Scoble’s rant on UI defaults

Date:December 9, 2003 / year-entry #156
Orig Link:
Comments:    33
Summary:Robert Scoble posted an entry in his Longhorn blog on the subject of what the UI defaults should be. It sure has stirred up a lot of controvery. I may pick at the remarks over the upcoming days, but for now I posted responses to two of the comments he kicked up. We recently did...

Robert Scoble posted an entry in his Longhorn blog on the subject of what the UI defaults should be. It sure has stirred up a lot of controvery. I may pick at the remarks over the upcoming days, but for now I posted responses to two of the comments he kicked up.

We recently did a survey of users of all abilities. Beginners, intermediates, experts: The number one complaint all of them had about the user interface - 30% of all respondents mentioned this, evenly spread across all categories - was "Too many icons on the desktop." So it's not just beginners. Experts also don't like the clutter. (Yes, I was surprised by the results, too.)

Comments (33)
  1. I LIKE the fact that XP has no icons on the desktop.

    Putting icons on the desktop is actually a burden because you have to minimize all your windows. It’s nice to be able to simply click the Start Menu and have access to everything.

    Also, I’ve worked with a lot of PC’s from major OEM’s, and they tend to have a shortcut for everything under the sun on their desktop. I’ve sat down at a brand new PC and seen four columns of icons on the desktop (at 1024×768 no less).

  2. Bjoern Graf says:

    Yes, I dislike icons on the desktop, too. I hardly see my desktop (only at login/logoff time) and minimizing all windows to get something that’s placed on the desktop ain’t fun – ok, the minimizing may be, but the restoring of all the windows is :)

    But I’ve to say that with Panthers Expose icons on the desktop are useable again – yes, I know this is more Windows centric I just needed to mention it (and I’ll emphatize: with the right tools to get to the desktop, icons on it ain’t bad =])

  3. AlisdairM says:

    I love my icons on my desktop!
    Back on Win3.0 I installed the Norton shell purely to get this feature <g>

    I can understand those who don’t want icons there of course, and I don’t want vendors putting their ‘important’ icons there on my behalf. It’s my desktop and I will clutter it up if *I* choose <g>

    One incredibly annoying bug that is still present in Win2K SP4 is that periodically the Shell gets confused and alphasorts all my desktop icons into the top right. It takes far too long to re-categorize >100 icons into easily located groupings over my 2 monitors. On days like that, I sympathize with the clean-deskers <g>

  4. Andy Hopper says:

    One of the reasons I suggested my approach ( was that I never could find any developer documentation for FTSW. It’s not in the Platform SDK, and the only mention in the MSDN Library is about how to use it and which apps it works with – but not how to ensure your app’s settings will be transferred. It may be a great utility, but if it ain’t documented, I can’t use it.


  5. Mat Hall says:

    I have LOADS of icons on my desktop — there’s so much software on my machine that the Start menu needs five columns, so I find it much easier just to stick all the ones I use regularly in one place — but I’ve created a new toolbar that points to the desktop, so even if I have an app open I can get to the icons. Not an ideal solution, but better than nowt…

  6. That Robert Scoble guy seems really clueless with regard to usability. Makes me realize what a great and informative blog this is.

  7. bryan says:

    don’t put an icon on my desktop, if you’re gonna put one there, ask me so I can say no. Allow me to choose where you get put on my start menu. I hate having to go through and change all that stuff later, especially as I generally just let it run a while and then do a big cleaning.

  8. trowe says:

    I personally hate icons on the desktop. I consider myself an expert user and prefer to use the desktop space as a working area. So temporary icons of files I’m working on go there, but no shortcuts.

  9. Michael Moulton says:

    Depends on the system. Under XP at work, I have my common apps in Quick Launch but the documents I work with daily are on my desktop for easy access. Stuff I use less often is filed away in My Documents. The Desktop toolbar also helps access Desktop items, but I’d love something like Expose under XP.

    At home under Linux, my desktop is totally empty, since I’m always accessing files from the command line.

    And at home under OS X, there are only 4 or 5 items on my desktop and I rarely touch them– I usually just use the desktop for downloading files to before I move them elsewhere.

  10. Michael Teper says:

    I made the comment on Scoble’s blog that you responded to recommending the File and Settings Transfer Wizard. In my case, even when I choose "Settings Only", I end up with a 10Mb file (or 12Gb if pick custom mode and remove everything from the Files section, go figure). Even if I *really* strip things down to just what looks like UI settings (no netmeeting, no outlook express, nothing like that), I still end up with a 2Mb file. Thats not what I am looking for!

    I want JUST SETTINGS, so that for example, I can throw the file into my Hotmail account and be able to easily grab it from anywhere!

  11. Mark says:

    My biggest issue with the start menu is that every program creates its own group and half a dozen icons. It gets crowded pretty quickly. The solution is to reorganize it manually into just a few categories, such as Graphics, Internet, etc. Get rid of useless shortcuts to things like readme files and uninstallers. That’s what I do, but most people probably couldn’t be bothered.

