Hidden Windows

25 June 2004


A Blue Perspective: Hidden Windows

Micrsoft aren't as famed for their usability analysis as, say Bruce Tognazzini, but there's one thing that particularly bugs me in their post 98 OSs – whenever I call a new computer home, I automatically switch off "Personalized Menus".

For those unfamiliar with Microsoft's "personalisation" it involves removing menu items which it thinks you don't need, which is usually the ones you don't use very often – I'm not sure of the exact process by which a menu item becomes impersonal. It's particularly infuriating in Microsoft Office XP which doesn't follow the Windows preset and for which I can't find the control switch. Office has its own particularly ruthless culling criteria which removes all menu items you haven't used in the past 10 seconds.

Why do I find this behaviour annoying? Because I can never be certain what's going to be in a menu when it pops down. One of the rules in usability is to let the user know what to expect. After getting into a groove with an interface, no matter how usable it is initially, you become an expert at it, you can perform things by rote. Most of the time you don't even really need to look at the options in a menu: move the mouse 20 pixels from the top of the screen, click, move it down 100 pixels, click, text pasted. But if the menus are constantly in a state of flux you are never sure what to expect. "Paste" might be 100 pixels down now, but if "cut" gets removed from the menu, where is it later?

Then, what happens when you want to use "cut"? You don't use it that often, so it's not hardwired into your movement. You click on "Edit" and look for it. It's not there. You look for it again, just to make certain. (It takes the human brain much longer to determine that something isn't in a list than to determine that something is) Then you remember to click those little down arrows so that you can see the full menu. Quick mental re-organisation while you sort the menu options that were there previously from the new ones. Then, search for "cut". Urgh. I just wasted three seconds.

Why have this feature? All I can think of is that it shortens the menu, giving you a smaller set to search from initially, with Microsoft guessing that one of those will be what you want. Marginally better for the new user, but much worse for the experienced user. Even then, new users can get lost trying to find functionality that's normally fairly easy to find. I mean, "Create new document" gets hidden. If you weren't certain that it was under the "File" menu option you might look under the six others before going back and expanding.

That's just my 2 cents, if you find it handy, just say so.




  1. 1/26

    Simon Jessey commented on 25 June 2004 @ 01:58

    Like you, I absolutely detest Microsoft's personalized menus. I hate them for the same reason that I hate "group similar taskbar buttons" and "hide inactive icons" on Windows XP.

    All of these menus should be totally customizable. I should be able to add, remove, and temporarily hide any of the items as I see fit. Those preferences should be stored in my user settings.

  2. 2/26

    Dave Marks commented on 25 June 2004 @ 02:15

    In Word 2002 > Tools > Customise Tab > Checkbox "Always show full menus"

    I would have though it would be similar in most versions. It always takes me a while to find it cos its under customise as oppossed to options

  3. 3/26

    Rob Mientjes commented on 25 June 2004 @ 03:02

    I hate that stuff! They always get it wrong, so my favourite applications are one click further away.

    Microsoft 'ey? Pffrrrt!

  4. 4/26

    Nate commented on 25 June 2004 @ 03:20

    Dave was right on. Should be the same in Office XP and 2003. Simple way to get there is just right-click the Toolbar, choose "Customize," click on the "Options" tab, and check "always show full menus." Problem solved.

    And, YES, an extremely annoying feature in MS software.

  5. 5/26

    Michel Vuijlsteke commented on 25 June 2004 @ 03:33

    I see your point, but I sort-of-disagree. I think the whole point of removing unused menus is to make it easier for people to build up motor memory. Less items to choose from, easier to find the stuff you need. In practice the menus don't really change that quickly.

    The paste/cut example is perhaps not the best one to give (does anyone use the menu instead of ctrl-V/ctrl-C?), and I think cut/copy/paste never disappear anyway.

    Sorting the menu options that were there previously from the new ones is made easier by Microsoft: the new options are highlighted when the menu "expands".

    When all is said and done, I don't really care either way: I use my keyboard most of the time anyway, so my Office menus tend to be quite short (my File menu in Excel has Open and Save As :).

  6. 6/26

    Sage commented on 25 June 2004 @ 05:16

    *Stops using Microsoft Word v.X for OS X* What were you saying now?

