Design principles for Windows 7


If you’ve never seen Hillel Cooperman’s presentation “Getting Users to Fall in Love with Your Software” from PDC 2003 for what was then Windows Longhorn, then you’re missing out. Fast forward five years to PDC 2008, Samuel Moreau gave an updated but very similar presentation in motive but today titled “Design principles for Windows 7“.


In summary, Samuel argues people don’t buy Windows for Windows but for the rich variety of software. Therefore it is a shared responsibility between third party developers to ensure the overall experience of Windows is all about making people successful.


The first principle when designing for Windows 7 is to “reduce concepts to increase confidence”. What users shouldn’t do is blame themselves when they don’t feel confident about Windows. The solution is to reduce the number of duplicate “concepts”.


For example in this Windows Vista screenshot, there are 6 Outlook items on the screen. Desktop, start menu, quick launch, taskbar, system tray (twice).


In this Windows 7 example, it has been reduced to just one item. Of course, the desktop and start menu are arguably customized but it is also recommended developers don’t artificially place their icons there.


The second principle is “small things matter, good and bad”. Basically, lots of small things, seen by lots of people a lot of the time builds up. This of course can be either good or bad.


The examples he gave includes this Windows Vista window of a folder of picture. Here, the command (blue) bar draws a lot of attention and the border around photos take up a lot of valuable screen estate.


In Windows 7, more focus are placed on pictures rather than the chrome. To do this, the command bar is lightly colored. Borders are removed but the padding has actually been increased. The result is a fraction more pictures displayed for the same window size.


Samuel also talks about “delights” in the user experience. The example he gives is “color hot-track” in the new superbar. This was such a delight that in their usability study they received this type of feedback.


The third principle is “solve distractions, not discoverability”. Samuel draws a connection between software and kids, always calling for attention and don’t have any manners.


For example, in Windows 7, jump lists are activated by right clicking the icons in the taskbar.


However in early prototypes, they had a split button which activated jump lists. The problem with this alternative is that it displayed too many arrows on the taskbar area. The small hit area was also difficult to target. To switch to the right-click solution, the designers had to overcome their fears and be confident in users being able to discover the functionality.


The fourth principle is “time matters: build for people on the go”. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your application is, but if it’s dog slow, it doesn’t really matter.


In contrast, to change shared printers in Windows Vista took as many as 30 to 40 steps whereas they focused on this scenario in Windows 7 to reduce this to 3 to 5 steps.


The fifth principle is “value the full lifecycle of the experience”.


This principle states the entire experience, not just when using the application but from install to uninstall or upgrade should be looked at.


The last but not least principle is “be great at look and do”.



The example Samuel provides is that when connecting a phone to the computer, it shouldn’t be just another “generic device”. In Windows 7, the product icon shines through the interface to make users proud of their device.

Now let’s hope the developers will listen.

35 insightful thoughts

  1. Definitely an important session. I just wish he’d talked more about why decisions were made in Windows 7 and less on concepts like creating a car company.

  2. Long,

    I’m not sure what you mean where you say the original design would put too many arrows in the taskbar area. It looks like the arrow would only appear when the button is hovered over.

    I don’t mind the right-click solution–it seems easy to me–but I’ve met novice users who have no clue about using the right mouse button so people are going to have to be educated.

  3. @redfish, you’re right, many ppl will recognize that option. But if the Windows 7 Ads presents all these feature right on TV, then it shouldn’t be a problem. I like ads that presents the features of a product and how to use them which I hope MS will do.

  4. Man….I really like the colored command bars of Vista. I think they look great. Sucks that they’re getting rid of them.

  5. RC,

    I don’t mind if they make the command bars silver, but right now it looks kind of cheap looking, in contrast to say, the Google Chrome interface, which is slicker. If they don’t want to take attention away from the content, they should also think about using monochrome icons like in Chrome (or like the white ones Microsoft put in jump lists), instead of getting rid of icons altogether.

  6. Since i perfectly remember all the Longhorn demo videos like it was yesterday. when i saw Windows 7 i thought: Windows 7 is Longhorn finally delivered. it quite amazing that it took 6 years for the hardware and software to evolve enough to make it true. this also shows how insanely out there Longhorn Concept was. i remember telling myself when i saw the longhorn demos: “This is way way way too intense. no way they are live code” . we now know that they werent and they got half way there in the “being” department. then all that work was ditched. Vista was then developed and delivered in 2 and a half years. now it clear it would have needed a extra six months for it bake well. this is of course because of the whole stickergate fiasco, the OEM once again abusing the common installs. companies not delivering drivers on time. software companies not adjusting to the schedules. etc. etc. i think the whole shock vista had was unavoidable considering the time frames they had to deliver. Now it is different because they have learned lots from that and because everything in the road map to windows 7 was started before Vista even shipped. oh yeah. and it has sinofsky commanding it too. quite big differences. Windows 7 may get to be the best Windows Release Ever indeed. since they already used wow for vista how about :

    Windows 7: OMFG, IT DAZZLING!

