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
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  • I can tell you one reason why I don't have the taskbar on the top.  That's because it breaks things!

    I tried having the taskbar at the top, but because windows doesn't protect applications from falling behind the task bar.  MANY time the window falls behind, and you can't move, or close the window since the title bar is hidden.  If windows prevented a window from getting stuck behind it, I would use the task bar at the top. Or at least prevent the tittle bar from falling behind the task bar  when a new window is created.

    Also some applications would not restore the window exactly where I closed it.  It would offset it up by about the size of the task bar, which eventually would make it fall under the task bar too.

  • "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."

    Are you joking?!?!? The windows thumbnails are tiny, and I'm talking about using a 1920x1200 screen, on the other hand, on my 1280x800 laptop, expose shows large enough thumbnails even if I have 20+ windows open.

    Sounds like you guys don't actually check out the competition very thoroughly. An expose-like feature is something I think the next version of windows really needs. Otherwise I won't go back to it as my main working OS. Flip 3D is virtually useless because you can only see one window at a time, and you aren't even proposing a better solution.

    Phil Caetano:

    "I can tell you one reason why I don't have the taskbar on the top.  That's because it breaks things!"

    Absolutely right - I tried having the taskbar at the top because it feels more natural, and for the most part, I was happy with it. But I had to switch back because windows kept getting lost behind it, and there were loads of graphical glitches because the taskbar obviously wasn't tested enough in the top/left/right positions.

  • The lack of multi-monitor support is just about a crime.  We've seen pictures of Bill Gate's office and his use of 3 monitors.  Most developers have 2 monitors these days.  Why was multi-monitor support for the taskbar missing?  Once again, this is an example of the compartmentalization of the Windows team and the lack of a user orientation in defining and implementing features.

    The fact that this is even a "possible" and not an "of course we're going to..." shows that you folks STILL don't get it.

  • For a long while Apple have offered iLife for their customers. When will you offer something like that?

  • I would second the view that the Experience Improvement metrics are going to be heavily weighted in favour of the novice user - particularly corporate users aren't going to be given an option to allow that sort of anonymised snooping on their system, and expert users are too paranoid about data mining and covering up their torrenting to allow it (same deal with Alexa web stats, really). While it's interesting, I wouldn't say it's necessarily representative.

    This post indicates to me another of the problems Windows dev managers must face with such large dev teams and such a large user base: Replicate functionality.

    A lot of this post is about the richness of the taskbar experience, and how the taskbar can be extended to further deepen this with deskbands, eg: WMP mini-mode.

    while this is a noble idea, all it does is point to schizoid development: If you're going to bring those sorts of functionalities into the taskbar area;

    Why did you develop the sidebar?!!

    All this is very interesting, it smacks of a team pushing for more resource time to be targetted at *their* area, rather than at the *customer's needs*. Surely the sidebar was developed specifically to enable "gadgetised" easy access non-essential services, and to reduce taskbar clutter where every app and its children were spamming the notification area with icons, taking away space from the taskbar's true functionality - or at least this was how it was presented. Now we have discussions putting forward the position that the taskbar should get even more cluttered with stuff that should be in the sidebar. It's this sort of cross-purposes development that resulted in Vista's delays, feature loss and inconsistencies in the first place, in my opinion (which means I'm probably wrong).

    If nothing else comes out of this blog, then at least one thing has been clear: Users have spoken loudly about the desire to be left to their own devices, given a clear, *consistent* UI, and the ability to change the UI to their own specs *easily* - without having to dig around in the bowels of the system or look up obscure TechNet articles. The less unnecessary functionality is *forced* upon us, the happier we generally are. Telling us you're planning on shoving a lot more into the taskbar space is not the way to do that.

    PS: Vista's explorer is a POS, bring back the clear, concise, original view. I don't need fancy sliders to switch between icon views. I need to see where my stuff is.

  • please please please can you stop windows from nagging me with irrelevant bubbles that pop up in the bottom right corner? 95% of them never tell me anything i didn't already know, and they seem to always require an extra clock to make them go away

    oh yeah, shiny plastic is a bit passe now, how about something a little sharper? maybe more metallic. plastic says cheap to me, go for something that echoes build quality!

  • You're on right direction!

    I would give my 2$ for those guy who removed turquoise border from Aero windows in Win7M3!

    So please, say NO to:

    - Color differentiation!

    - Blurring && || extreme translucency!

    - Flyout tray icons menu; make it optional please!

  • hey Tihiy

    M3 is not RTM ;)

    you remember XP m1 ?

  • "In other words, 97% of sessions aren’t even enjoying this functionality at all!"

    I know a good reason for this :D WMP is not that good media player. There are so much formats it does not support, so many users start using a 3rd party player which supports ALL they ever need to play. WMP is imposes itself to the user, trying to take care the "media library" of the user. It would be nice if applications wouldn't claim they "own" the files. Much too many applications claim that today. iTunes, WMP... You name it.

    And the WMP toolbar is much more hard to use than the actual player, tiny buttons, located in ackward location (yes, bottom left corner is not the most comfortable to look at). In my opinion, it is much more easier to just bring up the actual player that to move ones focus to use the toolbar.

