A Brief History of the Status Bar

The status bar.  A ubiquitous piece of the modern user interface, hardly
anyone seems to pay it mind.  That attitude often extends to interaction designers as well.

The status bar, if you are new to the world of computers, is the (usually)
gray strip commonly found at the bottom of application windows.  First
introduced as a
standard OS control as part of the Windows 95 common control library, the status
bar has its roots in character mode programs, in which the bottom row of text
was reserved space to show information about the program, document, or
selection.  Commonly, the status bar in character mode programs would tell
you which keys to press to perform certain actions.  For example, here's a
rather advanced version of the MS-DOS Shell application complete with menus and
its own status bar.

The MS-DOS Shell status bar (Click to view full picture)

Fast forward to today.  Most programs have status bars, but do they need
them?  If you've read
my post
on the value of screen real-estate
, you can guess what my answer is. 
If I were starting design on a brand new piece of software today, I certainly
wouldn't start with the assumption that a status bar was required.  This is
a case where people seem to often confuse function for form.

The most egregious misuse of the status bar is probably the case of "an empty status bar
just so my window gets a resize grippie."  Most resizable windows today
include a little widget in the lower right-hand corner to give people a bigger
grab handle by which to resize the window.  This is probably inspired by
the original Macintosh which not only had a resize handle in the lower
right-hand corner, but only allowed you to resize windows by using the widget. 
(Unlike Windows which allows people to resize windows from any border.)

A program with a status bar and integrated resize widget (the "grippie")

When a designer wants a resize grippie, in many cases the easiest way for the developer to
get one is to throw a status bar into the window.  Set a few bits and,
voila, the resize grippie comes for free.  Unfortunately, this method is
easier than carving out widget space in the window and handling the right
non-client messages to make the resizing work right... hence, we get programs
with an entire wasted line for nothing other than a resize widget.

Things don't get much better once people start using the status bar space,
however.  How should the status bar be used?  No one seems to agree.

In the olden days (pre-Windows 95) the most popular use of the status bar was
to include a clock in the application frame.  Of course, everyone
implemented the clock differently, so some blinked, some showed seconds, some
updated on a timer, some polled every second, some updated the time only when
the window was in the foreground.  I remember lining up a bunch of windows
in the college computer lab and noticing how they all showed different times.

Some designers have made the decision to use the status bar as a kind of help mechanism;
I have several programs running that just say "For Help, press F1" most of the
time.  In fact, in old versions of some Office programs, as you hovered
over menu items, descriptions of them would appear in the status bar.

I have several web pages open in Firefox and the status bar is empty except for the word "Done."  Internet Explorer
shows the same thing but helpfully adds the word "Internet" on the right side. 
I have a Windows Explorer window open and the status bar reads "505 bytes" and
"My Computer."

When we sat down to think about the status bar as part of the Office 12
redesign, the first question we asked was simply: "Do we need a status bar at
all?"  Opera comes to mind as a program which at one point had a design in
which the status bar would appear when there was truly status to impart, and
then disappeared to give you the space back once the page was loaded.  In
the most recent version, they've turned off the status bar altogether and
integrated progress into other parts of the UI--something I think is a very
clean design for a reading experience.

We've put a lot of thought into creating the right status bar experience for
Office.  Tomorrow, I'll describe the details and the thought
process behind the design.

Comments (18)

  1. stewart_whaley says:

    Interesting point about adding the status bar just to get the "grippie". The question is how in DotNet can you get the "grippie" without adding the status bar? And is there not a argument to be made about the look-and-feel. A "grippie" without a status bar! Would it not look weird?

  2. barrkel says:

    Firefox has other uses for the status bar when you have extensions installed. For example, I currently have:

    1) foXpose: a button that turns all open tabs turn into thumbnails in a new tab, so you can select a tab by thumbnail from all the currently open tabs.

    2) ColorZilla, to pick colors out from a page, which uses the status bar to describe the RGB and HTML values, as well as the style of the selected HTML element.

    3) Google Blogger webcomments, which uses Google to discover blog entries linking to the current site.

    4) IE Tab, which hosts IE inside Firefox, for sites that don’t support IE very well, or for Flash sites (which I refuse to install under Firefox because of advertiser misuse).

    5) Greasemonkey.

    6) Last but not least, Adblock.

    Of course, occasionally the popup-blocker notification occurs in the status bar.

    One or more of these could have been put on the toolbar, but putting them all there would have caused a lot of clutter, especially considering that some of these tiny icons animate.

  3. Brad Corbin says:

    I’ve been looking forward to a good discussion of the statusbar.

