Tag Archives: Taskbar

What Your Product Does You Might Not Know About

Vodka

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:

Systray

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.

Widgets And The Active Desktop

Steve Rubel tells of the imminent launch of Konfabulator for Windows, “a wildly popular OS X application that lets you run little apps called Widgets“. From what I can see Widgets are small applications that sit on your desktop and do things like collect data, tell you the time, inform you of new email, that kind of thing. It looks great, but I have some reservations about how this might work on Windows.

I’ve noticed how there seems to be one fundamental difference between Windows and Macs: Maximising Windows. Most folk using Windows seem to use their programs so they take up the full screen — indeed, that is the default for many programs. Mac software doesn’t think like that. The key is when you double click the bar along the top of a window: In Windows that will toggle between maximising the window; on a Mac it will hide the window. (Another example of this is difference is that there is no maximise button on a Mac window, while there is on Windows.)

Why is this important? Well, assuming I’m right on this (I’m no Mac expert, and I certainly don’t know the history behind maximising windows on Macs), the desktop (your screen, basically) is a more valuable place for Mac users. It’s unlikely a Mac desktop will be smothered by open programs, because of this lack of maximising. For Windows users, it’s much less likely this is true. For most users, having one or more programs open will usually mean their desktop is hidden from view. The only way to alter that is to reduce the size of open programs, minimize them, or to right click on the Windows taskbar and choose ‘Show Desktop’.

This is why the System Tray — the thing at the right-bottom corner of the screen — is so important in Windows. It serves as a place to collect stuff and to offer at least some information to the user. I’m not going to get into which is the better design here, but to me this is one clear reason why Microsoft’s Active Desktop — the closest forebear to Konfabulation’s Widgets, I’d suggest — never took off. Active Desktop offered a screen alive with information and little widgets keeping you informed of, er, the time, new email arriving and other data. But it never really worked. After all, what’s the point of an active desktop if you can’t see it?

I wish Konfabulation luck, and perhaps they’ve got a way around this problem. I can imagine that if you allow the widgets to sit above existing windows, this argument might be moot. But, once again, I don’t believe many Windows users enjoy having stuff overlapping or sitting atop active windows, which may explain why great products like Klips have only a limited audience. Probably, in the end, it comes down to Microsoft figuring out that as screen sizes grow, the old default maximising approach no longer makes sense.

A New Search Toolbar — from Copernic


This from the folks at Copernic, who produced a wonderful search engine called, er, Copernic, that has, perhaps, been overtaken by Google: introducing Copernic Meta, “completely new search software that can search multiple search engines in under a second directly from the Windows desktop bar or an IE browser”.

The file is a tad over a megabyte, and installs both into Internet Explorer and your taskbar (the bit at the bottom of the Windows 98/XP screen). Type a phrase in there and it will search nearly every search engine, and throw up a melange of results familiar to anyone who’s used Copernic the program. It’s elegant, configurable — and free.

Mail: More On Searching

 First off, apologies for the silence the past couple of days: I was downed by ‘flu. Anyway, here’s some mail from a reader and fellow blogger, David Brake, Internet consultant & journalist, who runs http://davidbrake.org/ and http://blog.org/ on the subject of Searching.
I just tried out x1 and while like you I like the idea of a free local file search tool (remember Altavista used to do one?) the lack of Acrobat support in its basic version is a serious weakness, IMHO. In your discussion of various local search tools I think you under-state the importance of the fact that x1 is the only free version out there so far. This surely is a market Google should get into!
 
Since you are clearly interested in search might I suggest you write about “Dave’s Quick Search Taskbar Toolbar Deskbar” 
which gives the functionality of the Google toolbar but lots more besides – a single search interface into dozens of translation, conversion and other utility websites. I also recommend Powermarks – for fast, easy to use and portable bookmark management – I now have > 5,000 bookmarks indexed and it still responds quickly.
 
Lastly (obplug) I have just finished a book for Dorling Kindersley – Managing E-mail – which was designed to be a simple non-technical guide, inexpensive enough to give to everyone in an organization ($7), that would nonetheless introduce workers at all levels to many of the key techniques they can use to manage email more effectively and the key security and legal issues they may face. There is also a companion website I have just created which I hope you will take a look at and (if you are so moved) comment on. Ditto my weblog.
Thanks, David. I understand from the folks at X1 that Acrobat support is in their next version. You’re right, the free element is important, but I’ve found I’d rather pay for something as important as searching your hard-drive. Enfish went with free for a while, and it just made me nervous.
 

Software: Lots of Desktops

From the Hasn’t This Sort of Thing Been Around a While? Dept, please welcome ManageDesk. This program manages multiple virtual desktops from the Windows taskbar with ManageDesk. You can choose a different background for each desktop and run different applications on different desktops. ManageDesk has simple drag & drop interface that allows windows to easily be moved from one virtual desktop to another.

I’m pretty sure this kind of thing is not new, but maybe ManageDesk (not a name that slips off the tongue, guys) does it better. It could be useful if you usually have many windows open at a time, or are a messy eater, or something. Hell, I may try it.