2021 UI Study Results

Digging into the dock, multitasking, and more

Over the past couple of months we’ve conducted a user interface study to dig into how people multi-task on elementary OS as well as other desktop and tablet operating systems. In particular, we were interested in better learning how people use the dock, app launchers, and window management.

As we continue to iterate on the core experience of elementary OS, we are also aware of newer technologies like Wayland that we’re actively adopting to improve privacy, security, and performance—but doing so requires reworking some components like the dock and window manager to use new protocols and APIs. As long as we’re reworking some of these technical bits, it could be advantageous to rethink and improve upon the experience itself—plus, we can ensure we’re not writing new code to support legacy designs just because that’s how things worked in the past.

If that all sounds a bit ambitious… it kind of is! However, we’ve previously worked on a similar study around theming, dark styles, and night light modes that directly resulted in our implementation of a system-wide dark style as well as accent colors in elementary OS—and our advocacy in that realm helped influence GNOME’s adoption of a cross-desktop dark style that will work on both GNOME and elementary OS. That work has been years in the making, but the pay-off is well worth it.

The Need for a FreeDesktop Dark Style Preference

It’s time for the FreeDesktop to catch up

At this point in the study, we have our raw data and have started digging into it to identify patterns and set priorities. Much like with the dark style study, the effects of this study may take some time to pan out, but I wanted to share our initial findings to kick the work off. We intend to follow up in the future to further share what we’ve inferred from the data, and how we expect it to influence our design going forward. We also hope these more raw results will be of use to other projects and desktops if they wish to draw their own conclusions; we’re happy to participate in larger cross-desktop discussions and share this openly for all.

Questions & Raw Stats

The study was conducted as a web survey posted to social media and open source forums from December, 2021 through January, 2022. We asked participants to first identify which desktop and tablet platforms they used (including Android on a tablet, Chrome OS, elementary OS, GNOME, iPadOS, KDE, macOS, Ubuntu, Windows, and other Linux-based desktops), and how often they used each platform (ranging from never to daily); an initial look at grouping by this data did not reveal substantial differences in the answers (around +/- 5% difference for each option), but we will continue to look into the data to see if any significant patterns emerge. If so, we’ll publish an update to these findings.

The following questions were presented in these sections and this order:


e.g. the Applications Menu on elementary OS, Launchpad on macOS, Start menu on Windows, etc.

This section had 2,843 responses.

How often do you click/tap on an app in an app launcher to open your frequently-used apps?

Excluding using search, e.g. clicking an app icon in the Applications Menu on elementary OS, Launchpad on macOS, Start menu on Windows, etc.

  • Never
  • Infrequently (less than weekly)
  • Frequently (approximately weekly)
  • Daily (multiple times per week)

Of the respondents, 10% responded that they never click or tap on an app in an app launcher to open frequently-used apps. 25% responded infrequently, 22% responded frequently, and the largest group at 43% responded daily. With some simple grouping, we can look at the results in another way:

  • Over 90% of respondents click/tap on an app in an app launcher to open their frequently-used apps at least sometimes.

  • Around 65% of respondents frequently or daily click/tap on an app in an app launcher to open their frequently-used apps, while around 35% do so infrequently or not at all.

When looking at frequent or daily users of elementary OS specifically, the breakdown was very similar: 8% never, 24% infrequently, 23% frequently, and 45% daily.

How often do you use search to open your frequently-used apps?

e.g. searching by name or function in the Applications Menu on elementary OS, Spotlight on macOS, search on Windows, etc.

  • Never
  • Infrequently (less than weekly)
  • Frequently (approximately weekly)
  • Daily (multiple times per week)

5% responded never, 13% responded infrequently, 18% responded frequently, and a clear majority at 64% responded daily. Similar to above, we can reframe this a bit:

  • Around 95% of respondents use search to open their frequently-used apps at least sometimes.

  • Around 82% of respondents frequently or daily use search to open their frequently-used apps, while around 18% do so infrequently or not at all.

When looking at frequent or daily users of elementary OS specifically, the breakdown was similar: 7% never, 16% infrequently, 22% frequently, and 55% daily.

We also asked, “Anything else to share about how you launch apps and search?”, and we’ve been digging through these free-form responses. Many clarify when and how people prefer using search versus an app launcher.


Dock or taskbar

This first question was used as a filter for the following questions; people who responded “yes” received the follow-up dock-related questions, while anyone who responded “no” or “not sure” skipped the rest of the section.

Do you use a dock or taskbar?

e.g. the dock on elementary OS or macOS, the taskbar on Windows, a panel, etc.

  • Yes
  • No
  • Not sure

86% responded yes, 13% responded no, and 2% responded not sure. As a result, the following questions in this section received 2,431 responses.

How often do you use a dock or taskbar to open your frequently-used apps?

e.g. the dock on elementary OS or macOS, the taskbar on Windows, a panel, etc.

