We've been having a lot of discussion regarding the two recent posts on the Windows 8 Start experience. Those of you who have used the Developer Preview are contributing to our understanding of your individual usage patterns and what is easier or more difficult than in Windows 7. As a reminder, we released Windows Developer Preview build with the full product "enabled" even though we still had much feature work to do in the user interface. We did this in order to foster the dialog and we want folks to understand that the product is not done. We've seen some small amount of visceral feedback focused on "choice" or "disable"—a natural reaction to change, but perhaps not the best way to have a dialog leading to a new product. We’re going to focus this post on making sure we heard your constructive feedback around the design as we continue to evolve it. Marina Dukhon, a senior program manager lead on the Core Experience team, authored this post focused on specific comments and the actions we are taking based on what you have said. --Steven

On behalf of the team, I want to thank everyone for their active engagement on the Start screen blogs over this past week. We have been following all of the comments and responding as much as we can. We know major changes like this can be controversial and we are looking forward to continuing this dialog with you. I wanted to address some of the specific topics that have been brought up so far as they pertain to the design. I know this doesn’t address all of your questions, but rest assured that we are listening and will be continuing this ongoing conversation.

Does the data support all customers?

@Andrew wrote:

"I'd like to point out that this data you collect is most likely from non-corporate users, you're basing all your statistics around home users and not business users. Most enterprises will turn off the CEIP by default in Group Policy as a security precaution and to prevent chatter from the network."

Andrew, while it’s true that some enterprises choose not to enable the CEIP (Customer Experience Improvement Program, which gives us anonymous, opt-in feedback about how people are using Windows,) we still receive a huge amount of data from this program, including from enterprise customers. In addition, knowing the region, language, edition, and deployment attributes of the product allows us to further refine the data as needed. We often refer to this data as a full "census" (again noting that the data is opt-in and anonymous) as the number of unique data points is magnitudes beyond a "sampling."

In addition to the CEIP program, we have a wide variety of channels to our corporate customers to understand their needs. For example, we collect feedback continuously during direct engagement with customers (such as during on-site visits and in our briefing centers around the world), from advisory council and early-adopter program members, and at public events such as TechEd and //build/. We also work closely with industry analysts (via consultations and their research) and execute a wide range of our own research studies directly. From these interactions, we know the kind of functionality and control that enterprises want over the Start menu and we are definitely taking these into account as we are designing and developing the changes for Windows 8.

When you look at the data, we can see that enterprise customers do, in fact, have some different experiences with their Start menus:

  • While 81% of home users have the default links like Control Panel, Games, and Documents on right hand-side of the Start menu , fewer than 2% of our enterprise customers have this experience.
  • Most people have removed some items in this part of the Start menu (with Games and Media Center entry points most often removed).
  • Enterprise users are launching pinned Start menu apps 68% more often than home users, but the usage of pinned items is still less than 10% of the sessions.
What are we doing with this information?

In general, individual enterprise customers are using Start menus that their administrators have customized. Using this research and our engagement with the enterprise community, we are working on special features that can help address the need for customization in the Start screen. For example, enterprises can remove items like Games and Help & Support from the Start screen. For Windows 8, we support deployment scenarios that include Start screens with a layout of tiles that matches their business group’s needs, allowing for an even greater number of pinned apps to be pre-defined for their users. We also support the managed lockdown of customization of the Start screen so that it is consistent across the corporation. These features have been built especially for our enterprise customers, taking into account the existing functionality that we have provided in the past and the needs that we perceive they will have in the future. And as many know, tech-savvy individuals can use these customizations as well.

Is Start less effective for “at a glance” viewing of my PC?

@mt327000 wrote:

"The Start Screen feels like a mess of icons, having all of the problems with the Start Menu you described and adding some of its own. I keep a very neat and orderly desktop, and can see everything on my computer in a glance in the "All Programs" view introduced in Windows Vista. To me, the Start Screen just doesn't work, nor does it have any advantages over the superior Start Menu."

The comments have been very clear that knowing what’s on your PC and seeing it at a glance is an important aspect of feeling in control. Let’s talk a little bit about how this works in the Start menu and how it compares to the Start screen.

In the Start menu today, when you expand the All Programs flyout, by default you can see a total of 20 apps without scrolling, regardless of how big your monitor is. In one of our studies, we found users launched an average of 57 different apps over the course of several months. And this doesn’t even include the large number of websites that people use day to day (for the purposes of launching and pinning we believe counting websites is important), some of which may evolve into Metro style apps. So you can see how a little window that shows 20 items does not prove scalable in this scenario. The comments have been clear that this scale is routine for those that are reading the blog, and we believe your usage would skew in this direction.

