The idea behind Accelerators has always been to reduce the distance between services and the end-user. Ideally, we’d like people to be able to select content, very quickly find the service they want to use, and then preview or execute the output of that service easily.
Because of that, we found it really important to make sure that nothing hinders users from finding the services they’re interested in. Of particular concern was the case of users with many installed Accelerators—trying to pick out a relevant Accelerator from a list of, say, 40 is pretty daunting, even for a seasoned Accelerator veteran. We were afraid users might just give up and do things the old-fashioned way—copy, navigate, and paste.
The user experience is really important to us, so we decided to come up with a way of solving this problem and making Accelerators easier and more useful. The solution we arrived at was the category system.
We haven’t previously explained Accelerator categories, so I thought I’d give a brief amount of background, explain how they work, and show how they can make browsing with Internet Explorer 8 more useful and fun.
Every Accelerator does something with a service. Therefore, there’s a verb out there that describes what the Accelerator does. We realized that if we could get similar Accelerators to use the same verb, we could group them together for the sake of presenting a more organized list of Accelerators to the user. We added this verb as a field in the Accelerator XML manifest, and thereafter started referring to it as the Accelerator’s “category.”
We took the idea step further, though—within a group of services, we thought it was likely that the user would have a preference for one Accelerator over the others. So we came up with the idea of “default” Accelerators that would be shown to the user before the others.
Once we had categories and default Accelerators, we had the necessary pieces for the category system we have today. First, we present a top-level menu that contains the default Accelerators for every category the user has. Since most users will want to use their default Accelerators a majority of the time, this really helps minimize any hunting they have to do to find the right Accelerator.
Then, if the user wants to see all Accelerators, we present an overflow menu that has them grouped together by category. Hopefully this helps in scenarios where users specifically want to use an Accelerator other than the default. For example, a user might have accounts with two email services, and occasionally want to send something with the account linked to the non-default Accelerator. Instead of having to look for that Accelerator alphabetically, he or she can just look for it in the same section as the default email Accelerator.
Here’s what the menus look like for me:
As you can see, the top-level menu gives me access to all my frequently-used Accelerators, while the “All Accelerators” menu gives me access to all of them. The horizontal separators in the second menu delineate different categories.
When we were designing the category feature, we realized that a lot of popular services could be grouped into a few broad categories. Even so, we still wanted to create a system that was extensible and customizable. So what we decided to do was ship Accelerators in four “standard” categories that we hoped would serve the majority of the market’s needs, while still leaving the door open for people to create new categories. These standard categories were:
Of the four categories above, all except “send” are pretty self-explanatory. “Send” is pretty much just a catch-all for Accelerators that transfer data from one place to another, but don’t fit into one of the other categories.
In addition to the standard categories, there are others that IE8 doesn’t ship out-of-box, but are in pretty wide usage. Such categories include:
While not every Accelerator will fit into one of these categories, we think they represent a fairly substantial number of the Accelerator scenarios out there. As a result, we recommend that you use one of the above categories whenever possible.
In addition to helping with menu grouping, it’s our hope that categories are a convenient way for users to understand an Accelerator’s functionality before they install it.
Taking Categories into Your Own Hands
We understood early on that developers would do unanticipated and wonderful things with this feature, like embedding a media player in the preview window. So rather than force people to use one of the standard categories, we chose to make the category system an open one.
At the same time, we wanted to give end-users the power to re-categorize their Accelerators to their liking.
The process is actually pretty simple. If you go to Tools –> Manage Add Ons –> Accelerators, you can select all the Accelerators you’ve installed. In the bottom left, you’ll see a listing of the Accelerator category, and a small link that will enable you to change it:
If you ever find that a different category would suit your needs better, you have the power to make it happen.
You can also set any Accelerator to be the default for its category by pressing the “set as default” button near the bottom right of the screen.
It’s been a lot of fun working on Accelerators, and it’s my hope that you enjoy using Accelerator categories as much as I’ve enjoyed working on them. If you have any feedback, please feel free to leave a comment.
Edit 4/30/09: Typo correction in the Common Categories section. Four standard categories, not five.