Sep 30, 2010

Anti-discoverability – Windows 7 still has it.

or why do my windows keep maximizing when I move them?

Discoverability is the holy grail of software usability. You’ll never really find it but but as a programmer/designer  you have to keep searching for it. Well, you do unless you work for Microsoft where the goal apparently is to make features as undiscoverable as possible.  Sometimes early decisions in a product’s design can limit its ability to make its features  discoverable  for a very long time. In the case of Windows the bad decision was to not have a fixed menu bar (oops the Mac bigot in me is showing up). Generally, this design decision doesn’t matter that much because most applications open up in their own window and that window has a fixed menu. I love menu bars. I’d love them more on Windows if they had the consistency found on the Mac but in general most Windows applications I use are pretty good. OK, don’t even get me started about the Office 2007 and the much lauded Toolbar, which in my opinion was only foisted upon us so that in an upcoming version Microsoft can reintroduce a menu bar and give us a truly compelling reason to upgrade. A fixed menu bar, means you always know where to go to find options that affect that application, this works for pretty much EVERY application even for the Finder. If you’ve never used a Mac the Finder is the graphical user interface application that most people use to interact with the OS. On Windows the equivalent program is confusingly called Explorer, the name itself isn’t so bad, only the fact that Microsoft decided to call their web browser Internet Explorer makes it confusing. Also the fact that you could use the program your entire life and never even know it had a name, or that you were in fact even using a program.

Where oh where is my explorer-ware?

But I digress, when Explorer (not the web browser) doesn’t behave the way you want it to, where are you supposed to go to modify its behavior? Surely the designers at Microsoft considered this very basic question when they made the decision to forgo having  a fixed menu bar for it didn’t they? Hmm, it appears maybe they didn’t because the answer is: you have to look pretty much freakin’ everywhere. Some very important options can be found by right-clicking on the desktop and selecting Properties, or wait is that now called personalize? Others you can get to by right clicking the taskbar (a GUI idea that takes up as much space as a fixed menu bar but is decidedly less useful than both a menu bar or a decent dock tool. Other options can be modified from the menu bar of any open folder. Wait, you say when you open a folder under Windows 7 there is no longer a fixed menu bar. Well, just one more step towards anti-discoverability I guess. Now, if you use the Organize button, and select the Layout option and then select the submenu you’ll find an option to turn on the menu bar. See it’s still there it’s just hard to DISCOVER. Now that you have the menu bar back,  you’ll see a “Tools” menu and you know from using applications for the past 20 years that this is the menu where options are stored.  Sure enough selecting Folder Options brings up a dialog box with multiple tabs and if you search through the list of checkboxes, tabs and buttons you’ll DISCOVER a lot of ways to modify how Explorer works. The denizens of Redmond seem to think that discoverability is only meant for the Meriwether Lewis types out there.

Where or where can this  feature be?

image So you’d think with all those options you’d have found the option for turning off that feature that keeps maximizing your windows right? First of all, it might even take you a while to realize this is a feature. I for one, thought I had a defective mouse that kept double-clicking when I went to drag a window. It turns out the answer is so obvious you’re gonna laugh, or not.  Go to the control panels menu. Whoa that got big. There’s now over 50 control panels on a fresh install. That’s why they now hide the feature that lets you see them in a menu. You can instead type “Control Panel” in the area at the bottom of the start menu  and open up the Control Panel application instead. Oops wait don’t do that, although I like to launch apps this way, but for some reason  the control panel view you get from launching it this way is laid out differently and seems harder to use to me. Instead, go back to the Start menu and when you see it in the gray pane on the right, put your mouse over it and right-click and choose open. Ah much better. Now, as homework figure out how to make one view of the control panel application  look like the other one. No really, I dare you, figure it out. While you’re at it, figure out in the first version what File-Properties does and let me know. Then in the second version figure out the same thing, oh wait there is no File-Properties in the second version. WTF? How can the same application have not just two different default views depending upon how they’re launched but also menu bars with different options? I know medical marijuana is legal in CA but what are they smoking in Redmond?

They must be hiding from me

Sorry, wandered off  on a rant.  Pick a view and somehow find the Ease of Access  (you have to love the ironic bastard that named this) control panel as shown below:

image image









I really wish they’d let the programmers at Microsoft go back to putting Easter egg flight simulators inside applications. They now have way too much time on their hands if they managed to create multiple confusing views of something as simple as a control panel viewer.  Now that you thought to look in the control panel whose purpose is to make the computer easier to use for handicapped people, we're getting close. Do you suppose that being usability-design-challenged allows you access to handicap parking on the MS campus? That might explain a lot. Damn it, off on a rant again.

image Click the green Ease of Access link. I know you’re tempted to skip a step and  click the blue Optimize visual display, because you’ve gotten this far and this is a display characteristic we’re trying to change but trust me. Oh yeah, if you’re doing this at night in your bedroom and your spouse is asleep wait until morning because they next dialog is going to start talking to you. Take it from someone who learned the hard way that flying Kindles hurt way more than paperbacks.  One way or the other, you should be seeing something that looks like the image at the left. Scroll down to the Make the mouse easier to use option. No, I’m not kidding. I know this has absolutely NOTHING to do with making the mouse easier to use but then again you didn’t study anti-discoverability did you?


You should see another dialog that looks much like the one above. Scroll down to the section Make it easier to manage windows. Hey wait, I thought we were in the make it easier to use the mouse panel. It’s that anti-discoverability thing again, it’s an art trying to keep things hidden. Now click the Prevent windows from being automatically arranged when moved to the edge of the screen. Just the fact that this checkbox needed such a long name and it’s still inaccurate means they should have thought twice about this “feature”.  Here’s a more accurate name:

Prevent windows from being automatically and annoyingly maximized against your will when moved near the top of the screen, or docked against the sides when moved near the left or right edge of the left-most or right-most monitor.

Notice how nothing in the option talks about the mouse either?  Where’s the commercial with the guy that takes credit for this feature in Windows 7? I need to find him and beat him senseless, oh wait maybe someone already did that, never mind.

About Me

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Tod Gentille (@todgentille) is now a Curriculum Director for Pluralsight. He's been programming professionally since well before you were born and was a software consultant for most of his career. He's also a father, husband, drummer, and windsurfer. He wants to be a guitar player but he just hasn't got the chops for it.