At Microsoft’s Mix conference, the company showed off some of its early work on Windows 7, giving attendees a rare look into the birth of an operating system’s user interface. Try to imagine life with some of these aborted attempts at a new operating system: Would you have stood for these features?
One early concept for Windows 7 (dating back to early 2006, even before the official design process started in 2007) put thumbnails of running applications straight into the taskbar. This wasn’t an image, or an animated demonstration – it was real code, running in Windows Vista. Microsoft produced a lot of samples like this, trying out ideas and using real world prototypes with real users. Taskbar thumbnails didn’t make the cut – while they show some information about hidden windows, they don’t show enough, and they take up far too much screen real estate. Failed experiments help just as much as those which succeed, according to Microsoft. The results of this experiment of led to “Bat Signal” and eventually Aero Peek.
When trouble arrived in Gotham, Batman was summoned with a sign written on the clouds using a huge searchlight. That memorable image inspired the Windows 7 team to create a way of illuminating hidden windows by rolling over taskbar icons. A beam of light brought the target window to the front and lit it up, while the rest of the screen faded off into the shadows. Like the taskbar thumbnails, Bat Signal was real code that ran on Vista desktops across Microsoft, helping the user experience team see just how real users worked with a very different way of finding windows. Users liked it, but they found it very intrusive if they put their mouse over the taskbar by accident.
One problem the Windows 7 team tried to solve was how you could look at a window without stealing focus from a running application. They came up with an interesting idea, which they called Aladdin. In the old story, rubbing a magic lamp summoned a genie, who would fulfill your every wish. Microsoft’s Aladdin used a simple mouse gesture to bring a window temporarily to the front. You’d just rub the window with the mouse pointer. Stop rubbing, and the window would return to the back. There were problems with long documents, and you couldn’t use Aladdin on a window that was completely hidden by the rest of the screen. Even so, the rubbing gesture stuck with the team, and it eventually ended up driving a completely different feature – Aero Shake.
Not every concept rendering of Windows 7 had to show every pixel on the screen. Some were outline images that showed just where key user interface elements would be placed. Icons were shown as circles, along with blocks for gadgets and window thumbnails. Greyscale renderings like this are clear and easy to understand – and make it easy to see early versions of key user interface elements, like the number of windows associated with an icon, and the arrow triggers (called “The Nub” by the Windows 7 design team) that launched jump lists. Despite the grayscale view, it’s quite clear what direction the Windows user experience was going in.
Windows 7’s taskbar is one of the biggest changes, and it went through many different iterations before the version that arrived with build 7000 and the public beta. The Windows 7 user experience team came up with different versions of the taskbar buttons, showing different ways of indicating open windows and active windows. Other options the team explored included different versions of the Start orb and the notification area. The color choices used for blending the taskbar with the desktop background also went through many different test views, helping the team make important design decisions.
Devices aren’t normally part of the Windows desktop experience. They’re usually relegated to control panels, or the notification area – if they’re lucky. An early Windows 7 concept brought devices into the taskbar, giving them a cross between a jump list and the device stage. Clicking a jump list icon would reveal a picture of the device, and icons that showed the device state. You could use some of the icons to access device functions – copying pictures to your PC, or synchronizing address books. It’s one lost Windows 7 concept we wouldn’t mind seeing make its way onto our desktops.
If you took a time machine back to the very beginning of the Windows 7 project, you’d see a desktop very much like this one. It’s a long way from the familiar build 7000 look-and-feel, but it’s obviously somewhere on the road way from Vista. The taskbar is already hosting large icons, but it has also disappeared into the background, leaving icons floating on the desktop. The notification area already has discrete white icons, but it’s yet to overflow into Windows 7’s customizable icon corral. Windows 7’s design team has a vision of where Windows is going, but at this stage in Windows 7’s history there was still a lot of work to be done.
If you’re going to succeed with a new project, you’ve got to have principles to guide you on your journey. The Windows 7 design team came up with eight key concepts that they used to guide their every decision. They even printed out a card, which sat on noticeboards and on people’s desks:
With design principles in place, tricky decisions were easier to make (like deciding that the ‘nub’ was a distraction), and designers had a tool to help them think through problems.