Engineering Windows 7

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User Interface: Managing Windows windows

User Interface: Managing Windows windows

We’ve booted the machine, displayed stuff on the screen, launched programs, so next up we’re going to look at a pretty complex topic that sort of gets to the core role of the graphical user interface—managing windows.  Dave Matthews is program manager on the core user experience team who will provide some of the data and insights that are going into engineering Windows 7.  --Steven

The namesake of the Windows product line is the simple “window” – the UI concept that keeps related pieces information and controls organized on screen.  We’ll use this post to share some of the background thinking and “pm philosophy” behind planning an update to this well established UI feature.

The basic idea of using windows to organize UI isn’t new – it dates back (so I hear) to the first experiments with graphical user interfaces at Stanford over 40 years ago.  It’s still used after all this time because it’s a useful way to present content, and people like having control over how their screen space is used.  The “moveable windows” feature isn’t absolutely needed in an operating system – most cell phones and media center type devices just show one page of UI at a time – but it’s useful when multi-tasking or working with more than one app at a time.  Windows 2.0 was the first Windows release that allowed moveable overlapping windows (in Window 1.0 they were only able to be tiled, not overlapping.  This “tiled v. overlapping” debate had famous proponents on each side—on one side was Bill Gates and on the other side was Charles Simonyi).  In addition, Windows also has the unique notion of "the multiple document interface” or MDI, which allows one frame window to itself organized multiple windows within it.  This is somewhat of a precursor to the tabbed interfaces prevalent in web browsers. 

As a side note, one of the earlier debates that accompanied the “tiled v. overlapping” conversations in the early Windows project was over having one menu bar at the top of the screen or a copy of the menu bar for each window (or document or application).  Early on this was a big debate because there was such limited screen resolution (VGA, 640x480) that the redundancy of the menu bar was a real-estate problem.  In today’s large scale monitors this redundancy is more of an asset as getting to the UI elements with a mouse or just visually identifying elements requires much less movement.  Go figure!

Screenshot of Windows 2.0 Screenshot of Windows Vista
From Windows 2.0 to Vista.

An area I’ve been focusing on is in the “window management” part of the system – specifically the features involved in moving and arranging windows on screen (these are different than the window switching controls like the taskbar and alt-tab, but closely related).  In general, people expect windows to be moveable, resizable, maximizable, minimizable, closeable; and expect them to be freely arranged and overlapping, with the currently used window sitting on top.  These transformations and the supporting tools (caption buttons, resize bars, etc) make up the basic capabilities that let people arrange and organize their workspace to their liking. 

In order to improve on a feature area like this we look closely at the current system - what have we got, and what works?  This means looking at the way it’s being used in the marketplace by ISVs, and the way it’s used and understood by customers.

Standard caption buttons or upper right corner of a window in Vista.

Caption buttons give a simple way to minimize, maximize, and close.  Resizable windows can be adjusted from any of their 4 edges.

Data on Real-World Usage 

As pointed out in the previous Taskbar post, on average people will have up to 6 – 9 windows open during a session.  But from looking at customer data, we find that most time is spent with only one or two windows actually visible on screen at any given time.  It’s common to switch around between the various open windows, but for the most part only a few are visible at once.

Typical number of visible windows (one window 60%, two windows 29%, three or more windows 11%.
Windows Feedback Panel data

As part of our planning, we looked at how people spend their time and energy in moving and sizing their windows. This lets us understand what’s working well in the current system, and what could be improved.

For example, we know that maximize is a widely used feature because it optimizes the work space for one window, while still being easy to switch to others.  Users respond to that concept and understand it.  Since most of the time users just focus on one window, this ends up being very commonly used.  We know that for many applications people ask for every single pixel (for example spreadsheets where a few pixels gain a whole extra row of column) and thus the beyond maximize features for “full screen” become common, even for everyday productivity.

An issue we've heard (as recently as the comments on the taskbar post!) with maximize in Vista is that the customized glass color isn’t very visible, because the windows and taskbar become dark when a window is maximized. (In Vista you can customize the glass window color – and in 29% of sessions a custom color has been set).  The darker look was used to help make it clear that the window is in the special maximized state.  This was important because if you don’t notice that a window is maximized and then try to move it, nothing will happen - and that can be frustrating or confusing.  For Windows 7 we’re looking at a different approach so that the customized color can be shown even when a window is maximized.

Pie chart showing custom window color selection.  29% of sessions have a custom color of "glass".

Interestingly, people don’t always maximize their windows even when they’re only using one window at a time.  We believe one important reason is that it’s often more comfortable to read a text document when the window is not too wide.  The idea of maximizing is less useful on a wide monitor when it makes the sentences in an email run 20+ inches across the screen; 4 or 5 inches tends to be a more pleasant way to read text.  This is important because large desktop monitors are becoming more common, and wide-aspect monitors are gaining popularity even on laptops.  Since Windows doesn’t have a maximize mode designed for reading like this, people end up manually resizing their windows to make them as tall as possible, but only somewhat wide.  This is one of the areas where a common task like reading a document involves excessive fiddling with window sizes, because the system wasn’t optimized for that scenario on current hardwarwe.

