ever used it at all? It wasn't until Windows for Workgroups 3.11 that it got popular.

In the current Windows up to XP, you can't do it at all. Each application is separate. I don't know if you can do it in xfce, either.

This article is almost like asking how you make a Ford take off and fly.


2009-03-22 13:50:06
0 UI design people in a UI development team? That can only be Linux LOL

Martin Knafve

2009-03-22 15:24:09
Partly agree, but on the other hand (and as a side-note), the "Fonts" option in the Windows 3.11 control panel does not give you the possibility to change the font size. All you can do is list previews of installed fonts, install/remove fonts and enable truetype.

With flexibility comes complexity. (


2009-03-22 15:52:31
At least it's not the iPod shuffle.


2009-03-22 15:54:52
Well use Windows 3.1 for crying out loud, see how useful it is in todays world...

At least XCFE is still supported and can be customized


2009-03-22 17:51:23
I wouldn't say that the Win 3.1 control panel is completly clear : I never understood what the 386 enhanced was for.


2009-03-22 20:01:25
Steve, have you filed a bug report (or many) in the appropriate component(s), and/or initiated a discussion regarding a possible reorganization of the Settings Manager directly with its developers? Or have you investigated whether these have been done before by others?

The gist of your post is spot-on, but like all rants made in the vacuum of vocal blog posts, unless you take the necessary steps to make it produce some action, it's going to either alienate or be completely lost on the exact set of people who can and should do something about it.


2009-03-22 21:27:38
You're right. It's almost as screwed up as the Windows functions, which are hidden 14 clicks down, and in a different place every time they change the OS.


2009-03-22 22:31:30

You have to understand I'm not saying there isn't a problem. The problem just isn't here.

You've confused flexibility with simplicity. Xfce has already changed this for the newer version, but that doesn't mean it's simpler. Consider this.

Let's say there's 3 places to change the font. Alright, you can't just add another font control that adjusts all the fonts and call that simpler. It might be easier once you know how it works, but not simpler. Since someone might want to change their window manager font separately you still have to have the separate controls as well right?

Alright, so now what do you have? You don't have 1 good place to change the fonts. You just have 4 bad places.

Alright, so what's the new user see when he comes in now? He sees four places to change the fonts instead of three. You've made the problem WORSE. Yeah so one changes all of them so you tell the user that. Then they're not confused anymore and along they go on their merry way right?

Alright, ten minutes after the new user gets his Xubuntu system up and running what does he do? He installs Compiz+Emerald. Guess what? Emerald has yet again ANOTHER way of adjusting its own fonts and you're right back where you started.

However, now you have 5 places to change the fonts and guess what? The other one doesn't quite work correctly anymore because it changes all the fonts BUT the window titles now because now you're using Emerald for that.

Now, what do you think happens when they stop using their panels and install a dock to launch their programs instead? Ah, SIX places to change the fonts and now there's TWO places where the universal controller might not work.

So, now you get something like this on the message boards.

"I installed Xubuntu and I used to be able to adjust my fonts system wide. However, after I installed Compiz the fonts in the Emerald window titles don't change anymore. Why? Is it broke?"

Now, if you get one tool to adjust all the fonts for every dock, desktop manager, and window manager without knowing about them ahead of time fine, but so far that has never worked quite perfect and in the end you always end up with six or seven different places to fix your fonts.

The problem isn't in the GUI. It's simply how the system handles fonts.


2009-03-22 23:08:57
This thread makes me very sad. Insults, attacks, no reading comprehension... the only thing missing was the proverbial "STFU"

Anyway I gave up on XFCE when they explicitly refused to provide a way to get rid of the trash icon and disable it because "people use it to keep their files".


2009-03-23 00:16:14
mpt: "what about the 6.76 billion people who don’t care about how Linux works and never will?"

What proportion of those people would even suspect that you *could* change the text size in all applications? A very small one, I suspect.


