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 3 and type the answer here:
  • Post
  • I like the idea of "eating your own dogfood"... When Vista came out you couldn't even use Microsoft hardware with the Microsoft OS (thinking about the fingerprint reader and Vista x64).

    Reminds me about MS Office: does it use .Net 1.0? 2.0? 3.0? 3.5? None of the above???

  • I get notification that I pluged-in my microphone. I know THAT I just DID it. You cannot do this by accident.

    I know this is third-party dirt, but there should be a way to turn notifications off.

  • I installed Windows 7. it is nice. but have some bugs. my internet speed was optimized by a program in xp, but now in W7 is some slower.

    Internet Explorer sets "Offline browse" to all apps as YahooMessenger. when i have disabled offline browse and i'm connect to internet windows failure show connect windows.  start menu of XP is better than Vista's start menu. why when i click start and take mouse over "Connect To" windows does not show my internet connections auto?, and i should click it to open a tiny window and then use it for connect to internet.

  • sorry, my antivirus update is running and slowing of internet maybe for this reason.

  • As much as I love what you guys done with Windows 7 I would still like to see a few changes. For example the boot screen. That lonely scroling bar is a bit too minimal. It would be nice to see some kind of background picture on there.

    I havent used the 64 bit version of Windows 7 because of the compatability problems I have seen with any other version of windows , but with the new intel hardware there is a big need for a 64 bit version of windows. I BEG you guys please do something about the compatability problems with the 64 bit OS. Maybe you guys could add a 32 bit emulator for the software that refuse to work with the 64 bit OS.

    Also maybe in the future you guys could add an option to boot into a game OS that resembles the XBOX 360 NXE. You guys could work with the hardware developers and update the game OS so that we have the OS updated with the necesary drivers for any new hardware on the day of the release of any new hardware. This is a lot to ask but us gamers need some kind of gaming os.

    Another thing I would like to see in windows 7 is to have DirectX 9 already installed in the OS from the first install instead of relying on us to instal DirectX 9.

    Can we have tdifferent coloured themes? I like the Vista theme but the white bar on the right in Explorer , I would like to change that to blue or grey but keep the glass effects.

    Can we have more control over our TCPIP settings and internet settings. I have 30mb/s internet and the settings you guys give us is a bit restricting. I had to work around your settings in Vista to make my internet work properly.

    I will finish off with something I said before. Please dont have so many versions of the OS and dont charge so much. I will never pay over 400 euro for an OS which is why I bought Vista Home Premium OEM. My mistake because I have a limited ammount of installs> Can you remove that Limited Install thing on OEM OS's too.

    Sorry for the long post

  • Sorry this will be short. I forgot the file system. You guys were working in a different file system. I think it was called winfs and was supposed to be better than ntfs. We need a file system that reduces fragmentation and increases access speeds of files. Maybe you guys could work on this for vista or Windows 7 and add it to a service pack. Also you guys needto work in the Defrag program you have. It doesnt do a good job like other Defrag software. Maybe work with some guys (Like the disktrix guys who programmed Ultimate defrag)

  • Very disappointed in Windows 7 explorer, only really cosmic changes. You can not move the address bar menu bar nor the command bar.  Microsoft put out numerous amounts of PR say, we learned from our mistakes, Windows 7 will be different. You will be able to customize windows 7. Changing colors is NOT customization. Why can't you give back the ability to change and move the Menu bars,tool bars, address bars.  This was a major complaint about Vista and Microsoft is still ignoring this complaint.....

  • How about integrating these messages into active applications? Forget the balloon; make it easy for Windows applications to integrate a(n optional, of course) ticker or field in an unobtrusive spot, that will display system messages like low battery warnings/print job complete/you need to restart/etc, without any kind of aggravating popup or balloon stealing valuable screen time. You know how browsers display link and page info in the status bar at the bottom of the window? Make some use of that ever-present status bar space to display (in suitably eye-catching boldness and color) potentially important system messages. That way they won't get in the way to begin with, and the user can be alerted and respond/disregard as they see fit.

