Learning Resources

Windows User interface

Microsoft eventually merged its DOS- and NT-based products into a single cohesive platform, but it's worth noting that in 1993, that change was still 8 years away and little more than a pipedream at the time. But what these three different OSes did share, aside from an underlying programming model, was a common shell. It was called Program Manager, and while it seems quaint today, it was the UI on the most commonly-used OS of the early 1990s.

Program Manager was based on two earlier Microsoft UIs, the original Windows UI, which was first called Interface Manager, and PMShell from OS/2 (where "PM" does indeed stand for "program manager"). It was one of several "managers" in early Windows versions, the others being File Manager (for managing files, of course), Print Manager, and Task Manager. But Program Manager was the shell, a special application that served as the Windows user interface, or what we might today call the "user experience."

Program Manager and the other Windows manager applications were tossed aside in Windows 95, which to date is the last time that Microsoft substantially revolutionized the Windows user experience. So instead of separate manager programs, Windows 95 (and then, later, NT 4.0) provided a single, more cohesive UI, called Windows Explorer.

Windows XP was a fairly radical looking user experience change until you realize that all the colors and new capabilities didn't really change the basic structure of the UI, which still consisted of a Start Menu, taskbar, tray, and desktop. But Windows XP did feature a dark, saturated default color scheme (blues and greens instead of the old gray), and a new-look and larger Start Menu with customization capabilities. So it was a jarring shift for the day, which we forget because XP remained in the market for so long.

Windows Vista, of course, ushered in the current era with its Aero glass take on the Windows Explorer UI. But beneath the see-through, glass-like windows and occasional "live icons," Vista's Explorer really just provided a prettier take on the same old desktop UI, again. So a big change, visually, but not that big of a change from a usability perspective.

In Windows 7, which was otherwise just a minor update to Vista, Microsoft did make a curiously major change to the ways in which we find and launch applications: It added this functionality directly to the taskbar for the first time. So while we had been typically using the Start Menu for this activity since Windows 95 (and/or the Quick Launch toolbar since Windows 98), with Windows 7, Microsoft formally started moving to a model where the program shortcut icons were always visible, in a preview of sorts of the Windows 8 Start screen to come. In this way, Windows 7 is to Windows 8 as Windows for Workgroups 3.11 was to Windows 95, a stealthy preview of what was to come.

An image of Windows 7 desktop -


Some components of Windows XP UI are -

Start menu
With Windows XP, the taskbar and the Start button have been updated to support Fitt's law. To help the user access a wider range of common destinations more easily from a single location, the Start menu was expanded to two columns; the left column focuses on the user's installed applications, while the right column provides access to the user's documents, and system links which were previously located on the desktop. Links to the My Documents, My Pictures and other special folders are brought to the fore. The My Computer and My Network Places (Network Neighborhood in Windows 95 and 98) icons were also moved off the Desktop and into the Start menu, making it easier to access these icons while a number of applications are open and so that the desktop remains clean. Moreover, these links can be configured to expand as a cascading menu. Frequently used programs are automatically displayed in the left column, newly installed programs are highlighted, and the user may opt to "pin" programs to the start menu so that they are always accessible without having to navigate through the Programs folders. The default internet browser and default email program are pinned to the Start menu. The Start menu is fully customizable, links can be added or removed; the number of frequently used programs to display can be set. The All Programs menu expands like the classic Start menu to utilize the entire screen but can be set to scroll programs. The user's name and user's account picture are also shown on the Start menu.

Locking the taskbar not only prevents it from being accidentally resized or moved but elements such as Quick launch and other DeskBands are also locked. The Taskbar grouping feature combines multiple buttons of the same application into a single button, which when clicked, pops up a menu listing all the grouped windows and their number. Advanced taskbar grouping options can be configured from the registry. The user can choose to always show, always hide or hide some or all notification area icons if inactive for some time. A button allows the user to reveal all the icons. The Taskbar, if set to a thicker height also displays the day and date in the notification area.

Windows Explorer
There are significant changes made to Windows Explorer in Windows XP, both visually and functionally. Microsoft focused especially on making Windows Explorer more discoverable and task-based, as well as adding a number of features to reflect the growing use of a computer as a “digital hub”.

Task pane
The task pane is displayed on the left side of the window instead of the traditional folder tree view when the navigation pane is turned off. It presents the user with a list of common actions and destinations that are relevant to the current directory or file(s) selected. For instance, when in a directory containing mostly pictures, a set of “Picture tasks” is shown, offering the options to display these pictures as a slide show, to print them, or to go online to order prints. Conversely, a folder containing music files would offer options to play those files in a media player, or to go online to purchase music.

Every folder also has “File and Folder Tasks”, offering options to create new folders, share a folder on the local network, publish files or folders to a web site using the Web Publishing Wizard, and other common tasks like copying, renaming, moving, and deleting files or folders. File types that have identified themselves as being printable also have an option listed to print the file.

Underneath “File and Folder Tasks” is “Other Places”, which always lists the parent folder of the folder being viewed and includes additional links to other common locations such as “My Computer”, “Control Panel”, and “My Documents” or previously navigated locations. These change depending on what folder the user was in.

Underneath “Other Places” is a “Details” area which gives additional information when a file or folder is selected – typically the file type, file size and date modified, but depending on the file type, author, image dimensions, attributes, or other details. If the file type has a Thumbnail image handler installed, its preview also appears in the "Details" task pane. For music files, it might show the artist, album title, and the length of the song. The same information is also shown horizontally on the status bar.

Navigation pane
The “Folders” button on the Windows Explorer toolbar toggles between the traditional navigation pane containing the tree view of folders, and the task pane. Users can also close the navigation pane by clicking the Close button in its right corner as well as turn off the task pane from Folder Options.

The navigation pane has been enhanced in Windows XP to support "simple folder view" which when turned on hides the dotted lines that connect folders and subfolders and makes folders browsable with single click while still keeping double clicking on in the right pane. Single clicking in simple folder view auto expands the folder and clicking another folder automatically expands that folder and collapses the previous one.