Worldwide LCD monitor shipments by form factor. Distribution of native monitor resolution 2005-20010 est.
Resolution data suggests wide aspect-ratio monitors will become the norm.

Being able to see two windows side by side is also a fairly common need.  There are a variety of reasons why someone may need to do this – comparing documents, referring from one document into another, copying from one document or folder into another, etc.  It takes a number of mouse movements to set up two windows side by side – positioning and adjusting the two windows until they are sized to roughly half the screen.  We often see this with two applications, such as comparing a document in a word processor with the same document in a portable reader format. 

Users with multiple monitors get a general increase in task efficiency because that setup is optimized for the case of using more than one window at once.  For example, it’s easy to maximize a window on each of the monitors in order to efficiently use the screen space.  In a Microsoft Research study on multi-tasking, it was found that participants who had multiple monitors were able to switch windows more often by directly clicking on a window rather than using the taskbar, implying that the window they want to switch to was already visible.  And interestingly, the total number of switches between windows was lower.  In terms of task efficiency, the best click is an avoided click.  

Multimonitor users rely less on the taskbar and more on window interactions to switch among windows.
MSR research report

Single monitor machines are more common than multi-mon machines, but the window managing features aren’t optimized for viewing multiple windows at once on one monitor.  The taskbar does has context menu options for cascade, stack, or side-by-side, but we don't believe they're well understood or widely used, so most people end up manually resizing and moving their windows whenever they want to view two windows side by side.

An interesting multiple window scenario occurs when one of the windows is actually the desktop.  The desktop is still commonly used as a storage folder for important or recent files, and we believe people fairly often need to drag and drop between the desktop and an explorer window, email, or document.  The “Show Desktop” feature gives quick access to the desktop, but also hides the window you're trying to use.  This means you either have to find and switch back to the original window, or avoid the Show Desktop feature and minimize everything manually.  It’s very interesting to see scenarios like this where the people end up spending a lot of time or effort managing windows in order complete a simple task.  This kind of experience comes across in our telemetry when we see complex sequences repeated.  It takes further work to see if these are common errors or if people are trying to accomplish a multi-step task.

Evolving the design

To find successful designs for the window management system, we explore a number of directions to see which will best help people be productive.  From extremes of multi-tasking to focusing on a single item, we look for solutions that scale but that are still optimized for the most common usage.  We look at existing approaches such as virtual desktops which can help when using a large number of different windows (especially when they are clustered into related sets), or docking palettes that help efficiently arrange space (as seen in advanced applications such as Visual Studio).  And we look at novel solutions tailored to the scenarios we're trying to enable.

We also have to think about the variety of applications that the system needs to support.  SDI apps (single document interface) rely heavily on the operating system to provide window management features, while MDI apps (multiple document interface)  provide some of the window management controls for themselves (tabbed UI is an increasingly popular approach to MDI applications).  And some applications provide their own window sizing and caption controls in order to get a custom appearance or behavior.  Each of these approaches is valuable, and the different application styles need to be taken into account in making any changes to the system.

For Window 7 our goal is to reduce the number of clicks and precise movements needed to perform common activities.  Based on data and feedback we've gotten from customers,  a number of scenarios have been called out as important considerations for the design.  As with all the designs we’re talking about—it is important to bring forward the common usage scenarios, make clear decisions on the most widely used usage patterns, address new and “unarticulated needs”, and to also be sure to maintain our philosophy of “in control”.  Some of the scenarios that are rising to the top include:

  • Can efficiently view two windows at once, with a minimal amount of set up.
  • Simple to view a document at full height and a comfortable reading width.
  • Quick and easy to view a window on the desktop.
  • The most common actions should require the least effort - quicker to maximize or restore windows with minimal mouse precision required.
  • Keyboard shortcuts to replace mouse motions whenever possible for advanced users.
  • Useful, predictable, and efficient window options for a range of displays: from small laptops to 30” or larger screens; with single or multiple monitors.
  • Easy to use different input methods: mouse, keyboard, trackpad, pen, or touch screens.
  • Customized window glass color visible even when maximized.
  • Overall - customers feel in control, and that the system makes it faster and easier to get things done.

This last point is important because the feeling of responsiveness and control is a key test for whether the design matches the way people really work.  We put designs and mockups in the usability lab to watch how people respond, and once we see people smiling and succeeding easily at their task we know we are on the right track. The ultimate success in a design such as this is when it feels so natural that it becomes a muscle memory.  This is when people can get the feeling that they’ve mastered a familiar tool, and that the computer is behaving as it should.

This is some of the background on how we think about window management and doing evolutionary design in a very basic piece of UI.  We can’t wait to hear feedback and reactions, especially once folks start getting their hands on Windows 7 builds.