All Programs on the Start menu

Once apps are installed on the machine, you’ll likely need to scroll All Programs view in order to see all app folders

In addition to the limited real estate, apps in All Programs are buried under folders and subfolders of hierarchy, without any iconography to help you navigate to the right place. To make matters worse, things are often jumping around as you expand and collapse folders looking for the right app, making the experience even less efficient. Some have noted that this limitation is a design regression from the Windows XP Start menu. While technically that is true, we are fundamentally working with a menu, and as such, it is a single column with hierarchy that requires significant dexterity to navigate. The feedback around the scale of the old Windows XP design was resoundingly negative over time and led to the redesign for Vista and Windows 7.

In Windows 8 we assume that there are even more apps (and sites) than the XP/Vista/7 eras and so we needed even more scale. We also wanted to provide an at-a-glance view and a navigation model that requires much less dexterity. By using the full screen, we can now show more apps without the need to scroll or navigate hierarchy. By flattening the hierarchy, we provide a way for you to leverage the iconography of the apps and remove the burden of clicking through folders trying to find an app under its manufacturer’s name. Over time this will also address another common complaint, which is that when renaming, combining, or reorganizing folders (which you might do in order to keep the menu from wrapping) you would lose the ability to uninstall cleanly, and thus subject yourself to a periodic garbage collection of your Start menu to avoid dead links.

As we will talk about later in this post, the dexterity required to navigate a very large menu interface is inconsistent with good user interface design. Even if the items you wish to target are rarely targeted, the whole experience is degraded when constrained to a menu. Some have suggested that using XP-style menus that wrap around the screen, or increasing the size of today’s Start menu would “solve” the issues we are working to solve. Below we will talk about Fitts’ Law and how no increase in size or wrapping will address this. As DPI and monitor sizes increase, it becomes increasingly difficult to zig-zag around the menu to hit narrow buttons. Here is a screen shot submitted via a comment by @Bleipriester, where you can see the mouse “path” required as well as the additional navigation aid of the down/up chevrons. Keep this in mind as we discuss Fitts’ Law below.

@Bleipriester’s Start menu proposal, with 3 columns of navigation

@Bleipriester’s evolved Start menu, showing several columns of navigation

Thus as your monitor gets bigger, the Apps screen (an all-apps view of the Start screen) becomes more powerful. Here is how the number of apps that show up in the Apps screen grows across different monitor sizes in our latest builds:

Likely form factor

Size
(inches)

Resolution(s)

# Tiles on 1 page of Apps screen

# of Items on 1 page of All Programs

Laptop

12.1

1280x800

36

20

 

13

1366x768

40

20

 

13.3

1440x900

42

20

Desktop

21.5

1920x1080

80

20

 

23

1920x1080

80

20

 

27

2560x1440

150

20

Estimated number of apps visible on the Apps screen across different monitors

Your comments have been clear and we agree with many of the design issues you’ve raised. Some of you have mentioned how it’s difficult to find an app when its folder name is no longer available and how completely removing the folder structure has made it difficult to find an app that came in a suite.

To cite @aroush:

The current metro-list of all apps is not suitable, since that lists everything alphabetically and I don't know the names of all those additional programs."

We are working on addressing this feedback as we speak. Here is our latest design of the Apps screen, which would add back the structure that you’re used to with folders in All Programs today.

Redesigned Apps screen with suites of apps organized in groups

You can see here that, as in the Start menu, suites of apps are now organized in groups, instead of in one alphabetical list. This way, if you are looking for something that you know came in your Visual Studio suite, but can’t recall the exact name of the app, it should be much easier for you to find. And your alphabetical list should no longer be cluttered with app tiles that have obscure names because the developer was relying on the folder name to convey the actual name of the executable.

In addition to adding folder structure to this screen and organizing apps within their respective suites, we are also making this view denser. Fitting even more content helps you see what your computer has installed at a glance and decreases the need to scroll. It also decreases the need to navigate a wrapping menu structure or maintain folders or nested folders of programs.

With this design, we improved the scannability of your system, giving you confidence about what is on it at any given time.

Does the new Start support the kind of customization I require to be productive for my work?

@Ed1P wrote:

"While I can see that the Metro style Start replacement works well for touch screens on small form-factor computers it will dramatically reduce my productivity on a desktop with a large widescreen monitor. I have 50 apps+folders that I visit regularly during the course of a working session. I do not now use my customized Windows 7 Start Menu (yes you CAN customize it, and do all the things Alice says are impossible, just by right-clicking on 'All Programs' at the base of the start menu and rejigging the Program Folders), Instead I now use the free Stardock Fences app which allows me to group these as immediately accessible tiles on the screen.

I recognize the similarity between my groups of Stardock Fences and Metro Start Screen 'pages', however the one big difference which makes Fences more productive than Metro is that I can have them grouped and pinned vertically on the left hand side of my screen, leaving the right hand side free for live update gadgets and the center as a very workable 1200x1024 area --- I can happily code or 3D model in this area and instantly switch what I'm doing while still keeping an eye on Live updates. I rarely use the taskbar, it just becomes an autohide alert area.