  • So why 'Reboot computer' is red while it's important, not critical?

  • @Hino Musouka

    I'm not saying end users don't "like" numbers. When you present it to them, they do like to see lower numbers. What I meant was that only power users really care about the numbers enough to start measuring them and later show them to others. Non-power end users simply take the word of power users for granted:

    -Power User: XP is older, but it's faster. *numbers go here*.

    -Non-power user: OK. I see and understand the numbers. Point for XP.

    -PU: Vista is more secure, but more annoying with all of its promts. *numbers go here*.

    -NPU: By "more secure" do you mean it's immune to viruses. Wait, don't answer that. The numbers show it - it's affected by less viruses, and for all the rest, it gives you the option to stop them. So... it's still not completely secure, yet it's more annoying and expects me to make an educated guess? If I knew a virus is a virus, I wouldn't start it to begin with! XP has one more point in my book.

    -PU: A certain "special" program I'm using is not running, so there's a potential other apps won't run as well. *numbers showing the total apps/error apps ratio and a few names*.

    -NPU: Oh, I don't want to take that risk. Can you check out if ALL of MY apps run please?

    -PU: Sure, which ones do you have in mind?

    -NPU: *program list goes here*.

    -PU: 1 out of *number of apps* is not compatible.

    -NPU: Oh, crap. I don't want to contact THAT programmer... he'll ask me for a support fee again. One more point for XP.

    -PU: It's pretty.

    -NPU: Oh... point for Vista.

    Try to tell an NPU that Vista is faster, more secure and that everything (s)he knows should just work. Repeat it enough number of times and don't let him/her hear negative opinions. I'm betting that (s)he will trust you, go ahead and try it. NOW, you can let him/her hear negative opinions. Thanks to YOUR good opinion and lack of number presentations, its more likely that you've created a Vista lover than a hater.

  • @steve30x I agree with you. There should be a Windows 7 logo or some thing else that states Windows 7 is booting. I have Vista and Windows Server 2008 installed (dual boot). Vista and Windows server 2008 have the same boot screen so it's just no possible to figure out which OS is booting by just looking at the boot screen and sometimes I get confused which OS is booting and have heard that same complain from many people. And the boot screen is boring too :P guys please change it!!

  • I like this new interface, it has become comfortable to use in a short time. Great stuff guy's!

    I still have only one gripe though...seperate the sidebar from WDDM, it must run in a low end machine...I have patched the process and know that it can be started with out WDDM drivers.

    You guys gave us the Sidebar/Gadget thingy and it worked so well in later M1 builds that I had hoped for more improvement in this area.

    (P.S. Thankyou for actually getting rid of the sidebar itself!)

  • @steve30x: yup man that's true. Microsoft should make Windows much cheaper if they don't want Linux and Mac OS X to take their market share like they are doing right now. And the worst part of Windows is product activation. After spending so much money on it, I only get to install up to 5 times? I have seen so many people getting annoyed of product activation because of the installation limits and Microsoft won't allow them to activate more than 5 times then they either move to Mac or free--Linux.

  • I like the notification method used by Windows Home Server (network health). A simple icon that lets me know if there is a problem, ie notification messages which need my attention, then once I have read the messages I can click on them to acknowledge that I have read the message. I have not used 6801 but your description seems similar to this.

  • From what I have read about W7 on channel 9 there are many reasons why it will be faster and easier on laptop batteries. The kernel isn't everything, you know.

    Is Windows Explorer still the same one based on Windows 9X code?

    I've read the Microsoft tried re-writing the shell in .NET before the Longhorn reset, but it was too slow. Is it time to have a new file browser written in .NET/WPF?

    I've also read on thio blog that a high number of explorer crashes are due to third party extensions. A new file explorer that cannot be extended would get rid of this.

    Thats my two cents anyway. Can't wait to get W7 and Aero peak on my laptop :)

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