Engineering Windows 7

Welcome to our blog dedicated to the engineering of Microsoft Windows 7

User Interface: Starting, Launching, and Switching

User Interface: Starting, Launching, and Switching

Where to Start?  In this post, Chaitanya Sareen, a senior program manager on the Core User Experience team, sets the engineering context for the most frequently used user-interface elements in Windows – the Windows Taskbar.  -- Steven

It should come as no surprise that we receive lots of feedback about the taskbar and its functionality in general. It should also come as no surprise that we are constantly trying to raise the bar and improve the taskbar experience for our customers, while making sure we bring forward the familiarity and benefits (and compatibility) of the existing implementation and design. In this post, the we would like to provide some insight into that unassuming bar most likely at the bottom of your Windows desktop. Let’s take a closer look at its various parts, data we’ve collected and how this learning will inform the engineering of Windows 7.

Taskbar Basics

Our taskbar made its debut way back in Windows 95 and its core functionality remains the same to this day. In short, it provides launching, switching and “whispering” functionality. Figure 1 shows the Vista taskbar and calls out its basic anatomy. Notable pieces are the taskband, Quick Launch, the Start Menu, Desktop Toolbars (aka Deskbands) and the Notification Area. Collectively, these components afford some of the most fundamental controls for customers to start, manage and monitor their tasks.

Image of Windows taskbar pointing out names of various regions.

Fig. 1: Windows Taskbar Anatomy

Taskband: The faithful window switcher

The taskband is one of the most important parts of the taskbar. It hosts buttons which represent most of the windows open on the desktop. Think of the taskband as a remote control for your computer—you can switch windows just like switching channels on a TV. The idea of switching windows is the most fundamental aspect of the Windows taskbar. Other operating systems also have bars at the bottom of their screen, although theirs may have different goals. For example, Mac OS X has a Dock which is primarily a program launcher and a program switcher. Clicking on an icon on the Dock usually brings up all the windows of a running program. In 2003 Apple introduced a window switcher known as Exposé which provides a different visual approach to our long-standing Alt-tab interface (Vista’s Flip 3D is yet another visual approach). These dedicated window switchers all aim to provide customers with a broad view of their open windows, but they each require the customer to first invoke them. The taskband on the other hand, is designed to always be visible so that windows remain within quick access of the mouse. This makes the taskbar the most prominent window switcher of the Windows operating system.

Two noteworthy taskbar changes were introduced in the last eight years. Windows XP ushered in grouping which allows taskbar buttons to collapse into a single button to save space and organize windows by their process. Vista presented taskbar thumbnails. These visual representations give customers more information about the window they are looking for. While valuable, interfaces like the taskbar, Alt-tab and even Apple’s own Exposé reveal that thumbnails are not always large enough to guarantee recognition of a window. Their value further degrades when they have to shrink to accommodate many open windows, which is feedback we receive from those that often have lots of running programs x lots of open windows.

The Start Menu: the Windows launch pad

The Start Menu has always been anchored off the taskbar as a starting point for the customer’s key tasks such as launching or accessing system functionality. Microsoft of course used term “Start” and prominently labeled the Start Menu’s button as such. You may even recall the huge marketing campaign for Windows 95 which featured the Rolling Stone’s “Start Me Up”. In all seriousness though, our research showed that many customers didn’t always know where to go on their computer to start a task. When a customer was placed in front of a Windows 95 machine she now had a clearly labeled place to start. And yes, we’ve heard the joke that you click start to shutdown your machine. Speaking of shutdown, we did encounter some challenges with the power options in Vista’s Start Menu. The goal was to bubble-up and advertise the sleep option so that customers enjoy a faster resume. However, we now know despite our good intentions, customers are opening that fly-out menu and selecting other options. We’re looking into improving this experience.

