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Windows Vista Off Button Usability Issues

Below is my argument that some user interface widgets are introduced only because of buggy software. First let’s have a look at Windows Vista. Joel Spolsky is picking on the 24 people that designed the Off button in Windows Vista: Choices = Headaches.

I’m sure there’s a whole team of UI designers, programmers, and testers who worked very hard on the OFF button in Windows Vista, but seriously, is this the best you could come up with?

Image of the menu in Windows Vista for turning off the computer

Every time you want to leave your computer, you have to choose between nine, count them, nine options: two icons and seven menu items. The two icons, I think, are shortcuts to menu items. I’m guessing the lock icon does the same thing as the lock menu item, but I’m not sure which menu item the on/off icon corresponds to.

On many laptops, there are also four FN+Key combinations to power off, hibernate, sleep, etc. That brings us up to 13 choices, and, oh, yeah, there’s an on-off button, 14, and you can close the lid, 15. A total of fifteen different ways to shut down a laptop that you’re expected to choose from.

Also, Joel references Barry Schwartz’ Paradox of Choice (that I wrote about yesterday), as a great reminder that less choice is more valuable.

Joel shrinks the number of choices down to one option with the following rationale:

The fact that you have to choose between nine different ways of turning off your computer every time just on the start menu, not to mention the choice of hitting the physical on/off button or closing the laptop lid, produces just a little bit of unhappiness every time.

Can anything be done? It must be possible. iPods don’t even have an on/off switch. Here are some ideas.

If you’ve spoken to a non-geek recently, you may have noticed that they have no idea what the difference is between “sleep” and “hibernate.” They could be trivially merged. One option down.

Switch User and Lock can be combined by letting a second user log on when the system is locked. That would probably save a lot of forced-logouts anyway. Another option down.

Once you’ve merged Switch User and Lock, do you really need Log Off? The only thing Log Off gets you is that it exits all running programs. But so does powering off, so if you’re really concerned about exiting all running programs, just power off and on again. One more option gone.

Restart can be eliminated. 95% of the time you need this it’s because of an installation which prompted you to restart, anyway. For the other cases, you can just turn the power off and then turn it on again. Another option goes away. Less choice, less pain.

Of course, you should eliminate the distinction between the icons and the menu. That eliminates two more choices. We are down to:

Sleep/Hibernate
Switch User/Lock
Shut Down

What if we combined Sleep, Hibernate, Switch User and Lock modes? When you go into this mode, the computer flips to the “Switch User” screen. If nobody logs on for about 30 seconds, it sleeps. A few minutes later, it hibernates. In all cases, it’s locked. So now we’ve got two options left:

(1) I am going away from my computer now
(2) I am going away from my computer now, but I’d like the power to be really off

Why do you want the power off? If you’re concerned about power usage, let the power management software worry about that. It’s smarter than you are. If you’re going to open the box and don’t want to get shocked, well, just powering off the system doesn’t really completely make it safe to open the box; you have to unplug it anyway. So, if Windows used RAM that was effectively nonvolatile, by swapping memory out to flash drives during idle time, effectively you would be able to remove power whenever you’re in “away” mode without losing anything. Those new hybrid hard drives can make this super fast.

So now we’ve got exactly one log off button left. Call it “b’bye”. When you click b’bye, the screen is locked and any RAM that hasn’t already been copied out to flash is written. You can log back on, or anyone else can log on and get their own session, or you can unplug the whole computer.

This is where I think Joel should revisit Paradox of Choice. What he gets right here is to reduce the overwhelming number of options, to make it easier to choose from. But reducing it to one option is the same as no choice. According to Barry Schwartz, no choice makes people feel worse. So in theory, the ideal here is to have a recommended choice and just a few options that are easy to distinct from each other.

I’d like to reduce it only to
* lock
* shut down

When you lock you can access other possibilities (leaving your computer on). That would be change user, log out, etc.

When you shut down, you can manually restart your computer. I see no problem in adding that little extra step when you restart that you must manually press the start button. Why? Well, ideally, restart should not be necessary for updating windows, right! Or Internet Explorer, or Word.

I’m guessing here, but the Restart button in Windows probably appeared because of buggy software. It was a frequent task that people used often, hence there was a value in combining the two steps (shut down, then start) into one Restart action.

My next post will discuss the save button. Any comments on other user interface functions that are introduced because of buggy software?

