Engineering Windows 7

Welcome to our blog dedicated to the engineering of Microsoft Windows 7

Action Center

Action Center

We’re back! We’ve had a pretty incredible couple of weeks at the PDC and WinHEC. Based on what we talked about you can imagine we are all rather busy as we transition from milestone 3 to beta. We trust many of you are enjoying 6801 (or perhaps we should say 6801+). Over the next few weeks we’re going to start posting on the engineering and design of the specifics of different aspects of Windows 7 that we’ve talked about. Some posts will be very detailed and others will be a bit more high level and cover more territory. In all cases, we’ll be watching the comments carefully and also looking for opportunities on follow up posts. Thank you!

One of the big themes of Windows 7 from a design perspective (as you might have seen in Sam’s PDC session and certainly a topic we have talked about here) is making sure that you are “in control” of what is happening on your PC. This post, by senior program manager Sean Gilmour, is about “notifications” or the balloon popups that come from the system tray. In Vista we offered some controls over this area and in Windows 7 we have worked hard to make this an area that defaults to more well-behaved functionality and is also much more tunable to your needs. By improving how Windows itself uses the APIs and “guidelines” we want to encourage other ISVs to do the same. This topic is a great example of how the whole ecosystem comes into the picture as well and so we hope developers reading this will see the passion around the topic and the desire for software on Windows to take the steps necessary to honor the your intent. --Steven

The notification area has been talked about a couple times in previous posts (User Interface: Starting, Launching, and Switching and Follow-up: Starting, Launching, and Switching). This post is going to go into a bit more detail regarding notification balloons as well as one of the ways we’re working to quiet the system in Window 7.

Where We're At Today

Windows can be a busy place – with many things vying for your attention, even while you’re trying to do work. One we hear a lot about from you is the system notification balloons – those little pop-ups that appear above icons in the notification area (typically right side of the taskbar near the clock). In this post I’ll be talking to notifications sent utilizing Shell_NotifyIcon function provided in Windows, not custom notifications, often called “toast”, like the notifications presented by many applications (some like Outlook even from Microsoft). We see these in instant messenger programs, printer notifications, auto updaters, wifi and Bluetooth utilities, and more – these often use custom methods to present these “balloons” from the system tray, not necessary the Windows API. People have made their feelings loud and clear – Windows is too noisy and the noise distracts from the work at hand. Here are some quotes from the Windows Feedback Panel that illustrate that point.

“Too many notification messages, esp. re: security (eg. Firewall), activation”

“Notifications telling me my system is secure, when I know it is secure, are annoying”

“I'm tired of error messages and pop ups.”

And some posts from the blog discussions

@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.

@Lyesmith writes “The single biggest annoyance in the taskbar is notification balloons.”

So how noisy is the system? First a quick definition - a ‘session’ is the period of time between log-on and log-off or 24 hours whichever is shorter. As you can see from the following chart, 60% of sessions experience at least one notification. That doesn’t sound all that bad, but if you dig a bit deeper you realize that 37% of sessions see two or more notifications and 25% of sessions see three or more notifications. That’s a lot of distractions interrupting your work.

Number of notification sent per session as a percentage of total sessions - August through September, 2008 

Figure 1: Number of notification sent per session as a percentage of total sessions - August through September, 2008

So we know how much noise notifications create but how effective are notifications? Well, as the following chart, notification click-through rate shows the more notifications the less effective they become.

Notification click-through rate - August through September, 2008

Figure 2: Notification click-through rate - August through September, 2008

So, as shown in the above chart, used sparingly and in the right context, notification balloons can be rather useful. Unfortunately, that isn’t what is happening today. Instead the notification area often feels like a constant scrolling billboard of messages some important, many not. So what’s the answer? It’s a big area to tackle – there are system notifications, third party notification, and custom notifications. For Windows 7 we chose to focus on making sure Windows and its in-box components notify you responsibly and don’t contribute to the noise in the system. Ideally the ISV community will follow suit and as you’ve seen in some sessions, we’re doing this work in Windows Live for example. One of the reasons we focused internally was data showing that Windows components are responsible for at least 28% of the notifications presented. Additionally, we were able to identify seven Windows components that are mostly responsible for that noise. In all, 20 applications account for 62% of the notifications presented. The following chart shows the break-out.

