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10/20/2009
03:28 PM
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Windows 7: UI Promises Productivity Gains

In developing the user interface for its latest OS, Microsoft put productivity and the user experience front and center. Here's how.




The new taskbar allows Windows 7 users to preview open Web pages, both in IE and Firefox.
(click for image gallery)

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."

In this development cycle, Microsoft collected more information and did additional studies, including studies that watched individuals' use over a long period of time, surveys, countless focus groups with different constituencies, and breakdowns of thousands of screenshots of various desktops. Some of that increase was likely influenced by Larson-Green and Windows president Steven Sinofsky, both of whom used to work in Microsoft's telemetry-heavy Office group.

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