Metro would be much more usable for my desktop layout if it were possible to use it vertically and pin it to the side. Even better, if it can be split in two vertically scrollable areas - Live updates/gadgets in one area and app, folder/file launching in another, leaving me a large area of working screen real estate in the center."

Thanks for writing this up. You’ve obviously taken a lot of time to customize your machine to get it how you like it. This is a good example of how Windows is able to provide flexibility to our wide breadth of users. We will continue supporting such flexibility in Windows 8 and we expect there to continue to be a wide array of 3rd party launchers available to users to meet their specific needs. A good deal of obvious extensibility was intentionally omitted from the Developer Preview and will be there in the final product—colors and backgrounds, for example. But let’s focus on this advanced level of customization.

The level of customization that you have applied to your machine is certainly something that we consider an “advanced” user might do. Your level of advancement is also apparent in your app and folder usage within a working session. The table shows what we see people doing on their machines during the course of a working session:

Peak number of open windows

% of sessions

0-5

20.40%

6-9

49.30%

10-14

21.30%

15-19

4.60%

20-24

2.69%

25-29

1.30%

30-39

0.23%

40-49

0.08%

50-59

0.03%

60-79

0.03%

80-99

0.01%

100+

0.03%

The maximum number of windows people have open at a given time during a session

So you can see that your numbers are certainly beyond our “average” user, but we do have users of all levels using our system. At the low end, some folks might say this represents a “quick” session where you log on to do one thing and then log off (and even professionals do that). At the high end, this data might also include people who inadvertently launched malware and had tons of open windows. That’s why when looking at the data in aggregate we are confident that the averages tend to work out to be realistic. We know that there’s a tendency to try to use data to make one point or another—that’s why we want to provide the full context of the data here and make sure any limitations are understood. We provide this data to illuminate choices in the design, not to prescribe them.

While some might say we design the system for the low-end, that is not the case at all. At the other end of the spectrum, we hope everyone can see that designing the system for the high end would put a conceptual burden on broad set of customers. Our design point is to focus on a sweet spot and to provide the flexibility for the high end. There's nothing new to our approach here and it is how we approach Windows design overall.

One of the popular aspects of Fences is that you can group your items together in a logical manner and even name your groups. But you also pointed out the difficulty in this design – the groups are on the desktop, which inherently sits underneath all of your open windows, making it difficult to get to while you’re in the midst of working on something. Since I don’t know what your setup looks like, it’s hard to know if my assumptions below are correct, but perhaps I can assume what at least some with this approach might have to manage around routinely (though from the sound of things you work hard to find a careful balance). One would spend time reorganizing the workspace to allow open windows to sit next to your launcher, allowing yourself to quickly access the launcher and keep an eye on the live updates, but at the cost of less screen real estate and more manual and fragile window management.

The value of arranging content on a 2-D plane

Another important aspect of Fences is the spatial arrangement that you can use to organize shortcuts. We know that remembering where something is located is much easier in a 2-dimensional space than in a 1-dimensional list. Our brains are naturally inclined to remember location, in addition to other properties like color and size. So finding an item that you already remember is in the top right of your screen is often faster than scanning through an alphabetical list. Another common critique of Start menu folders is that they all start with the same letter and differentiating requires reading several words in (for example, graphics professionals have a lot of folders starting with "A" for one manufacturer of those tools).

There is a large body of research to support that having multiple characteristics or attributes makes it easier to locate a specific item quickly and efficiently.  Windows already takes advantage of this, by showing details about files or search results, or showing both a thumbnail and a title for windows you have open.  We designed the Start screen to take advantage of characteristics of human cognitive processing. These characteristics are basic neurological patterns baked into the evolution that got us to using computers in the first place:

  • Human spatial memory - Your ability to remember where you put something or where something will appear.  This also includes taking advantage of spatial relationships, how different items are located in space relative to each other.
  • Muscle memory - A motor task that becomes automatic and can be performed without conscious effort.
  • Chunking – Grouping of items to make them easier to recall later.
  • Signal detection theory – Your ability to identify an item of interest even when there is lots of ”noise” or items which are not of interest.

We wanted to create a design that capitalizes on these attributes. With the All Programs view and the Most Frequently Used (MFU) or Pinned lists in the Start menu, we were very limited in terms of space and layout. It is impossible to develop a rich spatial framework with a one-dimensional list.  With the Start screen we can take advantage of a two-dimensional space. Microsoft Research has demonstrated in a series of different research studies, including their work on spatial memory for document management, for information retrieval, and on the Task Gallery, that it is possible to improve retrieval of items, even after 6 months of disuse, by adding richer organization over one-dimensional visual text lists. We wanted to take advantage of this effect to make it faster to locate specific apps on the Start screen. 

