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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  • My one real critique of the Programs Menu, in any of its iterations, is that there is a whole lot more than just programs on it. There are help files and uninstallers to name just a couple common items.

    When I first used a linux distro the thing that stuck with me was that the application menu only had links to executables! Windows keeps track of uninstallers and has for some time, and does so in a user friendly manner. An app has its own ways of presenting help, how accessible this is prior to running any given program I don't know since I can't even remember the last time I looked at a Windows application's help file unless I accidentally pressed F1.

    The programs menu seems so much simpler and cleaner once I've distilled it to just application shortcuts. I'm certainly no expert on UI, but this seems like a very positive change, of course it is a rather drastic one too, but it couldn't hurt to look into.

  • 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.)

  • Windows 7's multi-monitor support is amazingly good and shaves many minutes of my daily workflow.  I neither need nor want my task bar to appear across monitors, but the people who want this might just want to use Nvidia cards (there are extremely cheap ones) because the Nvidia drivers ALLOW this mode.  Haven't they noticed?

  • The default clock now gives you the time, the DAY of the week, which is great, and the date.When I first used a linux distro the thing that stuck with me was that the application menu only had links to executables! Windows keeps track of uninstallers and has for some time, and does so in a user friendly manner. An app has its own ways of presenting help, how accessible this is prior to running any given program I don't know since I can't even remember the last time I looked at a Windows application's help file unless I accidentally pressed F1

  • Here is my comment to improve the taskbar:

    1).- There is too much text in start menu and taskbar, with icons al tooltips is sufficient, and this leave more space to more application

    2).- For Taskbar, with thumbails (and a small icon in the corner) with zoom will be a great improvement (look objectdock or rocketdock), equal for QuickLaunch where apply (ex. shortcut to Files).

    3).- In send to (popup menu), add a "Send to Quick Launch".

    4).- Add Stack to QuickLaunch, this si very impressive and useful and is done in windows of objectdock or rocketdock, but will be ideal see as part of windows

  • The multiple monitor support of the taskbar is indeed a feature that is grossly lacking. Multimon has always done a fantastic job of offering incredible flexibility to taskbars extended onto 2 monitors. It allows you to choose 1 taskbar mirrored onto both monitors, or seperate taskbars for each.

    And yet you claim this to be quite a challenge? I guess the folks at realtimesoft are just better at improving windows thatn microsoft is.

  • It should be left to the user option if he/she wants to have a taskbar on each monitor, only one or one for both.

    The system should be intelligent enough to minimize windows on the same taskbar of the monitor and it also should have many customizable options, that users can accomodate.

    Removing a functionality do its "complexity" is a very bad idea, customers should have the option of having such features and learn how to use them!

  • While Microsoft carps about not knowing the right approach for multi-mon taskbars, Gnome (Linux) solved it in gnome-panel some years ago.

    MS, home of innovation since... never.

  • Hi guys!

    If you use two or more monitors then I recommend you to install Actual Multiple Monitors. I have tried several other products, such as Multi-mon and Display Fusion but abandoned them. Today I use Actual Multiple Monitors and i fully satisfied.

    There is a link for download

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