  • I agree with CanadianMike.  I have been looking for ways to increase productivity on my windows machine, and have found 'dock' alternatives seem to be one of the best thing for quick access to programs.  I do use the quicklaunch (with vista's new WIN KEY + # shortcuts) but that only allows for a limited number of programs, and isn't very customizable)  For the rest of my programs, and other mini apps, I use Rocketdock ( Which not only allows users to place short cuts on it by drag and drop, allows minimize to dock, multiple monitor support, among other features.  I think that this would be a good basis for the new 'Windows Dock' The fact that it allows for plugins (open-source) is a great plus too, especially the 'stacks' plugin.

    I like the way that the taskbar has come, it may need some cleaning up still, but overall it is great.  Dont change too much about it. Especially dont add more functionality without expanding its usage (i.e. through a 'dock' etc.)  I also do prefer to have my taskbar at the bottom, and dock auto-hidden at the top of my screen.  

    The Start menu has also come a long way since its inception.  The ability to customize and add/remove the menus/shortcuts on the right side of the start menu would be nice (even though vista customization programs allow you to do this, I would rather windows already allow me to do this) The new 'All Programs' is MUCH better than the old flyout. (and being able to pin shortcuts to the start menu is nice)  The search function (even with indexing turned off) included into the start menu is one of the best things about it, I use it a lot.  

    Now, the sidebar...It could have been so much more.  When I heard that vista would have 'gadget' functionality I was excited.  It looks nice and all, but is so limited . Again I think this is something that OS X has that I like: the dashboard.  The ability to hide the gadgets right in the middle of your desktop (even being able to move them around anywhere) is essential.  Yahoo's widget program emulates the mac dashboard functionality, and allows your gadgets to be visible, or hidden, users CHOICE.  It even has a sidebar-esque dock for people who prefer the Sidebar UI.  (Not me) Again like Rocketdock, this third-party program is a great basis for a way to improve upon windows functionality, that I feel should be integral.  

    I have never really liked the Mac operating systems, though with the creation of the new dock, dashboard, and to an extent expose; I felt they might actually have something going for them.  A 'Windows' take on these functions (with more customizablity and integrated functionality, of course) would make for a much more productive, and IMHO, fun interface.  (I have to admit I still like to play with the dock by sliding my mouse across it...)

  • Right, Domenico, they can screw all things several times before release.

    And yeah, many people (me too) find decoy pre-beta-2 XP interface better than Luna.

  • The problem with this "analysis" (show me the  data) is that you're only managing current activities surrounding the taskbar. So with respect "to evolving the taskbar" you're only developing it within its current operational framework while developing or evolution of really should refer to developing the taskbars concept. Within its 15 years of history the taskbar became as everything mostly a functional concept. Today, everybody speaks role, organisation and collaboration.

    As you already put it the taskbar is 15 years old. So it needs to grow with the rest of Microsoft software. If not it will have a major impact on the use collaboration features. I.e. How to really use business processing if the desktop or main user interface does not basically support it?. The taskbar is the one single place where events are initiated with respect to collaboration and human-machine interactions. I've seen a project here in Denmark, developed by folks with references to University of Aarhus, that treats the taskband as a concept of tasks. It seems to be an important delegate with a compositional sw design to support workflow within the health care sector here. I.e. you can suspend tasks etc. - just as in normal operations within processing. I'm refering to business taks etc and not technical concepts of tasks, suspend, etc. So you should look into that. The concepts as a whole is Activity-Based Computing. I think this should really be provided by a modern operating system around 2010.

    I know such a feature may probably not make it into your product - however to just enhance the user experience about very old stuff that will not support current and upcoming use of it seems a waste of time to me.

    Except that  - I think the possibilities for extending the desktop-band are great.

  • Of course - an issue would whether your team is concerned with all variants of the taskbar?

    I.e. may be consumers should keep an enchanched legacy taskbar while business user could have one where they could suspend i.e. outlook or some of several other open tasks. Advanced consumers to choose to configure the taskbar likewise. Bascially the grouping/ungrouping refers to a lot of activities technical going on at the same time, however users can only be concerned with one or few activities at a time. So task processing would help them collaborate with the system on that. Additionally the desktop space could be reused more effectively based on such facts. This would also mean a software factory goes into the configuration of the taskbar.

  • Also having something like this I could put out a reference solution connecting applications into a workflow.

  • Some input:

    -Allow the window preview thumbnail size to be configurable.  This one sounds easy enough to me.

    -When you mouseover an app on the task band, have it display the full window title immediately, instead of after a brief delay.  Also, if I remember, I don't think it shows the full name if it is too long...maybe just have it wrap.

    -It might be nice if you could do ALT+Space (for example), and have it display the window thumbnails of all open windows at the same time (like IE's Quick Tabs).

    -As suggested by someone already, the ability to have tabs inside Windows Explorer would really reduce my window count as a developer.

    -I like the latest start menu, but the common user likely has no idea how to customize it.  Maybe you need a start menu item that says "Customize" that takes you to the "Task Bar and Start Menu Properties".  Just make it so people that read this blog can hide it. :)

    -Task bar multiple monitor options.  I would just want the task band to be visible on all monitors.  It would only display applications running on that monitor (this is probably getting into multiple desktops actually).

    As a developer, I never turn on the customer improvement option, since I need as little extra items running on my machine as possible.  I do, however, use it on my home machine.

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