January 19, 2009

Windows 7 Taskbar - so close ...

As I said in this Technology Review article, I like the Windows 7 UI. Microsoft really polished the Vista UI and removed most of the gravel. They paid attention to so much detail, even improving the behavior of basic keyboard navigation in Windows Explorer to make it work well again (like it used to XP). So, I was surprised that they flubbed something so basic in the Taskbar, which they generally put so much love into.

Look at this picture (running without Aero, which still isn't supported on VMWare Fusion). One of the key tasks in a toolbar is to be able to determine which applications are running just by looking. It is possible to do so with the above visual representation, but it is really hard.

If you look carefully, you will notice that the 1st, 3rd, and 5th applications are currently active (Firefox, Word, and Snip). But it is so hard to tell because the visual representation of running applications is a simple rectangle around the edge of the icon. In this situation, this just doesn't work for a few reasons:
  1. The top and bottom edges of the rectangle are lost because they run up against the edges of the toolbar
  2. The left and right edges of the rectangle are exactly midway between the icon they intend to indicate, and the neighboring icon. Thus, you can't tell which icon is being highlighted.
  3. In general, rectangular outlines are a poor way to highlight objects because when a person's eye is focused on an icon, it is a "global" cognitive task to integrate lines around the edge and determine that they surround an object. Alternatively, a much simpler "local" cognitive task is to determine the background color, or if a simple visual indicator is present. (Umm, see a competing operating system to see how well a little glowing triangle under the active application works for this task).
Overall, this is actually good news. I have to look pretty closely to find stuff to criticize, and admittedly, knowing which applications are currently running is not the most important task, so this is definitely not a dealbreaker, and overall, Windows 7 looks pretty good.

But this is pretty straightforward stuff, and it should really be perfect.


Ryan Petrich said...

I noticed this as well. If they turned the icons for close apps semitransparent or grayscale when the app is closed they could fix this issue. Plus it would give them an excuse to add more cheesy graphical effects

Tim said...

With aero, it's much more obvious. I just glanced at the taskbar (on win7) and I quickly found the one app that isn't running because it noticably looks much flatter.

technology said...

In the majority of use cases, what does it matter if a program is running or not? If I want to browse the internet I click on the Firefox icon. If I want to check my mail I click on the Outlook icon. If something needs to notify me it should go in the notification bar and likewise if something is a service it should be started up with services.

Ben Bederson said...

You know, @technology, I thought about this issue - how important is it to know whether an application is running. And while I agree it is a secondary feature, it still is important.

The reason is because applications still take a long time to launch. A user may well choose to do something differently if an application will show up instantly vs. after a delay of 5 seconds. And even if their choice is no different, it sets expectations. In other words, it just provides transparency as to what is going on, and transparency is good.

Chuck Paine said...

You misspelled "straightforward." It's one word. I know that probably doesn't seem that important, but it was the most intelligent response I could make, and by golly I did want to make a response.