Back in 2007 the Windows team started working on the look of Windows 7.
Usually Microsoft doesn't reveal any of the preliminary designs for its operating systems, but at the recent MIX user experience conference we got a sneak peek behind the scenes at the development process. The Windows desktop team displayed several of their early designs and explained what they learned from them as part of the conference's theme on how important it is for designers to sketch out different ideas.
Steven Sinofsky, Senior Vice President for the Windows and Windows Live Engineering Group, explained that he used to have a gallery of designs for the Office Assistant on his office wall to help inspire the Windows 7 team. They weren't afraid to start with what Senior Use Experience Designer Stephan Hoefnagels called "crazy ideas": everything from a lava lamp to a flower that opened and closed helped to create the look and feel of Windows.
In all, there were more than 400 sketches of the desktop experience alone, along with animations and visualisations "exploring different ways of laying out different types of user clues".
The pop-up thumbnails you see in the Windows 7 beta are there to make it easier to find exactly which window you want to switch to. They were based on repeated requests for clickable thumbnails, says Hoefnagels.
"In our usability labs we found people like thumbnails so much they want to click on them. In Vista you'd move your mouse to a thumbnail and it would go away and there was always disappointment in our usability labs. People were saying 'that's the window I want; oh no! It's gone away', so finally in Windows 7 we made it clickable."
The first attempt, in early 2006, was a taskbar with thumbnails of open windows instead of icons. The problem with that, he points out is that "they become small and most of time they turn into white squares that don't help much".
Bat Signal and Aladdin
The next prototype, in February 2007, was called the Bat Signal; when you moved your mouse over an icon in the taskbar, the full window would pop up on screen, highlighted by beams of light (a little like the Batman signal projected over Gotham City).
Bat Signal made it easy to find the right window but it caused other problems: "sometimes people toss the mouse down to the bottom of the screen when they're typing because they don't care where the mouse is and the Bat Signal pops up and that's really intrusive in their flow."
Bat Signal evolved into Aero Peek in Windows 7; you can hover over an icon to get thumbnails and hover over a thumbnail to get a preview of the window.
Aero Shake came from a similar experiment called Aladdin; to get a preview of a window in the background you could 'rub' it with the mouse pointer - as long as you kept rubbing the window it would stay on top for you to read.
Hoefnagels agrees it's not particularly practical - "It's a lot of work, if I'm reading a lot of text I have to keep rubbing and reading, rubbing and reading" - but the rubbing gesture evolved into the shaking gesture to hide everything except the current window.
Jump lists changed based on early feedback as well. After putting a lot of work into them over several 'milestone' builds ("there's a big backend to keeping track of all of your windows," according to Hoefnagels) the desktop team wanted a way to tell users they were there. "We did what we normally do," explains Hoefnagels, "we designed a little widget."
They tried the nub in different places; on all the icons or just on the current icon, at the side or on top of it. But when they gave that version to the 63 families who used all the different versions of the Windows 7 interface, they all complained about it getting in the way when they were trying to click on icons.
"It was September 2008 already and the beta was going to be early 2009; we spent all this time in all these milestones, we were already well on our way and we didn't expect any of these big issues," said Hoefnagels.
Not everyone was comfortable with hiding jump lists until users right-click but when they looked at the figures, they found "100% of our users at some point over several months using the desktop experience did right-click click on the taskbar. Sometimes stories go around saying people don't know how to right-click, [that] right-click is advanced user behaviour. We had the data and we had the confidence to put this great feature on right-click because we know people will find it."
Designing the desktop experience needed time and testing, Hoefnagels claims: "we didn't get it right the first time but we gave ourselves enough time to really try out different things and iterate on the ideas."
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Mary (Twitter, Google+, website) started her career at Future Publishing, saw the AOL meltdown first hand the first time around when she ran the AOL UK computing channel, and she's been a freelance tech writer for over a decade. She's used every version of Windows and Office released, and every smartphone too, but she's still looking for the perfect tablet. Yes, she really does have USB earrings.