John Topley’s Weblog

Unfinished eXPerience

When Microsoft launched Windows XP in late 2001, they made a big deal about the changes to the user interface, which were the biggest revamp since Windows 95. I found it surprising, coming barely a year after the mature and evolved Windows 2000 interface.

The changes were controversial, with many people hating the new “Fisher Price” appearance. Personally I quite like it but then I'm fortunate enough to have a 17" TFT screen, which means that it doesn't look so cartoonish running at a resolution of 1280 x 1024 pixels. And the Windows XP Start menu is a big leap forward in usefulness.

Talking of the Start button, someone in the Windows shell team has been reading about Fitt's Law, which states that the time taken to acquire a target is a function of the distance to, and the size of the target. This means that the Start button now extends all the way down to the bottom left hand corner of the display area, so you can slam the mouse down there in an approximate fashion and be guaranteed of hitting the button. Previous versions of Windows left an annoying two pixel gap around the edge, meaning that this didn't work. Interestingly, if you switch to the Classic theme under Windows XP, there's still the two pixel gap, the mouse pointer will actually snap to the button even if you're not on it. Which is a hack but it works.

I think the Windows XP UI was a bit rushed. When time is tight, attention to detail usually suffers. I present my evidence below.

Exhibit A: The Welcome Screen

  • The stunning Welcome screen was new with Windows XP. You can associate a picture of a flower or a yellow rubber duck with a user, just as you can with that groovy Mac OS X. Cool. However, I'm left wondering why it prompts To begin, click your user name instead of the more obvious Click your user name to begin.
  • When I used to install Windows NT, I always used to set it up so that a user account would be locked out after three failed logon attempts and logon failures would be audited to the security log. Okay, I'm paranoid for a home user. The Fast User Switching feature breaks this.

    To see this in action, log on as an administrator and run the Group Policy Editor (gpedit.msc). Then expand the Computer Configuration node followed by the Security Settings node. Expand Account Policies and click on the Account Lockout node. Set the Account lockout threshold to three invalid logon attempts. To enable auditing, expand the Local Policies node and click the Audit Policy node. Set Audit logon events to Failure. Now if you use Fast User Switching, you should see a string of Failure Audit entries in quick succession in the security event log:
Looks like Fast User Switching is trying to log on again. Note the timestamps.
A picture of the security event log

—It seems using Fast User Switching leads to multiple failed logon attempts. How Puzzling. Don't forget to undo the changes you made using the Group Policy Editor unless you want the security log to eat your disk.

Exhibit B: The Help and Support Center

  • Firstly, aren't help and support two words meaning the same thing? And as my locale is set to English (United Kingdom), why doesn't localisation extend to spelling center the correct way for me i.e. centre?
  • Now try this: search on the term user accounts and then pick the topic Require users to press CTRL+ALT+DELETE before logging on. It tells me to click on the Advanced tab of the User Accounts Control Panel applet. Can you see this tab in the picture below?
Whither the Advanced tab?
A picture of the User Accounts Control Panel applet

Exhibit C: Window Widgets

  • Why are there now three different styles for the standard window manipulation buttons in Windows XP? The whole point of having standard widgets for every window is that they're…doh! Standard. The top two sets of buttons pictured below are from the Microsoft Management Console (mmc.exe) and the bottom set is from a Command Prompt:
Three different sets of standard widgets.
A picture of three different sets of window buttons

Exhibit D: Notepad

  • My copy of Notepad used to have a greyed-out Status Bar menu item under the View menu, but I've just fired it up to take a screen shot of this and magically it's now working properly! One of the recent Windows updates that I've installed must have fixed this on the sly. You'll just have to take my word on this one! Hey, everything I've told you so far has been true, hasn't it?

Exhibit E: Calculator Icon

  • Along with the other accessory programs, the Windows Calculator got a funky new icon for Windows XP. Unfortunately its shadow is strangely clipped in the bottom left hand corner, as the magnified picture below illustrates:
Nice icon, shame about the clipped shadow.
A picture of the Calculator accessory icon

Exhibit F: The Start Menu Context Menu

  • The new style Start menu helpfully maintains a list of the most recently used applications and you can pin your favourites so that they're permanently displayed. The context menu offers an option to remove items from the list, but I find the capitalisation to be a little strange:
What a strange way to Capitalise Words.
A picture of part of the Start menu context menu

Exhibit G: Disk Properties

  • Why can Windows no longer draw pie charts properly? Compare this screen shot from Windows 98 with the Windows XP equivalent and notice the outline of the pie:
It's always tricky staying within the lines when colouring in.
A picture of the Windows 98 and Windows XP disk properties pie charts

—This visual bug has been present since at least Windows NT 4.0. Those NT guys may know how to write an operating system kernel but it seems the Windows 95 team had the edge on pie charts.

Exhibit H: Windows Explorer

  • Why after eight years is Windows Explorer still so crap at remembering how I want my folders to be displayed? I want My Computer to show icons in groups, arranged by disk type and displayed as Tiles. I want the Recycle Bin auto-arranged by date deleted at Tile size. I want the system32 folder to by auto-arranged by name and displayed in detail view. And I want my photos to be displayed as thumbnails. I don't want much, do I?

    Windows XP has an infuriating habit of throwing away my viewing preferences on a regular basis. I don't care if these settings are saved in the registry, an INI file or even in some sexy XML database integrated with the file system, I just want them saved and retrieved without fuss!

Further Evidence

Windows XP: rough around the edges.

