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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.

Windows 7 users can quickly tile two windows next to one another on screen with a few mouse gestures.
(click for image gallery)

Telemetry Tells The User Story

All that work paid off in terms of new features. For example, the telemetry showed Microsoft that many users were rearranging windows on their screens to put them side-by-side in order to work on two items simultaneously, such as a document and a Web browser. "If you actually take out all the steps it would take to make two windows side by side, it could take two minutes," Moreau said. Microsoft measures productivity in Windows by how long it takes to describe certain scenarios, and this important scenario was obviously inefficient.

The next step was to determine how to solve the inefficiencies. Microsoft determined that most of the time people wanted to have two applications on the screen were instances of two "tall and narrow" applications such as a browser and Word rather than "short and wide" applications such as Excel.

So Microsoft made the choice to have the windows snap side-by-side rather than to the top and bottom of the screen. This feature became what is now known as Aero Snap. Drag a window to one side of the screen in Windows 7, and it sticks there. Drag a window to the other side, and the two windows appear side by side. That two sentence description equals a significant productivity gain.

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."

Generally, Microsoft is confident, if not cocky, about Windows 7's ability to make users more productive, and already has case studies to back up its assuredness. British financial company Baker Tilly, for example, recently said that it actually expects revenue gains from the productivity increases it will see thanks to Windows 7.

InformationWeek Analytics recently surveyed 1,414 business technology pros on their plans for Windows 7. Download the research here (registration required).

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