Windows 7: usability is critical to productivity


Having been a Vista user since July, I am very eager to upgrade. I like to be a contrarian, but in this case have to echo the conventional wisdom: Vista really is terrible. Of course my bad experience may be somewhat due to underlying issues with the chipset or other non-Microsoft system elements, but I am nonetheless convinced Vista will be remembered as a major error, despite what must have been considerable usability testing and design work.

I found an interesting article on Windows usability at

“One of the goals of Microsoft Windows 7, now in general release, is to finally make the bad memories of Windows Vista go away. The operating system’s user interface is one place Microsoft paid particular attention to detail this time around.

The software giant had started down a path toward a simpler, more clutter-free user interface with Windows Vista, but critics and competitors found it lacking and took some jabs, as in Apple’s ad about Vista’s annoying security prompts.

With that, as well as reams of research, in mind, “experience” and attention to productivity took on a powerful role in the development of Windows 7.

“It was really about how we make the PC more productive, and get out of the way more so that people can spend less time interacting with the PC and more time doing the tasks they use the PC to do,” Julie Larson Green, VP of Windows experience for Microsoft, said in an interview.

That thinking is apparent in any number of design choices Microsoft made in Windows 7, including mouse gestures that automatically tile windows side by side, automatic driver installation and troubleshooting, the operating system’s ubiquitous search feature, and a new taskbar.

“The way we talked about Windows 7 from the earliest planning processes is that we wanted it to be simpler, and we wanted to put common and frequent things at users’ fingertips,” Sam Moreau, Microsoft’s director of user interface design and research, said in an interview.

That meant doing research — and lots of it — to see exactly what users were doing. To determine exactly how people use Windows and what improvements need to be made, Microsoft has long gathered telemetry from users who say they are willing to send information about their usage back to the company.

“We thought a lot about the costs of change for Windows 7, and we don’t believe in change for change’s sake,” Moreau said, pointing out that one of his friends goaded him for months with concern about the inevitability of more help desk calls after upgrading to Windows 7. That concern is one many IT managers have. “Change is bad unless it’s great, which means that it’s intuitive and useful, people can understand the value of the change and it solves a scenario they have in their everyday life.”


Another buzz phrase for the Windows team during Windows 7 development was “quieting the system.” Vista, and XP before it, often interrupted the user with pop-up messages about security problems or available updates. Windows 7 is able to work in the background to take care of many of the problems that once required user intervention, such as driver installation. “The less I interrupt you, the more you’ll be able to get things done,” Moreau said. “Your scenario when you plug in a USB key is get a file, not to configure the USB key.”

Microsoft has been pushing software companies to take advantage of new taskbar capabilities like the use of so-called “jump lists” to open frequently accessed documents and “tab viewing” to see images of open windows when users scroll over taskbar icons. Microsoft went through a large number of prototype taskbars after research showed that users found the taskbar to be a “confusing experience” before it settled on the one in the final version of Windows 7.

Some companies, such as Mozilla, are beginning to jump on board with the new taskbar features — in Mozilla’s case, by showing images of open browser tabs — but it’s too early to tell how and whether others will do so.

Microsoft made a big fuss about widgets when it released Windows Vista, but few vendors really took advantage and built powerful widgets. “It’s very important we work early with that ecosystem early so that we they can take advantage of what we are doing with the operating system,” said Larson-Green.

Some developers are clearly taking interest in at least one of Microsoft’s user interface changes: touch. Hulu, Twitter, and others have built touch applications for HP’s TouchSmart computers, which don’t depend on Windows 7, but others will likely follow suit now that touch is an inherent feature of the operating system.

Touch is easily the most noticeable change in Windows 7, though at first, only a few PCs on the market will have touch capabilities. For Moreau, touch, like many of Microsoft’s other user experience changes, has been all about increasing productivity. He personally uses touch when he flies, the constrained space on airplanes makes touching the screen significantly easier and faster than trying to use a mouse or the trackpad, and he finds himself reaching up to the screen to touch buttons like send on e-mails “because my body just naturally figured out the easiest way to do common tasks.”


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