June, 2007

  • The Old New Thing

    What other programs are filtered from the Start menu's list of frequently-used programs?


    We already saw that programs in the pin list are pruned from the most-frequently-used programs list because they would be redundant. Another fine-tuning rule was introduced after the initial explorations with the new Windows XP Start menu: Programs with specific "noise" names are removed from consideration.

    Many "noise" programs were showing up as frequently used because they happened to be shortcuts to common helper programs like Notepad or Wordpad to display a "Read Me" document. These shortcuts needed to be filtered out so that they couldn't be nominated as, say, the Notepad representative. The list of English "poison words" is given in Knowledge Base article 282066.

    (Incidentally, a program can also register itself as not eligible for inclusion in the front page of the Start menu by creating a NoStartPage value in its application registration.)

    We'll see in the epilogue that Windows Vista uses an improved method for avoiding the "unwanted representative" problem.

  • The Old New Thing

    The Thing? Mystery of the desert


    NPR reported on The Thing?, a surreal yet kitchy roadside attraction on Interstate 10 in Arizona which has cryptic (and therefore intriguing) advertising signs for hundreds of miles. Listen as Rene Gutel of member station KJZZ in Phoenix gets to the bottom of the enduring mystery: What is The Thing?

  • The Old New Thing

    If you pin a program, it doesn't show up in the frequently-used programs list


    After the initial explorations with the Windows XP Start menu, we had to add a rule that fine-tuned the results: If a program is pinned, then it is removed from consideration as a frequently-used program.

    For example, if you right-click Lotus Notes and select "Pin to Start menu", then it goes into the pin list and will never show up in the dynamic portion of the front page of the Start menu. This tweak was added to avoid the ugly situation where you have two icons for the same program on the front page of the Start menu, when only one would do the job.

    This is another manifestation of the "Don't show me something I already know" principle, which we saw earlier when we discussed why the All Programs list doesn't use Intellimenus. After all, you pinned the program to your Start menu because you run it often. There's no point in showing it again at the top of your "frequently-used" list; you knew that already! Use that scarce real estate to show the user something that is actually of value.

    Next time, another fine-tuning rule that tries to filter the noise from the results.

  • The Old New Thing

    SIFF reviews: Falling, 2 Days in Paris, Hula Girls


    Another week, another batch of SIFF movie reviews.

    0 stars out of 5 Falling: High school friends reunite at a teacher's funeral. And then go on a road trip, except they give up on their destination and start wandering around. A bunch of stuff happens, none of which seems to make much sense. Like the twelve-year-old Daphne in the film, I felt dragged along on a boring trip against my will. I give it a 0 out of 5. This movie failed even on the linguistic front, since the characters speak Viennese-accented German, which is different enough from Standard German that my ability to follow along was severely impeded.

    4.5 stars out of 5 2 Days in Paris: Marion takes her American boyfriend Jack to Paris. He meets her parents (who don't speak English) and her ex-boyfriends (of which there appears to be an endless stream) and brings a decidedly American attitude to the whole affair. The insane family conversations that pass for normalcy are captured perfectly, and watching Jack constantly being shut out of conversations due his inability to speak French only serves to reinforce my phobia of traveling to a country without speaking the language. Hilarious, awkward, touching, it fires on all cylinders. I give it a 4½ out of 5.

    4 stars out of 5 Hula Girls: The heartwarming story of a dying coal mining town which reinvents itself as a Hawaiian spa resort. The townsfolk are hostile to the idea, and the Tokyo dancer recruited to train the hula girls thinks the plan is hopeless. The story, based on the real Joban Hawaiian Center (now known as Spa Resort Hawaiians), is predictable and emotionally manipulative, but the ride is enjoyable nonetheless. I was particularly impressed by the dance instructor. Her sense of style always screams "big city", but she overcomes her "I can't believe I'm stuck in this podunk town" and begins to really care for her charges. I give it a 4 out of 5.


    5 stars out of 5 Would pay money to see again by myself.
    4 stars out of 5 Would see again if it were free or if seeing it with others.
    3 stars out of 5 Would recommend to others.
    2 stars out of 5 Okay, but wouldn't recommend to someone not already interested.
    1 star out of 5 Would advise against.
    0 stars out of 5 Waste of my time.

    Note: The rating scheme has been revised since this article was originally posted.

  • The Old New Thing

    The program doesn't have to be run from the Start menu to earn Start menu points


    There's a second subtlety to the basic principle that determines which programs show up in the Start menu:

    Each time you launch a program, it "earns a point", and the longer you don't launch a program, the more points it loses.

    Since programs earn points and not shortcuts, a program can earn points even if you don't use the Start menu to run it.

    In usability studies, we often see people who run programs by digging through their Program Files directory until they find an icon that looks promising and then double-click it. If there is a shortcut on the All Programs section of the Start menu that points to the same program, then that shortcut will eventually work its way onto the front page, assuming the user runs the program often enough.

    This is why you will see a program appear on the front page of the Start menu even though you never ran it from the Start menu. The program earned points because you ran the program manually, or because you opened a document that is associated with that program. Promoting a program run this way helps users realize that they can run Backgammon from the Start menu instead of having to open My Computer, then click on my C drive, then click on Program Files, then MSN Gaming Zone, then Windows, and then double-click the icon with the strange name bckgzm. I've seen usability sessions where the users did this repeatedly, and they considered it perfectly normal, albeit frustrating. "Computers are so hard to use."

    Next time, we'll look at how the pin list influences the list of frequently-used programs.

