This post kicks off a series of posts on the design of the Start screen and the evolution of the core activity of launching and switching programs. Some folks are calling the Start screen the "Metro shell" for Windows 8, but for us it is the evolution of the Start menu and associated functions. We've been watching the comments closely and have seen the full spectrum of reactions as one would expect when the core interface changes. We want to use these blog posts to have a dialog that reflects back on your comments, and so we’ll start by walking you through the history and decisions that led to the current design. Because the Developer Preview is focused on building apps, and the core user experience is still under development, we want to make sure our discussions start from first principles and work through the design to provide a fuller context for where we will be at the next project milestone.

This post was authored by Chaitanya Sareen, program manager lead on our Core Experience Evolved team. You might remember Chaitanya, as he also worked on the Windows 7 experience and authored posts on the Engineering 7 blog.

–Steven

We’d like to share a series of blog posts on the how and why of reimagining Start. This first post talks about the history and evolution of the Start menu, and several of the problems and trends we’ve learned from you. We think it’s always important to understand where we’ve come from before we talk about where we’re headed. We’ll then have another post that dives into how we crafted the new Start screen, and then we’ll see where the discussion leads us from there.  

We recognize that to some people, any change to Windows is going to be disruptive, and so we want to make sure we continue an open dialog about those changes. Since Windows is such an integral part of so many people’s lives, most any change can generate visceral reactions like "how can I turn it off," or debates over whether things are more or less efficient.

The debate around touch today is looking eerily like the debate in the 1980s over whether a mouse was a gimmick, a productivity time waster, or an innovation in the user experience. We say this knowing that many comments have been emphatic about the superiority of the mouse over touch. Unlike when the mouse was introduced—before desktop publishing programs came along there were few use cases for the mouse other than early paint programs—today we are surrounded by touch screens—at the airport, the gas station, the movie theater, every cash register, and of course, on our phones. The one place touch has not yet become mainstream is on the most capable of all the devices you use. Just like the introduction of the mouse, innovations like this do not happen without new OS support, new apps, and new hardware. We believe that, as with the mouse, we will see touch augmenting, but not replacing, most every aspect of the PC experience over time. Achieving this starts with the Windows 8 Developer Preview. So with that, let’s start the dialog about how things will evolve, not just in the Windows core user experience, but in hardware and apps as well.

With regard to the main user experience, particularly Start, we’re noticing some themes in your comments. Will there be a way to close Metro style apps without going to Task Manager? (Yes there will be, but we also want to talk about why you probably won't need to use it.) Are we going to do anything to make the mouse more efficient in scrolling through your programs in Start? (Yes, we'll improve that experience, and show you much more in the beta.) Some of you have talked about it feeling less efficient to cycle through your recent programs compared to using the taskbar (and we'll have more to say about that in future posts). There are other comments as well, and the point here is just to make sure you know we are aware of the questions. Some things will be easier to discuss if we first agree on some shared terminology. For example, Metro style is a design language we can apply to any element of Windows, and the Start screen is the evolution of the Start menu (as well as taskbar, notifications, and gadgets), and not really a "Metro shell." Another example is that we don't see "Metro" as a mode of Windows, rather it is a way to describe the attributes of applications written to WinRT (as in these //build/ talks on traits of Metro style apps or principles of Metro style). There's lots of ground to cover. We know with our initial focus on the platform and tools, we probably did not provide enough early context around the user experience changes through this blog.

The Start menu is one of the most visible parts of Windows, and so we don't take any changes we make to it lightly. The environment around Windows has changed immensely since we first introduced the Start menu, and we want to make sure we’re still delivering an experience that is both relevant and tuned to the dynamic computing world we live in today. The evolution of the Start menu is inextricably linked with the development of several other related, but disparate concepts, such as application launching, application switching, system notifications, and gadgets. The history behind these and the divergent paths they have each taken create an opportunity for us to do a much better job in providing a cleaner, more powerful, and more uniform way of working across the wide variety of apps and PCs we use today. The new Start screen embodies this effort.

So, before we tackle Windows 8, let’s first take a trip down memory lane and see what we can learn about the Start menu.

A brief history of Start

The design of the Start menu began in 1992 for its debut in Windows 95. The menu was conceived in a world where PC towers and 15" CRTs dominated cubicles. The Web was still an experiment and people had to drive to a store to buy software. It was a very different time. The fundamental goal of the menu was to provide an obvious place for people to start their computing tasks. It replaced the venerable Program Manager, that Windows 3.x concept that placed shortcuts in a floating window which happened to interfere with the desktop and other applications. Anchored to the taskbar, the Start menu was a consistent and consolidated portal to your apps and system functions. It was essentially the fastest way to start programs without hunting down an executable somewhere in the system.

