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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  • Also, you guys must make the Start bar look better when its height is increased - It doesn't look good at all in XP.

    About the low percentage of people using the Windows Media Player bar - PLEASE don't use that data to remove it. I think that bar is  a great thing to have, but it lacks a way to select a song from the playlist. Please add that feature since it gets annoying clicking the next button a hundred times.

    About whether having separate taskbars in each monitor or one taskbar that extends into all, WHY NOT JUST HAVE BOTH AND LET THE USERS DECIDE? :)

    "is to change things when we know it will be a substantial improvement"

    As long as its there in the final version of Windows 7, default or not, I'm happy. Include both in your public beta builds, and see what suggestions people have and implement them ...

  • I've always liked programs that offer a normal mode and an advanced mode, which can be toggled between usually by some sort of main menu option (maybe under "tools" in a typical program).  Turning on the advanced mode shows a lot more options and features.

    It seems like this would be a nice approach for Windows 7.  Ship it out in "normal" mode, with more familiar interfaces, etc...but then allow users to turn on the advanced mode which might let users play with the notification area or have some more experimental features that advanced users are willing and eager to try.

    @cquirke - I completely agree about customizing the start menu.  I keep only 4 folders under the start menu programs ("Av", "Fun", "Net", and "Sys").  Av is audio/visual and the rest are pretty self-explanatory.  Not only is this how my mind works - thinking about a graphics program or a system tool - but it also provides faster access to programs (not digging through branding folders and sorting through uninstall links).  At this point, it's difficult enough (sans UAC) to move all the shortcuts around and rename them.  I think a whole little program just devoted to organizing and customizing the start menu would be amazing!

    By the way, this is a great blog!

  • Some thoughts on the taskbar:

    1) It scales really poorly.  For those of us who need lots of windows open at once, it isn't particularly usable.

    2) It lacks flexibility.  People don't put it on the sides because it isn't really usable there.  You do see people putting OS X docks on the sides sometimes, because it doesn't lose any functionality when you do so, or take up too much room.

    3) Having only one is a pain.  Take a look at Gnome panels on Linux.  Each panel is sort of like a taskbar, and is customizable, in terms of size, position, appearance, and what you have on it.  Some nice features include:

    -You can set it to automatically scale in width to be as large as needed for what you have placed on it.

    -You have lots of flexibility in positioning panels whereever you like.  Want one in the center of the top of your screen?  You can do that.

    -You can set different behaviors for each panel (such as auto hiding, etc.)

    4) When you create additional taskbar toolbars and try to place them elsewhere on the screen, you wind up with a toolbar that takes an entire side of the screen, and that has a big text label on it.  Let's say that I wanted one to display notifications.  How large should it be?  I certainly don't need one that takes one whole side of the screen.  One that is just large enough to hold all my notifications would be better.

    5) Autohiding behavior is broken.  There is an animation that you can't get rid of that causes autohiding to occur slowly.  If you get a notification or state change, having the taskbar hidden may keep you from being able to see it (a good reason to have a separate notification taskbar).

    6) It should be possible to move or remove taskbar elements that you don't want.  That includes the start menu.  I use quicklaunch almost exclusively and almost never want to use the start menu - launching a program from it takes too much work.

    7) Taskbar colors and fonts should be customizable separately from window colors and fonts.  On every version of Windows since 95, I've been really limited in my customization choices because things that work well for a window decoration or a window font do not work well for a fixed size control strip on the bottom of the screen.  If I make my window titlebar fonts too big, the taskbar becomes unusable even though it should be displaying different sized fonts.

    8) A taskbar alternative would be really nice.  Combine that with the ability to display taskbar components on their own resizable panels, and you could let users switch to their favorite interface.  This works well on Gnome.

    9) Taskbars on multiple monitors really are essential.  Why should I look at one screen but have my interface on the other screen?  If that's confusing for some users, give us the option of having task bars configured as we wish.

    10) Autohide doesn't completely hide the taskbar. I hate the little strip of blue that is left if I try to hide the taskbar in XP.