Many have mentioned using large monitors or multiple monitors. While the immediate reaction has been that the Start screen is less optimal for this approach, our design goal has been precisely to bring enhanced functionality for this environment. As with many cases, it should be no surprise to learn that the development team comprises a large number of very high tech power users with multiple HD+ screens running many Win32 applications all the time. The Start screen on a central monitor allows for the most rapid “in and out” of launching and switching when you are using a large number of apps and sites. And at the same time, the ability to have a heads-up display of status across a variety of (yet to be written) business applications will provide a new level of functionality.

Taking advantage of spatial arrangement on the Start screen

The grouping of tiles in the Start screen was designed with these principles in mind. We know that sizes of groups will naturally vary based on the kinds of items that you’re throwing together. Not only does this flexibility help with organization, but it also helps by creating a heterogeneous layout where shapes and sizes vary from group to group. This makes it easier to find a tile when you know it’s in a small group with an uneven edge on its right side or in a large group that looks like a full rectangle.

A schematic representation of the Start screen layout

Start screen layout takes advantage of position, shape, co-location, and color to help you find apps

In addition to group sizes and shapes, I can leverage several other factors to find my tile. Whether it’s because it is at the top right of a group (the red tile), next to the wide green tile in the big group (the black tile), the first square tile at the top of my big group (light blue tile), or the last tile in my Start screen (yellow tile), I have several attributes I can now rely on to find something. The same thing happens when you look at groups of tiles – I can use general color and group shape to identify the group that contains my games or the group that contains my news apps as I scroll through the screen.

Explaining spatial recognition through evolution

From an evolutionary perspective, this type of recognition is rooted in our most basic survival skills in our subconscious. Humans use more than one sense to map a stimulus. You need to locate each stimulus (where is it?) and triage it (will it eat me?). You also need to remember it for future processing and comparison. The key to making this fast and fluid is to present enough information that you can select correctly and remember your selection, without taking so much processing that your brain needs to pause to interpret what it has just perceived.

If all of this sounds familiar, it is basically why iconic presentations tend to be more efficient. It is also why irregular patterns can provide visual cues that reduce the need to process information, and rely just on sensory-motor skills. And of course, it is why large blocks of similarly formatted text in a menu (or graphical buttons) can take the most time and brain processing power. Here's a good layperson's article on elements of visual perception and of course there are many deep technical articles as well.

Incidentally, some folks have suggested we use less spacing, more transparency, or rounded corners to add more visual "candy" to the design. The clarity of spacing, solid edges and backgrounds, and rectangles is a significant improvement in the ability to identify your programs and to prevent overloading your brain causing headaches and the like (see this University of Massachusetts examination of the edge enhancement illusion and this one on the value that colors provide). Essentially these aesthetic additions trick your brain into thinking it needs to spend more time "understanding" the stimuli rather than just reacting to what it perceives.

How we are  making customization better

In terms of customization, you are definitely correct in saying that today you can customize the existing Start menu. The method that @Ed1p mentioned allows you to rename folders (breaking uninstall), move around files (breaking per user and per machine setup) and basically reorganize the tree of apps that exist on the system. For those brave souls out there who want to use drag and drop within the Start menu, this is also possible (albeit highly error prone).

However, these are very advanced ways of customizing your system, and unfortunately do not scale to a broad set of customers even if we initially intended them to. Not only do they take a lot of time, but the method is indirect since you’re not actually working within the Start menu. So it requires a lot of burdensome back and forth between Explorer windows and menu flyouts to get to the final result.

The personalization of the Start screen is one of the features that we want to make great, and we’re still iterating on it and to make it better. In the Windows Developer Preview, you can already try flexible group sizes, unpinning tiles, and resizing wide tiles to square tiles. And in the Beta, you’ll also be able to use other improvements based on this dialog, in addition to creating, naming, and rearranging groups.

@drewfus pointed out:

"When i said 'The list of apps (and hence tiles) on a PC is neither known nor fixed', i was alluding to the fact that this list is not constant - it grows over time, but more importantly that the chronological order of additions in no way matches the importance of new additions (except by coincidence), resulting in a constant impact on the users existing Start layout."

This is a good point – your set of apps is likely going to continue to grow and change over time and you may find your new favorite apps months after you first organized your Start screen. Our goal is to balance your ability to keep control over your Start screen (i.e. not impacting what you’ve already organized when you acquire new apps by putting them at the end), while also making it simple to change it when you want. Group rearranging helps enable the particular scenario that @drewfus mentions – as you get more apps over time, it’s quite possible that your new favorite apps are now at the end of your Start screen. With group rearranging, we make it easy for you to move an entire group of apps to the front, without having to move them one tile at a time and you can just as easily demote a group of apps and put them at the end.

The Developer Preview was obviously incomplete in this regard, and given the importance we attach to this, we fully expect to land on a solution that combines flexibility with overall improvement that justifies the change from previous products.

The ability to put apps where you want them in a spatial layout, to use groupings to better enable recognition, and to move the tiles around on the screen should be a vast improvement over the Start menu. We believe this opens up a whole new world of organization and customization that will dramatically improve working with extremely large sets of apps and shortcuts.