The Start Menu has undergone many changes over the years. One notable change was the appearance of a MFU (most frequently used) section in Windows XP that suggests commonly (well frequently) used programs. The goal here was to save the customer time by not having to always go to All Programs. Since these items appear automatically based on usage, no manual customization was even required. All Programs itself has undergone several iterations. Customer feedback revealed that people encountered difficulty in traversing the original All Programs fly-out menu. It wasn’t uncommon to have your mouse “fall off” the menu and then you’d have your restart the task all over again. This was particularly the case for laptop customers using a trackpad. It also didn’t help that expanding this menu suddenly filled the entire desktop which looked visually noisy and it also required lots of mouse movement. And of course, for machines with large number of items and/or groups it was especially complex, and even more so on small screens.  Vista introduced a single menu that requires less mouse acrobatics.

Search was another important addition to the Start Menu that makes launching even easier. This new feature in Vista provides fast access to programs and files without the need to use a mouse at all. Typing in a phrase quickly surfaces programs, files and even e-mails. We’ve received many positive comments from enthusiasts who feel this is a key performance win in terms of “time to launch”.  It may be interesting to note that Start Menu’s search is optimized to first return program results as this was viewed as the most common scenario among our customers (using some of the Desktop Search technology). Search even permits customers to use parameters to further scope their queries. For instance, one can use “to:john” or “from:jane” to find a specific mail directly from the Start Menu. Our advanced customers also enjoy the benefit of using the Start Menu’s search as a replacement of the Run Dialog. Just as they would type the name of an executable along with some switches in the dialog, they can now just type this directly into the search field. We could (and will) dedicate an entire blog post to search alone, but hopefully you get a sense of how search certainly provides a powerful launch alternative to mouse navigation.

Quick Launch: Launching at your fingertips

Quick Launch provides a way for customers to launch commonly used programs, files, folders and websites directly off the taskbar. It was introduced to Windows 95 by Internet Explorer 4.0 with the Windows Desktop Update. Customizing Quick Launch is as simple as dragging shortcuts into to this area. It saves you a trip to the Start Menu, the desktop or a folder when you want to launch something. An interesting feature of Quick Launch that you may not be aware of is that it has always supported large icons (unlock the taskbar, right-click on Quick Launch and click on large icons under “View”) as seen in figure 2. Of course growing the icons begins to intrude on the real-estate of the taskband which is one of the reasons we have not enabled this configuration by default. As an aside, Windows XP had Quick Launch turned off by default in an attempt to reduce the number of different launching surfaces throughout Windows. Based on your feedback, we quickly rectified this faux pas and Quick Launch was turned on by default again. Don’t mess with quick access to things people use every day! We heard you loud and clear.


Fig. 2: Large Icons in Quick Launch. Large icons on the taskbar have been supported since Windows 95 with IE 4

Desktop Toolbars (aka Deskbands): Gadgets for your taskbar

Desktop Toolbars offer extensible and specialized functionality at the top-level of the taskbar. This functionality also came to the taskbar via Internet Explorer 4.0 back in the ‘90s. You can access toolbars by right-clicking on your taskbar and expanding “Toolbars”. Personally, I like to think of Desktop Toolbars as an early type of gadgets for the Windows platform. Over the years developers have written various toolbars including controls for background music (e.g. Windows Media Player’s mini-mode shown in figure 1), search fields, richer views of laptop batteries, weather forecasts and many more.

One of the original scenarios of Desktop Toolbars was to allow customers to launch items directly off the taskbar. In fact, Quick Launch itself is a special type of toolbar that surfaces shortcuts in the Quick Launch folder. Did you know you can even create your own toolbar for any folder on your computer so that you have quick access to its contents (from the Toolbar menu, select “New Toolbar” and just choose the folder you’d like to access)? Apple’s latest OS introduced similar functionality to the Dock called Stacks. While I think their implementation of this feature is generally more visually appealing, it is interesting to note they recently released a new list representation that matches our original functionality. Seems like we both agree a simple list is usually the most efficient way to parse and navigate lots of items.

After extolling all the greatness of Desktop Toolbars, we must also admit they introduce several challenges. For starters, they aren’t the easiest thing to discover. They also take up valuable space on an already busy taskbar. Most importantly though, they don’t always solve the customer goal. Sure you can have a folder’s contents accessible off your taskbar, but what if the files you want quick access to aren’t located in a single place? These are design challenges we intend to tackle.

