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User Interface: Starting, Launching, and Switching
Where to Start? In this post, Chaitanya Sareen, a senior program manager on the Core User Experience team, sets the engineering context for the most frequently used user-interface elements in Windows – the Windows Taskbar. -- Steven
It should come as no surprise that we receive lots of feedback about the taskbar and its functionality in general. It should also come as no surprise that we are constantly trying to raise the bar and improve the taskbar experience for our customers, while making sure we bring forward the familiarity and benefits (and compatibility) of the existing implementation and design. In this post, the we would like to provide some insight into that unassuming bar most likely at the bottom of your Windows desktop. Let’s take a closer look at its various parts, data we’ve collected and how this learning will inform the engineering of Windows 7.
Our taskbar made its debut way back in Windows 95 and its core functionality remains the same to this day. In short, it provides launching, switching and “whispering” functionality. Figure 1 shows the Vista taskbar and calls out its basic anatomy. Notable pieces are the taskband, Quick Launch, the Start Menu, Desktop Toolbars (aka Deskbands) and the Notification Area. Collectively, these components afford some of the most fundamental controls for customers to start, manage and monitor their tasks.
Fig. 1: Windows Taskbar Anatomy
Taskband: The faithful window switcher
The taskband is one of the most important parts of the taskbar. It hosts buttons which represent most of the windows open on the desktop. Think of the taskband as a remote control for your computer—you can switch windows just like switching channels on a TV. The idea of switching windows is the most fundamental aspect of the Windows taskbar. Other operating systems also have bars at the bottom of their screen, although theirs may have different goals. For example, Mac OS X has a Dock which is primarily a program launcher and a program switcher. Clicking on an icon on the Dock usually brings up all the windows of a running program. In 2003 Apple introduced a window switcher known as Exposé which provides a different visual approach to our long-standing Alt-tab interface (Vista’s Flip 3D is yet another visual approach). These dedicated window switchers all aim to provide customers with a broad view of their open windows, but they each require the customer to first invoke them. The taskband on the other hand, is designed to always be visible so that windows remain within quick access of the mouse. This makes the taskbar the most prominent window switcher of the Windows operating system.
Two noteworthy taskbar changes were introduced in the last eight years. Windows XP ushered in grouping which allows taskbar buttons to collapse into a single button to save space and organize windows by their process. Vista presented taskbar thumbnails. These visual representations give customers more information about the window they are looking for. While valuable, interfaces like the taskbar, Alt-tab and even Apple’s own Exposé reveal that thumbnails are not always large enough to guarantee recognition of a window. Their value further degrades when they have to shrink to accommodate many open windows, which is feedback we receive from those that often have lots of running programs x lots of open windows.
The Start Menu: the Windows launch pad
The Start Menu has always been anchored off the taskbar as a starting point for the customer’s key tasks such as launching or accessing system functionality. Microsoft of course used term “Start” and prominently labeled the Start Menu’s button as such. You may even recall the huge marketing campaign for Windows 95 which featured the Rolling Stone’s “Start Me Up”. In all seriousness though, our research showed that many customers didn’t always know where to go on their computer to start a task. When a customer was placed in front of a Windows 95 machine she now had a clearly labeled place to start. And yes, we’ve heard the joke that you click start to shutdown your machine. Speaking of shutdown, we did encounter some challenges with the power options in Vista’s Start Menu. The goal was to bubble-up and advertise the sleep option so that customers enjoy a faster resume. However, we now know despite our good intentions, customers are opening that fly-out menu and selecting other options. We’re looking into improving this experience.
The Start Menu has undergone many changes over the years. One notable change was the appearance of a MFU (most frequently used) section in Windows XP that suggests commonly (well frequently) used programs. The goal here was to save the customer time by not having to always go to All Programs. Since these items appear automatically based on usage, no manual customization was even required. All Programs itself has undergone several iterations. Customer feedback revealed that people encountered difficulty in traversing the original All Programs fly-out menu. It wasn’t uncommon to have your mouse “fall off” the menu and then you’d have your restart the task all over again. This was particularly the case for laptop customers using a trackpad. It also didn’t help that expanding this menu suddenly filled the entire desktop which looked visually noisy and it also required lots of mouse movement. And of course, for machines with large number of items and/or groups it was especially complex, and even more so on small screens. Vista introduced a single menu that requires less mouse acrobatics.