Which software accounts for notifications - August through September, 2008

Figure 3: Which software accounts for notifications - August through September, 2008


Windows 7

Our effort to quiet the system and make sure you are in control took the following approach:

  • Working across Windows 7 to reduce unnecessary notifications
  • Put you in control of the notifications you see
  • Creating Action Center with the following goals
    • Reduce the number of notification balloons sent to you and make the ones that are sent more meaningful
    • Provide a contextual way to address the issues with a single click
    • Reduce the user-interface clutter in the system to streamline solving system issues

While there are many other efforts going around notifications and the notification area I’m going to focus on Action Center. In a nutshell, Action Center is a central location for dealing with messages about your system and the starting point for diagnosing and solving issues with your system. You can think of Action Center as a message queue displaying the items that need your attention that you can manage on your schedule. It serves as an aggregate for ten components in Windows Vista that contributed a large number of somewhat questionably effective notification balloons, but notifications that could not just be eliminated. At the heart of the Action Center effort is the idea that your time is extremely valuable it should never be wasted. To that end we took three steps.

First we looked hard at the messages we were sending and worked to reduce balloons and clarify messages. We took the following steps:

  • Putting messages into one of two categories – normal or important. Normal messages simply appear in the Action Center control panel. Important messages send a notification balloon as well as appearing in the Action Center.
  • Setting a high bar for important messages. A message is only deemed important if the security of the system or the integrity of your data is at risk.
  • Reducing the frequency of notifications so that you’re not seeing them pop-up “all the time”
  • Looking at all the messages and asking the hard questions –“is this something you really need to know about?”

The last filter led to our second step. We decided that all messages need to have an action associated with them - a solution, if you will, to whatever problem we were presenting to you. This meant cutting any FYI, Action Success, and Confirmation messages. It also meant that the way we presented these messages would be action based. For example, we replaced, “Antivirus is out of date”, with “Update Antivirus Signatures.” We believe that we should let people know specifically how to resolve an issue instead of making them guess or read lots of text. This is the heart of the other goal of Action Center – to help people solve system issues quickly and conveniently.

Finally, we designed the user experience (UX) of the Action Center in two parts. The first and most immediately visible is system icon in the notification area, which is a "lighthouse" in 6801. In the spirit of our efforts, this icon replaces five notification area icons from Vista, further reducing the clutter and noise in the system. The lighthouse icon provides a high level view of the number of messages in Action Center and their importance. It also has a fly-out menu on single left click which lists the four most recent notifications and supports you acting on messages contextually. We give the people the ability to click on a notification in that fly-out menu and immediately go to the UI to solve the issue. Again, the focus is solving issues instead of simply notifying.

Action Center notification area icon and fly-out menu

Figure 4: Action Center notification area icon and fly-out menu

The second part of the UX is the control panel, which builds upon the icon and fly-out by serving as a repository for all messages as well as providing more details about the issue and the solution. It is also action based so the layout emphasizes messages and the corresponding solutions with even more detail. Additional actions are available if you expand the UI to view them. Finally, we know that we won’t always have messages about the issues a person might be having on their machine. To make sure you can solve those issues, we provide top level links to Troubleshooter and Recovery options.

Action Center Control Panel with a few messages queued up

Figure 5: Action Center Control Panel with a few messages queued up

Action Center boils down to understanding that your time is valuable and that it is your PC you want to control, not be controlled by your PC. We reduced messages, focused on solving issues not just telling you about them, and streamlined the experience so you can focus on what you what to do not want Windows needs you to do. We are aiming to get most sessions down to zero notifications from Windows itself. This reduction in notifications could significantly increase the possibility that the notification balloon will be effective in delivering its message and prompting user action as shown in the Figure 2 (notification click through).

