Rethinking Window Management

There is one thing that really pushes my buttons, one thing that is sure to send me off on a rant on life, the universe, and everything. I have a 21″ widescreen 1680×1050 display – which might not be large to some of the real geeks in here, but to me, it’s pretty huge. With so much screen real estate, why oh why do my friends all still insist on maximising every window they come across when they sit down behind my computer? This – and more – is the subject of the latest post on Microsoft’s Engineering 7 weblog.

The entry, written by Dave Matthews, program manager on the core user experience team, deals with how people manage windows. However, where the previous article focussed on how people use the taskbar and how Microsoft could possibly improve it, this article deals with windows and how users move and arrange them. After a short history on the window (I will cover the window in our ongoing Usability Terms series too), Matthews gives some interesting statistics about how people manage windows on Windows.

Regarding the history of the concept of the window, Matthews makes some interesting notes. He touches on the subject of tiling versus overlapping windows, but also on a debate we often have here on OSNews and other forums: where do we put the menubar? Apple style, or rest-of-the-world style? “Early on this was a big debate because there was such limited screen resolution (VGA, 640×480) that the redundancy of the menu bar was a real-estate problem,” Matthews notes, “In today’s large scale monitors this redundancy is more of an asset as getting to the UI elements with a mouse or just visually identifying elements requires much less movement.”

Moving on the usage data Microsoft has collected, the results are quite drop-dead obvious. As you can see in the below pie chart, 89% of Windows users have one or two windows visible on the screen – despite the fact that most users have roughly 6-9 windows opened at any given time.

Number of windows open

This obviously reflects what I ranted about in the introduction: most people maximise their windows. For some types of applications, Matthews notes, this makes sense; a spreadsheet application can really use all the estate it can eat to show as much information as possible. However, some other applications, mostly those with free-flowing text, don’t really benefit at all from having maximised windows (lines become too long), and as such, usage data shows that users fiddle with window sizes until the text is pleasantly readable. “Since Windows doesn’t have a maximize mode designed for reading like this, people end up manually resizing their windows to make them as tall as possible, but only somewhat wide,” Matthews explains, “This is one of the areas where a common task like reading a document involves excessive fiddling with window sizes, because the system wasn’t optimized for that scenario on current hardwarwe.”

Another use case where users need to fiddle and fumble about a lot with window sizes is when they need to compare two windows side-by-side. Even though Windows has some nice options to achieve perfect side-by-sideness (select multiple taskbar entries using control-click, right click, select “Show windows side by side”), these options aren’t very discoverable. Manually resizing windows is actually quite a difficult task; it requires quite some precision mousework, and precision mousework needs to be avoided at all costs. As Matthews puts it, “in terms of task efficiency, the best click is an avoided click.”

Considering the data, Matthews explains some of the goals for Windows 7:

For Windows 7 our goal is to reduce the number of clicks and precise movements needed to perform common activities. Based on data and feedback we’ve gotten from customers, a number of scenarios have been called out as important considerations for the design. As with all the designs we’re talking about – it is important to bring forward the common usage scenarios, make clear decisions on the most widely used usage patterns, address new and “unarticulated needs”, and to also be sure to maintain our philosophy of “in control”.

Combining this latest entry on user interface design with the previous entry on the taskbar, it becomes quite clear that Microsoft is seriously working on improving the graphical user interface of Windows. Seeing Windows 7’s first public release is on its way (at PDC later this month) we won’t have to wait much longer.


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