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9 Responses to “Windows Vista Off Button Usability Issues”

  1. Jesper Rønn-Jensen Says:

    Moshe Lettvin’s blog post has more inside details as he was in the team that designed the button and got caught up in bureaucracy. Moshe Lettvin: The Windows Shutdown Crapfest

    So that nets us a conservative estimate of 24 people involved in this feature. Also each team of 8 was separated by 6 layers of management from the leads, so let’s add them in too, giving us 24 + (6 * 3) + 1 (the shared manager) 43 total people with a voice in this feature. Twenty-four of them were connected sorta closely to the code, and of those twenty four there were exactly zero with final say in how the feature worked. Somewhere in those other 17 was somebody who did have final say but who that was I have no idea since when I left the team — after a year — there was still no decision about exactly how this feature would work.

    By the way “feature” is much too strong a word; a better description would be “menu”. Really. By the time I left the team the total code that I’d written for this “feature” was a couple hundred lines, tops.

    But here’s how the design process worked: approximately every 4 weeks, at our weekly meeting, our PM would say, “the shell team disagrees with how this looks/feels/works” and/or “the kernel team has decided to include/not include some functionality which lets us/prevents us from doing this particular thing”. And then in our weekly meeting we’d spent approximately 90 minutes discussing how our feature — er, menu — should look based on this “new” information. Then at our next weekly meeting we’d spend another 90 minutes arguing about the design, then at the next weekly meeting we’d do the same, and at the next weekly meeting we’d agree on something… just in time to get some other missing piece of information from the shell or kernel team, and start the whole process again.

  2. Håkan Reis Says:

    And yet they are actually so close to what you want in this issue. Looking at the buttons I see three of them:

    - the off icon, default set to sleep mode
    - the lock button that just locks the machine.
    - the little arrow that takes you to the 7-item menu.

    So to your solution, just remove the arrow with the submenu and you would get exactly what you want.

    The problem for MS? You would get a multitude of angry bloggers, probably including Joel, that would rant about MS hiding the 7 items; “where are my restart I had from XP?”

    Cheers

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  4. Andreas Reichhardt Says:

    Well Roger,

    thank you for your article. I think you’re right in reminding, that too much choices will be counterproductive.

    On the other hand, the GUI looks quite good for me.
    It offers the three aforementionend options: Shut Down, Lock and “Lets look whats behind that arrow.”

    The first two options are definite, the third looks consciously indefinite.
    I assume that the team was thinking about the Users who are supposed to love Options without waiting for automatic hibernation / shutdown / whatever.
    Maybe this option shall give the (un-)skilled user a comfortable feeling of control ( one of the aims of GUI Design?) ( see also H°akans Post.)

    So, in fact, you’ve got only two choices on a normal day and some more when focussing on special goals.

    Taking this for granted for the moment, two mistakes will be left then: Why do they repeat the Shutdown / Lock? It is unnecessary, therefore disturbing.

  5. Bucfan Says:

    I would like to see an easier way to ‘switch users’. XP made it so easy. Now you have to go through that ridiculous menu or hit “Windows + L” and then click on Switch User. I just wish there was an easier way to do this like it use to be. Maybe they will give an update to give you more options on how to customize things like that. But I doubt it. We will probably have to rely on third part software which sucks.

  6. Foo Says:

    The restart option may be redundant for Windows-only users, but those of us who dual-boot (an increasing segment now that Apple officially supports it) actually rather appreciate not having to go through the extra step of reaching down to the power button to get back into our preferred OS.

    Joel made the same mistake, of course. Sleep mode is no good; I want to shut down Windows fully because I WANT TO USE SOMETHING ELSE.

  7. Alejandro Says:

    I think the awnser would not be removing choice, it would be to allow the desitions to last so you don’t need to do them every time. By this i mean the two buttons should be customizable. i for instance would much rather prefere to have a switch user and a turn of than a lock and sleep buttons, and wouldn’t mind to search for those on the rare ocations that i need them.
    Choice is a good thing. but onces you have made your choice, nobody likes to repeat themselves

  8. Håkan Reis Says:

    The power button is customizable. However its not obvious, there should be an easy way to customize the button but at least it’s an option. The setting can be reach at advanced power options, here is a link that explains how:

    http://winhowto.blogspot.com/2007/03/how-to-change-power-button-in-vista-to.html

    But unfotunately, you won’t get all the slections here :(

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