  • Never
  • Infrequently (less than weekly)
  • Frequently (approximately weekly)
  • Daily (multiple times per week)

Of those who use a dock or taskbar, 3% responded they never use it to open their frequently-used apps, 5% responded infrequently, 14% responded frequently, while the largest group at 79% responded daily. Grouping the responses:

  • 97% of respondents who use a dock or taskbar use it at least sometimes to open their frequently-used apps

  • Around 93% do so frequently or daily

When looking at frequent or daily users of elementary OS specifically, the breakdown was similar, with a larger skew towards daily users: 1% never, 3% infrequently, 11% frequently, and 85% daily.

Do you remove or replace the default items on the dock or taskbar?

e.g. the dock on elementary OS or macOS, the taskbar on Windows, a panel, etc.

  • None
  • A few (less than half)
  • Most (half or more)
  • All

Of those who use a dock or taskbar, 2% responded they remove or replace none of default items on the dock or taskbar. 21% responded they remove or replace a few (less than half), 58% responded they remove or replace most (half or more), and 19% responded they remove or replace all the default items. Grouping the responses differently:

  • A whopping 98% of respondents remove or replace at least some items on the dock or taskbar

  • Around 76% of respondents remove or replace half or more of the items

When looking at frequent or daily users of elementary OS specifically, the breakdown was very similar: 2% none, 23% a few, 60% half, 15% all.

Do you add or pin apps you use frequently to the dock or taskbar?

e.g. the dock on elementary OS or macOS, the taskbar on Windows, a panel, etc.

  • Yes
  • No

Of those who use a dock or taskbar, 93% responded yes, they do add or pin apps they use frequently to the dock or taskbar, while 7% responded no, they do not.

When looking at frequent or daily users of elementary OS specifically, the breakdown was even more in favor of pinning: 96% yes, 4% no.


Files and folders

Next, we dug into files and folders—especially as they relate to the dock. This section was select-all-that-apply and had 2,843 responses.

How do you typically open files and folders?

Select all that apply

  • OS-wide search

  • File manager app (e.g. Files on elementary OS, Finder on macOS, Explorer on Windows, etc.)

  • Taskbar or dock (e.g. pinned files or shortcuts)

  • From inside apps (e.g. opening a document from inside a word processor app)

  • Files and folders are kept on the desktop’

  • Other…: _______________

30% responded they typically open files and folders using OS-wide search, 96% responded a file manager app, 15% responded taskbar or dock, 43% responded from inside apps, and 13% responded that their files and folders are kept on the desktop. Of the other responses, many were clarifications about the choices, but we have been able to collate the most popular being 7% of responses mentioning some form of terminal or CLI. 4% answered other without expanding on the answer.

The results for frequent or daily users of elementary OS are similar: 27% responded OS-wide search, 96% responded file manager, 17% responded taskbar or dock, 45% responded from inside apps, and 13% responded on the desktop.


Multitasking

This section gets into how respondents multi-task, e.g. switch between apps and windows. Our interest here is specifically to understand how the dock fits into multitasking and window management, but we didn’t want to lead responses in one direction or another. This section was select-all-that-apply and had 2,843 responses.

How do you usually tell which apps are currently open in the background?

  • Dock or taskbar

  • Alt+tab or window switching

  • Multitasking view (e.g. Multitasking View on elementary OS, Mission Control on macOS, Task View on Windows, Activities view on GNOME, etc.)

  • Other…: _______________

69% responded dock or taskbar, 41% responded alt+tab or window switching, 59% responded multitasking view. 2% answered other without expanding on the answer. Less than 1% responded with some mention of a task manager or system monitor, while around 2% responded with a mention of system tray icons or app indicators.

The results for frequent or daily users of elementary OS are similar, with a notably higher skew for the dock: 75% responded dock or taskbar, 43% responded alt+tab, and 60% responded multitasking view.

How do you usually switch between open apps?

  • Dock or taskbar

  • Alt+tab or window switching

  • Multitasking view (e.g. Multitasking View on elementary OS, Mission Control on macOS, Task View on Windows, Activities view on GNOME, etc.)

  • Other…: _______________

53% responded dock or taskbar, 73% responded alt+tab or window switching, 52% responded multitasking view.

The results for frequent or daily users of elementary OS are similar, with a higher skew for the dock: 58% responded dock or taskbar, 73% responded alt+tab, and 51% responded multitasking view.

How do you usually switch between open windows of the same app?

  • Dock or taskbar

  • Alt+tab or window switching

  • Multitasking view (e.g. Multitasking View on elementary OS, Mission Control on macOS, Task View on Windows, Activities view on GNOME, etc.)

  • Other…: _______________

43% responded dock or taskbar, 62% responded alt+tab or window switching, 45% responded multitasking view.

The results for frequent or daily users of elementary OS are identical: 43% responded dock or taskbar, 62% responded alt+tab, 45% responded multitasking view.