Notification Area: The whisperer

The Notification Area is pretty much what you expect—an area for notifications. It was an original part of the taskbar and it was designed to whisper information to the customer. Here you can easily monitor the system, be alerted to the state of a program or even check the time. Icons were the predominant way to convey information until later versions of Windows introduced notification balloons that provide descriptive alerts with text. Also added was a collapsible UI that hid inactive icons so the taskbar would appear cleaner.

With more developers leveraging its functionality, the Notification Area has grown in popularity over the years. Some may observe that it has changed from a subtle whisperer to something louder. Based upon the feedback we’ve collected from customers, we recognize the Notification Area could benefit from being less noisy and something more controllable by the end-user.

Show Me the Data

Earlier posts to this blog discussed how customers can voluntarily and anonymously send us data on how they use our features. We use these findings to help guide our designs. Please note that data do not design features for us, but they certainly help us prioritize our investments as well as validate our approach.  All to often we’re all guilty of saying something like “we know everyone does <x>” or “all users do <y>”.  Given the reliability and statistical accuracy of this data, we can speak with more real-world accuracy about how things are in used in practice.  Let’s look at some interesting information we have collected about how our customers use the taskbar.

Figure 3 provides some of the most important data about the taskbar—window count. On average, we know that a vast majority of our customers encounter up to 6-9 simultaneous windows during a session (a session is defined as a log in / log out or 24 hours—whichever occurs first). It goes without saying that the taskbar should work for the entire distribution of this graph, but identifying the “sweet spot” helps focus our efforts on the area that matters most to the most amount of customers. So, we know that if we nail the 6-9 case and we work well for the 0-5 as well as the 10-14 scenarios, we’ve addressed almost 90% of typical sessions.

Histogram indicating peak number of open windows in sessions.

Fig. 3: What’s the maximum number of windows opened at a time?

Figures 4 and 5 help us understand how customers customize their taskbars. We could probably spend an entire post focused solely on how we determine the options we expose. Perhaps another time we’ll tackle the paradox of choice and how options stress our engineering process yet also make the product more fun for a set of customers. Until then, let’s see what conclusions we can draw from these findings. The most obvious takeaway is that most customers do not change the default settings, which are a simple right-click Properties away. For example, it may be interesting to note how often end-users relocate the taskbar to other regions of the screen—less than 2% of sessions have a taskbar that’s not at the bottom of the screen. We also know that some small percentage of machines accidently relocate the taskbar and more often than not end-users have difficulty undoing such a state—though our data does not differentiate this situation.  This data does not necessarily mean we would remove relocation functionality, but rather we could prioritize investments in a default horizontal taskbar over other configurations.

Image of Taskbar properties dialog indicating percentage of sessions where a particular option is customized.

Fig. 4: How do people customize their taskbar? The red number indicates percentage of sessions in which the corresponding checkbox is enabled.



Bottom (default)








Fig. 5: Where do people put their taskbar?

Figure 6 provides some insight into the Windows Media Player Desktop Toolbar. The Windows UX Guidelines prescribe that to create a toolbar on the customer’s taskbar, you must call a Windows Shell API that asks the customer for permission. Looking at the Windows Media Player usage we found that only 10% sessions show that the customer consented. Even more surprising is that only 3% of sessions see the toolbar at all (you still need to minimize Media Player to see the controls). In other words, 97% of sessions aren’t even enjoying this functionality at all! Since we do believe the scenario has value, we know to look into alternative designs. We’d like to surface this functionality to a larger set of customers while making sure the customer remains in control of her experience.



Toolbar enabled


Toolbar enabled and visible


Fig. 6: How many people use the Windows Media toolbar? Enabled means user consented to the toolbar, visible means the toolbar actually appeared on the taskbar.

Evolving the Taskbar

Before the team even sat down to brainstorm ideas about improving the taskbar, we all took time to first respect the UI. The taskbar is almost 15 years old, everyone uses it, people are used to it and many consider it good enough. We also recognized that if we were to improve it, we could not afford to introduce usability failures where none existed. This automatically sets a very high bar. We proceeded carefully by first looking into areas for improvement.

