The program doesn’t have to be run from the Start menu to earn Start menu points


There's a second subtlety to the basic principle that determines which programs show up in the Start menu:

Each time you launch a program, it "earns a point", and the longer you don't launch a program, the more points it loses.

Since programs earn points and not shortcuts, a program can earn points even if you don't use the Start menu to run it.

In usability studies, we often see people who run programs by digging through their Program Files directory until they find an icon that looks promising and then double-click it. If there is a shortcut on the All Programs section of the Start menu that points to the same program, then that shortcut will eventually work its way onto the front page, assuming the user runs the program often enough.

This is why you will see a program appear on the front page of the Start menu even though you never ran it from the Start menu. The program earned points because you ran the program manually, or because you opened a document that is associated with that program. Promoting a program run this way helps users realize that they can run Backgammon from the Start menu instead of having to open My Computer, then click on my C drive, then click on Program Files, then MSN Gaming Zone, then Windows, and then double-click the icon with the strange name bckgzm. I've seen usability sessions where the users did this repeatedly, and they considered it perfectly normal, albeit frustrating. "Computers are so hard to use."

Next time, we'll look at how the pin list influences the list of frequently-used programs.

Comments (29)
  1. TKW says:

    I’ve "suffered" that effect.  I frequently use a command window and have the horrible old habit of launching it Win-r -> cmd -> enter.

    Windows has noticed that I use it a lot, but seeing as I never go through the Start Menu to find it, it pins the Visual Studio command window shortcut, the one with the paths in place, to the start menu despite never having run it more than once.

  2. AC says:

    That’s actually quite a useful way to fill the list, but for me it failed to work as expected sometimes. If you have several links to a program in the start menu with different parameters (like e.g. "Firefox" and "Firefox safemode") it tends to pick the unusual one instead of the common one to put in the list.

    But maybe I’m just out of luck. ;-)

  3. Eric says:

    I’ve had that happen with the Visual Studio CMD Prompt as well. I do find it funny when Windows figures out how to give me the shortcut I DON’T want. :)

    To be fair though, you don’t even notice when it works perfectly fine, its the time it doesn’t that you remember.

  4. Mark Steward says:

    Presumably the code is in ShellExecute, since running from the command line (except for start) doesn’t appear to work.  This would explain why Leo Petr can’t get it to work from Google desktop.

  5. Pierre B. says:

    Even though you won’t reveal exactly how points are earned, I’ve notice that some programs get on the list very fast while others that I use constantly have a hard time getting on the list.

    Word for example is on my list even though I don’t use it very often, yet Vim and diff which I use often don’t show up or take a long time showing up. This increases the conspiracy feeling of undocumented features. (One factor that I think might play is that it’s not just how often but alos how long the program runs. When I use Word, I tend to have one long session.)

  6. In usability studies, we often see people who run programs by digging through their Program Files directory until they find an icon that looks promising and then double-click it.

    That is the normal way of running programs on the Mac.  The user can drag frequently run programs to the dock, but for others you run them from Applications.

    http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=304729

  7. Davy Landman says:

    This increases the conspiracy feeling of undocumented features

    Uhm, you do know this is part of a 20 serie post and it’s post number 3… so how about waiting for the rest of the series before calling it undocumented?

    (alltough one could argue if this blog makes it undocumented.. ;-) )

  8. William C Bonner says:

    If I run a program from the command prompt does it get accounted for?

    If I run a document from the command prompt does the associated program that gets run get accounted for?

  9. Joshua says:

    @Pierre B.

    I wonder if the length the program runs does have something to do with it – it almost makes sense. Thankfully, though, it seems 9 times out of 10 Windows has been able to get the right programs on the start menu that I want, including the Visual Studio Command Prompt!

    I have noticed though, that in Vista, Windows Explorer can sometimes find itself on the side of the menu. I originally thought that it was getting its way up there by using the Computer link (my usual way of opening explorer) but now I’m wondering that another program may be launching it, and giving it points.

    I can’t wait to see how this series ends!

    Thanks Raymond!

  10. romulo says:

    Wow!

    This might explain why the shortcut to DOSBox.conf has been the top one in my Start menu for more than a year now, even though I used it only once: the shortcut reads something like "notepad.exe dosbox.conf".

  11. Daniel says:

    What happens with browser plugins? When Adobe Acrobat Reader (I hate it) gets launched by internet explorer, does it also gain points for the start menu (I think when the embedded Acrobat launches in IE, it loads the Reader as an out-of-process server)?

  12. Niels says:

    Yes, the duration a program runs must definitely has some influence. I have mIRC and foobar2000 almost at top of my list but I only start them once after each boot, but then they also run for days at a time.

    And I’ve also experienced the notepad and cmd "problem", though it hasn’t happened lately. (A quick check with a longer list of programs revealed they just live a bit further down though.)

  13. Puckdropper says:

    Does Windows treat commandline programs (that often need parameters, such as diff) differently than programs that don’t?

    I’m not asking this question yet, I’m writing it down where I’ll remember it.  14 days?  I’m too busy to remember a curiousity question that long!

  14. Angstrom says:

    Comments section – have you (Raymond) considered that your blog entries may be less stressful for you if you replaced comments with trackbacks?  That moves the "apparent" responsibility for the contents of replies away from you, IMO.

