Monday 3 October 2011

Your Task Bar Can Hold More Than 7 Windows Open, but Can Your Brain?

Here is something that never fails to amuse me when watching other users[#] - the number of windows open on their desktop. The task bar is an interesting idea that has somehow managed to stand the test of time. Personally I miss the old 16-bit Windows desktop with all those neat little apps that had animated minimised icons like Coffee Mug, Cigarette, Bit Recycler and Tiny Elvis[+]. Exactly what metaphor is the task bar aiming at? Whatever it is it isn’t working because users are still moaning about the fact that they can’t see which icon is the one they’re looking for. And grouping similar icons is just a band aid that was only needed in the first place to overcome the ridiculous one-window-per-web-page model of everyone’s most hated web browser - IE6.

Here’s the thing though. You do know that you can close those windows, don’t you? You may have heard of The Window Tax, but that was an historical event and anyway it was based on the number of windows you had, not how many times you opened them. Making the task bar bigger or stretching it across multiple desktops still doesn’t make it any easier because the fundamental limitation is in your short term memory, not the size of your desktop or how many monitors you can wire up. A long time ago (but in the same galaxy) I went to university where I was taught that the brain can only store 7 “chunks” of short term information (give or take a couple of extra slots) and so you can open as many windows as you like, but you’ll never remember why you opened them all and that’s why the task bar looks cluttered and confusing.

My wife complains that my short term memory is more limited than that of a goldfish, but that’s not true. It’s just that it gets flushed whenever it encounters shiny things, and unfortunately the world is full of shiny things. Therefore I have a policy of closing windows the moment I believe I don’t need them anymore. This also has the jolly useful side-effect of meaning I don’t fall foul to those niggling reliability problems in applications caused by long-term use and I’ve never had the pleasure of (unintentionally) exhausting the Windows desktop heap.

I know these days everyone’s big on recycling and so shouldn’t I be leaving a few spare Explorer and IE windows around rather than expending fresh carbon on firing up new instances whenever the need arises? I don’t think so because most mainstream applications start up pretty quickly these days[~] and companies like Microsoft spend more effort on improving the warm start-up rather than the cold start-up time. Also by judicious use of favourites, network places, desktop icons, etc. I can navigate to the 80% of places I use most often within a few clicks which probably balances out the time lost “tool tipping” all the task bar icons looking for an existing window that I can reuse...

...Oh, wait, so that’s what the Search window in the Start menu is for - finding things on your task bar!


[#] And by users I mostly mean other developers. And my wife. And kids.

[+] I wonder what Toggle Booleans are up to these days?

[~] The one exception I have recently come across is the “Issue Management System” that my current client uses. This literally takes minutes to start up and is a truly painful tool to use, not least because every issue I’ve tried raising is met with an error message box that fills the screen and contains more SQL than our entire database!

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