Do you prefer single-click or double-click behavior for system tray icons?

Many Windows client applications can iconify themselves to the system tray instead of taking up an entry on your taskbar. I love this feature for apps that I keep around all day, because it means that I always know where to find them — they're in the system tray, stupid! The problem is that there is no consensus on how many mouse clicks it should take to de-iconify such an app from the system tray: the "Microsoft standard" seems to be double-click, while the other applications that I use are now all single-click (Nick Bradbury's excellent FeedDemon was the last to move to single-click). So here's my current situation:

Application Purpose To deiconify
Outlook 2003 Mail client Double-click
MSN Messenger v7.0 beta IM client Double-click
Maxthon v1.1 Web browser Single-click
WinAmp v5 MP3 player Single-click
FeedDemon 1.5b3 Blog browser Single-click

The inevitable result of all this confusion is that I find myself single-clicking the Outlook icon, and then staring stupidly at it for a couple of seconds expecting my mail to appear, or alternatively double-clicking the Maxthon icon, and staring stupidly at it for a couple of seconds as it appears and then iconifies itself again. So, a couple of questions for different audiences:

  • For UI geeks — is there a "standard" written down anywhere for this stuff? Maybe even some nice thick usability studies that I can whack PMs round the head with?

  • For hackers — is there some fabulous little wrapper or registry hack that makes Outlook recognize single-clicks in the system tray (or alternatively, makes everything else recognize double-clicks)?

*Of course, Raymond Chen points out that we're not meant to call it the system tray, but when Google gets almost three orders of magnitude more hits for “system tray” than for “taskbar notification area” I think the battle is lost.

Comments (18)
  1. Jeff says:

    I prefer double click… but perhaps you should use the setting that windows uses for launching folders and apps. Remember that there is a "single click" setting for that.

  2. Rod Trent says:

    I prefer a single click for the SysTray apps. There’s toooo much in my SysTray anyway. And, the apps I designate to go there, I want quick access to.

  3. Uwe Keim says:

    Maybe it should follow the settings of the user for files in Explorer: If he has set "single click" on files, the tray should behave similar on single clicks, whereas if he has set "double click", the tray icons should do, too.

    And probably it would be good to change the mouse cursor (if possible) to a hand if single-click is active.

  4. Raymond Chen says:

    If you activate on single-click then you have focus problems when users double-click:

  5. Gopher says:

    Funny, I was just pondering this exact question (dare I say… while on the toilet) earlier tonight. Personally, I prefer the Outlook/AIM style behavior.

  6. In my opinion, the MS Windows User Experience guideline of icons vs. buttons can be applied to tray-icons. In short, it says that buttons are pushed, which means single click, while icons are "activated" (or "started"), which is depending on system settings (ie. some users set explorer to use single-click, like myself on my tablet-pc).

    So, since the tray contain icons, and not buttons, double-click is the way to go – – if the user has double-click set for starting applications in explorer.

    btw. kudos to the team behind the WUE book. I still hit people with it from time to time =)

  7. Adam Young says:

    I prefer single-click, and absolutely hate the outlook behaviour (Outlook’s tray context menu also contains a lot of "useless" menu items). Personally, I think the OneNote team got this absolutely right – single-click to pop the app, and the default click behaviour of the tray icon is configurable via the "Icon Defaults" item on the tray context menu.

  8. FeedDemon used to require a double-click, but so many people requested making it a single-click that I changed it in the latest version.

  9. Double-click.

    I can just about get my users to understand "Icons, double-click; menus, single-click". Intriducing a third thing that looks like the icon and behaves like the menu would probably be too much for them.

  10. Jeff Atwood says:

    > but when Google gets almost three orders of magnitude more hits for “system tray” than for “taskbar notification area” I think the battle is lost.


  11. I didn’t realize quite what a can of worms I was opening here 🙂 I’ve got sympathy for both the "use whatever setting the user specified" view, and the "everyone and their dog want single-click, even if it is morally wrong, so go with the will of the majority" points of view. But mostly I just want the damn things to all be CONSISTENT. In the meantime, big thanks to Adam Young for that OneNote tip, I had no idea the taskbar icon had options!

    And of course, I still fear anything that conflicts with Raymond Chen’s reality…

  12. My take:

    Single-click: context menu

    Double-click: restore/open

  13. I agree with Richard Tallent.

  14. Tom says:

    I think System Tray Icons should follow your Folder Options setting. I HATE DOUBLE-CLICKING.

    Single-Click is better ergonomics, and faster.

  15. Richard Berg says:

    Agree with the other Richard.  

    Tom: as long as you’re posting the first comment in nearly two years, get yourself a mouse with more than two buttons already.

  16. Mark B. says:

    Double clicking is an RSI inducing ridiculous waste of time that should have been scrapped in the 1990s.

    In my opinion it should NEVER EVER be used as a primary action. Double clicking would be acceptable as a shortcut to a secondary action that can equally be accessed by other means (e.g. by way of  a context menu) but only so long as the user is never compelled to perform such an action.

    Alistair Young says that his users can just about understand single click vs double click. Well, if there was no such thing as double click then there wouldn’t BE any confusion. The interface would be entirely consistent.

    However, this consistency is undermined because even if you set your inteface to single click, you still get idiot developers who hard code double click activation into their programs (totally ignoring user settings). Such contempt and disrespect for the user is surprisingly prevalent. It also makes it more difficult for motor-impaired users to such software.

    If people think that double clicking is so wonderful, then they should all be forced to double click every web link for the rest of their lives.

    The only way to get a consistent interface is to have everything launched using the same method. Single click is the most logical method for that (and the easiest) and people advocating double click are only doing so because it’s what they’re used, not because it’s in any way better than single click.

    I’ve heard doublic click advocates argue that single click makes object selection diffcult. This is a totally bogus assertion. How difficult is it to point to a file? You have to first point to it in order to double click it anyway, so the selection method is already being performed by all double clickers.

    Multiple selection is equally easy with single click. Having your selection set to single-click does not mean that you can’t click on each individual object when performing multiple selections. Everyone has to hold down the control key in order to multiple select (or the shift key for range selection), and once that’s done you have a CHOICE about how to select subsequent objects. You can either hover over them and let them select themselves, or click on each one in turn. The multiple object clicking method is EXACTLY the same method as used when Explorer is set to double click (so people who try to use this as an argument against using single click clearly do not know what they’re talking about).

    The thing that I have noticed with the single click versus the double click argument is that single clickers want the option to set their interface the way they want it (and they advocate user choice) double clickers invariably want to impose their method on everybody (regardless whether people want it or not).

    Some of the posts above are prime examples of this.

  17. SingleClick says:

    The Quick Launch toolbar looks virtually identical to the system tray. MS Have already chosen the standard of single click for the Quick Launch toolbar.

    For consistency, I would certainly appreciate a single click to restore Outlook from the system tray.

    The best option is to have an option where the user can choose their preference.

  18. Kimberly says:

    Everything in an operating system should always obey the user settings for single or double click.

    But as far as I am concerned there is never a good reason or excuse for double clicking.

    A properly designed OS UI should be totally single click throughout.

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