    Sorry, couldn't resist. ;-)

  7. 7/26

    Eric commented on 25 June 2004 @ 05:30

    I actually like the personalized start menu. I have so many programs in there I would rather only have to hunt for the ones I don't use often. In applications, however, I agree that they are more trouble than they are worth. I guess maybe it just has mostly to do with the number of items in the list and the number of options that are always used in a typical session.

    I'm basically in Michel's camp, I use the keyboard as much as possible, only using the mouse for outlying cases.

  8. 8/26

    The Man in Blue commented on 25 June 2004 @ 09:22

    Ahhhh ... blessed full menus in Word. Thanks Dave.

  9. 9/26

    Lachlan Hardy commented on 25 June 2004 @ 10:39

    You can customize your Start menu too... Just right-click on a blank section, then Properties. And if some app makes it into your recently used list that you don't want there, you can just right-click on it and choose Remove from This List

    When I first install an OS I spend a bit of time running around customising all that sort of stuff. Then I just forget about it. I haven't seen short menus on my machine in over a year... But like Michel (#8) says, I do virtually everything by keyboard shortcut (honestly, Start+M and Alt+Tab are the coolest things ever).

    Mind you, that means I'm completely lost when I use someone else's machine! I get all confused

  10. 10/26

    Eric commented on 25 June 2004 @ 12:37

    Even with the Start menu, it bugs the crap out of me. If I saw the entire menu every time I opened it, I would know where stuff was after awhile, even with the list being long. Then I wouldn't ever have to do the hunting I have to do when I expand the list to find infrequently used items.

    I also find it interesting that MS Office icons don't ever disappear from my start menu, even though I never use any of them except for Word. All six are there constantly. Some company has a little bit of an ego, no?

  11. 11/26

    John Niven commented on 25 June 2004 @ 19:04

    I wouldn't mind if it worked - it's not knowing what to expect when you open a menu that I find annoying. On a related note, and following on from Eric's [10] pont, I was uninstalling Firefox and Thunderbird (prior to an upgrade) and noticed that the "Add/Remove Programs" wizard believes that I use Firefox and Thunderbird "rarely" (I use both daily), while certain Microsoft apps were "frequent" - apps I hadn't used in weeks.

  12. 12/26

    Lee commented on 26 June 2004 @ 04:12

    I totally agree with you, it's one of the things I switch off too.

    Even for someone who's familiar with the software they're a pain. It's the features I use rarely, which I'm not entirely sure which menu they come under, that it hides, so I spend ages looking through extended menus.

    Totally pointless.

  13. 13/26

    Magnus Haugsand commented on 27 June 2004 @ 01:18

    Yes, this thing is annoying. I have been looking through all available preferences, but I cannot find how to turn off this feature in the start menu.

    MS Word looks ok again after Dave Marks' useful explanation, but that is a poor consolation.

  14. 14/26

    Cameron Adams commented on 27 June 2004 @ 01:52

    On Windows 2000 it's:

    Start > Settings > Taskbar & Start Menu > Use Personalized Menus

  15. 15/26

    Magnus Haugsand commented on 27 June 2004 @ 03:20

    Okay. Thank you, but I cannot find the same alternative in Win Xp Pro.

    Yes, and another annoying thing with windows, is all the "ballonos" that is displayed here and then.

  16. 16/26

    Jeff Minard commented on 29 June 2004 @ 04:36

    Always hated that personalized menus thing.

    You are right, it does throw users (even experienced ones like myself) - I can't imagine what it does to novices who probably simply become frustrated when their program isn't there even though they just installed yesterday.

    I like having everything show up in "Start > Program Files", and all the applications I do use really often go in the "QuickLaunch" bar where the most common four (firefox, thunderbird, dreamweaver, and filezilla) show up, and a little >> arrow leads to a few more semi-common apps.

  17. 17/26

    Keith Bell commented on 29 June 2004 @ 20:12

    If the personalised Start menu in XP bugs you, you can get rid of it by reverting to the "Classic" menu without personalisation. As usual in Windows, there are different ways to do this, but here's one:

    1. Right-click on the Start button, and choose Properties. The Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box opens.

    2. On the Start Menu tab, choose Classic Start menu, and click the Customize button. The Customize Classic Start Menu dialog box opens.