We also asked, “Anything else to share about how you use multitasking?”, and we’ve been digging through these free-form responses. Some of the highlights for me have been mentions of multiple displays, tiling, and multi-touch gestures.


Closing apps

We wanted to be sure to cover how the dock is used for closing apps, but didn’t want to ask leading questions; as such, we asked how people typically close apps and included the dock as one of many options. This section was select-all-that-apply and had 2,843 responses.

How do you usually close apps that are open?

  • Closing with a button in the app/on its titlebar

  • Using a context menu on the dock/taskbar

  • Keyboard shortcuts (e.g. Ctrl+Q or Alt+F4)

  • From a multitasking view (e.g. Multitasking View on elementary OS, Mission Control on macOS, Task View on Windows, Activities view on GNOME, etc.)

  • Other…: _______________

85% responded a button in the app/on its titlebar, 23% responded context menu on the dock/taskbar, 62% responded keyboard shortcuts, 29% responded multitasking view. 1% responded other without expanding on the answer.

The results for frequent or daily users of elementary OS are similar: 87% responded a button in the app/on its titlebar, 24% responded context menu on the dock/taskbar, 58% responded keyboard shortcuts, 26% responded multitasking view.


App actions

As above, we wanted to be sure to cover how the dock specifically is used for app actions, but didn’t want to ask leading questions. This first question was used as a filter for the following questions; people who responded “yes” received the follow-up actions-related questions, while anyone who responded “no” or “not sure” skipped the rest of the section.

Do you use app actions or shortcuts?

To jump to a specific section or function of an app *without opening the app first.* For example, “New Incognito Window” for a web browser or “Compose Message” for an email client.

  • Yes
  • No
  • Not sure

54% responded yes, 34% responded no, and 13% responded not sure. As a result, the following questions in this section received 1,595 responses.

How do you usually use app actions?

To jump to a specific section or function of an app *without opening the app first.* For example, “New Incognito Window” for a web browser or “Compose Message” for an email client.

  • Search (e.g. searching for actions by name in an app launcher)

  • Context menu in app launcher (e.g. right-clicking or long-pressing an app icon in the Applications Menu, Start menu, etc.)

  • Context menu on dock (e.g. right-clicking or long-pressing an app icon on the dock or taskbar)

  • Other…: _______________

41% responded search, 53% responded context menu in app launcher, 66% responded context menu on dock.

Frequent or daily users of elementary OS answered similarly, but with an interesting skew towards the dock over other methods: 36% answered search, 46% answered app launcher, and 68% answered dock.

We also asked, “Anything else to share about how you use app actions?”, and we’ve been digging through these free-form responses. Some highlights were about them being more used on mobile OSes, that they wish more apps supported them, that they forget this is a feature, and how they work on other OSes.


Glanceable information

These questions were again to look at how the dock is used, but were written to be non-leading and to include the dock as one of multiple options. Unlike previous questions, these were also select any that apply without a free-form “other” option.

Where do you look to check the status of long running tasks?

e.g. the progress of a download

  • Notifications
  • Progress bar on the app’s dock/taskbar icon
  • In the app window itself

45% responded notifications, 60% responded progress bar, and 74% responded in the app window. Less than 1% skipped the question.

Responses from frequent or daily users of elementary OS were similar, but with notably fewer relying on notifications and a slightly higher skew towards the dock progress bar (possibly because elementary OS has this feature, whereas some other platforms do not): 34% responded notifications, 63% responded progress bar in dock, and 72% responded in app window.

Where do you look to see items that need action in an app?

e.g. outstanding tasks, or new messages

  • Notifications
  • Badge on the app’s dock/taskbar icon
  • In the app window itself

67% responded notifications, 59% responded badge, and 60% responded in the app window. Less than 1% skipped the question.

The results for frequent or daily users of elementary OS are similar, but with a much higher skew towards dock badges—possibly because elementary OS has this feature by default but other platforms do not: 66% responded notifications, 67% responded badge, and 57% responded in the app.


Anything else?

Lastly, we asked “Anything else to share about the topics of this study?”, and we’ll be reading through those responses to better understand some of the more qualitative aspects of the study compared to the raw data.


What’s Next

We’ve started analyzing and using this data to plan for our new Wayland-compatible dock; more on that effort soon! In the meantime, follow along on our public project board.

Wording and self-reporting from the user interface study might affect results, and I don’t pretend that this sample speaks for the entirety of FreeDesktop users. However, it’s a useful dataset of 2,843 responses that can help identify larger patterns. Percentages from the study are rounded to the nearest percent, so you may see things adding up to 101% or similar if there are half-percents involved.


Thank You

Thanks to all of our supporters, backers, and customers! Your contributions make elementary possible. If you’d like to help build and improve elementary OS, don’t hesitate to Get Involved.

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