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Rethinking the desktop GUI

I recently had a conversation with a trained economist who seems to think he has to close out his Outlook in order to interact with another application. This isn't the first time I've encountered this sort of confusion but it's the first time in someone so well educated!

I'm old enough to remember when Windows 1.4 had this tiled interface and everybody denigrated it because the Macintosh had the 'messy desktop' paradigm which looked so much cooler.

Now everything's either run full screen or else tiled within a browser. We all got sick of the messy desktop. It was just a nuisance to be dragging and resizing windows.

We've had taskbars since the mid 90's to help us find windows. This works fairly well but there are two drawbacks. First there are still desktop icons that are nearly impossible to get to unless you minimize every full screen window you've got. Second a lot of users just don't understand the taskbar.

We can't expect much from Microsoft on this front but surely Linux users can ask for more from their GUIs. First get rid of the desktop paradigm. If you want shortcuts put them in a menu accessible from the taskbar. If you must have drag and drop then drag and hold onto a task on the taskbar, then let the 'window' (screen actually) for that task come up in response to this action, then release at the desired point within that 'window'.

Finally make the taskbar more intuitive to economists and other old fogeys. Maybe make it look like tabs in a stack of manila file folders.
Rowland
Monday, May 12, 2008
 
 
Are you sure he didn't have some weird problem with another app that truly did force him to close Outlook all the time?

That is somewhat more believable than someone understanding all the little Outlookisms, but not understanding that you can leave it open while surfing or whatever.
Greg Send private email
Monday, May 12, 2008
 
 
You still use a PC for web and email?
fox Send private email
Monday, May 12, 2008
 
 
Just so it's clear by full screen I mean maximized, not the kind of full screen where the taskbar is unavailable.

Greg: I don't know but I kind of doubt it. He talks as if he sees his windows as a kind of LIFO stack with Outlook on the bottom.
Rowland
Monday, May 12, 2008
 
 
Your economist is not the norm. Even my 74 y/o mother in law understands that she can do more than one thing at a time. I wouldn't start "rethinking the desktop GUI" based on the results of a "survey" consisting of a single data point.
uggh
Monday, May 12, 2008
 
 
I agree with your point that most people run most apps full-screen most of the time. That's why I love multiple monitors so much.
Greg Send private email
Monday, May 12, 2008
 
 
And you don't have to minimize the windows one by one. You can right click on the taskbar and choose "Show the Desktop" from the menu you get.
George Jansen Send private email
Monday, May 12, 2008
 
 
"If you must have drag and drop then drag and hold onto a task on the taskbar, then let the 'window' (screen actually) for that task come up in response to this action, then release at the desired point within that 'window'."

I'm not sure if you were aware, but Windows has done this since Win95.

I agree for the most part with the "get rid of the desktop" sentiment. I even ran XP with nothing on the desktop. I put my common apps and even the recycle bin on the Start Menu to try it out. I still found myself using the edges of the desktop as temporary storage. Some habits are hard to break I guess. I haven't bothered to force myself to do this on Vista, though most of my app shortcuts are still on the Start Menu.

Still, it's possible (and easy) to use Windows in the manner you describe.

PS: Not only can you right click on the taskbar and pick Show Desktop. but there is a default button next to the Start Menu that does it and a keyboard shortcut (Win+D) as well.
Chris Altmann
Monday, May 12, 2008
 
 
Also, an early Windows 95 design had taskbar at the top with tabs for windows. Raymond Chen explains* one reason this design was abandoned. I can think of another (what happens when you have an unmaximized window?).

* http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2003/09/12/54896.aspx
Chris Altmann
Monday, May 12, 2008
 
 
"Show Desktop" command from TaskBar minimizes all windows.
asmguru62
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
 
 
I've also witnessed generally intelligent non-power-users closing one app before starting another. I think it goes with running apps maximized (non-power-users seem more likely to have small monitors too). In that situation, the idea that apps can be opened simultaneously becomes rather abstract. In contrast, when the user can see there's space for a another window, I think it's easier to grasp.

It's true that moving and resizing windows has always been a pain, but it was a good solution when monitors were small. Now that 20-inch+ monitors are becoming cheap and common on the desktop, maybe it's time we took a second look at dynamically tiling rather than overlapping windows by default. In addition to cutting down on the clicking and dragging just to see two windows together, this will encourage non-power-users to run multiple apps.

Unfortunately, many apps and web site makers have reacted to the increase in monitor sizes by greedily snarfing up more pixels, the result being many users _still_ run apps maximized. Maybe we should bring back the 800-pix-max-width convention.

