Why does a new user get stuff on their Start menu right off the bat?


In the initial designs for the Start menu, the list of most-frequently-used programs on the Start menu would be completely empty the first time you opened it. This was perfectly logical, since you hadn't run any programs at all yet, so nothing was frequently-used because nothing had been used at all! Perfectly logical and completely stupid-looking.

Imagine the disappointment of people who just bought a computer. They unpack it, plug everything in, turn it on, everything looks great. Then they open the Start menu to start using their computer and they get... a blank white space. "Ha-ha! This computer can't do anything! You should have bought a Mac!"

(In usability-speak, this is known as "the cliff": You're setting up a new computer, everything looks like it's going great, and then... you're staring at a blank screen and have no idea what to do next. The learning curve has turned into a precipice.)

The original design attempted to make this initially-blank Start menu less stark by adding text that said, roughly, "Hey, sure, this space is blank right now, but as you run programs, they will show up here, trust me."

Great work there. Now it's not stupid any more. Now it's stupid and ugly.

It took a few months to figure out how to solve this problem, and ultimately we decided upon what you see in Windows XP: For brand new users, we create some "artificial points" so that the initial Start menu has a sampling of fun programs on it. The number of artificial points is carefully chosen so that they are enough points to get the programs onto the Start menu's front page, but not so many points that they overwhelm the "real" points earned by programs users run themselves. (I believe the values were chosen so that a user needs to run a program only twice to get it onto the front page on the first day.)

Note that these "artificial points" are not given if the user was upgraded from Windows 2000. In that case, the points that the Windows 2000 Start menu used for Intellimenus were used to seed the Windows XP point system. In that way, the front page of the Start menu for an upgraded uses already reflects the programs that the user ran most often on Windows 2000.

In the initial release of Windows XP, the "artificial points" were assigned so that the first three of the six slots on the most-frequently-used programs list were chosen by Windows and the last three by the computer manufacturer. If your copy of Windows XP was purchased at retail instead of preinstalled by the computer manufacturer, or if the computer manufacturer declined to take advantage of the three slots offered to it (something that never happened in practice), then Windows took two of the three slots that had been offered to the computer manufacturer, leaving the last slot blank. That way, the very first program you ran showed up on your Start menu immediately.

In Windows XP Service Pack 1, the assignment of the six slots changed slightly. Two of the slots were assigned by Windows, one by the United States Department of Justice, and the last three by the computer manufacturer. (Again, if you bought your copy of Windows XP at retail, then two of the computer manufacturer slots were assigned by Windows and the last was left blank.)

Comments (34)
  1. BradC says:

    Hmmm… Now I’m tempted to do a clean install of XP SP1 to see if I can guess which slot is assigned by the US Dept of Justice…

    Maybe "Install AOL Now!!"   :)

  2. Rob H says:

    Sounds like a very reasonable solution.

    Rejected heuristics include:

    –Choose the first 6 .exe files alphabetically from windowssystem32

    –Search the hard drive for all .exe files and randomly choose 6 of them. "Lucky! You got Minesweeper! All I got was ‘Explorer’!"

    –Use the same 6 programs as were on the build machine. "What’s ‘Visual Studio’ doing on my Start menu, and why doesn’t it work?"

  3. John Topley says:

    "Hmmm… Now I’m tempted to do a clean install of XP SP1 to see if I can guess which slot is assigned by the US Dept of Justice…"

    Isn’t it the enigmatically named Set Program Access and Defaults?

  4. A Tykhyy says:

    Why did DoJ get a slot on Windows Start menu in the first place? What did they want it for, to display help on the Patriot Act?

  5. Joshua says:

    I always wondered how those programs got on the start menu right after a fresh install. It wasn’t a problem, I just thought it was hard-coded (in a way it was – except for the oem ones – I never saw those). It is really interesting to see how it did take care of the artifical pointing too.

    I’ve always wondered how the start menu did its thing – I must say I’ve loved this series of posts. Thanks Raymond!