Search was another important addition to the Start Menu that makes launching even easier. This new feature in Vista provides fast access to programs and files without the need to use a mouse at all. Typing in a phrase quickly surfaces programs, files and even e-mails. We’ve received many positive comments from enthusiasts who feel this is a key performance win in terms of “time to launch”. It may be interesting to note that Start Menu’s search is optimized to first return program results as this was viewed as the most common scenario among our customers (using some of the Desktop Search technology). Search even permits customers to use parameters to further scope their queries. For instance, one can use “to:john” or “from:jane” to find a specific mail directly from the Start Menu. Our advanced customers also enjoy the benefit of using the Start Menu’s search as a replacement of the Run Dialog. Just as they would type the name of an executable along with some switches in the dialog, they can now just type this directly into the search field. We could (and will) dedicate an entire blog post to search alone, but hopefully you get a sense of how search certainly provides a powerful launch alternative to mouse navigation.
Quick Launch: Launching at your fingertips
Quick Launch provides a way for customers to launch commonly used programs, files, folders and websites directly off the taskbar. It was introduced to Windows 95 by Internet Explorer 4.0 with the Windows Desktop Update. Customizing Quick Launch is as simple as dragging shortcuts into to this area. It saves you a trip to the Start Menu, the desktop or a folder when you want to launch something. An interesting feature of Quick Launch that you may not be aware of is that it has always supported large icons (unlock the taskbar, right-click on Quick Launch and click on large icons under “View”) as seen in figure 2. Of course growing the icons begins to intrude on the real-estate of the taskband which is one of the reasons we have not enabled this configuration by default. As an aside, Windows XP had Quick Launch turned off by default in an attempt to reduce the number of different launching surfaces throughout Windows. Based on your feedback, we quickly rectified this faux pas and Quick Launch was turned on by default again. Don’t mess with quick access to things people use every day! We heard you loud and clear.
Fig. 2: Large Icons in Quick Launch. Large icons on the taskbar have been supported since Windows 95 with IE 4
Desktop Toolbars (aka Deskbands): Gadgets for your taskbar
Desktop Toolbars offer extensible and specialized functionality at the top-level of the taskbar. This functionality also came to the taskbar via Internet Explorer 4.0 back in the ‘90s. You can access toolbars by right-clicking on your taskbar and expanding “Toolbars”. Personally, I like to think of Desktop Toolbars as an early type of gadgets for the Windows platform. Over the years developers have written various toolbars including controls for background music (e.g. Windows Media Player’s mini-mode shown in figure 1), search fields, richer views of laptop batteries, weather forecasts and many more.
One of the original scenarios of Desktop Toolbars was to allow customers to launch items directly off the taskbar. In fact, Quick Launch itself is a special type of toolbar that surfaces shortcuts in the Quick Launch folder. Did you know you can even create your own toolbar for any folder on your computer so that you have quick access to its contents (from the Toolbar menu, select “New Toolbar” and just choose the folder you’d like to access)? Apple’s latest OS introduced similar functionality to the Dock called Stacks. While I think their implementation of this feature is generally more visually appealing, it is interesting to note they recently released a new list representation that matches our original functionality. Seems like we both agree a simple list is usually the most efficient way to parse and navigate lots of items.
After extolling all the greatness of Desktop Toolbars, we must also admit they introduce several challenges. For starters, they aren’t the easiest thing to discover. They also take up valuable space on an already busy taskbar. Most importantly though, they don’t always solve the customer goal. Sure you can have a folder’s contents accessible off your taskbar, but what if the files you want quick access to aren’t located in a single place? These are design challenges we intend to tackle.
Notification Area: The whisperer
The Notification Area is pretty much what you expect—an area for notifications. It was an original part of the taskbar and it was designed to whisper information to the customer. Here you can easily monitor the system, be alerted to the state of a program or even check the time. Icons were the predominant way to convey information until later versions of Windows introduced notification balloons that provide descriptive alerts with text. Also added was a collapsible UI that hid inactive icons so the taskbar would appear cleaner.
