Engineering Windows 7

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Follow-up: Starting, Launching, and Switching

Follow-up: Starting, Launching, and Switching

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Lots of discussion on the taskbar and associated user interface.  Chaitanya said he thought it would be a good idea to summarize some of the feedback and thoughts.  --Steven

We’d like to follow up on some themes raised in comments and email.  This post looks at some observations on consistent feedback expressed (though not universal) and also provides some more engineering / design context for some of the challenges expressed.

First it is worth just reinforcing a few points that came up that were consistently expressed:

  • Many of you agree that the Notification Area needs to be more manageable and customizable. 
  • We received several comments about rearranging taskbar buttons.  This speaks to the need for a predictable place where taskbar buttons appear as well as your desire for more control over the taskbar.
  • There were comments that talked about Quick Launch being valuable, but that it could stand to be an even better launching surface (e.g. larger by default or more room).
  • Thumbnails are valuable to many of you, but their size doesn’t always help you find the window you are looking for.  There is interest in a better identification method of windows that consistently provided the right amount of information.
  • Better scaling of supported windows was discussed.  This includes optimizing the taskbar for more windows and spanning multiple displays. 


Several of you asked about the conclusions we are drawing from the data we collect and how we will proceed.

@Computermensch writes “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.” 

@Bluvg posts “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.”

As we’ve said in all our posts around the data we collect and how we use it, data do not translate directly into our features, but informs the decisions.  Information we collect from instrumentation as well as from customer interviews merely provides us with real-world accuracy of how a product is currently used.  The goal is not necessarily to just design for the status quo.  However, we must recognize that if a new design emerges that does not satisfy the goals and behavior of our customers today, we risk resistance.  This is not to say one should never innovate and change the game—just that to do so must be respectful of the ultimate goal of the customer.  Offering a new solution to a problem is great; just make sure you’re solving the right problem and that there is a path from where people are today to where you think the better solution resides.  With that said, rest assured that our design process recognizes the need for the taskbar to scale more efficiently for larger sets of windows.  This would allow those who possibly feel “trapped” in the 6-9 window case to more comfortably venture to additional windows, if they really require it.  Also, the improvements we make to the 90% case should still hold benefits to the current outliers. 

Notification Area

With so much feedback, it is always valuable to recognize when customer comments converge.  The original post called out the problems with the Notification Area and these issues were further emphasized with your thoughts.

@Jalf writes “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.

Jalf’s comment is particularly interesting because it speaks to both the pros and cons of notifications.  They certainly can be valuable, but they can also very easily overwhelm the customer as many of you note.  A careful balance therefore must be reached such that the customer is kept informed of information that is relevant while she continues to remain in control.  Since relevant is relative, the need for control is fundamental.  Rest assured we are aware of the issues and we are taking them very seriously.

Multi-mon Support

It comes as no surprise that many of you wrote to discuss multi-monitor support for the taskbar. This is a popular request from our enthusiasts (and our own developers) and was called out as an area of investigation in the original post. 

@Justausr is very direct with this comment: “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.”

At least in this particular case we tend to think we “get it”, but we also tend to think that the design of a multi-mon taskbar is not as simple as it may seem.  As with many features, there is more than one way to implement this one.  For example, some might suggest a unique taskbar that exists on each display and others suggest a taskbar that spans multiple displays.  Let’s look at both of these approaches.  While doing so also keep in mind the complexities of having monitors of different sizes, orientations, and alignments. 

If one was to implement a taskbar for each display where each bar only contained windows for its respective portion of the desktop, some issues arise.  Some customers will cite advantages of less mouse travel since there is always a bar at the bottom on their screen.  However, such a design would now put the onus on the customer to track where windows are.  Imagine looking for a browser window and instead of going to a single place, you now had to look across multiple taskbars to find the item you want.  Worse yet, when you move a window from one display to another, you would have to know to look in a new place to find it.  This might seem at odds with the request to rearrange taskbar buttons because customers want muscle memory of their buttons.  It would be like having two remotes with dynamically different  functionality for your TV. This is one of the reasons that almost every virtual desktop implementation keeps a consistent taskbar despite the desktop you are working on.  

Another popular approach is a taskbar that spans multiple desktops.  There are a few third-party tools that attempt to emulate this functionality for the Windows taskbar.  The most obvious advantage of this approach (as well as the dual taskbar) is that there is more room offered for launching, switching and whispering.  It is fairly obvious that those customers with multiple displays have more room to have more windows open simultaneously and hence, require even more room on their taskbar.  Some of our advanced customers address this issue by increasing the height of the taskbar to reveal multiple rows.  Others ask for a spanning taskbar.  The key thing to recognize is that the problem is not necessarily that the taskbar doesn’t span, but that more room is required to show more information about windows.  So, it stands to reason that we should come up with the best solution to this problem, independent of how many displays the customer has. 