We will of course be evangelizing to ISV the goal of following this direction and reducing notification balloons – and we believe we’ve taken the first steps to making Windows a quieter place. Hopefully you will find it less distracting and easier to work with.

Sean Gilmour, senior program manager

Leave a Comment
  • Please add 5 and 4 and type the answer here:
  • Post
  • Dispel a myth : AKA No Mac zealots, Apple didn't invent the dock

    journalist  published this, the people must know!


  • >>Ars CS4 review.

    I think the situation for OSX on large images will improve with CS5 when they get x64 support, not to mention by then OSX 10.6 should be released. If it's an improvement over 10.5 (and Apple, I feel, is more likely to delivery on promises) it could probably edge out Windows on large images as well as small. Maybe CS5 will take advantage of DX11 and/or D2D but who knows, it would be a lot easier for Adobe to keep using OpenGL for platform compatibility and I think they'll go that route.

    Notice CS4 has access to 228MB more memory on Vista x86 and 2776MB more in x64, by the way. Not that any of this matters. Just pick your platform of choice and use it. It doesn't matter how many tens of thousands of times faster or more easy to use OSX is... or Windows, whichever way you want. :P


    Does it matter? The dock was popularized by Apple and now its being used by Microsoft (someone who hasn't used a dock-like interface in years). I can guarantee you the taskbar and jumplists will be brought up at this upcoming MacWorld and hilarity (a photocopier joke) will ensue. To stay positive (I'm trying not to totally berate Microsoft as a whole on each post), there are some interesting ideas coming out in Seven.

  • Hey Vistaline

    I no wait no matter the future,

    Photoshop 64 bit work awesome on Vista 64 ,

    The test was performed on a standard machine GPU

    We want to do a test with Nvidia Quadro for Windows? Example Nvidia Quadro 5800 FX

    What should be clear to all that is apple has never invented anything

    Stop off topic now

  • @Knipoog -

    I love you guys.  You're constant entertainment is so enriching...

    Your issue:

    A pre-beta, development OS is *AS FAST AS* the current, released, production OS on the same hardware...

    ...and this is a *bad* thing???

    What do you think might happen when they remove all of the debug code?

    ...and really?  Using a video encoder (CPU benchmark) to bench an OS?  Really?

    Grow up already, kiddo.  The MS Trolls are already failing miserably at spreading FUD.

  • The concept of action center seems good. But are we trying to more complicate the UI through this? Instead categorizing the notifications and displaying a blinking icon with colors that indicate the severity of the notification at notification area. Instead of displaying some message alert the users using animations

  • The concept of action center seems good. But are we trying to more complicate the UI through this? Instead categorize the notifications and displaying a blinking icon with colors that indicate the severity of the notification at notification area. Instead of displaying some message alert the users using animations


  • in new thread here

    Infoworld love Story

  • My few notes about article from

    First of all, Microsoft is corporation. We have low level employees, managers and managers for their managers. Now imagine, that managers on high level decide - our product needs feature X (they will do it from very various reasons). Low level employees will work hard on implementing it. Their managers will speak about progress, will create reports and will work hard too.

    Now imagine, that product must be released on time. Employees will do what they can, but product can be not the best.

    How can we estimate it ?

    Employees and their followers will do say only good things about product, their competition only bad.

    In my opinion new product is good only, when it gives more profits than old one (here: old version and in my opinion it should XP, not Vista).

    And now article: I understand, that we can't base our estimation on M3 version (it's too early and could be not fair) in 100%, but from other hand: we have here first try of finding, if new system will be really faster, smaller and working with more programs than Vista and if it will give more profits than XP (or not). And we can see, that there is potential possibility, that it can be not better than Vista. IF (I repeat: IF and spell: India Foxtrot) this is true, it's not good sign. And there is potential possibility, that it's true. Why ?

