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.

clip_image004

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.

LOCATION

SESSION PERCENT

Bottom (default)

98.4%

Top

1.02%

Left

0.36%

Right

0.21%

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.

STATE

SESSION PERCENT

Toolbar enabled

10%

Toolbar enabled and visible

3%

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

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  • For the most part, I like the taskbar the way it is. Perhaps Microsoft can add the option to use dual taskbars, one on the top and one on the bottom of the screen to give it more room. I would also like the ability to have a window open that does not appear on the taskbar and a key combination or button that easily allows me to switch back and forth between two windows (similarly to the recall function on a TV).

    The main problem with the taskbar is many times, people are just flipping back and forth between windows while working. If Windows included a virtal desktop solution or a grid-like view where many windows could be open on one screen at the same time, many of these issues would be solved.

  • >> 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.

    You can double-click on the  resizing gripper for it to toggle between autofit sizes.

    >> - Frequently used programs.  It would be really nice to be able to peg a program on the list regardless of how often I open it.  I (and presumably others) put my most used programs on the quicklaunch and it's nice to have certain less frequently used programs avaible within two clicks even if I don't open it as often as others.

    You can right click and choose "Pin to Start Menu" to pin items to the top of the MFU.

  • I don't use the Start Menu because it is painfully slow to open folders in Vista and I cannot find anything anyway.  Most folders will list the software company, say, Good Software, then in the folder is Super DVD maker v3.2.3, plus uninstall, help, etc.

    Mostly, I cannot remember that Good Software company make Super DVD maker v3.2.3 when looking for that program.

    No, I use Quick Launch ALWAYS. Drag the actual program exe shortcut there and also create folders.  I have at least 200 items there that I can find quickly.  Except, that lately, the pop-up menu takes several seconds to appear and I'm wondering if there is a LIMIT to how many icons (shortcuts) can be added.  Without affecting performance.

    I like Search very much, although as a trade off for speed I suppose, am unable to find the things I want sometimes. Good for quick launching also. Type mou -> get all mouse stuff.

    Also, if I search for say 'Microsoft' and get Micro.jpg, Microsoft.jpg, MS.jpg and am not sure which one I'm looking for, clicking on one - the wrong one perhaps - means I have to type 'Microsoft' into search again and try another one.  Search will not hold up the 3 found items so I can preview them, in this case, in an image viewer.  It could be text items you're searching for.

  • I use my own toolbars for folders, but when I want add a shortcut, I can´t drag and drop it on the toolbar. I have to open the folder and paste the shortcut on it.

    Too, Start Menu at top is usefull. All the menus at applications are on top, so when I want search something I must always to look at top screen.

    Sorry, I'm spanish and not speak english well.

  • Hi, it was a very nice reading indeed. It looks like you finaly get the attention on "simplifying" rather than "adding new functionalities" or "increasinguser experience".

    What I'm very glad for is that you admited that the taskbar as we knew it from w95 era was/is good enough.

    I would like to add that personaly I found XP taskbar worse than w98 taskbar for several reasons, some of which, not all, have been improved in Vista.

    1/grouping: Not a good idea (at least by defaut), it put things more clicks away while the goal of the taskbar is the oposite. +We never have any idea of what's open currently.

    2/thumbnail preview in Vista is certainly the most silly ever imagined: It doesn't give any clue on the window conent, it distract our attention, eats resources, make the click less safe as something pops-up unexpectedly etc.

    Same can be said with the thumbnail preview on drag-drop in Explorer. A real nightmare.

    3/All Program in start menu:

    I think there should be a different philosophy on how softwares installer create shortcuts on the start menu. Every new program installed will create a new group adding to a list already a contry mile long. these groups are full of useles shortcuts like "register your freeware version", "help", "home page", unistallers etc while we are looking at the exe file.

    There should be a way to sort, with a new type of installers or without, all the executables out and sort them in theme groups instead of vendor group.

    For example all programs linked to video editing under "video", other under "office" inclding Notepad, Wordpad, Foxit, etc and of course the MS Office suite, etc

    Then another groups for all the help and home page stuffs and another group for all the uninstallers.

    I did it for myself and it improved greatly the accessibility of all softwares, not only the most recent used. Unfortunately every (re)install destroy this order.

    The most recent used programs is of course very useful. But as soon as a less often used program is needed, it's more complicated.

    4/ search, run and vista improvements

    This was very confusing for me: run and search at the same place: First we never know whether we are in "run" or "search", secondly, when we want "search" we don;t ant necessarly to "run" and vice versa.

    5/ Notification area

    This is what turned Windows to Hell on Earth! Or the give a visible aspect of this Hell should I say: dozen of services and crapwares running in the background, eating resources and distract our attention with useless pop-ups and icons.

    On our w98 machine we have three (3) icons near the clock, no more. On XP we have about 8 or 9, on Vista it looks like a christmass tree! It's ridiculous, and most of it is useless or redundant. Here also, this is something that should be seen with software makers. It's not only a Microsoft issue.

    The pop-ups notification should be easily disabled. At present it's not obvious.

    6/w95

    It's interresting that you mentioned w95 because in fact that was the OS which made Microsoft famous and Bill Gate the third largest fortune in the world.

    So it's important to keep in mind that this concept was a good one and that there is no need to change a working concept. (Sorry if that means less jobs for your team).