Here’s a small sample of some things we’ve learned from our data, heard from our customers and what we’ve observed ourselves. One of favorite ways of gaining verbatim comments in a lab setting where we can validate the instrumented data but also gain in-depth context via interviews and questionnaires.  In engineering Windows 7 we have hundreds of hours of studies like these.  Please remember this is just a glimpse of some feedback—this is not an exhaustive list nor it is implied that we will, or should, act upon all of these concepts.

  • Please let me rearrange taskbar buttons! Pretty please?
  • I sometimes accidently click on the wrong taskbar button and get the wrong window.
  • It would be great if the taskbar spanned multiple monitors so there’s more room to show windows I want to switch to.
  • There isn’t always enough text on the taskbar to identify the window I’m looking for.
  • There’s too much text on the taskbar. (Yes, this is the exact opposite of the previous item—we’ve seen this quite a bit in the blog comments as well.)
  • It may take several clicks to get to some programs or files that I use regularly.
  • Icons of pinned files sometimes look too much alike—I wish I could tell them apart better.
  • The bottom right side of my screen is too noisy sometimes. There are lots of little icons and balloons competing for my attention.
  • How do I add/remove “X” from the taskbar?
  • I would like Windows to tuck away its features cleverly and simplify its interface.

In the abstract, we can summarize this feedback with a few principles:

  • Customers can switch windows with increased confidence and ease.
  • Commonly used items and tasks should be at the customer’s fingertips.
  • Customers should always feel in control.
  • The taskbar should have a cleaner look and feel.

We hope this post provides a little more insight into the taskbar as well as our process of collecting and reacting to customer feedback. Stay tuned for more details in the future.

- Chaitanya

Leave a Comment
  • Please add 1 and 1 and type the answer here:
  • Post
  • The taskbar form WIndows 95 is revolution!

    I'm agree with this

       * Customers can switch windows with increased confidence and ease.

       * Commonly used items and tasks should be at the customer’s fingertips.

       * Customers should always feel in control.

       * The taskbar should have a cleaner look and feel.

    But not forget Eye candy

    example Icon Hich res. and animation or effect on icon.

  • @windowslover and @OSGuru

    Sorry you would prefer other topics--we're trying to cover a range of topics based on email and the comments.  We've spent a bunch of time on boot time, setup, configuration.  We've done a post (and followup on high dpi) which is a technically deep topic around something I think of as pretty fundamental (graphics hardware) and this one on taskbar.  We'll keep trying to keep things balanced to keep everyone hearing things they want to hear.


  • There are three things I would like to see.

    1. Windows Live OneCare has a wonderful interface (which is hidden too deep) for turning off and on start up programs. I would like to be able to access a similar interface in the Notification area.

    2. When I have many open windows, windows will group the windows together in the task bar. Once windows are grouped you only see one thumbnail preview. In this scenario I would like to have a thumbnail preview of every window in the group shoot up instantly. From there I can see which window in the group I would like to go to and then click on the thumbnail of my choice and that window becomes active.

    3. I would like to see some functionality brought to the sidebar. I am going there for information currently and I feel there are some features which can be created/brought there.

  • There are three things I would like to see.

    1. Windows Live OneCare has a wonderful interface (which is hidden too deep) for turning off and on start up programs. I would like to be able to access a similar interface in the Notification area.

    2. When I have many open windows, windows will group the windows together in the task bar. Once windows are grouped you only see one thumbnail preview. In this scenario I would like to have a thumbnail preview of every window in the group shoot up instantly. From there I can see which window in the group I would like to go to and then click on the thumbnail of my choice and that window becomes active.

    3. I would like to see some functionality brought to the sidebar. I am going there for information currently and I feel there are some features which can be created/brought there.

  • Some of the issues with the Notification Area could have been resolved already in Vista by simply addressing the buggy show/hide behaviour that has persisted since XP. These were dismissed as Not Repro or Won't Fix in the Vista beta.

    1) There are a number of programs (like Outlook) that have minimise to NA icon options. These are too readily hidden despite not having hide-when-inactive set. It usually takes several goes with the reveal arrow to get such icons to display. Also, when Explorer has to be restarted after a crash (VERY frequent in Vista) then these apps are often left without any visible UI. At this point you have to kill the process and restart, hoping that no data has been corrupted.

    2) Taskbar-mode apps like Media Player which sit near the RH end of the taskar generally have horrible interactions with the Sidebar.

