Windows 7 Taskbar Usability

28th October 2011

The Windows 7 taskbar drives me crazy. Surely a feature as important as the taskbar will have been thought through to the nth degree? It is possibly the most fundamental user interface element in Windows as it is the primary control of switching between the programs/windows you are using. (You can alt-tab between programs too, but without the taskbar, windows would be pretty daunting for the average user!).

So how does the taskbar work? From memory, I'd say:

Taskbar: A bar of program icons, which, with a single click, will bring the corresponding program to the front and it will become active.

But is that right?

Actually, there is a slight exception to this rule. If the program you want is already active, clicking on the taskbar hides the program.

Wait. What?

Surely that is the opposite of what it is supposed to do? I click on a program in the taskbar because I want to use it. Never because I want to hide it.

So the taskbar decrees that it is my responsibility to always know what is currently active? But I am lazy and keeping that information in my head is hard. What happens if I look down at my notes, or speak to a colleague or make a drink. When my attention is back on the PC, my first thought might be 'I need a web browser', so without hesitation I click the browser icon in the taskbar and watch in horror as the already active browser window hides itself behind everything else!

I suppose, there's a chance that I am in the minority here. Maybe there are a lot of people out there that are always completely aware of the program that is currently 'active', and they love the fact that clicking the task bar item for the program will hide it. But that would also mean that these people are not only always aware of the program that is active, they also know which program is directly behind the active once. I.e. the item that will become visible when they toggle the active window from view.

Wow, those people are good!

So anyway, at least we have now figured out the way it works. A single click of a taskbar icon makes the corresponding program active, unless it is already active, in such case, the program will be hidden from view.

However, most of the time the programs I use have more than one window open. So what happens when there are multiple windows? The second window might be a new explorer window, I may have several emails open in Outlook or maybe two Word documents. In the Windows taskbar there is only one icon with a 'stack' graphic behind it to indicate that multiple windows are open. So, clicking the icon of a non-active program will bring all the windows of the program to the front and make the latest used window of this program active so that I can get back to what I was doing?


Wrong. Clicking the icon now gives me all of the open windows as options, in the form of small and often very similar looking previews. To get back to my work, I need to pick the window I want to activate, by inspecting the previews and choosing one.

So, this fundamental action that the whole of windows relies upon, changes completely as soon as a second window has been opened. If I want to switch programs quickly, I now need to remember which program is active and the number of windows the program is using.

Choosing the correct window takes concentration. However, if ever you are trying to choose between a few previews, try not to hover over them. Hovering on a preview makes the corresponding window flash to the front of the screen. I.e. it 'appears' as it would if it were active. This is distracting and sometimes confusing, however the feature might be useful if you happen to guess correctly first time. The window you want to interact with will be shown in front of you, but don't make the mistake of moving your mouse toward it! As soon as your mouse stops hovering the preview, the window disappears again. To activate it, you no longer click the taskbar you want or the window you want, you must click the taskbar, then click the preview of the window you want.

Got it?

So at least we now have a definition we can rely on!

Taskbar: A bar of program icons, which may bring the corresponding program to the front with a single click, or may show a series of previews to pick from and require two clicks, or may hide the program you want from view altogether, if it was already active.

Good luck!