Did you just make us invest in jump lists and then take them away?

@tN0 wrote:

“Implement Jump Lists to the Live Tiles at the Start screen. Swiping up on a tile or right click could bring up a Jump List.”

Having a way to quickly access content within an app is a great feature and we're happy to see the enthusiasm and increasing usage for jump lists in Windows 7. We have developed something new for Metro style apps that builds on the jump list concept. We think it will be even more powerful for end-users and an even richer opportunity for app developers. But first, some background on jump list usage in Windows today.

Current usage of jump lists

Though jump lists are often referenced with positive energy by our enthusiast users, the fact of the matter is that the usage of jump lists in the Start menu (most recently used documents for an app, for example) has not really gained as much traction as on the taskbar. To compare, 20% of sessions record a click to open a taskbar jump list, while only 1.2% of sessions record a click to invoke a Start menu jump list. People also use hover to invoke the Start menu jump list (and drag to invoke the taskbar jump list), but it’s difficult to use these numbers because we can’t tell whether the menu was opened intentionally or simply because the mouse was hovering over the item long enough to trigger it. Either way, even with accidental activations via mouse hover, at best, the Start menu jump lists are used half as often as those of the taskbar.

Applying this to Metro style apps

Given this data, we knew it was important to keep jump lists on the taskbar for your most commonly used desktop apps. But, we wanted to build something more customized for Metro style apps. The downside of existing jump lists is that they’re limited to what Windows understands best– files. This is great for file-centric apps, but apps today are moving away from the notion of files and turning to hosted content, which makes the concept of document jump lists less relevant.

Instead of building on and promoting file structure, our view for Metro style apps is more app-centric. The apps know better what kind of content they host: whether it’s an RSS feed, an album, a score tracker, or a person’s profile, and they can do a much better job exposing quick access to this content to the user. This content doesn’t involve files on the system that Windows knows about – it’s knowledge within the app. We’ve expanded the jump list concept to provide semantically richer links.

But we don’t want to have to manage several lists of our favorite stuff. One of the promises of the Start screen is that it is your personal place to host the apps that you love. We based the secondary tiles feature, on the notion that people want fast access to app content that they require for work, and they want a single, predictable place to access it. With this feature, any Metro style app can allow a user to pin a new tile to their Start screen that can navigate them to any part of the app. The tile can even be live, providing updates for that specific content. There's no reason a file-centric app would not provide this same functionality for files. We know from usage data that people are fairly meticulous and deliberate in reusing common documents—MRUs composed of pinned files are extremely popular in Office apps and on the taskbar. The support we provide for developers makes this straightforward.

For example, I can have a social tile of my best friend pinned to my Start screen and keep up to date with her updates. Or I can track the XKCD feed from my RSS reader. Or quickly jump to a playlist that I like to listen to in the morning the same way I would have from a jump list. We expect line of business applications to allow this “deep linking” to specific machines for monitoring, account information, or other exception handling (as we described with our bug tracking application). All from the Start screen. All of these organized among other apps that I like to use, so they are fast to access and get me quickly to the content that I want to consume.

Building on secondary tiles

We’re continuing to invest in enabling Metro style app developers to provide personal and rich content to their users through live tiles. Secondary tiles will be a big part of making your machine feel more useful and personal, and something that you love to use. To help, we’re building even more live tile templates into our catalog so that developers can enable more scenarios for their users.

Overall, isn't this a real usability problem?

@mt327000 wrote:

"All the requests for a return of the classic Start Menu are not just complaints about change. To me, the new Start Screen actually feels less efficient than the Start Menu. I will admit, some commenters on this blog have gone too far and resorted to mudslinging to make their point, but from a scientific perspective, if you measure usability of Windows 7 and of Windows 8 in terms of click counts, Windows 7 wins hands down. This is not simple complaining, but a real usability problem that Microsoft will hopefully fix."

We do have to assert that efficiency, that is, time to accurately complete a task, is of paramount importance in design. We never say "most important" because we consider a broad range of attributes in designing how a feature works (resource utilization, reliability, accessibility, localizability, security, training, discoverability, and so on). As we work to improve our products, both in terms of efficiency and usability, we consider several factors for user interface approaches, such as mouse mileage, target size, loading time, parsing time, and mouse click counts (among others). It’s likely that in any change, there are efficiency gains and sometimes efficiency losses, but we take great pains to achieve a net gain in efficiency when all of these are considered.