  • Why is there no virtual desktop built into Windows?  There are a number of virtual desktops available for it, but none of them work particularly well.  Some won't let you switch desktops easily or move windows between desktops easily.  Some leave artifacts on the screen when you switch desktops (dexpot) or don't put windows on the correct screen.  MSVDM takes over half your taskbar with the word MSVDM, and provides a really poor interface (and doesn't handle the previous problems well either).  There are great virtual desktops available for Linux and OS X.  Some provide a view of workspaces that you can click on.  Some let you drag windows easily between workspaces.  OS X spaces is really amazing, and makes me far more efficient.

    You can combine virtual desktops with the taskbar interface.  In Gnome, for example, switching to a different desktop can be configured to switch the window buttons (in their version of the taskbar) to display only those windows in the current desktop.  If you are using some of the 3D interfaces for gnome, you can even set up the interface to behave exactly as it does in OS X.

    Virtual desktops allow you to group windows for related tasks onto related desktops, and to chose to display certain windows on more than one desktop (preferably not just limited to one or all).  This really helps to get rid of clutter.  For example, I have a web browser, IM, and some other stuff on one desktop.  An IDE and a browser with programming related web pages on another.  iTunes in another.  Papers that I have to read in another.  Things that I'm writing in another.  etc.  Sometimes, I group things by project, sometimes by task, and sometimes by the software that I'm using.  If I *really* have a lot open at once, I'll use rows to represent the project and columns to represent the type of task (browsing, programming, mail, etc.)

    This would really help with reducing taskbar clutter, because you could only show those windows actually on the current desktop.  That would REALLY help to scale the taskbar, and would also help users to make better use of smaller displays.  Note that if you implement virtual desktops, you must allow users to assign windows or programs to specific desktops, and ensure that programs can open on multiple desktops in the same positions as before.

    Also note that there is one set of programs that behaves very badly on virtual desktops on the Mac - MS Office 2008.  Office windows just disappear, assign themselves to the wrong desktop, refuse to sit where placed, don't duplicate or move the floating panel interface to sit next to active windows, etc.  These problems don't affect other Mac programs, so when you check out their virtual desktop, don't try it with Office.  (And if you could, please pass a note to the Mac BU that they REALLY need to fix this.)

  • Most of the problems that you have raised with implementing these new features can be solved with one thing: options. Options are what sets Windows apart from Mac. The more options, the better in my view.

  • Here is how I imagine my dream multi-monitor taskbar:

    1) Applications maximize/minimize on a per-monitor basis. I think users would quickly get used to seeing their email application on one screen, and a website in another, etc.

    2) The taskbars would have a simple option of mirrored quick-launch, or unique quick-launch.

    3) There would only be one notification area, with the possible exception of the clock. (I'd personally want a clock on each screen, though many might disagree.)

    4) Custom toolbars such as the mini Windows Media Player would be on a per-monitor basis.

    5) There would only ever be one Start button (Windows logo) and it would always be on the left.

    Those rules/options would offer a very tight user experience allowing users to either customize each monitor to specific tasks, or to make a unified desktop. Personally I enjoy my 3rd party application that allows me to launch specific applications in specific screens.

  • One thing to consider with two seperate taskbars is the case where a program spans both monitors.  While I normally keep Word and other similar programs to one monitor, I do increase the size of my CAD software window to fill both screens.  In that case, which taskbar would you assign the tab to?  Do you put an icon on both taskbars, on the taskbar where the program first loads, on the taskbar with the most room, on a random taskbar, or on the taskbar where the mouse current is?  Any of these are valid options and what I like might not be the same as what the guy next to me likes.

    I recommend you create a way for the customer to handle the taskbar (and rules).  Let him pick if you have one taskbar, many bars, or even no taskbar.  Let him choose how he wants to display the tabs/icon.  I also suggest a simple UI window that is easy to get to that list all options.  You may want to include this window in the display properties.  In XP you already got a tab for window themes and Desktop, why not one for taskbar?  Seems like a logical place for it.

  • Regarding the dilema of either having multiple taskbars or one single taskbar spaning all screens there is an easy option to add, at leaset to my way of thinking. Why not treat each extra screen as a virtual desktop, just like the codeplex project Vista Virtual desktop and the Virtual desktop availabe on both Macs and Liux. (Not that I use them) People are more likely to group their work to categories for each "virtual desktop" for example, one screen for Internet browsing, another for Office productivity software, another for email and so on.

