The Freedom to Innovate – Interaction Design for Plasma Active

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I first learned about Plasma Active on a KDE User Experience sprint in April 2011.  Sebastian Kügler was talking about their new project called Plasma Active, which aimed to bring the KDE experience to devices other than desktops, laptops and netbooks.  It would provide a framework for application creators to easily adapt their UIs to different from factors, pixel densities and input methods.

This project immediately caught my attention, since for interaction designers/user experience specialists such as myself, new things are always exciting.  Therefore I got in touch with the team to join their interaction designer Fania Bremmer for interaction design and usability/user experience consulting.  The main user interface for Plasma Active on tablet computers, called Contour, was already basically in place at the time.  The main idea behind it is to put Activities in the center of the usage workflow.  Activities have been introduced in the KDE Software Compilation’s desktop shell, Plasma, in the 4.X series as a way to customize your desktop for different activities (like e.g. work, communication, a certain project…).  Activities in Plasma Desktop, KDE’s desktop UI, mainly consists of sets of desktop widgets, or Plasmoids, specifically selected and configured to support each activity. In Contour, this concept is taken further by allowing users to connect not only Plasmoids, but also all sorts of resources (e.g. files, contacts, bookmarks, people, events, …) directly to Activities, which are then shown on the Activity screen. This way, users have everything they need for a specific task or in a specific context directly at their fingertips.

For example, currently I have these Activities created on my system:

- One Activity for things related to my PhD (mainly PDFs with literature and a Notes Plasmoid to make notes as I read them)

- One Activity for a conference I just visited, again holding documents related to it and another Notes Plasmoid, as well as bookmarks of websites I’d learned about on the conference and of the conference website itself.  If I’d collected digital vcards from people I met instead of traditional paper business cards, I could have added them to this Activity as well.

- One Activity which again holds a Notes Plasmoid for feedback to the Plasma Active team, as well as other Plasmoids I play around with for feedback purposes

To handle switching between many Activities efficiently on a touch-based device, a convenient Activity switcher was introduced – called the Activity Wheel – which can be pulled out from a flap on the right screen edge.  Switching between open applications or starting new ones is done via the Peek & Launch area, which can be revealed by pulling down the bar at the top of the screen.  These two elements illustrate a general user interface concept which can be found all over Plasma Active: Having only the UI elements a user currently needs present on the screen, yet giving users easy ways to access other elements whenever they need them (i.e. without relying on hardware buttons or multitouch gestures to reveal them).

On October 9th, 2011 (9/10/11 for Europeans) we proudly released the first version of Plasma Active, with one image based on MeeGo and another one based on Balsam Professional, an openSUSE derivative.  A good year later, on October 15th, 2012, we’ve already released the third installment of Plasma Active (now based mainly on Mer, a community-driven continuation of MeeGo), which has already evolved a lot from the first one.  One of the biggest news in Plasma Active Three is our file manager, simply called Files, which hides the file system from the user completely in favor of Nepomuk, the semantic desktop.  This allows us to use Nepomuk’s power to organize files by their semantic attributes like type, date, tags, or their association with Activities, instead of their position in the file system.  We are still far from realising Nepomuk’s full potential, but you can expect new innovative ways to make use of semantic information with every new release.

Files will be another central entry point for user’s workflows besides the Activity screen.  One of our goals is to make applications move to the back seat and allow resources and tasks to take center stage.  Humans don’t think “I now want to open application XYZ to read a PDF” but instead “I want to read that article”, or “I want to email John” instead of “I want to open my email application and write a new mail with John as recipient”, so moving resources to the center of our UI is more natural than putting applications in the center, as other mobile OSes do. That’s the reason why Okular Active, our ebook/PDF reader, or Calligra Active, our office document reader, do not even have an entry in the application launcher. Users don’t care about which application is opened to display their ebooks or documents, as long as the overall experience is smooth.

Soon we’ll be joined by Björn Balazs from OpenUsability - who presented his ideas of a task-centric workflow at the same UX sprint where I learned about Plasma Active for the first time – to generate further ideas for the transition from an app-centric to a task-centric environment.

I have also taken the responsibility to create Human Interface Guidelines for Active applications, which allow developers to easily re-use existing UI components (including code snippets) and thereby ensure interaction consistency across Active applications and components.

Working with the Plasma Active team has so far been a very fun and rewarding experience, contrary to what most people in the field of Human-Computer Interaction – sadly – think about working in F/OSS projects.  Of course you have to approach things differently than in an enterprise environment. In a community project such as Plasma Active, no central authority tells others what to do.  If I want to get something changed, I need to convince the team that it’s a good idea.  While this often takes longer than just convincing a product manager to order the change, it forces me to think an idea through more carefully and prepare good arguments to convince the others.  However after sometimes long discussions, we usually have an idea everybody likes and supports, instead of a compromise nobody is happy with.  Developer sprints are especially fun and productive.  Here, a group of enthusiastic people gladly work together until late in the evening and have a beer together afterwards.  Everybody who is willing to contribute is welcome in the team, and people immediately feel connected by the common cause to bring Free Software to the mobile world, even if they have only worked together for a few weeks. I feel much more personally involved with Plasma Active – which I work on exclusively in my spare time – than with any product I ever worked on as part of a job.


Thomas Pfeiffer

Thomas Pfeiffer is a user experience professional, interaction designer and scientist who is enthusiastic about Free Software, Open Access and (digital) freedom in general. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Usable Security and in his spare time works with several KDE projects (among them Plasma Active, Calligra and Amarok).

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  • Buh-buh-buh-billy

    Any chance we will be seeing a device on retail shelves?

    What about the ecosystem?

    • Thomas Pfeiffer

      Well, actual retail _shelves_ are still a thing of an undefined future at this point, but ordering a tablet with Plasma Active preinstalled will probably be possible in the not-so-distant future. See Aaron Seigo’s blog update on this:
      http://aseigo.blogspot.de/2012/09/a-small-update-on-vivaldi.html
      Getting a device which can run a truly free OS at a reasonable price has proven to be a rough ride for Aaron and his colleagues, but they’re making real progress. However since Aaron doesn’t want to make promises he isn’t sure he can keep, there is no release date announced at this moment. I’m sure The Powerbase will keep you informed about the progress, though, so stay tuned ;)

      The structure for an ecosystem around Plasma Active is already in place, see http://dot.kde.org/2012/05/22/announcing-make-play-live-partner-network

  • brad

    Greate!I like a tablet system diffrent from the ios and android.And I wish to work with community.

    • Thomas Pfeiffer

      Hi brad,
      it’s easy to get in touch with the community. Just head over to http://www.plasma-active.org and see the “Get involved” section in the right column. We’re looking forward to seeing you on the mailing list or in our IRC channel!

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