Zip, archive, package or compress? Help!


As part of the 100 paper cuts project that we are running for the next Ubuntu release we are focussing on small usability problems that, if fixed, will make the Ubuntu desktop experience feel smoother, safer, better.

The developers are helping us fix them but we could do with usability and design input to help suggest the fixes.

Here is an example:

A new user thinks “I need to create a zip file”, and doesn’t know how to do it. If you don’t know that a zip file is an “archive”, which many new users do not, then it’s very difficult to tell how to create one. “Create archive” on the
Nautilus context menu, “Archive Manager” in the Applications menu, etc, are all meaningless. (This happened to me today when someone I know rang me for technical support to ask how to create a zip file, and when I explained how, he
said “what’s an archive?”)

Full details here.

So, usability experts, can you please help me?

To ‘zip’ or ‘archive’ is to ‘compress and package’*, no? Anyone got any data on what people are actually trying to do when they start looking for ‘zip’?

If we make it ‘Compress’ and then rather than ‘Open with Archive Manager’ just provide the option to ‘Expand’ how confident can we be? Is there a quick way we can do a little test?

I have mocked up a screen, can you please show it to one (or more if you have time) person who uses a computer and isn’t a developer and see what they make of the options on the menu? Simply ask them to tell you what each item on the menu does.

Thank you!

Oh, and if you don’t fancy this bug, there are plenty of others.

*For the moment, let’s set to one side the fact that package is a special word in Linux.

About the author


Ivanka Majic works in technology. She was Head of Design for Ubuntu, service managed Digital Marketplace through to beta, was acting director of digital for the Labour Party. She lives and works in Brighton where she works with the council’s digital first team, does a bit of teaching at Sussex University, and works with her husband on projects like and the BRAVOs. She has also started a podcast with her friend Michael which you can listen to at


  • I posed the same question to a tester here. I asked her if she knew what a “file manager” was and explained it’s like in windows when you look at “My computer” or “My Documents” where have files and can do things with them. I told her that several items had been selected then the user right-clicked and this menu was presented.

    She knew what everything did except “make links” and “sign” (and only vaguely guessed what encrypt would do – she didn’t realize that was something you could do).

    She was surprised that paste was not along the options of cut and copy (at least in disabled form).
    She thought “delete to trash” sounded Mac-like (she was a Macintosh user in the pre-OSX days).
    She said she thinks of links in a web page that go to urls when she came to the “make links” item.
    She did no specifically say “zip” when she went across the “compress” menu item.
    She was surprised that “properites” was not disabled since multiple items were selected.

    I then asked what she would do if she needed to send a zip file to someone. She said she would try “compress” first. She then proceeded to say she would then need to select that new file and send it.

    I then explained that a link is like a shortcut on Windows. She immediately understood but she wondered why you would do that in the same directory.

  • I don’t think many people outside of our industry understand terminology like ‘compress’ and ‘expand’ as these terms rely on the user to understand exactly what these processes mean. Perhaps using terms such as ‘package’ and ‘unpackage’ would be more familiar in the real world sense as the reasons for compressing files in the first place is to send to people. Or even something more descriptive like ‘package files’ and ‘unpackage files’

  • When I hear it discussed, I usually hear zip used as a verb. While to many of us zip is a file format (archive format), to a lot of people it’s what they want to do (zip the file/folder).

  • Compress to ZIP Archive. 😉

    Seriously, I’d suggest “compress”, because that’s what I think is most commonly known about this process: That it compresses files (making them smaller). For reference, it’s also the term that Mac OS X uses.

    Also, this leaves room to deviate from the ZIP format.

  • Hello! I’m not developer and I have used Ubuntu for a short time in the past, but I was put off by all of the ‘techie’ sounding commands.
    So about this menu: most of it seems clear to me, except “Make links” and “Sign”. And I think you need to use to word “Zip” somewhere. Murray’s suggestion “Create zip archive” sounds good to me.
    I’m a designer and sometimes my clients ask me to send a ‘zip file’. They always mean a compressed file or a package with multiple files, but they all tend to use the word ‘zip’.

  • I think “Archive” is the most obscure of the lot. “Zip” will be well understood by those who have significant experience using computers. That said, I believe “Compress” is the clearest verb that will immediately be obvious to all, regardless of one’s computing background.

  • Compress to Zip.
    Althpugh zip says nothing about what is actually happening it is a key term that is widely used, often as a verb.
    Also zip files historically use the term extracted, but expand should also work and makes more sense in relation to compress.
    Expand from Zip.

  • I don’t think “compress” works too well, because it implies saving space, where as this action actually takes up far more space, as it copies the selected files into an archive file.

    Also, I think that Ubuntu produces a *.tar.gz file by default, and I’m not sure that works too well on Windows (thought it may).

  • I agree with Murray. I prefer “Create Zip archive”.

    Anecdotally, I hear the word “Zip” bandied about far more than any of the other terms.

    If it doesn’t create a .zip, then of course that wouldn’t work. In that case, compress/expand is better than archive/unarchive. I don’t think “package” will do at all.