    Between quicklaunch and the "frequently used" portion of the start menu, my 11 most-used programs are only 1 or 2 clicks away. And I find that most days, I don’t use more than that.

    I use my desktop to hold things I need to deal with right away — "to-do" items.

    So I seem to fall into the category that survey talks about.

  12. Raymond Chen says:

    "Just settings". What exactly is a setting? Is your spellcheck exceptions list a setting? Is the list of blogs subscribed by SharpReader a setting? Your excel autostart macro file? Your email signature? The results of voice recognition training? Who decides what the boundary is between a setting and a document?

  13. Christoffer: You sound like Don Norman (he wants all things to have only one purpose — like a bottle of water) The most usable system is one that does nothing. :-)

    My post was mostly to get some conversation going about what the default settings SHOULD be in Longhorn. Personally, the Longhorn team should focus on the bell-curve of the user base. I’m definitely a freak in that regard and shouldn’t be listened to.

    But, some of the issues I brought up are important to think about again to make sure we have consistency and to make sure we think about where the settings are, and what settings are on by default.

    As the world moves toward Tablet PCs too with a mixture of input devices, double-clicking in particular should be gotten rid of. It’s very hard to double-click with a pen.

    Also, we need to figure out what to do about resolution and refresh rates on monitors. Leaving the darn things set at 800×600 is NOT acceptable (especially on LCD monitors that only work at one resolution). Are you saying that the experience we have right now is good for users? Now who’s the usability expert? See, that’s what happens when you decide to attack me with an ad hominem attack. You look worse than I do and you didn’t even take on any of my points. Some of which are valid. Some of which are not.

    Raymond: in my ideal world I’d like a settings app that is much lighter weight than the "File and Settings" transfer Wizard. Heck, my blog entry is only a few K. Why does it take 2MB when all I want is to change those settings on a new machine?

    Regarding icons on the desktop. The comments here are ones I totally agree with. I hate it when I get a desktop that’s cluttered (unless I did it) but to ship a desktop with NO icons on it seems really ridiculous.

    I guess we’re watching the "dumbing down" of the computer, which really means removing scenarios so that anyone can use the thing. Personally I want a computer that is more powerful than a Tivo. The Tivo forces me to work the way it wants to work. My PC shouldn’t go in that direction — it should make it easy for me to customize and then make it easy to pass around those customizations.

  14. Eddie Deyo says:

    Speaking of dumbing down, what happened to "My Network Places" in XP. Why do I have to look at Comment(Computer Name) – Comment? Listing the name column with the comment first buys you nothing because I can already make the Comment column come first and sort on it, but it does take away the ability to sort by computer name. A horrible decision, IMHO.

    Also, the Add Hardware wizard now doesn’t let you override the decision it makes on your hardware. Even worse, you can’t cancel out once it’s found hardware. The only button available is Finish. That’s terrible.

    Like Robert said above, they are dumbing down the computer, and I don’t appreciate it one bit.


  15. Raymond Chen says:

    The idea of using the computer description as the primary identifier is that people typed a meaningful computer description like "Family room" or "Dad’s office" during setup, and that’s what they’re most likely to recognize again. People shouldn’t be forced to remember, "Right so A0040481 is the one in the family room, and A0487193 is the one in Dad’s office."

    It’s just another small datapoint that makes people say, "Computers are hard to use." Notice that on the Welcome screen we don’t show you the raw username; we show you the descriptive user name. Raw usernames and raw computernames are ugly.

    That said, I agree that making the computer description the primary identifier was a controversial decision. I myself am not sure whether I like it, but I understand the logic that went behind it.

    There was a placeholder dialog in Windows 95 that has stuck with my all these years. It said, "To demonstrate our superiority, we will now ask you a question you do not know the answer to." Lots of dialogs in the system still carry this subtext.

  16. Raymond Chen says:

    "to ship a desktop with NO icons on it seems really ridiculous" – preinstalled icons received the worst flamage in our surveys. People simply don’t want icons shoved down their throat. Especially the ones that resist deleting! (Like My Computer until recently.)

    If an icon is on the desktop, it should be because the user put it there. Not Microsoft, not the OEM, not some app that thinks it’s really cool.

    We have to fight this even inside the Windows division. Some group will try to sneak an icon onto the desktop during setup and we have to go beat them up^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hhave a nice chat with them to convince them otherwise.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Along those same lines, maybe you can get the IE team to stop it from adding stuff to the favorites menu every time you upgrade/install it.

  18. Eddie Deyo says:

    I agree with the point about the computer’s description being what your average home user wants to see. However, the same thing could be accomplished by putting the Comments column first and sorting on it.

    Even worse, I just noticed that when you sort on the Name column, it still sorts on the computer name, not the descriptive name, which is completely counter-intuitive. I don’t think anyone would expect that when you click the Name column header it would sort by "the ugly name inside the parentheses."

    I wish there were a flag in the registry you could flip to do it the old way.

