Why do you have to click the Start button to shut down?

Short answer: The same reason you turn the ignition key to shut off your car.

Long answer: Back in the early days, the taskbar didn’t have a Start button. (In a future history column, you’ll learn that back in the early days, the taskbar wasn’t called the taskbar.)

Instead of the Start button, there were three buttons in the lower left corner. One was the “System” button (icon: the Windows flag), one was the “Find” button (icon: an eyeball), and the third was the “Help” button (icon: a question mark). “Find” and “Help” are self-explanatory. The “System” button gave you this menu:

 Task List…

 Arrange Desktop Icons  
 Arrange Windows 4

 Shutdown Windows

(“Arrange Windows” gave you options like “Cascade”, “Tile Horizontally”, that sort of thing.)

Of course, over time, the “Find” and “Help” buttons eventually joined the “System” button menu and the System button menu itself gradually turned into the Windows 95 Start menu.

But one thing kept getting kicked up by usability tests: People booted up the computer and just sat there, unsure what to do next.

That’s when we decided to label the System button “Start”.

It says, “You dummy. Click here.” And it sent our usability numbers through the roof, because all of a sudden, people knew what to click when they wanted to do something.

So why is “Shut down” on the Start menu?

When we asked people to shut down their computers, they clicked the Start button.

Because, after all, when you want to shut down, you have to start somewhere.

(Besides, if we also had a “Shut down” button next to the Start button, everybody would be demanding that we get rid of it to save valuable screen real estate.)

Comments (22)
  1. Thanks Raymond. This is a great read. Can you next explain why "Delete" doesn’t actually delete my files and why "Delete" is not a valid option in the Recycle Bin (ahem, Trash Can)?

  2. Raymond Chen says:

    <body xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml"&gt;
    In the Before Time, "Delete" meant "Throw away irretrievably".&#160; About three milliseconds
    after the "delete" command was written, somebody wrote an "undelete" program.&#160;
    These "undelete" programs were necessarily kind of dodgy — it’s the computer version
    of picking the eclair out of the garbage can and eating it.
    When multitasking came onto the scene, these "undelete" programs became even more
    useless.&#160; So we made the two-stage delete part of the shell.&#160; If you don’t
    like it you can always turn off two-stage delete (Recycle Bin Properties).
    And maybe my eyes deceive me, but when I right-click an item in the Recycle Bin,&#160;I
    see a Delete option which, if selected, pitches the item out of the Recycle Bin, redering
    it lost to the mists of time.
    (Those who pay close attention will notice that the confirmation UI for two-stage
    delete is different from the confirmation UI for one-stage delete.)

  3. Byron says:

    Makes sense, ever try to Stop a Shutdown before you Start it :), what doesn’t make senes is while the world installs windows in their offices, one company wants us to install office in our windows.

  4. DD says:

    Most everything makes sense. Except for that first analogy. If you use this one – shutting off the car by turning the ignition – then somehow you have to prove that you actually started up Windows by pressing the Start button. Right?

  5. Omer says:

    Not only did you make a big Start button for people to click and told them to start working, you also, as far as I remember from my Windows 95 expeirences, put a big "Click here to start!" logo on the taskbar.
    You left nothing to chance, eh? ;)

  6. Mark Hurd says:

    Omer: That’s still there (as of Win2000), but you don’t see it if any programs show task buttons on start up.

  7. ucblockhead says:

    It’s just one more instance of the idea that "usability" in software is really "easy to use for someone who has never used it before". This is ok as far as it goes, but often it conflicts with what I think is a more robust concept of "usability", that is, "easy to use to use for someone who knows how to use the software".

  8. Sr says:

    I suppose that makes sense as far as going in as far as going as far as you can go goes..
    makes you wonder just what the average person does all day eh?

  9. Jason H says:

    In response to Byron… With NT4 you used to be able to stop a shutdown after you started it. By hitting Ctrl-Alt-Del it would change into a logoff action if it hadn’t progressed too far. With Win2K this feature seems to have gone however :-(

  10. Craig Box says:

    Use "shutdown -a" from a command prompt.

  11. Mike W says:

    I actually think that Recycle Bin is a better analogy than the Trash can. When you think about it, files you delete are "recycled" into empty disk space. Of course, that may not have been what MS had in mind, but it makes sense to me. :)

  12. Mike W says:

    I actually think that Recycle Bin is a better analogy than the Trash can. When you think about it, files you delete are "recycled" into empty disk space. Of course, that may not have been what MS had in mind, but it makes sense to me. :)

  13. Fabuloso says:

    Thank’s Raymond Chen for your blog!
    If it’s ok for you I’m gonna translate it to Norwegian, put it on my website and having a link pointing to this page. Ok?

  14. matthew says:

    thanks. i’m going to translate into pig latin and put a URL to the norweigan version. A lot of my pig friends love to learn new languages.

  15. My wife, who’s probably the only reader of my blog, sent this link to a John Dvorak article. Like many others, I don’t think that a computer license is practical. However, he also bashes Microsoft a few times for having…

  16. Raymond Chen says:

    Commenting on this article has been closed.

  17. A little while ago, Geoffrey K. Pullum sent up to the Language Log a post entitled Shortest published…

  18. Hoy en d&#237;a, veo que existen millones de personas adorando GNU/Linux, algunos s&#243;lo a Linux, otros al software GNU, otros al c&#243;digo abierto, y otros que adoran cualquier cosa menos a Bill Gates (&#191;Qui&#233;n no vio escrito alguna vez

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