5 Ways to Increase Desktop Usability (and Productivity)

Usability is the study of how you interact with your computer – and how to make the computer work easily and simply, the way you want it to. You can increase the usability of your own desktop yourself, even without modifying code or otherwise feeling “stuck” with what the software designers give you.

Here are some simple ways to increase usability (and thus productivity!):

  1. Color terminal windows. This was mentioned yesterday, but it bears repeating for a general reason: with different color backgrounds, you can see at an instant which window you are on and where the window is that you want.
  2. Cascade windows that go together. For example, when using multiple screen sessions, if you cascade them – that is, overlap them so that the top and left sides are visible – then it becomes easy to pick one at random. The windows can then be large as possible but still reachable at an instant. For best usability, make sure that there is a good amount of window visible when it is fully covered by other windows (I figure about 1 inch – 2.54 cm). This makes it possible to hit the window with the mouse very easily, and acknowledges Fitts’s Law.
  3. Maximize windows when possible. This helps you focus on the current topic, and allows you to make use of the “infinitely large” window edges. If you are using Synergy, make sure to turn on the “lock to current screen” capability to make best use of this.
  4. Use full screen viewing when possible. This is most often relevant to browsers (use F11) but is also true for PDF readers and terminal sessions. Unfortunately, most readers will default to “full page” viewing in full screen mode; some won’t let you change it. As far as terminal sessions go, if you are using only one, it will be most useful in full screen mode.
  5. Use multiple desktops. This will allow you to move irrelevant windows outside your focus, and will permit you to switch to them with ease. For Windows, I use Dexpot; Linux comes with pagers built into KDE and Gnome and probably everything else. Dexpot has a very interesting feature that you can use to further increase usability: you can hide windows you almost never use to the system tray.

If you do these things, you’ll find that your productivity will go up and errors will go down – and your time with the computer will be much more stress-free.

Virtual Desktops: What Good are They?

I’ve been renewing my interest in virtual desktops – the ability to have multiple “desktops”, switching as you desire from one to the other. For Windows there is a very good implementation (freeware – not open source) called Dexpot. For the Macintosh, there is the program VirtueDesktops. For Linux, there’s the hugely popular Compiz – though I’m no fan of it (it’s purpose is to be pretty and to consume processing time – in my opinion). Default installations of GNOME and KDE both support generic virtual desktops – but Compiz makes them pretty.

With multiple desktops, the theory goes, you can use one desktop for a particular purpose, and another for some different purpose – for example, email on one and the Web on the other. It’s like having multiple monitors without being able to see them.

Note that this capability has existed in UNIX workstations since the 1980s – despite all the excitement over Apple MacOS X Leopard and it’s Spaces capability.

Note, too, that Dexpot handles a workspace with multiple monitors fairly well (no experience on whether Compiz or VirtueDesktops work well – my guess is they probably do).

So with multiple desktops, you can hide your email when you are busy coding (or administering, installing, or debugging…). This can save you from “hovering” over your mailbox instead of getting things done.

Virtual desktops can also provide the capability to separate two different environments – for example, working on a production system and working on a test environment. As administrators, you dare not mix up the test environment with the production environment when you go to shut the system down. Sure, you can color the terminal window – but what if you give your desktop an entirely different backdrop? And you wouldn’t even see the production environment unless you switched to it.

I’m going to try again – I’ve used VirtueDesktop in the past, but it had some annoying bugs – and we’ll see if it can improve productivity. I’ve also put Dexpot on my Windows desktop; we’ll see.