Rethinking the Taskbar

Back when Microsoft’s Julie Larson-Green demonstrated Windows 7’s multitouch framework during the All Things Digital conference, many noted the different taskbar that she was using on the demo machine. When Walt Mossberg asked her about it, she smiled and replied “It’s something we’re working on for Windows 7 and I’m not supposed to talk about right now, today…” Personally, I was quite intrigued by this revamped taskbar, seeing how static and old the current one already is (Windows 95, people). Microsoft has remained mum on the issue ever since, but last Tuesday, the silence was broken when Microsoft’s Chaitanya Sareen posted a detailed entry on the taskbar on the Engineering Windows 7 blog.

The post starts with an explanation of what the various parts of the taskbar do, and a little history lesson (not unlike our own Usability Terms series). Also of interest are several little tidbits of functionality tucked away in the taskbar that some of you might be unfamiliar with. The general gist of it all is that the taskbar has remained more or less unchanged over the course of the past 15 years, receiving only minor additions and changes over time. None of them were drastic, and as such, despite cosmetic changes, the taskbar in Windows 95 is essentially the same as the taskbar in Vista. The blog post details several of the design decisions made over the past 15 years, including those concerning the start menu.

Sareen also highlights several issues with the taskbar, most notably the misuse of the notification area (also known as the system tray). “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,” Sareen admits, “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.” This is welcome news for all of us, as I believe most of us will agree that the system tray has been abused for long enough now – even by big time developers like Adobe and Apple.

Thanks to the usage data that Microsoft collects through its Customer Experience Improvement Program, Sareen can show us some very interesting data concerning the usage of the taskbar. For instance, 90% of the people have, on average, between 0 and 14 windows open in a single session (or 24 hours, whichever occurs first). Almost 50% have between 6-9 windows open, which means that as long as the taskbar caters to this group, and also works well for the 0-5 and 10-14 groups, the taskbar works well enough for 90% of the people out there.

There are more interesting statistics. Only 2% of sessions have the taskbar in a different location than the bottom of the screen. Barely anyone uses the Windows Media Player toolbar. Less than 5% autohides the taskbar. 95% Have quicklaunch enabled. Obviously, Sareen admits, the defaults shine through these numbers. “The most obvious takeaway is that most customers do not change the default settings, which are a simple right-click Properties away.”

Based upon customer feedback and real-life user testing, Microsoft has compiled a list of things it has learned regarding usage of the taskbar. Sareen presents a selection, but stresses that this doesn’t mean Microsoft will be acting upon all of these.

  • Please let me rearrange taskbar buttons! Pretty please?
  • I sometimes accidentally click on the wrong taskbar button and get the wrong window.
  • It would be great if the taskbar spanned multiple monitors so there’s more room to show windows I want to switch to.
  • There isn’t always enough text on the taskbar to identify the window I’m looking for.
  • There’s too much text on the taskbar. (Yes, this is the exact opposite of the previous item – we’ve seen this quite a bit in the blog comments as well.)
  • It may take several clicks to get to some programs or files that I use regularly.
  • Icons of pinned files [for ex. several Word documents] sometimes look too much alike – I wish I could tell them apart better.
  • The bottom right side of my screen is too noisy sometimes. There are lots of little icons and balloons competing for my attention.
  • How do I add/remove ‘X’ from the taskbar?
  • I would like Windows to tuck away its features cleverly and simplify its interface.
  • What can we learn from this? First of all, Windows 7 will allow you to re-arrange taskbar entries, that much is clear. Spanning the taskbar across multiple monitors shouldn’t be too hard either, and I can even envision a system where each monitor gets its own taskbar, but how exactly that would work, I don’t know. Microsoft is certainly looking at the issue of identification, but what exactly they’re going to change is hard to tell from just this blog post. We’ll also get more control over the notification area; I think this will crystallise in users having to give explicit permission before applications may use the system tray.

    In any case, we at least now know that Microsoft is seriously reworking the taskbar, and now we also know what the main areas of improvement will be.


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