    I don't believe, that M3 contains a lot of debug source (Microsoft wanted to make it working as fast as possible). Additionally product must be released on time and it's simply not too much time before Beta 1 (Microsoft doesn't have time for making revolution and M3 probably contains big part of changes). And additionally: have you notified, that even some Microsoft people start to speak, that (for example) "16 GB of HDD will be enough for new system" and don't try to give numbers showing, that new system will need less than XP...

    So, what is worst scenario ? We will have another Vista, big part of new features will be unavailable for ordinary people (I speak about GPS and multitouch for example) and they will be not too happy. What, if it will happen ?

    We will have few years, when Microsoft will have to give big money for advertisement. Users will be not happy from product and companies will have to think about buying new hardware (and they will not give these money for paying for developers work and creating really NEW and really EXCITING software and technologies).

    What is the best scenario ? We will laugh at it in 2009 year :)

    What will happen ? I think, that Microsoft managers know it already. If "worst scenario", they should think about changing some managers to people, who have fresh view and will force for example implementing some real architecture changes before releasing WIn 7 (it will have to be moved into future) or they should think about engaging some people with fresh view even from this forum...

    I hope, that at least some of you will notify, that I don't want to troll here or make FUDs... And sorry for my horrible English.

  • @all replieants.

    Thanks all!

    That gives convidence for the future!

  • I've always thought Vista was (and still is) too harshly judged. The same appears to apply for Windows 7.

    OK, so let's say the number of threads and memory footprint is indeed too close to Vista, and is still too hoggish in comparison to XP. But as Steven has already said on this blog, performance is measured in different ways.

    Even if Vista/7 lose at those numbers, the question is what they deliver for them. Everyone seems to forget prefetch and indexer which are great productivity enhancements and time savers for everyday work (the "often" in the Design Principles presentation). And there may be even more stuff under the hood I'm not aware of - the point it all those things create a faster OS, which unfortunately is only visible on more powerful hardware. Run XP and then Vista on a 2 GHz/800MHz, 1GB DDR2/800MHz, 160GBs SATA2 or more and then don't tell me numbers, but tell me in which one did IE open faster (try to open it multiple times and average it), in which you were able to do a quicker search (XP's search add-on, or Vista's built-in one), and in which one were you able to open up more windows, up until you consume all of your memory. For maximum accuracy, disable all visual extras on both (you know the "Adjust for best performance" setting, right?).

    As far as my results for this kind of test goes, Vista is better.

    END USERS DON'T CARE ABOUT NUMBERS. They care how fast they can open their app and do their work. If 7 can deliver on that better than Vista, then so be it, even if it means keeping the numbers on that level.

    I do agree with one point mentioned in the article(s?) though - the Windows Kernel can't REALLY be altered without breaking lots of drivers. As mentioned, even the small changes break Daemon-Tools, which uses its own driver. And if the Kernel is not altered, the numbers remain.

    What do you prefer - a very lightweight OS (and possibly a very tweaked kernel) that creates many new back draw compatibility problems, or a barely tweaked kernel and OS that hardly creates a problem, yet gives a much better performance than its predecessor? I prefer the latter. Keep the numbers, give more for them - that should be the motto.

    Oh, and... has anyone compared Windows 2000 to 98? The difference is probably as big as between XP and Vista. Well, maybe in numbers its less, but *proportionally*, it's basically the same. I mean, think for a moment what hardware was available in 2000 when it debuted in terms of what was "the most", what was "recommended", what was "current" and what was "worth it". The only difference is that less people were "into computers", so the fuss was less, and thus people weren't as drastically affected. XP came into the picture, bringing the 2000 legacy with it, thus creating less BC problems (since a lot of vendors already had programs and drivers for Windows 2000). History is repeating itself, this time with more people into the picture (thus more fuss), larger adoption of the new core (Vista that is), and larger expectations for the OS to take that legacy (7).