  • IMHO, “Create an archive…” would be ok, BUT ONLY IF associated to a better icon. The one shown on your screenshot is really bad : if you show it alone to someone, he’s ~0% chance to guess what is the icon for. Winzip is the reference, and using a winzip-like iconography would be great :

    It would be even better, if the icon could have a look’n feel closer to the “directory” icon (use a “directory” icon as a background ?), so that users have a chance to realize one great thing : it is possible to drag’n drop files to an archive, and it works ! 🙂

    About the “Create an archive”, here are my arguments (open to discussion… 🙂 ) :
    – associated to a good icon, the “winzip-like icon” will help users to understand what is an “archive”
    – if they *need* making a zip file, even if they have a doubt about it, they will try the “Create an archive…” menu item, yes, the one with the winzip-like icon,
    – even if making a zip file is not advanced computer science, “real basic lambda users” don’t need this. They won’t do it. Others will try “Create an archive” at first, and will then have understood what an archive is,
    – Apple use “Create archive”, and everyone knows that Apple is a religion. If you disagree, you’ll be burnt alive on Cupertino’s Main Street… Ok, I’m kidding you, but seriously : “Create an archive” will do. Juste change the icon to a good one.

  • BTW :
    – “Create Zip archive” would be weird, as users who do not want to create a *zip* file, meaning a file with a “.zip” and compatible with software that manage PKZIP compatible files, will be confused : “Eyh !! But how can I make a tar file ? Or a tgz file ?”
    – “Compress” might be misunderstood, as users may understand that it allows this file to be shrunk, in order to save diskspace,

    – About the “Make a link”, maybe “Create a shortcut” would be nice. At least it would be homogeneous with Windows. On the other hand, technically speaking, Linux links are different (and better) from Windows shortcuts, but it is conceptually very similar, from a user perspective, and… very, very rarely used…
    – the “Delete to trash” sounds very strange to me. Why not “Delete” ? Users are used to have a trash where they can retrieve files from, if needed. No need to clutter the menu with this… Or “Move to trash”, eventually, but “Delete” is pretty straightforward.
    – the Encrypt and Sign options are quite… errr… cryptic. And rarely used. Maybe these could be moved from the menu, by default, and displayed only if the user chooses activating these item in a settings menu ? Or kept there, because users who don’t need this will not mind ? I don’t know if it’s a real issue…
    – I would also change the way items are grouped in order to get this layout, where items that are often used are displayed first (except maybe properties, but it is quite a standard and I wouldn’t go for a change on this…), and items that are related one to another are grouped :

    -> Open
    -> Cut
    -> Copy
    -> Paste
    -> Create links
    -> Rename
    -> Delete
    -> Encrypt
    -> Sign
    -> Create an archive…
    -> Send to…
    -> Properties

  • I don’t want to sound bitter or whiney (whiny?) but what the heck, I’m feeling bitter and want to whine about it. If you want to sort out a problem take on one with some meat to it, like how come my 16 MB nVidia TNT cards, which have done just fine at 1024 X 768 resolution with Debian Sarge, Etch and all their ‘step-children’ (among which number are numerous versions of *buntu) suddenly come up at 800 X 600 and there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it? Or maybe you can tell my why KDE has castrated Konqueror, the finest file manager I’ve ever used, bar none. I’m stuck here. I’m a Linux user and I’m never going back ‘that other OS’ (which doesn’t deserve the publicity afforded by a negative comment mentioning its name) but I feel as though I’ve been abandoned and betrayed by folks I trusted.

  • This is a hard call to make.

    Zip _is_ often used as a verb.

    ‘Compress’ is a verb that obviously means to reduce the size.

    ‘Archive’ as a noun works, but as a verb sounds to me like hiding it somewhere dusty, away from sight (this is how Gmail uses the term).

    I suggest “Create a Compressed Archive”

  • I should justify why “Create a Compressed Archive”.

    Using ‘Compress’ with ‘Archive’ reduces the risk that the user will interpret the action as reducing file system space – as Rick Spencer points out might happen.

    Prepending “Create a” further makes the point that this is going to be bundled separately, and not reduce general disk space.

    Actually, “Bundle” is a great word! The association with packaging into a single file, I believe, would be explicit to any user. What do you think?

  • I asked my girlfriend what she thought ‘Compress..’ was.

    She looked at me, and said ‘uh, no idea’. I kept looking at her, she then said ‘uh, to make smaller?’

    I then proceeded to say, it creates a zipfile, at which point she had a flash of recognition and said ‘well it’s a tortology cuz zipfiles compress’. Point being, I think it should include the word ‘Zip’ in there somewhere. i.e.
    “Archive (Zip)..”

  • /me loves the girlfriend experiment 😀

    If zip increases discoverability, without impacting usability in another way, it should be used.

    I guess the only problem is the file format confusion. “I have already told it to make a zip, why is it asking me again!” or, if .zip isn’t selected by default, then “Why can’t my friend open the file I send him??”

    Are there any suggestions how we can avoid this confusion?

  • Ladies and gentlemen,

    We are going to go with ‘Compress…’

    The rationale: all users, regardless of how computer savvy they are, are able to anticipate what this will do. It is the most inclusive solution.

    Thank you all for your input.

    More contributions were made here: and I included the question in usability sessions.

    Yann – I would like to address your re-order of the right click menu. I agree that it needs to be done and I will open a blueprint for it and post the link.

  • I would like very much to see these usability sessions, I would like to compare since my own sessions turned up different answers with computer illiterates and Mac users.

By Ivanka

About Author


Ivanka Majic works in technology. She was Head of Design for Ubuntu, service managed Digital Marketplace through to beta, was acting director of digital for the Labour Party. She lives and works in Brighton where she works with the council’s digital first team, does a bit of teaching at Sussex University, and works with her husband on projects like and the BRAVOs. She has also started a podcast with her friend Michael which you can listen to at