Windows 95 Start menu, with Programs flyout pointing to Accessories, Startup, Microsoft Exchange, MS-DOS Prompt, The Microsoft Network, and Windows Explorer
Fig 1: The Windows 95 Start menu

Looking at the Windows 95 Start menu, you may immediately see the areas for improvement that subsequent versions of Windows addressed with incremental changes. For example, we heard feedback that putting an alphabetical list of programs under a flyout made it slow to navigate. Windows XP addressed this with the introduction of the “most frequently used” (MFU) section that surfaced the programs you used regularly. This change in turn introduced some new problems because there was no way to really customize it, and some people struggled to understand how the MFU was populated (a complex heuristic determined which apps you use the most). To address the customization aspect, Windows XP (and later, Windows Vista and Windows 7) featured a section where you could pin the apps that are most important to you, to put them at your fingertips. However, this functionality was still limited. You could put apps in the pinned section and reorder them, but you still couldn’t group or organize them if you had more than just a few items.

There were also problems with traversing All Programs on Window XP. It wasn’t uncommon to have your mouse “fall off” the menu and then you’d have to restart the task all over again (this was especially challenging for laptop customers who used track pads or for those with limited dexterity). It was also difficult to fit all this UI into lower resolution screens. Vista addressed this with the introduction of a single menu and a tree control that required fewer acrobatics with the mouse. However, All Programs still felt cramped, since the menu required a scroll bar (fig 2). The Start menu was already starting to feel full.

Windows 7 Start menu open to All Programs view with a list of 20 programs shown
Fig 2: All Programs in the Start menu in Windows 7

Another critical evolution of Start was the introduction of instant search. Vista and Windows 7 both made it really easy for you to open the menu and just type what you wanted. We know many of you enjoy this powerful method, as it reduces “time to launch.” The introduction of advanced commands also reduced the need to use the Run dialog. Nonetheless, we knew there were still areas for improvement. Search results sometimes feel overcrowded and showing lots of different types of data (email, files, control panel settings, etc.) didn’t always work best in a one-size-fits-all column. Some of you have asked whether the Windows 8 Start screen will also support search. Yes, it does—on the Start screen, just start typing to instantly see search results that you can filter by apps, files, or settings. And just like in Windows 7, the full power of search is available in Explorer.

Based on these challenges and your feedback, we’ve continued to refine the Start experience over the years. However, we find that even the Windows 7 Start menu still faces core usability challenges:

  • The menu feels cramped relative to available screen real estate when you try to see and navigate the full catalog of your programs.
  • Search doesn’t have the space it deserves to quickly show you rich results across all sources of information, especially on larger screens.
  • It’s hard to customize the menu to make it feel like it’s really yours.
  • Icons and shortcuts are static and don’t leverage more of the pixels we see in modern graphical interfaces to surface connected scenarios.

Of course, the above list isn’t a complete set of everything we are improving. We also aim to unify Start with the rest of the system and enable new scenarios. An important part of design is sometimes taking a step back to fundamentally reimagine something from the ground up in order to bring more than incremental improvements to a product. This is especially true for something like Start that was born in a very different time when we didn’t use our PCs the way we do today.

It is important not to lose sight of the breadth of the problem space. The Start menu is almost exclusively used to launch items (except for the subset of search functionality). The full program experience in Windows 7 also includes switching and pinning via the taskbar, alerts in the notification area, and gadgets on the desktop. As we continue our dialog, we'll talk about how Windows 8 brings these all together in a harmonious manner.

How is the Start menu used?

Now that we’ve briefly discussed the history of the Start menu, let’s discover how people are actually using it. We thought it would be interesting to see how the usage of the menu has changed over time. Figure 3 reveals the change in Start menu usage across the two versions of Windows.

Table listing Start menu features and their percent change in usage: Pictures: -61%, Documents: -56%, Control Panel:-54%, Pinned items: -51%, All Programs: -42%, Computer: -40%, MFU: -28%, Start menu open: -11%.
Fig 3: Change in Start menu feature usage between Windows Vista and Windows 7

It is striking to see how dramatically different the use of the Start menu is in Windows Vista vs. Windows 7. Some of the Special Folders (what we call those items on the right side of the menu) dropped in use by over 50%. Likewise, people accessed pinned items on the Start menu half as often in Windows 7 than they did in Vista. People also access All Programs and the MFU far less often. Finally, we see an 11% drop in how often people are opening the Start menu at all. While 11% may seem like a small number at first, across our hundreds of millions of customers it is eye opening to see such a drop for a universally recognizable element of the Windows interface. We’re not talking about some hidden setting that is tweaked by a minority of people—we’re talking about a fundamental piece of Windows that people are using less and less.