  • @boen_robot,

    my opinion:

    Vista was harshly judged because of some decisions from Microsoft managers about implementing some very unpopular features (not only DRM). When these features will be removed, system based even on current kernel has got chance to win... XP was so popular, because decisions were different.

  • @marcinw, Knipoog et al.

    Frankly I’m quite disappointed of what Windows 7 M3 is. I’ve already written about my concerns under previous post in blog but here it seems a good place to express them.

    The aforementioned article to great extent elaborates on issues I found during my first experience with M3. I tend not to benchmark a pre-beta system, but didn’t Mr. Sinofsky claimed in this blog that the new process of developing system assumes that the system could be made RTM at any time because all changes which are given way to winmain are already thoroughly tested? Therefore I’d expect little or no debug code (BTW I have some notion of Beta builds of Vista – of course Win7 is more, astonishingly, stable but was the difference in memory footprint so different between beta Longhorn and Vista RTM?).

    However, I do understand that the footprint or CPU usage is a very relative towards concepts of speed or usability of system. It would be satisfying if Win7 performed better in how the user feels the performance, even if under the hood memory cost etc. were the same. But a lot of people started writing fud on Vista because XP’s after-install memory usage of 80 MB was less than 600 MB of Vista’s. And it didn’t change in 7. If debugging is removed, we’ll have 500 MB?

    Someone claimed that people do not like numbers. But I’d like to express quite different opinion. There are many people whom I know, that tend to have some computer knowledge (and they know what the capital of USA is) and though it’s only some experience with Word and installing printer, they can differentiate between numbers. And although many of them would useful in a Mojave-type experiment, they wouldn’t leave their Holly-XP for a system that is a little better than Vista.

    Personally I like Vista, I got used to it and it works fine. But M3 was a bitter disappointment to me. Mere cosmetic changes (many of which demanded at Long Zheng’s Aero Taskforce) do not deserve, in my opinion, to be called a major release. Putting SE after Vista would be sufficient.

    I liked how Mr. Sinfosky and his team presented ideas on this blog, but I feel, they’re quite far away from reaching all the goals. Of course there are many wonderful changes in M3 that are very appreciated, but still they are minor. More out-of-the-box color schemes for color of Aero or making networking easily usable is not enough. Nor Libraries or Superbar are such. Some cleaning within applets of Control Panel is not a feature worth of mentioning. It's a sign of past that would better be forgotten.

    It’s all fine and cool and cocky and pleasant and so on. But it is not revolution, but mere evolution; and the stadium hasn’t reached yet to the new species. Will Beta 1 of Windows 7 will be so much more convincing? I hope so. I’ve been waiting impatiently for it so long, but after using M3 I decided to uninstall it after 3 days. I hope Beta 1 would bring more fresh air and somehow ease the bitterness of unfulfilled ‘major’ word.

    As I Microsoft fanatic can I see it happening? Because my friends have started worrying about me since I told them I was sad after seeing M3.

  • @Hino Musouka and others,

    thanks for your opinions - the more, the better (it's important especially, that systems from Microsoft are still widely used).

    As I said before: we will see, what scenario (worst or best like described in one of my previous comments) will be proposed by Microsoft. If worst, Microsoft will of course sell many licenses...but it will be good in short term only... Anyway, we will see.

  • Are notifications enabled by default? I ask because while things like "Updates are available" are not important, I'm not going to ever remember or think about it until I'm notified. Sure, I hate notifications that come up *every* single time I start Windows, like "UAC is off" and "Can't connect to your network drive", but in general, toast notifications that come up because something is happening (like "download complete") are not so distracting that they will drive my work to a halt.

    I guess my attention span is better than others, but I just don't want Action Center hiding everything from me and forcing extra clicks just to find out if my printer or flash drive is finished installing.

    So, are they on by default?

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