    3) Some notification area apps have popups which popup under the Sidebar (IIRC LiveMesh is one of these) in a manner that means that you have to close the sidebar to read/activate them properly.

    4) Wasted space at the right hand end of the Quick Launch bar. Why not hire some people who can do the simple arithmetic about how much space is required to hold a set of icons, and get them to implement the code for this?

    [PS Is there any reason why this comment field has to be so narrow?]

  • First I am going to explain how original Taskbar is nice before. Then, I am going to tell you why I am looking for something new.

    A1) Monitor has longer width.

    A2) English words are horizontal.

    A3) Computer is not as quite fast as now.

    What does those mean? Putting the taskbar at bottom is a good idea because it has more room and it fits English language convention. Computer wasn't all that fast, so, a text description is good enough.

    B1) Wide Screen is standard now.

    B2) Taskbar cannot go thicker because monitor is short to begin with.

    B3) Tons of space on both left and right side.

    B4) Many people using gadget on right, but nothing on left.

    B5) Most people don't bother to read the text on taskband. They just click through it.

    What does those mean? We are using standard wide screen now. We should be utilizing the side of the screen rather than top/bottom. This is especially true when documents and web pages left with tons of spaces on the sides. Now we have gadgets on the right, but now everything is shift to the left. We no longer read web pages in the middle. We could use something on the left to even it out.

    I propose a task bar on the left. Same thickness as the gadget bar. The task band will display real time thumbnail of the window. You will have large application icon on top of the preview. Try ObjectDock from stardock. Put it on the left of the screen. I am using this setting now. I disabled quick launch on ObjectDock because it takes too much spaces. Should be something like QuickLaunch gadget.

    I hope this can replace the old task bar. We have wide screen. We should put stuff on the sides now.

  • I love the taskbar.  Just counted my windows and I indeed fall in the 6-9 group as mention above.

    Some changes I would like to see are:

    1.  Reorder the tabs on the taskband.  I found a freeware out there does it so I know it is possible but I rather have it part of OS.  Pretty Please?

    2.  The ability to change tabs in the taskband to small icons. If I have only one instance of Excel running, why can't it be convert to show the program icon (similiar to quick launch) thus giving me more room on the taskbar for programs that I need the full tab.

    3. Create the ability to group different applications into a single tab.  There is alot of time I want to group programs based on the task I am doing.  That way I can easily switch between tasks without having to search thru all the tabs to find the right instance of an application.

  • Rayadoman,

    For number 3, I think you better try Virtual Desktop. Not exactly the same as your idea, but should solve your multiple work envirnments.

  • Removing USB devices should be easier. I don't want to have to find it in the Notification Area by expanding it, then left-clicking the Safely Remove Hardware icon and selecting my USB device. It takes too many clicks.

    When expanding the Notification Area, it usually retracts again before I have found what I wanted. Maybe this should slide upwards instead of sliding sideways.

    I would also like to have an easier way of knowing which USB Mass Storage Device an entry is referring to (maybe by displaying its capacity).

  • I wouldn't change anything fundamental with the windows vista taskbar.  The vista startmenu is brilliant, so easy to use and navigate.  I enjoy having many of my programs pinned to the start menu; although my most frequently used program, namely explorer, browser and email client are neatly side by side in the quick launch bar.

    I would like to see an autofit function for the quicklaunch without the need to unlock, finely move the length of the bar, and lock again, everytime I add or remove an icon from the quick launch.

    Also please bring back enable and disable for network connections as a direct item in the right click menu.

    I also thought of a new UI element.  The windows media player mini-mode does take up some taskbar real estate.  I thought that maybe this mini-mode can be like a tab attached to the taskbar.  This tab can be moved by sliding it up and down the taskbar.  It could be hidden to a small icon on the taskbar and made to exist in front of other windows.  The same could be done with other gadgets of this nature.

  • As noted in the post, the Windows taskbar is becoming ever more crowded with tasks and icons and other functionality so perhaps it it time to separate certain things from the taskbar and give them their own space.  Specifically, I was thinking that perhaps it is time for Windows to devise its own program dock.  Both Mac and Linux now have docks and while third party docks exist for Windows, a built in dock would likely offer superior performance and functionality while being more than just a copy of OSX's dock.  