  7. Wow, looks like some of the Apple design philosophy have rub into Windows 7!
    My only beef now is the lack of extendibility, creativity and internationalisation of the Gadgets, the layout and the facing of the icons (some are DPI aware, some are not) and the support for multi-monitors.

  8. I have to say I like that the new super bar looks to be a place for everything, plug in a phone and it’s now a button.

  9. Here’s a suggestion for the start orb: don’t put it in the taskmenu. Make it look like a button on the desktop that is ‘always on top’, separate from the menu.

  10. Very Nice One Kevin

    Oct 30th, 2008 at 8:13 am
    Another design principle: Don’t take 15 years to do something that can be done in 5.

    Also Windows 7 should be called WindowsMacEdition

  11. Putting the design aside, the actual principles they are discussing and attitude they are taking towards the ‘experience’ as a whole is solid and a great foundation to potentially build a good OS.

    Like @TonyS said above, obviously they have learnt a thing or two from apple – I don’t have a problem with that (& i’m a fan boy), I think it’s important to bring good user experience to everyone.

    Looks like the penny finally dropped for Microsoft.

  12. Hopefully they will continue to improve the UX. As it is now i see some issues with the new Taskbar/Desktop:

    – On a 24″ wide screen display you have enough space to show lets say 50 different(!) program icons. But who has enough money to purchase all of them? 😉 They should broaden the buttons. Maybe they are always using the whole space, even if only 3 programs are open?

    – As I can see it from the videos, it looks like you have to click twice to open a window, if there is a group.

    – while moving the cursor from one taskbar button to a window thumbnail, you have to be aware not to move over another button.

    – and finaly: what will the new “show desktop” button really do? Will it show the desktop with or without the Gadgets on it? In Vista, Win+Space or a click on the Sidebar icon showed the gadgets on the desktop while Win+D or the desktop icon showed the desktop without the gadgets. Imagine that there could be a new program icon BEHIND a gadget!

    But it really looks promising even so early in development! 🙂

  13. I think one design principle that isn’t here is “don’t demo it unless it is live code”. PDC2003 is finally being realized, and it only took what? Five years?

  14. Really really? Small things matter? Then why has MS fucked up Windows Explorer in Vista and shows no signs of changing in Windows sayone?

  15. Kamran – thanks, just venting my frustration at how slowly Microsoft moves.

    Still waiting for a decent answer to OS X’s Spaces and Expose.

    Also, what’s the point of showing the window outlines when peeking at the deskop? It looks like a bunch of random lines that seems to serve no purpose. I think all the windows should slide out of the way and then back to their normal positions when done peeking.

  16. I agree with RC and redfish – The command bars look super dull, and icons have always made usability better. The gradient or bevel or whatever just doesn’t “feel” right.

    I wish they would put the Recycling bin on the Taskbar too (maybe in the Notification area?), and you could just drag and drop stuff in there. Along with a visual cue where the program/file neatly gets crumpled up and fills the bin. Among other neat stuff.

  17. Tip ‘o the day: you can left-click and drag upwards on a taskbar button to bring up the jump-list. Originally developed to make it possible for touch users to get to jump-lists quickly, it works with a mouse and works remarkably well (since dragging up also puts your mouse over the jump-list, ready to click something).

  18. Quikboy — I would guess you can move the recycle bin into the taskbar and get it off your desktop. I moved mine into the quicklaunch toolbar in vista, and it works perfectly.

  19. I think that Micorsoft (and other software house too) still lacks of real innovation.
    There would be a new revolution in OS concept and interfaces like there was when we switched from command line to graphic interface.

    I still see a desktop, a wallpaper, an application menu, some icons, windows…
    How long developers will recycle the same idea?

    A familiar enviroment is more simple to learn, I know, but without real innovations, it’s difficult to persuade people to buy the latest software.

    We know what happened at Vista launch: a lot of people preferred a downgrade, and still are switchig back to XP.

    Sorry for the bad English (I’m Italian).

  20. I tired windows 7 in my pc. I think it’s pretty good. Microsoft learned lot of things from failure of Vista in market.

    If vista is an ornamented prostitute
    windows 7 is a cute virgin.

    an advice to mocrosoft..
    rectify the errors in windows7 without making it more complicated. Good luck

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