  6. Morten says:

    The mind boggles. DoJ helping MS with usability stuff. Reality is stranger than fiction. :-D

  7. Guido says:

    …and now, the first thing I do when I install a fresh copy of Windows is right-click one after the other of those pre-installed start menu entries, to remove them :)

  8. romulo says:

    For a moment I thought you had already written that here. Déjà vu: <http://www.microsoft.com/technet/technetmag/issues/2007/06/WindowsConfidential/default.aspx&gt;

  9. Joe P says:

    While having defaults is not a bad idea, I think the reasoning behind it is flawed. If a new user unpacks their PC and is dependent on the Freq. Used Program section of the start menu to use their computer, then having defaults isn’t likely to help them much at all. They are already grossly undertrained on using Windows. If MS felt that the user would be lost, default programs isn’t going to give them a clue. Just pointing out strange reasoning to a fairly acceptable solution.

  10. Leo Petr says:

    Joe, the user can start out using the default programs until they get the courage to spelunk into the greater Start Menu. Because their mouse has to pass over the greater Start Menu on the way to the default programs, they will do it sooner or later.

  11. Sam says:

    So, are you going to tell us what shortcut the Department of Justice got?

    Or did it depend on something?

    I’d really like to know that one…

  12. Luci Sandor says:

    I am intrigued by the Start menu of a computer which was installed from a custom-made Windows XP CD. I can pin items to the top area, but no item makes it to the "point" area. There is space for them (probably because the right side of the Start menu is tall enough), and "Number of Programs on Start menu" is definitely larger than zero and than the pinned part count. Any solution to get the "point area" functionality back?

  13. Jason says:

    So what happens if the 2000 user who is upgrading to XP has Intellimenus turned off?  Does 2000 keep tracking points for it?  Or does XP revert to the retail behavior?

  14. GregM says:

    Romulo, see the first entry in this series:

    (This series is an expansion upon the TechNet column on the same topic. If you’ve read the TechNet article, then a lot of this series will be review.)

    http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2007/06/11/3215739.aspx

  15. Jonathan says:

    This behavior has always looked very natural to me. You just install XP, of course it’s going to show off what it has (movie maker, etc). Also, they took care for these programs to have nice icons, so the default Start menu looks nice.

    And again, for me the Vista instant search thing makes all of this irrelevant. Who cares about the menu, I type what I think and get it!

  16. The USDOJ-placed shortcut that Raymond is referring to is the “Set Program Access and Defaults”, though saying that the slot was “assigned  by the USDOJ” sounds a bit disingenuous to me.

    The “Set Program Access and Defaults” ‘feature’ was added as part of the settlement in the antitrust matter. The icon was originally placed in the “Programs” submenu of the “Start Menu”. In 2003, Microsoft moved it to the location in which it currently resides, and stated that they were doing so out of a “spirit of cooperation”.

    Saying that the DOJ got to choose the positioning of the icon, to me, sounds like nothing more than whining about being found guilty of being an illegal monopoly.

  17. Eric TF Bat says:

    I think <voice persona="Agent Smith">Mr Anderson</voice> is a little harsh there.  I read it as typical Raymond Chen humour, dry as the Gobi Desert with a touch of cheekiness, as if daring the loser contingent to take offence, yet again.

    Mind you, my first thought was that the menu item was for the mind-control rays that the US government is using to control people.  Thank the gods for my tinfoil hat, is all I can say!

  18. Ulric says:

    In my opinion, the entire idea of this start menu start page is wrong, so I’m surprised to see so much written about it.  I’m very scared that people would try to apply this to something else.

    This post infers to me that the people hadn’t thought of the first-start experience, which makes me ask, what, then, did they think about?  It seems they had an implementation idea, then kept patching up to adapt to the needs they discovered afterwards.

    The problem that I have with the interface is that programs show up there, and disappear, and the user is not taugh where these programs are located. It adds confusion to the user interface by showing the same things slightly differently in two places.

    On the Mac, people are acquainted very early on with going in the ‘Application’ folder to find the applications.  IMHO It’s much more valuable to do this, user-interaction wise, than to work out a system that appears to me to be a shortcut for power users, which tries to masquerades as ease-of-use.