We thought it would be good to just offer a brief discussion on the specifics of solving this design problem as it is one we have spent considerable time on.  One of the approaches in general we are working to do more of, is to change things when we know it will be a substantial improvement and not also introduce complexities that outweigh the benefits we are trying to achieve.

Once again, many thanks for your comments.  We look forward to talking soon.

- Chaitanya

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  • @LarryOsterman: I believe kettch is referring to toasts from Outlook, Messenger, et al which are all different and generally tend to fight with one another.

    And yes, I am aware there is a Windows mutex to [try and] handle this but almost no one makes use of it!

  • Sorry I didn't have a chance to comment on the main article. One thing that quickly clutters my notification area are updaters. Sometime I have Google, AVG, Windows, Java, and Install Shield wanting to update. Please make a unified API for updating that would consolidate these into one process freeing up quite a bit of space. I don't think Linux's idea of repositories fits windows install philosophy very well, but at least there is only one updater for ALL programs.

  • Instead of debating which approach to take, how about implementing both or all? Then keep the current behavior as the default and allow customers to change the behvior if they want?

  • About collecting data about the usage and customization of Windows feature and then analyzing it to try to meet the user trends.

    I believe there's a huge amount of usage statistics that behaves just like dark matter -making up a huge space, but still being undetectable. I am talking about statistics coming from what the users *can't* do.

    The easiest example I can come up with is a bit naive but easy to be understood: taskbar color. Every Vista user out there, sooner or later, tried changing the taskbar color to something else than black. Of course, no data can be automatically collected about the usage of a feature that just isn't there.

    So, in general - which data is truly relevant to the purpose of redesigning or make Windows better? Statistics coming from existing Windows features are indeed helpful in a scenario that revolves around "fixing" things. Possibly, though, statistics coming from the installation of third-party software would allow to make some evolutionary steps.. on the same path that people is walking on. (Just think of what the author of the original post himself wrote about: multi monitor support add-ons).

  • If you're aware of the annoyance of the clutter and balloon pop-up messages in the notification area, surely you're aware of the "You have unused icons on your desktop" balloon that shows up, and then when you close it, it shows up again immediately.  I'd have to say that more than doubles the annoyance of the first balloon.  The first one is reasonable, though I dislike it.  The second one just makes me crazy.

    Aside from that, thanks for the detailed discussion.  Helps me see areas of weakness in my own company's software.

  • All must be customizable... All with a big A. Seriously, that's not funny to be strangled by a lack of possibilities. It's not only about the taskbar but all the environment.

    Windows users was a little strangled by XP, it's getting really worse in Vista, the best deal is to make Windows 7 open and explosive of possibilities.

  • Nice point resle. Theoretically, I find that having the task bar on the side instead of at the bottom might be more productive, but it gives a less than attractive result. A better implementation might make me reconsider it again. Some issues that annoy me when the taskbar is on the side are: the 'shine' should be removable; The flow of the objects around the task bar do not look as nice (centre-alignment detracts from looks); The window titles on the open programs on the task bar truncate much earlier than when the taskbar is on the bottom.

  • There's one minor thing that has bugged me since the first day I had Vista: when you maximize a window, it loses its transparency and turns an ugly black. Why does this happen? Shouldn't maximized windows keep their transparency and color?

    Just a thought...

  • I don't know why so few people have discovered how great the Taskbar is when it's two rows high, even on Windows XP.  The default clock now gives you the time, the DAY of the week, which is great, and the date.  There's more room for task icons, and the Quick Launch area and notification areas are bigger (the notification are shows me three rows of icons).

    As a "user experience" improvement, if the user has a 1200x1600 screen, the default task bar ought to be two rows high, not just one.  In my opinion.

  • Actually, I'd like to second quirke's comment.  Wow, that's a biggie that's been a problem for a while.  The big reason I don't rearrange my All Programs list into something more manageable is precisely because uninstall programs lose track of them and they end up getting orphaned.  It seems that it would be relatively simple to create a virtual link back to the original icon to fix this problem.

  • Agreed.  With the newer high resolution screens it almost seems that this should be the default mode.  I've been running two-high on all my machines ever since I went to Vista.

  • I think the multi-monitor taskbar is a tough problem to handle for different configurations and orientations.  If the user decides not to have the monitors oriented horizontally or has the toolbar on the sides the idea of a spanned taskbar would be strange.  Personally I think having the option for separate taskbars on each window would work for me, since I use multiple monitors to separate my workspace.

  • @Anymuos There seems to be some bug in the MSDN blog system where it does not accept long comments (3-4 paragraphs) or comments containing some specific characters (dunno which ones)

    Yes - I've run into this on quite a few MSDN blogs.  Can't figure out what's causing it either.  Anyone got any ideas?

  • When my Vista laptop starts up, the task bar is is two rows for a second, and then it goes back to one row (that's how I have it set).

    Is this a default setting that got turned off at the last minute??

  • Multi taskbar...  I have seen this with Ultramon.

    I am thinking about simulating low resolution over high resolution just to help make some thing more visible and keep high quality on video and pictures.

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