So why the change in how people are using the Start menu? Here’s a hint—it has something to do with that bar at the bottom of your screen that was introduced in Windows 7.

The “Start bar”

The evolution of the Windows taskbar directly impacted the Start menu. What once was locked behind a menu suddenly came closer to you. The most obvious advancements were the introduction of Quick Launch by Internet Explorer 4.0’s Windows Desktop Update in 1997, as well as the more recent taskbar pinning in Windows 7.

Interesting side story: did you know that Quick Launch was initially disabled by default in Windows XP because some people believed the MFU list and pinning in the Start menu would suffice? We saw a volume of evidence to the contrary, and so we reversed the decision (though back then, the data upon which we based these decisions was limited, so we don't really know what a broad variety of customers were doing). What we took away from this was that it was important for you to be able to designate what apps you care about, see them all in one place, and have them be one click away, rather than trying to guess what is important through software heuristics or having important items mixed with less important items.

To really bring this all home, let’s take a look at where people are pinning their apps. Figure 4 reveals that 85% of people have three or more items pinned to the taskbar compared to a mere 23% who have the same number pinned to the Start menu. Although the taskbar and Start menu have different pinned defaults, many people do customize both of them when they want to. The message is clear that the majority of people want most of their apps on the taskbar rather than having to dig into Start.

 Top bar chart shows 41% of users pin 0 apps to Start menu, 21% pin 1 app to Start menu, and 5% or less pin 5 or more apps to Start. Bottom bar chart shows 9% or less of users pin either 0, 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9,or 10 apps to the taskbar, while  30% pin 3 apps to taskbar, 23% pin 4 apps to taskbar, and 15% pin 5 apps to taksbar.
Fig 4: Number of pinned apps on the Start menu (top) vs. on the taskbar (bottom)

We also know that enthusiasts in particular use their Windows 7 taskbar even more than the Start menu. Keyboard shortcuts like Win + <n> (where n corresponds to the sequence of an application icon on the taskbar) make it even faster for the keyboard experts to instantly launch and switch with the taskbar (and those shortcuts continue to work in Windows 8). When we visit IT pros, it’s not uncommon for us to see a taskbar filled with icons for standard corporate desktops. We even see items like Control Panel pinned to the taskbar to save people a trip to Start. Pinning is also increasing in popularly because you can now also pin websites to your taskbar with IE 9. Fortunately, there’s plenty of room on the taskbar—even at 1024x768 the taskbar can hold 22 small icons. Add the power of Jump lists, and theoretically, you can also have access to 220 files, folders, and sites at that same resolution! This means that for those who wish to just use desktop apps, the taskbar provides the room to quickly access the things you need every day without going to the Start menu.

Speaking of Jump lists, we’ve seen also how pinning Explorer by default to the taskbar and populating its Jump list with common folders makes it even easier to access system folders like Documents (not surprisingly, use of Documents in Start has also dropped, as shown above).

In summary, the taskbar has evolved to replace many aspects of the Start menu. You can even say the taskbar reveals many of the weaknesses of the Start menu and that the menu is no longer as valuable as it once was long ago. Search and access to All Programs are still unique strengths of the Start menu that we know you depend upon, but when it comes to the apps you use every day, one-click access from the taskbar is hard to beat. You, and many like you, are the ones who gave us this strong feedback over the years, which pushed us to make the taskbar a powerful primary launcher and switcher for the desktop. In fact, we sometimes even referred to the taskbar in Windows 7 as the “Start bar,” since it became clear that most people now start with the bar, rather than with the menu.

A new opportunity for Start

With the Windows taskbar becoming the key launcher and switcher for the desktop, and the Start menu being revealed as a poor everyday launcher, an opportunity appeared to reimagine Start and make it into something more valuable. Since we now know most of you can (and do) just use the taskbar to access the things you commonly use on the desktop, this freed us up to make Start even better at its unique strengths and to unlock new scenarios. Improved search, more room for all your programs, tiles that are alive with activity, and richer customization all suddenly become possible when the venerable, but aging, Start menu is transformed into a modern Start screen. Stay tuned for our next post, where we’ll talk about the Start screen and how it represents the way we use our PCs today.

Chaitanya Sareen