What Your Product Does You Might Not Know About


Empty vodka bottles used for selling petrol, Bali

Tools often serve purposes the designers didn’t necessarily intend — increasing their stickiness for users but in a way not clearly understood by the creator.

Take the System Tray in Windows for example (and in the bar, whatever it’s called, in Macs.) And this array currently sitting in my overburdened laptop:


These icons usually either notify the user if something happens, by changing color, animating itself or popping up some balloon message, or they will be quick launch icons: double click or right click to launch the program, or some function within it. Or they can be both. Or, sometimes neither, sitting there like lame ducks taking up screen real estate. (These ones should, like all lame ducks, be shot.)

Skype-tickBut the thing is that for users these icons actually sometimes do something else, acting as useful sources of more important information. I’ve noticed, for example, a lot of people — including myself — use the Skype icon (left) as the best, most visible way of telling whether their computer is connected.

First off, Skype is better and quicker at establishing a connection than most other connection-based programs with icons in the system tray. Secondly, the icon is a uncomplicated but appealing green, with tick in it — an obvious and intuitive signal to even the most untutored user. (It helps that the Skype icon is a dull gray when there’s no connection — once again, intuitive to most users.) When the Skype button turns green, users know they’re good to go.

Za-tray2Another good example of this is the Zone Alarm icon which alternates between the Zone Alarm logo and a gauge, red on the left and green on the right, to indicate traffic going in and out (see left). Another useful tool to see whether your computer is actually connected, and like the Skype icon, much more visible and obvious than the regular Windows connectivity icon — with the two computer screens flashing blue. I’ve gotten so used to having the Zone Alarm icon tell me what’s going on I have not been able to switch to other firewall programs, or Windows own, because they don’t have the same abundance of visual information to offer.

Za-logo3ZA-iconI’m not convinced that Zone Alarm’s new owners CheckPoint get this: They have dropped the disctinctive yellow and red ZA logo in the system tray for a bland and easily missable Z (left). The ZA icon  was an easy and prominent way to know your firewall was working and they’d be smart to resurrect it.

What does all this mean? Well, Skype have been smart to create a simple icon that not only does things like tell you your online status (available, away) but has also become a tool to help folk know whether they’re online or not — not always clear in this world of WiFi and 3G connectivity. In fact, for many users I’m guessing the green tick is more recognisable a Skype logo than the blue S Skype logo itself.

I don’t know whether Skype knows this, or whether the Zone Alarm guys realise their icon and gauge are much more useful to users as a data transfer measure than Windows’ own. But it’s a lesson to other software developers that the system tray icon could do a whole lot more than it presently does, with a bit of forethought. And if it can’t justify its existence, just sitting there saying, then maybe it shouldn’t be there?

Beyond that, we’d be smart to keep an eye out for how folk use our products, and to build on the opportunities that offers.

A Directory of Monitor Extenders

This week’s WSJ.com Loose Wire column (subscription only, I’m afraid) is on getting more screen for nothing:

People of the future will laugh at us for many reasons, no doubt, but one of the most likely sources of their mirth will be the miserly size of our computer screens. It isn’t that our screens haven’t gotten bigger, both in size and in what we can fit on them (this is the so-called resolution, allowing smaller fonts and images so we can pack more on, so long as our eyesight holds up).

I’ve written about the joys of having two monitors before, and I’m still surprised that very few people do it. Mind you, I was called a dinosaur yesterday by someone who has a 23” screen, so I guess I can’t get too snooty. Anyway, the column mentions a couple of programs you might want to try out:

  • MaxiVista ($30 from www.maxivista.com), which lets you use your network to extend your existing screen onto those of your other computers. It’s like buying a second or third monitor, but without actually having to, because you are using the screens you already have. I
  • Multiplicity ($40 to $70 from www.thinkdesk.net). Multiplicity does something similar to MaxiVista — corralling extra computers on your network — but instead of enslaving them to become one long screen for one computer, it creates a team of computers under one boss. In short, you control all the computers from one keyboard, and one mouse. (Update: The guys at MaxiVista tell me that their product does the same thing, but I haven’t tested this feature. Thanks, Mario)
  • For Mac and Linux users (and Windows users who don’t mind a less friendly interface, or don’t have any money) there’s Synergy, which does more or less what Multiplicity does.
  • And there’s also a Mac-only freeware program called teleport. (Thanks, Julian)

I’m now using Multiplicity to run a separate laptop next to my two-screen rig, which is running iTunes, my Skype stuff, as well as doing some backups, running my Klips among other things. Takes the load of the main rig, and yet I don’t have to move a muscle to run it.


Then there are a few other bits and bobs you could try out to grab extra screen real estate.

  • If you do have two screens use Ultramon to control them. Adds some excellent management features to Windows rather basic support for more than one monitor. The guy who runs Ultramon also has an excellent resource page about multi-screen systems.
  • There are lots of Desktop Managers out there, which basically let you have lots of screens on one. Microsoft’s own version is called the Virtual Desktop Manager and it’s included in the PowerToys for XP. There are lots of others. I know some folk love these set ups but I’ve never gotten too excited about them. Sorry.
  • Another approach is WindowSizer, which gives you more control over how you manage and rearrange your windows. I love the idea but I’ve never quite mastered it. I’m still looking for a program that lets me organise my windows really easily and then remembers the layout until I tell it not to.