Could the new Taskbar Be the “UAC” of Windows 7?

Let’s face it.  Apple has had a significant impact on the negative perception of Windows Vista via their very successful I’m a Mac and I’m a PC switcher ads.  Apple has taken a few nuggets of truth in terms Vista issues like UAC, most of which have been fixed in SP1 except UAC, and paraded them in front of the world in a attempt to get folks to switch from Windows to the Mac.  Given what they spend on these commercials and increasing market share (still small though) I would say that it has been working for them.  On the other hand we all know that advertising isn’t about pure truth.  Many ads stretch the truth and some outright bend it to the snapping point.  So the question is this.  Shouldn’t Microsoft be taking extreme precautions *not* to give Apple any more ammunition for Windows 7 than they already have?  I mean, you can already expect Apple to harp on Windows 7 as being nothing more than a warmed over version of Vista.  Just take a look at the version number.  Vista is 6.0 and Windows 7 is 6.1 – it’s a .1 release over Vista.  How can that be significantly different than Vista?

I’m afraid this new Taskbar a.k.a superbar is going to give Apple plenty of ammunition.  The point of this post is to question the sanity of not providing a classic mode for the Taskbar in Windows 7.  You might ask, why do that?  Well, I agree with Paul Thurrot, the new Taskbar has some serious usability issues.

I’ve done plenty of user centered design and usability tests in my job.  I just did an albeit quick and informal Windows 7 Beta taskbar test with my wife (non-technical XP user) and the results weren’t great.  Note that I’ve setup Windows 7 to not hide labels.

1. Task: Start IE from the taskbar.  Result: She finds the IE button, press it, done.
2. Task: Start another IE from the taskbar.  Result: She gets frustrated and gives up after a two minutes.  Notes: She presses the same IE button again, IE disappears.  She becomes frustrated wanting to know why IE closed when she expected it to start another.  After all, it looks like the old quick launch toolbar which always launched a new instance of the app.  This is a fundamental UI issue: – be wary of changing the semantics of an actionable UI element (button in this case).  She starts to want to give up here so I press her and ask what else she might do with the IE task bar button.  She mentions right-clicking, so I suggest she try that.  She brings up the jump list but by that point she’s so annoyed that it becomes wise that I just shutdown my little test.  That’s the problem with doing these tests with your spouse.  🙂

Suffice it to say the wife acceptance factor for the taskbar is very low and she hasn’t really gotten far into Windows 7.  That’s the problem that makes me fear for it’s acceptance. This new taskbar is the first hurdle you have to get over to appreciate the other niceties in Win7.  But now, she’s already got a bad taste in her mouth for Windows 7 and to be honest she is one of those folks who doesn’t like Office 2007 either because of the ribbon UI. 

I’m more of a power user and I can respect MS trying to make Windows more approachable for the non-techies.  As long as we power users can get some  advanced options to tweak Windows to our advanced needs, we’re good.  However I think there are some fundamental UI design tenets being broken here.  Like changing the semantics of a taskbar button depending on whether the app is running or not.  That’s a *huge* mistake IMO.  I also think it is a productivity hit because starting a new instance of an application, once you realize what’s going on, is now:

  1. mouse move
  2. right-click
  3. mouse move
  4. click

It is now twice as hard to start a new instance of an application if it is already running.  Tell me Microsoft, from your telemetry data, how often do folks fire up more than once instance of an app?  Hmm, let’s take IE and just one data point – me.  Even with IE7’s tab support I tend to have anywhere from 3 to 7 instances of IE running at once.  BTW, I do know about the Shift+Click shortcut but I don’t think that having the average computer user rely on that is viable in this case.

FWIW I don’t think the discoverability of the jump list is that big of a deal if and *only if* you don’t need to use the jump list to start a second instance of an application.  The jump list is very much like a right-click context menu so having to right-click to access it, feels natural.  One minor quibble with jump lists, why does the top item in the common section say <app name> instead of “Start <app name>”?  I would think that seeing an action like “Start Internet Explorer” in a list of actions makes more sense than seeing a noun “Internet Explorer” in a list of actions.

I do not want to come across as bashing everything about the new taskbar.  In fact, there is a lot I like about it.  I really like the jump lists, the improved thumbnails, the thumbnails with mini-toolbars, button icon overlays, coloring and progress indication.  I can even appreciate the desire to combine the quick launch buttons with the active task buttons to reduce redundancy and clutter. 

I can think of at least one reasonable solution to this *if* you’re in the mode where you are not hiding labels.  What if the icon part of the button doesn’t change its semantics.  It always fires up a new instance.  Once an app instance is running, then you get a different actionable area (i.e. button) right next to the icon button perhaps with a very subtle vertical divider. The new button wouldn’t have any icon so the overall width wouldn’t increase – again assuming we aren’t hiding labels.  In fact, if you have more than two instances running the width would actually be less due to the fact that there would only be one icon.  This would also require less reliance on thumbnails to select from multiple running instances of an app.

Frankly, if Microsoft were to ship Windows 7 today, I think this new taskbar could dog it like UAC has dogged Vista.  I can just see the Apple commercials now hyping up how people hate *the* primary piece of UI in Windows 7 and how you’ve got *NO* choice.  You either take the new taskbar or you leave it, er Windows 7 and take a Mac for a spin.  I can see the Seinfeld soup Nazi inspired commercial now – "NO CLASSIC TASKBAR FOR YOU!!!". 

In summary, I think Microsoft would be insane to ship Windows 7 without a classic taskbar mode.  Vista tried to foist UAC upon folks, which I think was the right thing to do if for no other reason than to get ISVs to fix their software to run correctly as a standard user.  However it turned out badly for Vista perception and adoption.  Office 2007 also took this all or nothing approach with the ribbon UI.  But Office doesn’t have much in the way of a serious competitive thread yet.  I’m not so sure that’s the same with Windows anymore, at least not in the consumer space.  Apple has proven it can steal large chunks of market share in the consumer space as evidenced by the success of the iPod and the iPhone.  And they’re chipping away at the OS market share with their Vista advertising campaign and an OS that is apparently simple to use.  Disclaimer: I haven’t used a Mac in 15 years but I keep hearing from friends that they are easy to use.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to give Apple any more ammunition than they already have for Windows 7 switcher ads.

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