    The most use I make of the statusbar is to visually preview links before clicking in IE, just to see where I’m going to end up, or whether I’m linking to a document instead of a web page.

    The status bars in Office are mostly useless. In particular the whole

    At 5.4" Ln 24 Col 19 REC TRK EXT OVR

    in MS Word is just a huge waste of space.

    Glad its finally being re-thought. Good point about appliations that use it simply to provide a place for the resizing handle. Ooops, I guess some of the apps I’ve designed do that, too 🙂

  4. Abigail says:

    So which came first: Opera’s statusbarlessness, or Safari’s?

  5. Michael Zuschlag says:

    I’m also intrigued by what you’ve planned for the status bar, which I agree is rarely worth the real estate, and it seems designers often just throw unnecessary or obsolete things on it (e.g., a clock, the state of Caps Lock, row and column number) because they think all applications must have a status bar. In my experience, using it for hints and help is practically worthless because users are almost never looking there (e.g., while cruising the pulldown menu). In general it has lousy proximity and the information is better shown elsewhere. Link URL could be a tool tip. The print status could be beside or integral to Print on the toolbar/ribbon. Track Changes and Macro Record status are already indicated in their associated controls in Word. Page number could be shown at the vertical scrollbar. Put the information next to the relevant control, I say. Windows-style notifications could be use for general messages that aren’t associated with specific control.

  6. Gabe says:

    In old fashioned programs, the grippie went in the corner between the vertical and horizontal scrollbars. Now that scrollbars don’t appear until they’re needed (so they don’t waste space), the grippie doesn’t have a permanent home. Hence, the status bar can give you the grippie.

    In a web browser I rely on the status bar to show me the destination of the link I’m about to click on. I always hate using Safari because it has no status bar, so no way to see the URL.

    Photoshop used to have a status bar with tons of info, including how a tool changes if you hold down various shift keys. The newest version has replaced that with an expanded Info palette. In other words, instead of an inconspicuous 12-16 pixels outside your editing area, it now consumes a huge rectangle of space that covers the photo you are trying to edit!

  7. Step says:

    I’ve been struggling with this in my MS Access applications – I took the time for each field to put in nice help text, but I don’t even notice it myself when filling out forms!! The status bar help messages are simply not a good solution, at least in my case. But you’ve already communicated the essence of the problem better than I could – looking forward to seeing what’s coming in Office 12.

  8. Robert Morris says:

    "I always hate using Safari because it has no status bar, so no way to see the URL."

    You know you can turn it on, right?

  9. ghunt says:

    "So which came first: Opera’s statusbarlessness, or Safari’s?"

    Not sure, but probably Safari. In any case, I like that in Opera, you can choose to leave the default where the status is integrated into the URL bar, or have it pop-up at the bottom only when you’re loading a page.

  10. Helen says:

    The most useless statusbar has got to be Outlook’s: all that space wasted just to tell me "18 items".

  11. Wayne says:

    Good article.

    Generally, as you say, the status bar is a complete waste.

    However, some applications do make good use of it – I like it in Internet Explorer, so I can see where a link is taking me before I click it.

    The status bar in Office has to be one of the worst – it provides no useful information.

  12. Guido D. says:

    Helen: View > uncheck Status Bar

    That simple 🙂

    However, it also tells you the Send and Receive status, which _is_ kind of useful sometimes.

  13. Mike Dunn says:

    Well, if you have a normal rectangular client area (like WordPad) with no status bar, how are you going to "carve out" space from the client area without making it look all whacky?

    BTW I really really like flyby help for menu items, I can’t understand why it was taken out of Office 2000. Why not use the status bar that the apps have to provide some help for all those menus?

  14. PatriotB says:

    I agree with Mike Dunn; flyby help is nice. Sure, it’s not a replacement for full-fledged help, but sometimes you just need a bit more of a description than the menu text itself.

    It’s kind of similar to context help in dialog boxes–which Office has also axed: A quick way to find out a bit more info on a command.

  15. Chris_Pratley says:

    OneNote doesn’t have a status bar because as a new app we had this discussion Jensen describes and nothing came up as we designed the app that truly required it. Ironically, the strongest reason we had in favor of one was to get the grippy. We resisted. Instead we did the work Jensen describes which results in an invisible grippy with the same functionality in the lower right corner. People just use it without missing the visible grippy.

  16. Yuhong Bao says:

    The word "Internet" at the right of the IE’s status bar actually is the name of the zone that the web site you are visiting is in.

    Also because of the IE integration introduced with IE 4’s Windows Desktop Update, it is the same with Explorer windows, except that if you are looking at the local computer, it says that you are in the "My Computer" zone, which can only be customized by IEAK or Group Policy.

Skip to main content