    Another thing that Mac people have done is implemented Bundles, which makes applications be one icon instead of a folder of files.  This solution would completely transform the "Program File" folder and the Start menu, which both have too many folders or sub-menus because Bundles are not available.

  19. Merus says:

    But Ulric, people have to run the programs the first time somehow. As mentioned in the post, if you’ve never used XP the start menu panel gets filled up with ‘welcome to Windows’ type programs. So people have to find the programs they want to use in the Start Menu, or on the Desktop, and run it about twice, and then it’ll start showing up.

    Anyway, Macs can hardly talk about user interface issues that seemed like a good idea at the time. Putting a CD in the Trash to eject it is just as confusing as some of the strange things Windows does.

  20. AC says:

    "This post infers to me that the people hadn’t thought of the first-start experience, which makes me ask, what, then, did they think about?"

    Where did you infer that from?

    From the text above, "’It took a few months to figure out how to solve this problem, and ultimately we decided upon what you see in Windows XP: … ‘, I think it shows that they put at the minimum three months of thought into it.

    I think the education with "Where are my programs?" is pretty quick with the annoying highlighted new program bars. The only problem I could guess at is that moving the shortcuts for them around, or completely off of the menu list is too easy, and may be done by mistake.

  21. Sarath says:

    Dear Raymond,

    I’ve one question regarding the items in the start menu, If I pin an item in the start menu, why it’s showing

  22. Sarath says:

    Dear Raymond,

    Seems my comment publish only partially. Remove the first one. I shall re-post it.

    I’ve one question regarding the items in the start menu, If I pin an item in the start menu, why it’s showing the same item which I’ve already pinned to start menu.

    See the screenshot – http://urltea.com/sp6

    It’s showing two links to Safari Browser in the pinned item list and the recent items. Is it really makes any sense?

  23. David Walker says:

    The first thing *I* do after getting a new computer (or helping someone set up a new computer) is ask them if they plan to use me for support.  

    In the case of my parents, I know the answer is yes!

    Then I uninstall the 5 or 6 background tasks that the OEM has installed, and edit the registry to remove the entry from the right-hand column of the start menu (usually near the bottom) that says "get help from the OEM".  

    This entry doesn’t seem to have a documented way of removing it.

  24. richardb says:

    It’s not disingenuous; it’s hilarious.  Don’t let the folks without a funny bone* stop you, Raymond.

    *nitpicker’s corner: funny bones are not real.

  25. Drak says:

    @Sarath:

    Did you pin it from the icon in the mru list? If not, it might simply have a different command to start Safari.

    If you did, maybe it will go away off the MRU list after a while, since it gathers no more points (I don’t think the points are reset if an item is pinned while already on the MRU)

  26. JamesNT says:

    The idea that the USDOJ got to choose any icons on my computer for me at all is repulsive and unacceptable.  I pay serious tax dollars every year and all I have to show for it are highschools that still suck and an icon on my start menu that I didn’t ask for.

    Thanks slashdotters and Uncle Sam, you did me a great service.  Morons.

    JamesNT

  27. Justice says:

    Is "moving an icon" the only punishment for running an illegal monopoly in the us?

  28. JamesNT says:

    @Justice

    Microsoft is NOT an illegal monopoly.  In the end, all but a few of the original anti-trust stipulations actually held.

    Getting away from that, how would you like it if IBM OS/2, Red Hat, Suse, Microsoft Windows, and Macintosh all had equal market share?

    Say good bye to the days when you could write a program once and have it run seamlessly on 90% of the world’s machines.  Say good bye to the fearless work of Raymond Chen on backwards compatiblity that allows your software to run on future versions of Windows without complaint (Linux and Mac are NOT known for back compat).

    Count your blessings.  MS isn’t perfect and even I have the occassional beef with them, but I’m also smart enough to recognize the incredible favor they are doing for us.