    The taskbar of course should remain where it is at the bottom of the screen so that the new UI is familiar (it should also remain moveable as I am one of the 1.02% that puts the taskbar to the top of the screen).  I therefore think that the new dock should be put at the top of the screen, (maybe I'll keep my taskbar at the bottom from now on?).  I think that the 'start' orb could be put in the center of it and the most commonly used icons on either side of it.  Alternatively perhaps the dock could be some kind of circle with the orb in the middle and quicklaunch icons around it.  In that case it could go in the center of the desktop and be brought to the front by some kind of key stroke, perhaps the windows button on most keyboards?  The dock should of course have animations to make it visually appealing and it should also be highly customizable.

    The benefit of including a dock in Windows would be in alleviating some of the strain now placed on the over worked taskbar.  By removing the program launch functions from it there would be more space for viewing aplications and tasks that are already running as well as other system information like notifications.

    The taskbar is nice and while it may be efficient and utilitarian it lacks visual appeal and elegance.  Windows needs to bring us into the future and, as the post said, the taskbar is 15 years old and hasn't changed visually or fundamentally very much in that time.  I realise that it can't change drastically and must remain familiar but that should not prevent it from evolving and growing (with offspring!)

  • I often place WMP in the mini toolbar mode, but only because it takes up just as much space as its normal task button.  However I would definitely prefer it to minimise to an icon in the notification area, much like most other media players can do.

  • One of my hopes for Windows 7 is better handling of window positions when switching from multiple monitors to single, then back to multiple (e.g., when using a laptop with a docking station, when logging into a multiple-monitor setup via Remote Desktop, etc.).  Currently, the workaround for off-screen windows is a set of keyboard commands that no one outside of IT can remember: Alt + Space Bar (!), press M, press an arrow key, then move the mouse.  Since the menu appears off-screen as well, it does not help at all.  It would be wonderful if the window manager "knew" that it was now dealing with a single screen, and to move off-screen windows in the viewable area.  I realize there are some apps that depend upon being able to render something in an "invisible" window, but I believe those are typically using coordinates well outside of the range of any current monitor, plus that seems a bit kludgy and probably should be handled differently anyhow?  The reality is that many are taking the advice of Microsoft and others and going with dual- or multiple-monitor setups, but the OS (not to mention app) support isn't fully fleshed-out yet.

    (Multi-monitor Remote Desktop also, pretty please! :)

  • I'm guessing/hoping you're considering this as well, but a concern came to mind when reading this statement:

    "Please note that data do not design features for us, but they certainly help us prioritize our investments as well as validate our approach."

    One thing the data also cannot do, unfortunately, is give any reasons "why" the data is what it is.  This isn't the best example, but consider even the graph shown--that the majority of people run 6-9 windows per session.  What if the UI itself was a reason that people didn't run more than 6-9 windows?  In other words, what if the UI has a window number upper bound of effectiveness?  Prioritizing around that 6-9 scenario would be taking away the wrong conclusion from the data, if that were the case.  The UI itself would be dictating the data, rather than being driven by user demand.  Further development around the 6-9 "sweet spot" would simply be contributing to a "UI-driven UI"--creating more UI elements to deal with broader UI limitations--rather than responding to true user need.  Granted, this is a big "what if" scenario, but hopefully you can see my point....

  • Very interesting statistics, thanks for that.

    Do you have any data on how many people actually know these options exist and consciously choose the default? Many feeling is that the majority simply doesn't know. I agree with bluvg that 6-9 is probably not the actual sweet spot for users, but the practical limit of the default single-row task band. Open more windows and window titles are not visible anymore. Personally, I don't find grouping useful either (it's one of the first things I turn off), because I can't see what I have open anymore and have to do more clicks.

    I'm one of the 0.36% that have their task bar on the left side. I'm using a 1680x1050 laptop display, so I have plenty of horizontal screen space anyway. With this config there's enough space in the task band for about 25 windows, with enough space window titles, and I probably have 15 windows opened on average, much more than I did on XP with the task bar at the bottom. Personally I think its a big boost in productivity.

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