MIX09: Designing the Windows 7 Desktop Experience

by March 21, 2009

Stephan Hoefnagels’ Designing the Windows 7 Desktop Experience talk at Microsoft’s MIX09 conference walked through the process of addressing user interface issues in Microsoft Vista.

Areas of Improvement

  • Windows Vista Desktop user interface had several areas for improvement.
  • here are lots of ways to access Outlook on the Vista desktop (Stephan counted 8): most do the same thing. Any reasonably complex app could be spread out across the desktop.
  • Microsoft asked 300 people to share their Windows task bars with the design team. They learned a lot by seeing these real-life examples.
  • Many people’s task bar had lots of overflow in each section from too many elements in it.
  • For many people it was unclear which element in the task bar represented which document because all the elements were labeled as program names.
  • Areas of improvement: App functionality is scattered, too much noise, switching windows may be error prone, and arranging windows requires acrobatics.


  • The desktop experience is about getting to your destination. “Turn all the lights to green”. The team’s goal was to evolve (not fundamentally change) an existing system.
  • Desktop Experience Goals:
  • 1. Things you use all the time are at your fingertips
  • 2. Manage your windows with confidence
  • 3. You are in control
  • 4. Clean & lightweight: look & feel should reflect efficiency
  • New task bar is 10 pixels bigger: icons more recognizable, easier to click. Can now drag and drop applications into task bar.
  • Thumbnail view of application is available in task bar. Saw in testing people wanted to click on thumbnails, made them clickable in Windows 7. Can close windows from thumbnail previews with small close icon.
  • Both windows and tabs in Internet Explorer are shown as thumbnails.
  • Thumbnails change real windows on the Desktop in hover.
  • Jump lists in taskbar allow you to directly jump to documents you were working on: current, recent, pinned.
  • Moving windows to the side puts them into overview mode
  • Can shake a window to hide all windows around it. Then shake again to bring other windows back.

Design Process

  • Two-year process. About a dozen people working on task bar: developers, QA, designers, researchers, etc. 30 people working on desktop.
  • Early on in process used sketches and light animations to explore transitions and ideas for layout & controls.
  • Created over 150 high fidelity comps. How can the team stay focused across all these ideas?
  • Goals are the mountain peaks you are trying to get to. UX principles are the path we use to get to the top of the mountain.
  • 1. Reduce concepts to increase confidence
  • 2. Small things matter, good and bad
  • 3. Solve distractions, not discoverability
  • 4. Time matters, build for people on the go
  • 5. Value the full lifecycle of the experience
  • 6. Be great at “look” and “do”
  • Another way to make sure you do not get lost is through user data. 11 million people opted in to share usage data anonymously. This data set boundaries for design ideas.
  • How many windows do people have open? Data showed 90% of sessions have 0-14 windows open.
  • Start small, prototype early in real code, iterate (try other ideas), plan for the small details.
  • Longitudinal usability: 63 participants used desktops for months at home during design process.
  • Introduced a small menu in the taskbar to invoke a jump list, but it was optimized for discoverability. Instead it created distraction –so it was moved to right click only.
  • Longitudinal study showed that 100% of families used right click on task. Had previously assumed right click was more of an advanced feature.