  19. JamesDay says:

    The OS, of course, won’t reveal any of these names to internet queries, like NetBIOS name service, right? That security and privacy risk is why I use entirely meaningless computer names, even when I’m usually behind a firewall.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Why not do the smart thing here and just add another column in the listview for the fugly name then you can view both of them and sort by either one?

  21. Robert Scoble: I’m sorry. My intention wasn’t to attack you. I was just a bit annoyed after reading your rant, which i thought was ignoring the reasons behind each default setting. I’m used to Raymonds blog, where he’s more likely to explain why something is the way it is, rather than just rant about it.

  22. Centaur says:

    > Raw usernames and raw computernames are ugly.

    So, raw drive letters are ugly too, and that’s why Explorer displays "VolumeLabel (DriveLetter:)"?

    Then, why not declare filenames ugly and display file descriptions from files.bbs, descript.ion, 00index.txt (of course, a registry-customizable list of description files)?
    4NT Program file (4nt.exe)
    Batch file compression utility (batcom32.exe)
    Program used by the KEYSTACK command (keystack.exe)
    Utility for global alias/history lists (shralias.exe)
    Uninstall program (unwise.exe)
    Automated installation log (required for uninstall) (install.log)
    Oh, I see, this is a bad idea after all :) Then again, that computer names are ugly is as bad. Computer names should not be ugly. One should not take naming of one’s computer lightly. In a company I once worked at we had Taurus and Aquarius and Gemini and Orion and all sorts of other constellations. And we called them by names among us, not by descriptions like “the Domino server for the main office”.

  23. Tom says:

    I actually think Windows should manage desktop icons: when any program tries to add them, it should ask the user if they wish to.

    I recently saw a horrible bit of adware which installed 5 different desktop icons to betting websites without ever informing the user. I can’t imagine that anyone would ever want these.

  24. Raymond Chen says:

    "When any program tries to add [an icon to the desktop, Windows] should ask the user if they wish to."

    Now we’re into the realm of security. How can Windows tell that the click of the "Yes" button really came from the user and not from the app just faking mouse clicks? (There are some driver installers which install an unsafe driver, wait for the "Hey, this is an unsafe driver" dialog to appear, and programmatically click the "Install it anyway" button.)

  25. Anonymous says:

    I’m a happy LiteStep user :)

  26. Anonymous says:

    I could have sworn that using the WH_MOUSE_LL system hook works. Then you can make sure input is coming from the mouse (unless they do something excessive like install a system service or some kernel mode stuff but I’m just being anal here).

  27. Raymond Chen says:

    SendInput generates WH_MOUSE_LL activity so you can’t trust that. Besides, even if you could tell real mouse activity via WH_MOUSE_LL, you (1) now have to write an entire input infrastructure based on low-level mouse activity, throwing away all the good work done by the standard button control; and (2) you won’t work with accessibility programs for the mobility impaired. Good luck getting Professor Stephen Hawking to click a mouse.

  28. Mark Hurd says:

    I use the Windows Desktop just like my desk top: stuff gets put there for long and short term use — and some "short-term" stuff is still there months later. Every 6 to 12 months I select all, unselect the "specials" and cut and paste to a folder for later processing… And, yes, both are messy and over full.

    Bell curve, dumbing down, and Centaur’s valid computer name insight: We need a developer/technical Windows theme/build/model or whatever and as well as the existing home and business editions. (This could be the one to start offering some shared source code, e.g. for Explorer, etc.)

  29. AlisdairM says:

    "When any program tries to add [an icon to the desktop, Windows] should ask the user if they wish to."

    IIRC, Microsoft had some legal problems a few years ago over who it would allow to install icons on the desktop on newly shipping PCs. I suspect anything that involves MS denying permission to such things is going to have legal teams crawling all over it (both within MS and without)

  30. Raymond Chen says:

    "(This could be the one to start offering some shared source code, e.g. for Explorer, etc.)"

    It took us over ten years to UNFORK our codebases – Windows 9x is finally gone, it’s all the NT codebase now. And now you propose forking it again?

  31. Anonymous says:

    I wish MS would share the source code to old or retired versions of their software so the community can fix all the issues with them and continue using it. Things like mediaplayer 6.4 and visual studio 6.0’s IDE before they turned to complete crap in the later versions… One can only dream though.

    Windows 2003 .net server tried to be professional but all it did was turn off theming by default. Unfortunately microsoft changed the behavior of the ui instead of leaving it behaving exactly like win2k did.

  32. BTannenbaum says:

    I agreed that the network display is busted. Split the Name field into NodeName and Comment. What we’ve got now only encourages the corporate naming Nazis who want to impose nonsensicle company-wide naming schemes.

    We’re currently fighting an edict that all system names should be based on the employee numbers. Don’t ask me who this is supposed to help, since I certainly don’t know Matt’s (or Pete’s or George’s) employee number, and I don’t want to know!

    And the sorting by name is totally unintuitive. Sort by what’s displayed, not just the nodename.

  33. Raymond Chen says:

    Commenting on this article has been closed.

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