One common theme in the comments has been an immediate rejection of change with the assumption that any change will reduce productivity so much that it will never be regained. One analogy we use looks at improvements in roads or traffic flow—for example, a new lane or exit. These types of projects might take years and during construction, we all might get frustrated at how much time we lose. But once the project is done, our use of the road is improved every single day, and so is the usage by everyone else—the net gain is to the whole universe of travelers, present and future. This comes at some near term cost to current users, but the net is an improvement for everyone. Yet we know that during construction we're all the type of folks who sit and calculate whether we will ever make up for the time lost—this is the concern we hear. Unlike road construction, we design our changes to Windows so the payback comes for everyone in the span of hours, days, or perhaps weeks. If improving traffic flow started from the premise that no one would be interrupted even for a little bit, then there would never be any improvements and everyone’s usage would gradually decay. With Windows we see the same challenges—we need to improve the product for new uses and new hardware capabilities, and as such, there is always some transition. Much like engineering roads, you don’t keep both paths open and operational in parallel. But fortunately, unlike construction, you can control your own PC and can choose to switch when you want. This is especially the case for businesses as we commit to a 10-year minimum lifecycle.

One small example of this net gain is the ability to press the Windows key and immediately start typing to search for an app. Even though the search box doesn’t appear on the screen, we did extra work to make sure you can type right away, thus protecting the efficiency of searching for apps. Our design choice means that there is a short period before people discover this feature, but once they do, they see a huge efficiency gain. As a practical matter, the discoverability of this feature usually happens within hours of usage of Windows 8, as we have seen in the tweets regarding usage of the Developer Preview. Even if it doesn't, the search command is in fact still there—the edit control is two clicks away. And we make things better for everyone by not having the UI clutter.

Mouse distance and mouse clicks

There has been a common thread in the comments when discussing efficiency that focuses on number of mouse clicks and mouse travel distance. Though these are important measures of efficiency, another factor that strongly plays into this equation is the target size. Many of you already know about Fitts' Law, but let’s do a quick summary of what this is and how it applies to software.

Fitts' Law is named after Paul Fitts, a psychologist at Ohio State University, with expertise in aviation. He developed his research to model cockpit ergonomics and created a model that was formulated to project how quickly a human can point at a physical button. Soon after, people started applying this model to software, tracking how quickly someone can target something on the screen with a mouse.

The mathematical formula is somewhat complex, but the basic premise is as follows:

  • The farther away a target is, the longer it takes to acquire it with a mouse
  • The smaller a target is, the longer it takes to acquire it with a mouse

So the speed with which a target can be clicked on with a mouse is a factor of both size and distance:

 Small square: This is close, but small, so more accuracy is required to target it; Large square: This is further away, but large, so less accuracy is required to target it, thus making it easier and faster to click on.
The closer the target, the faster you can hit it. The larger the target, the faster you can hit it.

One common formula that can be used to compare two hit targets more mathematically is the Shannon formulation:

T = a + b log 2 (1 + D/W)

Where:

  • T is the average time taken to acquire the target.
  • a and b are empirical constants determined through linear regression.
  • D is the distance from the starting point to the center of the target.
  • W is the width of the target measured along the axis of motion (how close to the target you need to get to acquire it.)
How does Fitts’ apply to Windows 8?

One of the most obvious ways to apply this in Windows 8 is with the Start button. Although we optimized Charms for touch (with the Start button accessible with a swipe from the right edge of the screen,) we preserved the notion of a control in the far left corner for mouse users. The corners are considered infinitely wide when it comes to Fitts’ Law, which makes UI in this location the easiest to target. It was important to keep the efficiency of the Start button high for our users, so we were adamant about making sure that this is not something we lost as we created a new UI paradigm.

The other obvious example of Fitts’ Law in action is the Start screen. In general, tiles are further away from your mouse cursor than entry points in the Start menu, but they are also larger in size, which helps negate the efficiency loss that was introduced with distance, and even brings efficiency gain.

We took a look at desktop monitors, and by controlling for constants a and b because we’re on the same device, and varying D and W based on the targets in the Start menu and Start screen, we calculated the speed of acquiring an app link. We then applied a heat map to show the results and see the following comparisons:

 Start menu overlaid with a heat map. Items at top (farthest away from mouse) are red, items in middle are yellow, and items at bottom (closest to mouse) are green.
Heat map of time to reach items in the Start menu from the Start button
(green items are the fastest to get to, red items are the slowest)

 Heat map of time to reach tiles in the Start screen from the Start button. Green tiles are in lower left corner, closest to mouse, yellow tiles in middle, red tiles in upper right, farthest from mouse.
Heat map of time to reach tiles in the Start screen from the Start button
(green tiles are the fastest to get to, red tiles are the slowest)

If you count the number of items that show up as green (delineated with the white line,) it is considerably larger on the Start screen (about 17 square tiles) than on the Start menu (2 apps). So there are many more items that you can reach more quickly on the Start screen.

In the Start menu, the top item (which is usually the most frequently used app or your favorite pinned app) is closer to the darker red, which is unfortunate. Lists are generally ordered top-down, which is why the Start menu used this logic, but to really emphasize efficiency, it would have been better to flip the order here and put it at the bottom of the list. Whereas in the Start screen, the bottom left tile is the easiest thing to get to with the mouse and even easier than any item on the Start menu.