    You may ask what if a user does not do that?

    Well they may not and a simple solution to that would be to add an icon on the taskbar of the first screen or "Virtual desktop" that could be called "Whereis Program" a user would click the icon and a dialog would come up informing the user on which screen or Virtual desktop the program or application they are looking for is running.

    @Rayadoman a solution to your problem would be the taskbar icon would appear on the screen the or "virtual desktop" the application was launched from.

  • Something I forgot to mention. You learn something from the IE8 team and using colour coding and group similar applications together. So for example if you launched Word, and launched Excel and Outlook for example they would be grouped together because they are all Microsoft Office programs. If a person launched IE and Firefox, Safari and Opera these would be grouped together because they are internet browsers. Each would have a unique coloured taskbar icon.

  • While we're on the topic of the user interface, Is there any way you could add filmstrip view back into Windows 7?

    Even if it was a hidden option only available by a registry tweak, that'd be good enough. Why take away a feature that a lot of people liked? Just hide it so that those who hated it won't be annoyed, and those who don't can have it. Like another mentioned, the large ammount of options is Windows's biggest advantage.  

    As i've mentioned elsewhere, Vista's lack of this feature is the primary reason that I still use XP. I'm into digital photography, and there's no better way than filmstrip to weed out the bad pictures. I'd be looking to get Windows 7 for this feature alone.

    Also, virtual desktops *workspaces" would be great to implement. Apple has recently integrated it, and I'd like to see windows take this advantage away from them. If done right, it could be a great selling point. A lot of people will find their desktop too cluttered with windows or icons, and being able to spread them out over several workspaces really helps prevent information overload.

    Being able to have unique icons and wallpapers on each desktop would be nice, too. Aero's flip 3d effect could be implemented well here when switching desktops.  

    On another topic, as someone else pointed out, why not give maximized windows the glass effect? most people work with maximized windows anyway. This would be a really nice graphical touch.

  • I want to say something, customization is not neccesary more complex functionality.

    For the average user things would work fine with no changes in taskbar, but remember that most enhacements are not usually asked by normal users, often the enhacements are asked for more advanced users. ( like us,  i believe )

    Could be interesting to see in Windows 7 our traditional easy use taskbar concept but leaving an option for extra custumization for advanced users.

    I don't want to see in the future something like "Windows for humans" and what about expert users (don't humans?). "Windows for everybody" should be your idea, pen customization and default simple and easy behavior...

    or at least that is what i want. :P

  • Like @cquirke and others I also group

    programs according to functionality, removing all other unnecessary short cuts the installers add. I would add my vote for much easier customisation. And yes, I am arranging it with my mouse on my PC, don't show me any notifications.

  • Power to the people. About the multi-monitor support, I don't use it myself and I understand your concern. So, my thought, power to the people. Let people configure the behavior.

    1) Default, copy appears in each monitor.

    2) Span to right monitor only, no copy on top monitor.

    3) The old Windows style.

    Anyway, there is my wish again. Start thinking about taskbar placed at left of the screen. I know it is really unpopular, but this is for wide screen's sake.

    And this new request is a lot to you, but I think this is for the future good. I wish for a much easier customization on taskbar. Like I can simply move my WPF app into taskbar without all the crazy COM and Registry. I personally hope it is like Sidebar easily customizable.

    For starter,

    I know you may not going to replace taskband with active thumbnails, so I was thinking of making one myself. But making a toolbar for taskbar is hardest out of everything.

    Thank you.

  • Power to the people 2: Crazy thinking.

    How about multi-sidebar?

    Use sidebar to replace taskbar. Just make a taskband, notifination area, quick launch (already exist), and etc for the sidebar.

    Let us run many sidebars. I can make my own taskband. The only problem right now is I can only open one sidebar, thus, I would have to give up everything else to host my own taskband.

  • If the argument is "should we have multiple task bars or a stretched task bar?" on the multi-monitor front, why not use both, and assign a default based on the majority preference? Finding windows shouldn't be too horrendously difficult with thumbnail views, and it may even be time to change the shape and size of task bar items. Why not a vertical orientation of icons with the text underneath them, for instance?

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