    3. On the list of Advanced Start menu options, make sure Use Personalized Menus is unchecked.

    4. Click the OK button on this dialog box and again on the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog.

  18. 18/26

    Claus Jacobsen commented on 1 July 2004 @ 01:31

    I agree completely, but to ask you guys another thing. How many of you actually use the "windows" specific keys in the keyboard? Microsoft and the keyboardmakers came up with the idea of adding a couple of annoying keys in the early win95 days, but how many of you have actually used them. I don't know anyone, do you?

  19. 19/26

    The Man in Blue commented on 1 July 2004 @ 04:31

    I have actually used them a couple of times, but only in dire situations i.e. the mouse was unusable.

    I remember they used to annoy the hell out of me when I was playing Doom 2, as pressing them would eject me from the game, leaving me open to all manner of shotgun damage :o]

    It's also why I've held onto my old Honeywell-style board and a DIN to PS/2 adapter.

  20. 20/26

    Lachlan Hardy commented on 1 July 2004 @ 09:38

    I used to be the same, but as I indicated above, I now use Start+M all the time. I use Start+E very nearly as often, and Start+D is pretty handy in certain situations. Stuffed if I know any other combinations, but those three are useful enough to make that key worth while. (Some folks call the Start key the Windows key, but that just strikes me as silly - you name keys for function, not appearance)

    I also use the Context key a fair bit, but that is only on machines which are sick or on one of the servers when the switch hasn't transferred the mouse properly (what I wouldn't give for someone to invent a decent working-100%-of-the-time switch...)

    And as I haven't seriously played a game in about 4 or 5 years, the placement of the keys doesn't bother me at all. Although, the Start key comes in fairly handy in your game freezes and leaves you with no options to escape without a reboot

  21. 21/26

    Eric TF Bat commented on 1 July 2004 @ 21:09

    Ah, you young whippersnappers! Try using the *nix command line a while and you won't be so fussed about usability! Why, just getting it to do anything at all will fill you with such fierce pride, you'll never go back!

    But seriously folks...

    Claus & Lachlan: Windows+Tab is also useful: it lets you cycle through the taskbar buttons the way Alt-Tab cycles through the running programs. There's also something about using keyboard shortcuts to get to the notification area (the often-misnamed "system tray" where the time and volume control and other little icons are displayed), but you'll need to check recent entries in Raymond Chen's blog for the details.

    Lachlan: I have a Belkin KVM switch, with the USB option for my laptop. It cost AUD$350, but it's utterly, utterly wonderful. Not a moment's hassle since I bought it, provided I boot each machine carefully.

  22. 22/26

    Lachlan Hardy commented on 2 July 2004 @ 11:48

    Thanks, Eric. You're right. Start+Tab is very useful - now I just have to sink it into my physical memory... I remembered another last night too - Start+R opens the Run dialog box

    And those Belkin switches look great. I think I might have to con the boss into buying the MATRIX2 16-Port with Dual-Console Control (http://catalog.belkin.com/IWCatProductPage ...
    That'd just be bliss!

  23. 23/26

    Lachlan Hardy commented on 2 July 2004 @ 11:50

    Geez, sorry, Cameron. That stupidly long link is messing with your site. My bad

  24. 24/26

    Claus commented on 3 July 2004 @ 01:28

    Eric and Lachlan > I knew quite a bit of them (there had to be some use of them right :) ) but for a long time I have been a faithful user of the blackbox shell for windows and here you can define any key combination to pretty much any command, and all of a sudden the ALT+TAB solution seems oldfashioned when you can select programs on the particular desktop or between desktops with a few keystrokes. (www.bb4win.org)

    I would love to see a real survey about how many secretarys that actually use all these shortcuts! (they are the ones that need them the most, it might just be good for MS to see why so many people get injuries from using their mice!)

    In excel selecting is actually easy! shift+space selects a row and ctrl+space selects a column (shift+ctrl+space selects the entire spreadsheet!, like ctrl+a) Oh yeah and I have used Alt+I, r quite a bit too! (find out what it is!)

  25. 25/26

    Alexander Micek commented on 7 July 2004 @ 12:29

    Mr. Haugsand,
    For what it's worth, you can stop those balloon tips from showing by using a program called TweakUI.

  26. 26/26

    Tomas commented on 1 September 2004 @ 02:52

    I agree to aproximately 200.45 % because these totally useless "personalized" menues somehow ?*#@ me off since they appeared. Didn't anybody at MS know anything about usabilty, ergonomics or anything similar?

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