    Or you could disable them completely.  To me, 90% of the value of your blog is your posts; the comments are interesting but I wouldn’t miss them if they went away, whereas I would miss this blog.

    (Yes, I know, I’m applying my opinion to your site even though I’m one of thousands of readers and hundreds of commenters.)

  15. John says:

    I don’t know…Raymond is pretty funny when he’s irritated.

  16. dislyxec says:

    Ah, so this is why adobe reader appears in my start menu even though I never want to launch it without either double-clicking a .pdf or internet-browsing to a .pdf.

    Good to know the reason.

  17. meh says:

    Mark Steward: SEE_MASK_FLAG_LOG_USAGE always led me to believe that the code was indeed in ShellExecute. ;)

    Wouldn’t make sense in something like CreateProcess anyway since it’s a shell feature.

  18. James Schend says:

    Daniel,

    What happens with browser plugins? When Adobe

    Acrobat Reader (I hate it) gets launched by

    internet explorer, does it also gain points for

    the start menu (I think when the embedded

    Acrobat launches in IE, it loads the Reader as

    an out-of-process server)?

    I don’t have an answer to the question (although Raymond will probably chime in with ‘save questions for the end of the series’), but I’d like to suggest using FoxIt PDF reader instead of Adobe Reader. It’s much, much better than Adobe’s version of same.

    Remember, PDF is an open format– if Adobe’s reader sucks (and it does), just pick another one.

  19. Archangel says:

    dislyxec: What about deleting the Acrobat shortcut from the Start menu entirely then? That should fix it…

    I will probably totally deserve a smack on the wrist for jumping the gun here, but Visual Studio isn’t even on my most recently used list, despite me running it far more on this machine than anything else. I presume this is because to earn points you have to run the .exe itself, rather than opening a file that happens to be associated with it?

  20. Starfish says:

    I presume this is because to earn points you have to run the .exe itself, rather than opening a file that happens to be associated with it?

    In the post: "The program earned points because you ran the program manually, or because you opened a document that is associated with that program."

  21. mike says:

    … but Visual Studio isn’t even

    on my most recently …

    This is probably because .sln files [how i open my projects] are launched with "VSLauncher.exe", and the start menu program is "devenv.exe". Maybe if you added a shortcut to VSLauncher.exe on your start menu interesting things would happen.

  22. mike says:

    I’m quickly losing my little

    faith in the dynamic start menu.

    You know you don’t need to use it. One of the first things I do on XP is change it to the ‘classic’ start menu.

  23. Archangel says:

    Mike: Thanks, that sounds like a sensible answer. Mr. Cranky is possibly right though; I never actually do want to open VS from the Start menu. But it does feel a little ooky that it’s not in the list…

    Starfish: Yeah, proves Raymond’s theory about people not reading – I did even go back and have a quick check but managed to miss it.

    Not that it would have avoided my asking a question, because then I’d have been asking Raymond why my experience didn’t match his explanation :-)

  24. Mr Cranky says:

    Well, I’d like to just barge in and state for the record that program launches done by double-clicking a target document should obviously* not add start menu points.  

    In fact, there are lots of program types that don’t belong in the start menu.  I’m quickly losing my little faith in the dynamic start menu.  We’ll see how smart Mr. Chen makes it out to be.

    *to me anyway.

  25. AndyB says:

    That’s an very good point – sure, running an app gives it points (and points mean prizes don’t forget :) ) but to give an app points for being run from a document open is actually a bad idea. I never want to run Word, but I do want to view several doc files.. so why does Word show up on my start menu when its an app I never ever use. (yes, I know I am using it, but the concept is that I’m viewing the doc file in Word, not using Word to view a doc file)

    I guess this is also why my notepad icon for dosbox.conf always finds its way onto the menu.

  26. Adam says:

    I only usually open one Excel spreadsheet (though I will open it multiple times a day) and Excel is up to #3 on my list of programs. While I always use the file to open the program, I don’t have a problem with having Excel on the list because I could always start it and use its MRU list to find the file I want. So it’s not like having the program there is an awful thing for me.

    Just my $0.02.

  27. Doug says:

    To all those wondering if way X of launching a program counts towards the program’s points: the information you need is on MSDN. ShellExecuteEx has a flag parameter allowing the executing program to specify if the execution should count towards the user’s frequently used program list or not. Components like the shell itself, common dialog boxes, "start", or "cmd" are likely to set this flag, (but possibly in the case of cmd, only when command extensions are enabled and a document is specified). Since the flag was obviously not present before Windows XP and is a positive flag (i.e. you have to set it for programs to get points), programs released before Windows XP are unlikely to award points.

  28. Joseph Bruno says:

    It’s interesting to see how this process, *as described*, undermines the "document-centric" view of computing.

    I haven’t opened Adobe Reader once this year, nor Microsoft Word. I probably wouldn’t know what to do with them if I did open them.

    I do, on the other hand, open .pdf and .doc files daily.

    If the description that programs can earn points without being explicitly run is true, it is a Bad Thing because if will fill my Start menu with programs I never open.

    Fortunately, the description is probably false.

    Incidentally, the whole point of patents is to make technological innovations public. That is what the word means.

Comments are closed.