As implemented, I regard the desktop (in the sense of that space we put our wallpaper on) to be a failure. Rather than being the starting place for work (the way My Documents and the Start Menu are), it has become a place for installation apps to dump a lot of useless icons. Show Desktop is a kludge that’s inconsistent with the direct manipulation that otherwise dominates windows operations. With dynamic tiling, the desktop as we know it could simply go away.
Michael Zuschlag Send private email
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
 
 
I think the original MacOS was one of the best implementations of the desktop metaphor, particularly with its "spatial" Finder i.e. there was a one-to-one relation between folders and the windows that represented the contents of that folder and each folder window could remember its own size and position etc. Just like a bunch of real file folders left on a desk.

I think it all started to go a bit wrong when the Web became preeminent and you started to see Web browser-style navigation being retro-fitted onto everything. I remember when Microsoft got Internet religion around about the Windows 98 time frame, with Active Desktop and the IE4 betas apparently leading one MS exec to joke about renaming Windows to "Microsoft Window"!

It was always frustrating that the only things you could do with the desktop in Windows 3.x were change the wallpaper or park minimized apps there, so it was a big leap forward when Windows 95 brought most of the classic MacOS desktop refinements to the masses.

Personally when using Windows at work I do like to maximise any application that I'm spending a lot of time in (for example, IE right now). Conversely, when using my Mac at home I feel more comfortable with overlapping windows but I couldn't put my finger on why.

Incidentally, one of the areas where I've always thought the desktop metaphor breaks down badly is the Trash/Recycle Bin. I mean, who has a trash can on their desk?!
John Topley Send private email
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
 
 
"Now everything's either run full screen or else tiled within a browser."

I find that comment so amusing, personally. A couple years ago someone said something like "well, when you run full screen..." and I thought "who in the world runs a browser window full screen?".

Seriously, I had no idea _anybody_ did that. I'm still not convinced it is pervasive, but I guess it's not uncommon. I tried running a browser full screen once and found it to be completely annoying.

... just a random observation.
Out of touch with the common user, apparently
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
 
 
I always run all apps full screen (including browsers). But I also use multiple monitors.
uggh
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
 
 
John Topley said "Conversely, when using my Mac at home I feel more comfortable with overlapping windows but I couldn't put my finger on why"

Maybe the top-of-screen menu has something to do with it? Recently I watched a colleague, a long-time windows user but somewhat computer-phobic, make a very interesting mistake. Normally he runs most apps full-screen. This time, he had a bunch of Explorer windows open to move files around from place to place. Being a confirmed full screen user, he did this using the menu Edit|copy & Edit|paste actions, rather than drag & drop. Then one time, he used the wrong window menu (i.e. the menu of the 'wrong' Explorer window, not the topmost, focussed window) & it took him some time to work out what had gone wrong and why.

Running full-screen removes the ambiguity over which is the right menu.

Max
Max Hadley Send private email
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
 
 
I think that's a very interesting observation, Max.
John Topley Send private email
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
 
 
I realised, after posting the previous comment, that the Explorer window 'clicked through', i.e. the SAME menu click BOTH gave focus to the unfocussed window, AND dropped down the edit menu, make the mistake less likely to be spotted.

I have an uneasy feeling this is wrong. I know that on both OS X and Windows, some applications click through & some don't. I KNOW this is wrong (violates the Principle of Least Astonishment)

Max
Max Hadley Send private email
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
 
 
I prefer the desktop, I hate tiled windows and
I really hated Win3.1 and the old, desktop-less
Xwindows. I found the original Mac desktops
and the Risc OS desktop really clean.

It may be that the desktop is better for power
users and the less technical users need something
simplified - I think the main menu on the Nintendo
Wii is a good UI for this, anybody else got any
opinions on that?
Object Hater
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
 
 
> I realised, after posting the previous comment, that the
> Explorer window 'clicked through', i.e. the SAME menu
> click BOTH gave focus to the unfocussed window, AND
> dropped down the edit menu, make the mistake less likely
> to be spotted.

 Yes, I hate it too!

case  WM_INITMENU:

  if (CheckWhatHasToBeChecked(hwnd, (HMENU)wParam))  {
    PostMessage (hwnd, WM_CANCELMODE, 0, 0);
    // or EndMenu ((HMENU)wParam);
    return (0);
 }
 break;
VPC
Thursday, May 15, 2008
 
 
"I always run all apps full screen (including browsers). But I also use multiple monitors."

I rarely run anything full-screen (exceptions being my IDE, VM Workstation, and media player if I'm watching a movie) and I have multiple monitors, too.
Anominal
Thursday, May 15, 2008
 
 
You want easy access to stuff on the desktop?

Right click on the toolbar, select "toolbars", and check  Desktop (and whatever other tools and shortcuts you like).

Then you'll have a button on your toolbar that opens a dropdown (ok, drop-up) menu to everything on your desktop.  It's by far the fastest and easiest way to find something. 

But AFAIK I'm the only person in the world who does this.
Jeanne P. Send private email
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
 
 

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