Items at top of Start menu are red, indicating it takes more time to reach them; items at bottom are green, indicating less time required. Items in lower left corner are green, indicating easy access; items in top right are yellow, indicating more time needed to reach. 
The app that you’re using most frequently is further away on the Start menu than on the Start screen

It took us much iteration over the course of many months to get to the final size and shape of the tiles. As you can imagine, we iterated through many possibilities and tried many of them out in the lab. We asked test subjects to target a variety of buttons, much as you could imagine Fitts optimizing an air force cockpit design. Mouse distance (and touch target size) is just part of the story. In addition to these, we also considered the following factors when coming up with the tile size:

  • Screen size – How many apps should be visible on one page of the screen across monitors?
  • Form factors – How does your usage of different form factors affect your need for something to be smaller or larger (e.g. when you’re sitting on the couch with a slate vs. sitting further away from a large monitor on your desk)?
  • Efficiency of scanning – How do we provide enough breathing room to make it easy to scan the content, while also providing enough density and useful information?
  • Layout – What layout works best for scanning a grid of content, and how should different tile sizes relate to each other for easier parsing?
  • Space for live content and app branding – Tiles need to be big enough to provide useful information, but not so large that the amount of information displayed is overwhelming. And this also needs to be balanced with being able to actually launch your apps without requiring a lot of scrolling.
  • Visually pleasing shapes – The tiles need to be visually pleasing, and the shapes that they create when laid out on a page also need to appeal to the eye.

This is just a sample of some of the questions that we were asking ourselves when designing the size of tiles and the density of the Start screen. The end result is our attempt to balance efficiency of mouse movement, mouse targeting, parsing, and ability to see live data at a glance across various form factors and screen sizes to make the system feel powerful and efficient to use.

So, how many clicks does it take?

As Alice mentioned in a previous blog post, the current Start menu is primarily used for launching infrequently used apps, while users continue to launch more frequently used apps from the taskbar and Explorer. In fact, 88% of app launches are from outside the Start menu today. Instead, most launches are from the taskbar (41%) and the remaining are split between Explorer and the desktop (47%). So it was clear to us that the Start menu was trending away from being useful and we had an opportunity to redesign it to make it more useful and valuable. We want to be careful in this dialog of spending a lot of energy debating what amounts to a “long tail” usage case.

However, once we left that old paradigm, the next question was – how can we complete the same tasks without requiring more clicks? We kept this in mind throughout the design process, and once we had a design, we picked a couple of different tasks to compare click-to-click.

Launching an MFU or pinned app

How many clicks does it take to launch an app on the left side of the Start menu?

In Windows 7, if we assume your favorite program is in the left pane of the Start menu, it takes 2 clicks: one for the Start button and one for the app itself. It was important to us to keep this parity for the Start screen, so if an app is in the first page of the Start screen, it also takes 2 clicks to launch it.

However, the number of apps that gain this “2-click” benefit varies across the two UIs. By default, the Start menu provides 2-click access to 10 of your favorite apps, plus 10 special folders that Windows adds for you – few of which are used frequently. The highest usage item here is the Computer folder, with about 8% of sessions using it, and the numbers for the rest of the items drastically drop off. Also, while this area of the Start menu allows some limited customization, 81% of home users keep the default behavior.

In comparison, the Start screen provides 2-click access to many more apps and allows you to control the full layout of the screen. If you don’t want a link to Help and Support, don’t put it there – instead, use the space for your favorite app. And the number of apps that get this ability only increases the larger your monitor is. Incidentally, we made the customization much easier and you will no longer break out add/remove programs when you organize things. You can see below how many more tiles you get on one page as your monitor size increases.

Form factor

Size (inches)

Resolution(s)

# of tiles in 1 page of Start screen

# of items in Start menu

Slate

10.1

1366x768
1920x1080

12 wide or
24 square

10

10.6

1366x768
1920x1080

12 wide or
24 square

10

11.6

1366x768
1920x1080

12 wide or
24 square

10

Laptop

12.1

1280x800

16 wide or
32 square

10

12.1

1366x768

20 wide or
40 square

10

13

1366x768

20 wide or
40 square

10

13.3

1440x900

25 wide or
50 square

10

Desktop

21.5

1920x1080

36 wide or
72 square

10

23

1920x1080

36 wide or
72 square

10

27

2560x1440

42 wide or
84 square

10

How the Start screen scales with larger monitor sizes, compared to Start menu

In addition to the difference in the number of apps shown, the logic for what you see after you click the Start button has changed. The Start menu uses heuristics to calculate the MFU (most frequently used) apps that appear there. Unfortunately, these complex heuristics are sometimes wrong, and so the set of apps that you see here changes over time, adding a level of unpredictability into the launcher. On the other hand, the Start screen puts more value on user control and predictability, encouraging customization and increasing confidence about where things will be—a design goal that we followed as we designed the taskbar as well.

