UI Design Insights, From The Man Who Helped Create Windows 95's Taskbar And Start Menu

Image: Marcin Wichary / Flickr

We've been fortunate over the last few years to learn more about the processes behind the creation of Windows, in particular the failures of Vista. Now it's time for something positive: a look at the revolutionary user interface design of Windows 95, from the perspective of former Microsoft employee Kent Sullivan.

Sullivan's name probably doesn't ring any bells, but if you're familiar with the Windows taskbar and Start menu, then you know his work. According to a biography on Sullivan, he "led the exploratory user research that produced the taskbar and Start menu" — two components of Windows that remain to this day and had a massive impact on how we interact with the OS.

Before leaving Microsoft, Sullivan penned "The Windows 95 User Interface: A Case Study in Usability Engineering". Unfortunately, the original isn't available on the web any more, but "Josh", an Aussie with a penchant for computing history, managed to save a copy, which he recently republished on his personal website.

It's a great read, particularly the design goals for Windows 95. Remember, Microsoft was coming from Windows 3.11; the lessons learned from the older OS would play a major role in crafting 95's UI:

  • Make Windows easier to learn for people just getting started with computers and Windows.
  • Make Windows easier to use for people who already use computers-both the typical Windows 3.1 user and the advanced, or “power”, Windows 3.1 user.

There's also some amazing revelations, gleaned from user testing:

In Windows 3.1, beginning users took over 9 1/2 minutes, on average, to locate and open a program that was not immediately visible ... All but the most advanced users did not understand how to manage overlapping windows efficiently ... Beginning users were bewildered by the hierarchical file system.

We take a lot of UI conventions for granted now, but Microsoft had its work cut out for it getting 95 right back in the day. The feedback the company got from those early iterations would eventually lead to the creation of the taskbar and Start menu, now permanent fixtures of Microsoft's operating systems.

Designing Windows 95's User Interface [Socket 3]


    So, see what he did, and do the opposite for a good UI.

      Worked well for a billion other people. Maybe it's just you?

        Worked well? Those other people were almost certainly forced to use it at work.

        I remember the ridicule from the UI community when the start menu was unveiled.
        I doubt many have changed their minds in the intervening years.

          Yeah, I remember the ridicule about the start menu as well. Seemed strange to me at the time, as I thought it made a lot of sense in a world based on Win 3.1.

          I always put the negativity down to invested people simply not liking change. Which we saw again when Win 8 brought in the tiled start screen. Which had its flaws, but they weren't unsolvable.

      So have every file on the screen at once with no menus or organisation?

      Let's all go back to using File Manager and Program Manager and see how productive we are.

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