Summing Up

The Windows 95 user interface was a comprehensive and successful attempt to put right many of the irritating inconsistencies and annoyances (and there were many) found in Windows 3.x. I can't help feeling that successive paint jobs in the guise of Windows 98/Me/2000 and now Windows XP—and also a distracting flirtation with trying to turn the desktop into a Web browser—have taken away from this original aim.

There are many things that Windows XP gets right, and I shall be writing about some of them in future. That said, the Windows XP user interface feels rushed to me, as I hope I've illustrated. Microsoft need to re-focus for Windows Longhorn and pay much greater attention to detail.


There are 13 comments on this post. Comments are closed.

  • avatar John C
    31 October 2003 at 11:12

    My god, and there I was thinking I was picky... I have to admit that although I consider myself a student of "phenomenal attention to detail" I didn't spot any of those things in WinXP. I'm just too busy cooing at the lozenge buttons and fancy 3D scroll bars too notice...

  • avatar John C
    31 October 2003 at 11:13

    (Spot the deliberate typo: 'too' should be 'to', so much for phenomenal attention to detail!)

  • avatar John Topley
    31 October 2003 at 11:23

    I resisted the urge to write it in the article but the devil's in the details! I'm a perfectionist, which sometimes makes it hard to get much done. Actually, I'm also a bit of a procrastinator, so I don't get things done really well!

  • avatar Jedidja Bourgeois
    03 November 2003 at 10:45

    Actually I always turn XP back into classic mode ... for some reason I really liked the look of Win2k (which polished a few problems from 95/98). For UI upgrades in an OS, you certainly can't beat the improvements in OS X -- granted it took them a year between versions, but 10.1->10.2 and now 10.2->10.3 have all had substantial changes (for the better) in UI.

  • avatar Raymond Chen
    04 November 2003 at 16:04

    The capitalization of "Remove from This List" follows the Chicago Manual of Style: Capitalize the first word, last word, and all words in between unless they are articles, coordinating conjunctions or prepositions.

  • avatar John Topley
    04 November 2003 at 16:15

    Thanks for that Raymond! Good to hear that there is some logic behind it.

  • avatar steven
    25 November 2003 at 13:10

    "if you switch to classic theme..." unless you have enough apps running that you stretch the taskbar to double-height, at which point the Start button floats to the top of the bar, once again giving us Fitts (pun intended).

  • avatar Aine
    26 November 2003 at 12:48

    Am I the only one whose tray icons and taskbar buttons mysteriously disappear unpredictably? Half the time, I can't see my network connections icon (until I reboot and it appears again), and even program buttons in the taskbar sometimes inexplicably vanish, only to reappear later on through no actions of my own. And no, I don't have the "hide these icons" thing turned on. And yes, I also hate that it can't remember how I want to view my folders in Windows Explorer, nor can FrontPage remember where I last got an image from and always goes first to My Documents instead of My Pictures. Irritating.

  • avatar Edward
    26 November 2003 at 22:15

    Theres a few things there that are not strictly bugs. There are actually two versions of the User Accounts control panel applet, you get a different one if the machine is on a domain. On a domain you automatically lose the welcome screen and fast user switching, without the ability to set users photos the user account applet becomes a more normal affair. _fa_060502a.GIF This version does have an advanced tab with a checkbox for turning ctrl-alt-del logins on and off. I guess the help system is not smart enough to only provide help relevent to your current domain status. The three sets of widgets you show are just themed windows widget, MDI widgets, and non-themed widgets. XP does not apply the theme to the command prompt. Any app you set to not be themed, using compatibility options, will appear in that way. I suppose you could argue that they ought to be the same, but I think the maximized MDI child widgets ought to be smaller than the ones for the whole MDI container. In notepad the availability of the status bar is dependant on if you have Word Wrap turned on or off. You must have turned off word wrap the last time you were using notepad and now the status bar is no longer greyed out. It is not a recent change. I guess they think that since the status bar only displays the cursors current row and column, which would no longer be appropriate values with word wrap enabled, the status bar serves no purpose.

  • avatar John Topley
    27 November 2003 at 08:53

    Well I'd classify it as a bug in the help system because it should it least mention the differences in behaviour between a standalone PC and one on a domain. If I were a typical Windows XP home user who'd stumbled across this topic then I wouldn't have a clue what was going on. It feels like a new paint job with the old Windows 2000 paint showing through in places. It's not a very joined-up user experience. Start the MMC and maximise and restore a child window and notice how the window widgets magically transform from the old style (square corners, grey) to the new (round corners, coloured)!

  • avatar Edward
    27 November 2003 at 10:50

    Well on my machine that help page has "You must be logged on as an administrator or a member of the Administrators group on a computer that is part of a network domain in order to complete this procedure", so I think they have that covered. Does this page even appear on XP Home computers? If it does then that would be a mistake I suppose since it is never possible to be on a domain. I'll check later if it is.

  • avatar John Topley
    27 November 2003 at 18:57

    Okay, you've got me on the help page, I hadn't noticed that disclaimer. They might have mentioned that you can still enable CTRL + ALT + DEL on a standalone machine by using the Group Policy Editor but I guess that's above most user's heads. If you need to use it then you'll be aware of its existence. I think I was just surprised that they'd changed it from Windows 2000, where the option was always in the Control Panel applet.

  • avatar Edward
    27 November 2003 at 21:35

    I've checked my XP Home machine and that page is not present on its help system. So I guess they did try to keep it as consistent as possible.

When time is tight, attention to detail usually suffers.


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