- Dave

Leave a Comment
  • Please add 3 and 6 and type the answer here:
  • Post
  • You said "This last point is important" in reference to "customers feel in control..." This touches on one of my pet peeves, which I also consider to be a security bug: focus theft, specifically keyboard focus theft.

    At any point in time, any window on my system could decide to take keyboard focus from the application that I have chosen to be using, such as this web browser. This often happens when an application has an alert or asks for authorization. It pops up a dialog, but if I happen to be hitting the spacebar when it does so, which is very common when typing, the dialog is instantly dismissed. I have even had dialogs that were dismissed by keyboard input before the WM_PAINT handler could complete. In such cases, I can have no idea what actions I have just authorized and sometimes I cannot even determine which application alerted me.

    I do not feel in control.

    Ted Howard


    In case you care about this too, I entered bugs for this which were resolved as By Design. Search for my name or 'tedhow' in IE's PS path.

  • I understand, but my main idea it's to be able to have more possibilities. I take your example about the new Office UI. I agree that imposing a new UI is a bad idea, but if we can at least return with the old UI, people could be more happy. That's same about inactive windows. He don't like the UI of Windows Vista, then he change it and return to the Windows XP one (if possible).

    If we have more possibilities, more people will be happy. That's why I speak about "programmable" things because everyone could create alternatives of everything that is already implanted.

    Sorry again for my English.

  • adeling -

    The SHIFT-click close button to save window position idea is a myth.  Window placement is generally remembered by the app, not by Windows.

  • TedHoward -

    In general, applications are not allowed to set the foreground window unless the thread setting it is part of the already active application, or has been given that ability by the active application using AllowSetForegroundWindow.

    There may be bugs, and there may be some complicated ways around this system (like injecting code into the active window's UI thread), but Windows has in the last few versions tried to stop this behavior.  One problem is that if you take away this ability completely, there are some applications (like half of Stardock's apps) that simply aren't possible.

    I don't understand how you consider focus-stealing to be a "security" bug.  If some app wanted to know what you were typing it doesn't have to be the focused application in order to do that...

  • I find myself frequently with several overlapping explorer windows and wish to drag an object from one window onto another window that is being covered by other windows.

    I remember seeing a GUI demo where an item from a window was dragged out of the window and hovered over a corner of that window. The window corner 'peeled' back so that the item can be dropped onto a second window located under the previous one.

    Another GUI behaviour could be a way for the item or another window to 'nudge' a window out of the way so you can access the second window underneath while in the middle of a 'drag' movement.

  • mark:  that  would be too cool for windows to do.

  • I hate when I launch an application or start a process like compile a project, and meantime i use another program like a web browser and when the first apllication is complete, the system has not detected that switch to the browser and show the window at top, hiding the form I was seeing.

    As well it take too many clicks to send a maximized window to another monitor ( change to normal size, drag to the other monitor and maximize again).


  • @mark_ms

    Like Firefox 3 + Live Writer ?

  • Please make sure everything you do works with dual or 3 monitors and include features to easily arrange across multiple monitors, move windows between monitors, have various system message and boxes appear on the monitor where the current window is, support different size monitors in dual mode (I leave my tablet in 1Kx1400 mode on the left and my LCD in 1600x1k), etc.

    Microsoft has been pretty awful in its support for dual monitor environments.

  • It would be useful that when I´m dragging an object I could to open a list or thumbnail of the windows ( maybe a right- click )to select what window use to drop the object.

  • Mark, if you've ever used Visual Studio 2008, you'll notice that when you drag a window to another window it shows a translucent window target and you can then choose which window to drop onto.  This would be a great addition to the explorer option you're talking about with activation using drag right click opening a radial window with translucent target windows.

  • Antonio, that was weird.  Look at our post times.  LOL

  • Just a thought regarding my suggestion for having windows snap to the edges of the screen. They should also snap to each other so that they can be easily positioned next to each other as well as when resizing them they should snap to the size of the window next to them.

    I also agree with above posts on a standardised always on top button on every window, that would be very useful.

  • What about multiple monitor support a little like we use Synergy? Each monitor is like an independent system and one monitor don't affect the other one. If you don't know Synergy, it's a freeware that share keyboard, mouse and clipboard between 2 or more computer. More computer there is, more screen there is, further the Windows experience it is. And Synergy is compatible with Mac and Linux too. I know, that's not a multiple monitor support but it's a root of solution, of idea to resolve the multiple monitor support problem.

  • Now the real question is can you guys accomplish these interface enhancements while using 1/4 of the memory the Aero interface uses? Because no matter how whiz bang the interface is, more resource use means slower performance (or at least perceived performance ala Vista release) which equals less productivity because you have to wait for all the eye candy to catch up to what you are doing.

    Not to mention you already have a huge user base that is used to using the the windows interface a the way they know how. Reducing clicks is all fine and nice but just making the current often used interface features faster through lighter less cumbersome code better more efficient relationships with controls etc.. will benefit windows 7 more than 3D interfaces that look nice but are practically useless when it come to real work or play.

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