With more developers leveraging its functionality, the Notification Area has grown in popularity over the years. Some may observe that it has changed from a subtle whisperer to something louder. Based upon the feedback we’ve collected from customers, we recognize the Notification Area could benefit from being less noisy and something more controllable by the end-user.
Show Me the Data
Earlier posts to this blog discussed how customers can voluntarily and anonymously send us data on how they use our features. We use these findings to help guide our designs. Please note that data do not design features for us, but they certainly help us prioritize our investments as well as validate our approach. All to often we’re all guilty of saying something like “we know everyone does ” or “all users do ”. Given the reliability and statistical accuracy of this data, we can speak with more real-world accuracy about how things are in used in practice. Let’s look at some interesting information we have collected about how our customers use the taskbar.
Figure 3 provides some of the most important data about the taskbar—window count. On average, we know that a vast majority of our customers encounter up to 6-9 simultaneous windows during a session (a session is defined as a log in / log out or 24 hours—whichever occurs first). It goes without saying that the taskbar should work for the entire distribution of this graph, but identifying the “sweet spot” helps focus our efforts on the area that matters most to the most amount of customers. So, we know that if we nail the 6-9 case and we work well for the 0-5 as well as the 10-14 scenarios, we’ve addressed almost 90% of typical sessions.
Fig. 3: What’s the maximum number of windows opened at a time?
Figures 4 and 5 help us understand how customers customize their taskbars. We could probably spend an entire post focused solely on how we determine the options we expose. Perhaps another time we’ll tackle the paradox of choice and how options stress our engineering process yet also make the product more fun for a set of customers. Until then, let’s see what conclusions we can draw from these findings. The most obvious takeaway is that most customers do not change the default settings, which are a simple right-click Properties away. For example, it may be interesting to note how often end-users relocate the taskbar to other regions of the screen—less than 2% of sessions have a taskbar that’s not at the bottom of the screen. We also know that some small percentage of machines accidently relocate the taskbar and more often than not end-users have difficulty undoing such a state—though our data does not differentiate this situation. This data does not necessarily mean we would remove relocation functionality, but rather we could prioritize investments in a default horizontal taskbar over other configurations.
Fig. 4: How do people customize their taskbar? The red number indicates percentage of sessions in which the corresponding checkbox is enabled.
Fig. 5: Where do people put their taskbar?
Figure 6 provides some insight into the Windows Media Player Desktop Toolbar. The Windows UX Guidelines prescribe that to create a toolbar on the customer’s taskbar, you must call a Windows Shell API that asks the customer for permission. Looking at the Windows Media Player usage we found that only 10% sessions show that the customer consented. Even more surprising is that only 3% of sessions see the toolbar at all (you still need to minimize Media Player to see the controls). In other words, 97% of sessions aren’t even enjoying this functionality at all! Since we do believe the scenario has value, we know to look into alternative designs. We’d like to surface this functionality to a larger set of customers while making sure the customer remains in control of her experience.
Toolbar enabled and visible
Fig. 6: How many people use the Windows Media toolbar? Enabled means user consented to the toolbar, visible means the toolbar actually appeared on the taskbar.
Evolving the Taskbar
Before the team even sat down to brainstorm ideas about improving the taskbar, we all took time to first respect the UI. The taskbar is almost 15 years old, everyone uses it, people are used to it and many consider it good enough. We also recognized that if we were to improve it, we could not afford to introduce usability failures where none existed. This automatically sets a very high bar. We proceeded carefully by first looking into areas for improvement.
Here’s a small sample of some things we’ve learned from our data, heard from our customers and what we’ve observed ourselves. One of favorite ways of gaining verbatim comments in a lab setting where we can validate the instrumented data but also gain in-depth context via interviews and questionnaires. In engineering Windows 7 we have hundreds of hours of studies like these. Please remember this is just a glimpse of some feedback—this is not an exhaustive list nor it is implied that we will, or should, act upon all of these concepts.
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