  • The Old New Thing

    I never thought of it before, but drumming is a metaphor for life!


    Rolling Stone writer Jancee Dunn talks about her memoir and particularly presents several tips on how to interview rock stars and other celebrities. The story about Ben Affleck is worth the price of admission.

  • The Old New Thing

    Points are earned by programs, not by shortcuts


    The first subtlety of the basic principle that determines which programs show up in the Start menu is something you may not have noticed when I stated it:

    Each time you launch a program, it "earns a point", and the longer you don't launch a program, the more points it loses.

    Notice that the rule talks about programs, not shortcuts.

    The "points" for a program are tallied from all the shortcuts that exist on the All Programs section of the Start menu. Many programs install multiple shortcuts, say one to the root of the All Programs menu and another to a deep folder. It doesn't matter how many shortcuts you have; if they all point to the same program, then it is that program that earns the points when you use any of the shortcuts.

    One the Start menu decides that a program has earned enough points to make it to the front page, it then has to choose which shortcut to use to represent that program. This is an easy decision if there's only one shortcut. If there are multiple shortcuts to the same program, then the most-frequently-used shortcut is selected as the one to appear on the front page of the Start menu.

    If you paid really close attention, you may have noticed a subtlety to this subtlety. We'll take that up next time.

    Please hold off your questions until the (two-week!) series is complete, because I suspect a later entry will answer them. (This series is an expansion upon the TechNet column on the same topic. If you've read the TechNet article, then a lot of this series will be review.)*


    *I wrote this last time, but that didn't stop people from asking questions anyway. I don't expect it'll work today either, but who knows, maybe you'll surprise me.

  • The Old New Thing

    The New York City Profit Calculator


    New York Magazine has a fascinating feature in today's issue: The Profit Calculator. It covers a cross-section of New York City businesses and studies how they make their money. Chock full of interesting little details, such as

    • For a dollar store, it's all about turnover. One store can sell a trailer of cookies (162,000 cookies) in four days.
    • For a copy shop, walk-in customers are a negligible percentage of business.
    • For a diner, a large menu is a liability.
    • Each visitor to the Museum of Modern Art costs about $50. The $20 suggested donation doesn't even cover security and utilities.
  • The Old New Thing

    What determines which programs show up on the front page of the Windows XP Start menu?


    The principle is that programs you've run most often recently are the ones that show up on the front page of the Start menu. At least, that's what we started with, but it turns out that some fine-tuning was needed in order to get the experience to be more "natural".

    The basic rule is that each time you launch a program, it "earns a point", and the longer you don't launch a program, the more points it loses. The Start menu then shows the programs that have the most points. That's about all I'm going to say about the mechanics of point-winning for a variety of reasons.

    • The details of the method by which the programs on the Start menu are selected are still patent-pending.†
    • The details are also extraordinarily boring. I get drowsy every time I have to explain them.
    • Exposing the details would just encourage people to "game the system" in order to improve the placement of their programs on the Start menu.
    • Formally documenting the details would implicitly grant permission for people to rely on those details. This would prevent the Start menu designers from making adjustments to the rules (for example, to combat people who "game the system") or to scrap the process entirely and replace it with a whole new method.
    • It's not this part of the Start menu selection algorithm that puzzles people.

    After the basic rule is applied, the fine-tuning and detail-following kick in. Those are the parts that are puzzling to most people. The next several entries will go into many of the subtleties and fine-tuning behind the Start menu's list of frequently-used programs.

    Now, you may wonder about all these subtleties and whether they're really necessary, but it is these little fine-tuning steps that make the final result more useful and feel natural.

    Please hold off your questions until the (two-week!) series is complete, because I suspect a later entry will answer them. (This series is an expansion upon the TechNet column on the same topic. If you've read the TechNet article, then a lot of this series will be review.)

    Pre-emptive snarky comment

    †"Software patents suck!" It's irrelevant what your or my opinion of software patents is. So long as they are legal, they will exist, and you and I will just have to deal with it. If you want a change, write to your congressman. Support candidates whose position on software patents is compatible with yours. Complaining to me accomplishes nothing.‡ It's sad that I have to write this, but any time somebody writes the word "patent" the comments degenerate into flamology about patents. I have a few future entries about patents; the response to this article will determine whether they stay on the schedule or quietly vanish like the stories about Bob.

    ‡Well, it does accomplish something: It gives me another reason to stop blogging.*

    *Along with the people who keep bugging me about using daggers instead of asterisks. Hint: Asterisks already mean something in computer programming.

  • The Old New Thing

    shopautodotca seocontest online contest tacitly encourages comment spam


    There is a Canadian web site that is running a contest to see who can get their web site to rank highest for the terms "shopautodotca seocontest". There's $14,000 in prize money at stake (presumably in Canadian dollars), as well as a contract as the company's SEO manager. Since the contest rules do not rule out spam as a mechanism for improving search rank, this web site (and no doubt others) are getting hit with comment spam from people trying to get their site to rank higher. (I sent a message to the contest organizer last month, who wrote back, "we will investigate." Haven't heard anything since then.)

    Just to see if I can stick it to them, I'm posting this article a week before the contest ends. This web site has a Google page rank significantly higher than the current contest leader, and I think it would be a nice touch if I, as one of the victims of their antisocial little contest, ended up winning it. (But since this page doesn't link back to the contest sponsor, I won't actually win anything.)

    Of course, it may also mean that Google's ranking algorithm will decide that I'm just a source of web link spam and blacklist this web site. It's a big risk, and I may end up paying dearly for it, but I'm just pissed off enough to give it a try anyway.

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