Launching an app from the All Programs list

The number of clicks to launch from the All Programs list varies depending on what you’re launching (is it closer to A or to Z?) If we were to generalize to a user who has some apps installed on their system, the most likely workflow is something along these lines:

Start button –> All Programs button –> Scrollbar button –> Expand the folder of the app I’m looking for (cross your fingers it’s the right one!) –> App = 5 clicks

In the Start screen this flow is different, but looks like this for the same scenario:

Start button –> Hover in corner –> Search button to launch Apps screen –> Scrollbar –> App = 5 clicks

This comparison leads to the same number of clicks when using the All Programs feature as when using the Apps screen, assuming you expanded the right Start menu folder the first time. Also, since you’re using more of your monitor with the Start screen, it is more likely that you won’t need to use the scrollbar to find the app, decreasing this to 4 clicks in Windows 8. You can see how other tasks, like launching one of the items in the right side of the Start menu (e.g. Control Panel or Computer) would also show the same number of clicks between the 2 UIs.

We would find the same results relative to keystroke counting as well. We have been careful to at least maintain parity and often improve relative to these measures.

Launching from other parts of the system

As I mentioned previously, 88% of app launches don’t actually originate from the Start menu. The rest of the launches are from the taskbar, Explorer, and the desktop, and the math here does not change in Windows 8. In order to be complete, however, it’s worth mentioning that there is a one-time additional click to get to your taskbar or desktop when you start up your machine, since we boot the machine to the Start screen. In the grand scheme of things, with all of the clicks that you do throughout your working session, one additional click to get to the desktop does not impact your overall efficiency, but since some people are asking about this, I thought it would be worth talking quickly about why we do this.

Since the Start screen is a launcher (and can also be the switcher) for both Metro style apps and desktop apps, we take you directly to the Start screen when you first turn on your machine. It is your new home base. This allows you to make a choice in terms of what app you want to launch first – it may be a desktop app or a Metro style app. It also provides an opportunity to see the dashboard of latest updates from your favorite apps without requiring you to launch them before you get into your day-to-day tasks. I know many folks have commented on not wanting to ever see such notifications or a dashboard. We would note two things.

First, even from above comments you've told us about the importance of apps that do report notifications or gadgets.

Second, given that this is a Developer Preview release, we all have to recognize that we simply don’t have many Metro style apps available yet, so our natural inclination is to always go to the desktop – making it seem silly for us to start here. But once your machine is packed with apps that you love, this should make a lot more sense. And if your main goal is still to use desktop apps, you can easily do this by clicking the Desktop tile and using the taskbar, or you can customize the Start screen to put your favorite desktop apps at the beginning of the Start screen and launch them directly. It is important to keep this in mind—today you might be going to the desktop so you can immediately get to the task bar. You can always put the taskbar apps on the Start screen and launch (or switch) from there, or just put the first one you always use right there in a Fitts-friendly location. And of course we should not forget that there are substantial savings yet to be had in logging on from a lock screen (in terms of number of clicks), and so there's an immediate savings to overall workflow which fully accounts for the extra key.

How are we continuing to improve the efficiency of Start?


As we continue to build upon what we’ve shown in the Windows Developer Preview, we are keeping efficiency close to heart. Based on your feedback, one of the things that we’re doing to make it faster to get to All Programs is to take you directly to the Apps screen when you click Search in the desktop. This potentially removes another step from this task, making it even more efficient in Windows 8 to launch an app from the desktop relative to Windows 7. Another thing that we’re doing is increasing the number of rows of tiles that you can see on large monitors so that you can fit even more of your favorite apps closer to your mouse and make it faster to launch apps than before.

In conclusion, we are striving to help you gain efficiency with the new Start screen. This sort of analysis is generally difficult since we’re not comparing apples to apples. In some cases, there is a loss because of mouse distance, while in other cases there is a gain because of target size. In some cases, spatial arrangement or color can make it easier to find an app, in other cases having an app right under your mouse makes it really easy to click. The efficiency gain of the Start screen may not be in all of the same ways that you’re used to, and there may even be some efficiency gains that you don’t expect (for example, having a live tile tell you the latest stock quote so you don’t need to take time to launch the app is a great efficiency gain that is hard to measure quantitatively.) We are continually testing the efficiency of the new UI and we will continue to improve it.

If you've made it this far, you might be wondering why we put all of these issues in one really long post, and yet we still have more feedback and questions to answer. Our intention is to build on the unprecedented transparency we provide in building Windows and to bring you inside the development of the product. By now you can see that building Windows 8 is a complex endeavor with tons of variables and choices to be made, lots of data, and in considering all that, we go through a great deal of work when making even the smallest change. We simply love the dialog we're having with you, and the opportunity to describe the depth of the work we do to bring you Windows. All of us on the Windows team are devoting our professional careers to building a great product, and so the opportunity to talk with passionate and informed people about the details of what we do is itself an added bonus.

--Marina Dukhon