2009-03-23 08:54:59

So ok, just look at GNOME, it's settings manager is a lot better, u can use it's "Font settings" to adjust every aspect of fonts without knowing anything about window managers, panels, etc.. Same applies to themes. Because it is the purpose of Desktop Environment to provide an interface to this stuff to be usable by everyone.

And why that 6.76 billion people care about installing WMs, panels, etc? I think they dont.

Penguin Pete

2009-03-23 09:32:59
I knew what this post would say before you got out of bed this morning:

(aytch-tee-tee-pee-colon-slash-slash) penguinpetes.com/b2evo/index.php?title=the_six_kinds_of_anti_foss_trolls

PS, I'd consider the usability of the comment form on my own blog first, were I you. If your system can't tell the difference between a legitimate and relevant comment-with-link and a spambot without TELLING THE USER WHAT NOT TO TYPE, it's broken.

PPS, I have Windows 3.1 running in DOSBox on my Linux desktop (Google it, it's possible) and in fact there is no one place to change text size for the whole system either, since font settings for desktop elements are a different matter from application (editor) font settings.


2009-04-16 01:00:48
Maannn ...

Let me explain : Xfce is a brain detector.

Thats simple

> if you can configure Xfce , then you have a brain.

> if not , no brain.


Don't feed the troll ... if you have a brain ...


2009-05-17 07:07:58
Nice one. I found this settiing at 1st try. Maybe somfind wrong with you?

Seems what for making you happy just need place "tooltips" with explanation of control on every icon.

Beatrice Didgelock

2010-01-03 22:38:20
Good grief! That control panel, sorry, Settings Manager, is hilariously bad. You should submit it to the Daily WTF.


2012-02-19 17:16:05
I can even not reach this settings box! Everything is too small for me to explore. That is the third desktop I try since Ubuntu 11.04 with no avail. Unity causes problems and practically disabled multi-desktops, KDE does not give access to launching programs from its application menu just with keyboard, GNOME3 has serious usability problems because of the hot corner with only system-specific ad hoc procedures to disable this, and now Xfce has this font issue.

Byte Me

2012-02-21 00:19:10
Just stumbled upon this post, and it probably says things about me I should be ashamed of, but I feel compelled to admit I just had by far my biggest laugh of the day (month?) when I read this: "Can't you come up with a better way of organizing settings than Windows 3.1? Has the state of the art in Settings dialogs not advanced since 1992? " BINGO!!!

I recently decided to try out XFCE 4.8 (doing some major distro hunting, thanks to Unity and gnome-shell), and have been toying with it for about 48 hours. KDE's settings look and (lack of) organization is just as bad.

I've developed plenty of software and hardware over the years, but haven't spent my life exclusively in development. Have been in sales, management, executive position, ownership, etc. Perhaps that gives a coder better perspective? I can't imagine how people who are so intellectually capable in certain ways...can make such horrible decisions.

Thanks for the laugh. And the truth.

Art C.

2012-04-05 14:42:55
Sorry Steve but you lose. Windows 3.1 may have only had the one "fonts" item in the control panel, but there was a VERY long list of applications that simply ignored the system setting and did whatever they pleased with regard to fonts.


2012-06-01 13:07:21
Since this thread has already been necro'd let me reply to

>who the fuck expects to magically go to a setting that will increase the font size in all their applications?

I do!

I want to be able to press something like Ctrl-Alt-Shift and scroll the mouse-wheel to resize all active viewports, giving special treatment to the frame under my mouse as its sizing unless the mouse is pointing at an edge.

specifically, I want a Meta-Ctrl-Alt-Shift to highlight and select all active display-elements so that i can de-select items i want to exclude from the re-size. I want these items to be remembered too.

Just because that's hard and the flamer I'm replying to couldn't imagine a use-case or has gone numb around the inconveniences we all suffer daily from concepts fractured into replacable modules (zend anyone?) doesn't mean that any of today's environments have allowed presentation to be sensible and free of absolutes!


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