    Working on w98 was like playing on a piano, with XP and Vista it became a daily guessing game on how disable stuffs like those above. ;-)

  • i'd like to see an api for consuming notifications also, or writing an custom "handler" for notifications, so i could for example send an email with the notification-information, or show it on an auxillary display (or computer) etc - or just style it, like what "growl" does on osx

  • The notification area isn't just "a bit noisy". It's the single biggest source of annoyance in Windows. My favorite feature of Windows XP is the registry setting that disables balloon notifications. The balloons are bad enough, but even without them, everyone and their uncle apparently feel that they need to put at least one icon in the notification area. Why do I need to be notified at all that I connected a USB device? Aren't the odds pretty good that I *know* this already?

    As for toolbars, and in particular your Media player toolbar which, as you point out, only 3% actually use, why the hell is it in the taskbar at all? Isn't this precisely what Vista has gadgets for?

    Perhaps all the "system notification" stuff can be moved to be part of the desktop or something? Having 20 icons and a balloon notification every 30th second taking up space at the taskbar where it's *always* taking up space is just not cool. By all means, the information should be there if I need it, but can't we just assume that if I don't actively look for the information, it's probably because I don't want it. Sometimes it feels like balloon notifications are the primary debugging aid for the Windows team, and they forgot to disable it before shipping.... ANd of course, the rampant abuse by every 3rd party app doesn't help, but let's be clear here, Microsoft started the trend.

    Ever since balloon tips were introduced, they've been used to keep us informed of *everything* that happens on the system.

    You've installed Windows, we've got a neat guided tour for you, you've installed a firewall, you don't have antivirus, now you do have antivirus, now you don't have antivirus again, the firewall blocked something, there are Windows updates available, it's time to clean up your desktop and so on and so on. Oh, and you connected a USB device. And you just installed new hardware. Oh, and there's some hardware you haven't installed a driver for.

    How much of this do I actually need to *know*?

    A few things perhaps. But how much of it do I need to see the instant it happens, *no matter what else I'm doing*? Precisely none of it. None of it should intrude if I'm playing a game, if I'm programming, if I'm watching a movie or working in MS Word or anything else.

    Tell it to go away! Please! ;)

  • Flip 3D is close to useless.   Expose lets you see more than one view at one time. A SmartFlip like version would also work.

    Come on Microsoft you can do better.

    http://www.neowin.net/forum/index.php?showtopic=529816

  • I'm surprised no one has brought this up yet - when you minimize a window, the taskbar thumbnail for it is no longer live.

    For instance, I start installing a program, then minimize the installer while I do other stuff. But when I mouse over its button in the taskbar, it seems that nothing is happening because the thumbnail preview is no longer live.

    Please make thumbnail previews stay live even when you minimize a window, otherwise this feature is useless much of the time.

  • I love the Vista toolbar. Sure i need some of the stuff that have been mentioned earlier.

    Especialy.

    - Rearrangeable taskbar buttons. Pretty please?

    - Long lines should be truncated in the middle.

    - Tooltips should appear immediately.

    - Virtual desktops.

    - "Group shortcuts" I mean some kind of tool that opens multiple documents and applications with a single click. For example I am working with 10 document then I just CTRL+select them on the taskbar. Right click and select "Create quick launch". Then a new icon appears in the quick launch bar. clicking on that the documents application will be opened/restored.

    Basically something that saves and restores a given work space/virtual desktop.

    - some kind of "expose" taskbar thumbnails are too small to work with.

    The single biggest annoyance in the taskbar is notification balloons. 99% of the notifications are useless. More importantly the balloons covers the bottom-right corner. It is not possible to click there until the balloons are there. I need something more subtle and configurable.

  • A friend of mine got a Vista PC recently - his first exposure to Vista. I've seen him a few times since it arrived and he has given me some challenges to try to help him through his learning curve.

    One point I failed on is how to make the taskbar flat in appearance. He was struggling to read the text clearly because half of it was white text on a graduated white background. The icon for the active window is flat and therefore easier to read, but I couldn't find a way to make the whole taskbar flat, short of reverting to Windows XP look and feel which is downright ugly by comparison.

    So there is a little bit more feedback for you - curves and white on white are sometimes hard to read.

  • Hire some real graphic designers. Vista is hideous, ugly and many more words of that ilk. Also Microsoft's idea of usability is awful.

    Someone else posted this above, but please stop those damn bubbles that pop up from the system tray. They really, really cheese me off. The interface should work with the user, it shouldn't shove stuff in your face that forces you to stop what you are doing.

  • i always keep the taskbar on top of the screen...just coz the mouse arrow remains on first half of the screen most of the time...dis saves time

  • I agree with others, balloon tips or bubbles have gotten way out of hand, they should be for Windows OS notifications only:

    A cd/dvd is done burning

    Updates are ready

    Files are done copying

    etc.

    I also agree with the need of spanning desktops.

    Someone else asked, but I would like to see a roll out safely remove devices also. Like one where you hover to get it to roll out and then double click to remove the device or something similar.

    A response to Jalf, you need to know about the fact you inserted or connected a USB device because sometimes they are defective and dont "attach" (is that the correct term?) would you rather have to go dig around in the device manager? I don't want to do that :P I want to see it happen on the task bar.

    Though going along with the customization theme here I would suppose you would like to be able to remove that notification.

  • I really wish I could get Dreamscene and other Ultimate Extras without all the business features (Windows Fax and Scan, Bitlocker, etc.) of Vista Ultimate.

    It would make it easier for everyone if there was ONE version of Windows in the store, and at the beginning of installation it would have three buttons: "Home use" (would install Media Center, "Ultimate Extras", and games); "Business use" (would instead install Bitlocker encryption, Windows fax and scan, and other business features); and "Both home and business" (the equivalent to Windows Vista Ultimate). This setting could be changed later from the control panel, or you could mix and match features from the "Add/remove Windows components" dialog.

    Essentially, the only version would be the ultimate version.

    Wouldn't this make everything easier for everyone?

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