So I have been playing around with Vista SP1 RC and so far it has been a much more enjoyable experience from a usability perspective. The number UAC prompts are down, network performance regarding file sharing is now what it should have been at release time and stability is much better. I always thought the UI in Vista was better than its predecessor though it did take a few weeks getting used to especially with the initially annoying Network and Sharing Center. Since switching to my Mac for personal use a few years ago prior to joining Microsoft, I’ve had to go through the pain of using the Start Menu again *learned a lot about usability in the process*.
“Start Menu, pain? Surely you jest,” you might be thinking. Actually, it is my opinion that the Start Menu is one of the most outmoded concepts that makes Windows, well um…Windows. Back when Microsoft was young and applications were still 16-bit, Microsoft had a teenage love affair with IBM, a much older partner. Somewhere between DOS and OS/2, Microsoft gave birth to Windows 95. For all its critiques, it really was a revolution in the UI field of computing. At the time, applications were disjointed and not aware like they are today. Background services connecting applications together didn’t exist pervasively. As a result, until Windows 95, the PC had not seen application-level multi-tasking in the consumer space. The Start Menu provided an elegant way to open and manage different applications.
By Windows 98, the Start Menu was a resounding success and it wasn’t uncommon to see someone’s bar look something like this:
Now this is a shot of Vista’s Start bar so it has notable enhancements such as the title of the document/webpage as well as the icon of the application. In earlier versions, you didn’t have these convenient elements. The end result though, regardless of product, was a mess of buttons that didn’t really give you a sense of what each window contained. Actually the picture above was inaccurate as the default setting of Windows only kept the Start Menu height at one “window unit,” so what you really ended up with is something similar to the following:
This is where things started to stagnate--don’t get me started on “grouped tabs.” As processing power increased over the years, the number of windows people kept open at a given time climbed. With no competitors offering an alternative to the Start Menu, the pace of innovation grinded to a halt through XP. Amazingly innovative features like “Quick Launch” and add-on toolbars were turned off by default leaving a growing ignorant user base to suffer needlessly. Furthermore, as applications installed on a Windows machine increased dramatically, the “programs” part of the Start Menu became an untidy beast of tiny text and columns upon columns of folders. Years of observation of others and personal frustration with the usability led me to the following conclusions.
1. The Start Menu could no longer scale in conveying actionable context as the number of windows increased
2. The Start Menu could no longer scale in its ability to launch all applications from the program menu without user frustration resulting from clutter.
Let’s pause and take all this in.
Start Menu good -> Start Menu Successful -> Positive Windows Perception -> More Windows OS sales -> More Applications -> More Windows -> More Clutter -> Add Grouped Tabs and Quick Launch -> Turn off Grouped Tabs and Quick Launch -> Start Menu bad.
…to be continued. *you all have no idea how this is gonna end do you :) * Here are a few clues…