What windows I use window titlebars on

February 20, 2011

Yesterday, I said that I consider window titlebars as user interface elements and think it's sensible to ask if they're useful for any particular interface. As you might have guessed from what I've written, I don't consider consistency between programs to justify bad interfaces in things that I use a lot, and so I'm perfectly willing to eliminate titlebars on some of my windows if they're not justified.

So, are they justified for me?

In my environment, there are a continuum of answers. In some cases (such as xrun) I consider the titlebar an essential part of the interface; if I didn't have a titlebar, I'd have to display the same information in the main program area somehow. At the other extreme are things like my digital clock display, where a titlebar would be utterly pointless (and indeed normal people's environments make such things into 'applets', which don't have titlebars either). In the middle ground are cases like web browsers. A lot of the time a web browser's titlebar (showing the <title> of the page) is essentially pointless; it either shows stuff I don't care about or duplicates information on the page itself. But some of the time a browser's titlebar information is actually pretty useful, and in general I've found that leaving it out feels a little too minimal; a web page by itself can be awfully blank-faced, and having a titlebar somehow makes it a bit better.

(Honestly compels me to also admit that having titlebars is my window manager's default behavior, and sometimes I use a program more than a bit but not quite enough to go to the effort of turning its titlebars off.)

The situation with my terminal windows is complicated, but they don't have conventional titlebars. Ultimately the reason is not that their titlebars wouldn't have useful information, but that they take up too much space because I use so many terminal windows and I overlap them so much. The result is that I want as much space for real text as possible; space for titlebars is space that I can't be using for real text, so out they go. I work around the loss of information in part by putting the hostname (and an indication of whether or not I'm root) into my shell prompt.

Sidebar: how I deal with missing window controls

Of course showing the window's title is only part of the purpose of titlebars (arguably the lesser purpose these days). They also contain various standard controls for things like closing the window or maximizing it, and they give you something to grap onto to move it. With no titlebar, I don't have those controls either.

My solution is twofold. First, I attach the window operations that I do a lot to 'chorded' mouse buttons; for example, Alt plus the middle mouse button will move a window. Second, I have a popup menu in my window manager that gives me do all of the things that the titlebar controls do; this is arguably slower than the controls themselves, but is not too annoying for infrequently used options.

I say it's only arguably slower because of Fitts's Law. Titlebar controls are usually fairly small and must be hit with relative accuracy. My popup menus require very little precision at all to summon and generally have larger targets once they've popped up. Thus I would not be surprised if actual measurements showed that experienced users could perform window management faster through popup menus than through the controls.

(Of course this is where everyone notes that keyboard controls are even faster.)

Comments on this page:

From at 2011-02-20 08:53:37:

Your recent posts on your graphical environment are really insightful, but for visualization, I think a screenshot would be helpful.

Personally, I use cwm which has no window decoration other than a simple border at all. All commands are run from the keyboard (well, what do you need? close, maximize, virtual desktops) or from mouse chords (move, resize, raise/lower). Makes the system unusuable for the uninducted, but is very efficient (and consistent) for the regular user.

From at 2011-02-21 05:07:11:

Like the previous commenter, I use a window manager[1] with no decorations other than a border, and also use keys to control it. All the window operations I use are bound to keys, so I can move them around and resize them, and it also is a `tiling' window manager with everything maximized to its own area of the screen.

I've not found anything where I need the window titlebar at all, and don't miss using the mouse to move windows about :)

[1] StumpWM (http://www.nongnu.org/stumpwm/)

By cks at 2011-02-22 10:36:23:

I've now put up a snapshot of my current office desktop here. This is two physical LCD panels, and you can probably guess where the dividing line is.

I'll make an actual entry about this later (with a guide and everything).

Written on 20 February 2011.
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