    JamesNT

  29. Ulric says:

    @AC

    >This post infers to me that the people

    >hadn’t thought of the first-start

    >experience, which makes me

    >ask, what, then, did they think about?"

    Where did you infer that from?

    From the text above, "’It took a few

    months to figure out how to solve this

    That’s exactly symptomatic of a User Interface solution that’s been decided, and then the developers spend several months researching how to modify it to accommodate the need.

    That quote sounds like the passive-aggressive engineer that refuses to look at other possibilities and let go of his implementation.  For months.

    UI design is about coming up with solution FROM the requirement.  Not spending months trying to find how you can minimally modify your pre-decided solution to accommodate reality.

    @Merus

    But Ulric, people have to run the programs

    the first time somehow. As mentioned in

    the post, if you’ve never used XP the

    start menu pane

    I’m suggesting that the Start menu is not necessary, and it’s evil because it creates a second hierarchy of programs and files.

    It’s really just there because of the Win31 Program Manager.

    On the Mac, there is no equivalent of the Start menu, users are acquainted with the equivalent of the "C:Program Files" folder directly, instead, and the rest of the design goes from there.

  30. JamesW says:

    @Ulric

    ‘On the Mac, there is no equivalent of the Start menu, users are acquainted with the equivalent of the "C:Program Files" folder directly, instead, and the rest of the design goes from there.’

    The Mac does maintain MRU lists for applications and documents in the Apple menu. Also, the dock functions as a program launcher, and is initially populated with a collection of stuff that Apple wrote. I find myself using the dock, or a spotlight search, more often than opening up /Applications.

  31. EU says:

    Why was the icon also moved in the version distributed in EU? In comparation, Windows Mediaplayer wasn’t removed in the US edition when EU banned it from windows.

  32. Ari says:

    @JamesW

    The Dock s really not comparable with the start menu, from a usability standpoint. Yes, it is an application launcher but as Ulric states about UI design, the UI should be designed and then implemented. Not engineered, implemented and then designed as a UI. You always know where to slide the cursor to start something from the dock, not so with the start menu.

    Also, you don´t need to open up /Applications all that often exactly because the UI is designed in such a way that your selected frequently used apps are right at your fingertips in the Dock, and Spotlight search also actually works surprisingly well.

    The point I think Ulric was trying to make is that the Start menu is as complicated as going to /Applications to start an app, yet has little of the functionality. It´s an additional abstraction layer of shortcuts which Apple has shown not to be neccessary, admittedly by bundling each app as an archive with it´s folder structure hidden, but for the user it´s simple.

    Having XP, Ubuntu and MacOS X around the house (and working in sales and doing the odd repairs for Vista) I can state with full confidence that the user experience on the Mac is by far the most enjoyable, mostly due to the UI, I´m torn whether to put Ubuntu or XP in second place, but have no qualms about placing Vista dead last, it´s just too complicated, the simplified parts are terrible IF you have a problem and can´t use wizards, and UI inconsistencies are a nightmare.

    This really isn´t meant as MS bashing, I think XP is in many respects pretty decent, and had hopes for Vista, and still hope it will be usable after SP1 or SP2.

    And for that matter, MacOS X wasn´t very good from the beginning, after 4 MAJOR upgrades it is truly excellent. If MS dares to make as big changes to Vista, it could also be terrific, but then they might need to sacrifice some backwards compatibility.

  33. Ari says:

    @JamesW

    The Dock s really not comparable with the start menu, from a usability standpoint. Yes, it is an application launcher but as Ulric states about UI design, the UI should be designed and then implemented. Not engineered, implemented and then designed as a UI. You always know where to slide the cursor to start something from the dock, not so with the start menu.

    Also, you don´t need to open up /Applications all that often exactly because the UI is designed in such a way that your selected frequently used apps are right at your fingertips in the Dock, and Spotlight search also actually works surprisingly well.

    The point I think Ulric was trying to make is that the Start menu is as complicated as going to /Applications to start an app, yet has little of the functionality. It´s an additional abstraction layer of shortcuts which Apple has shown not to be neccessary, admittedly by bundling each app as an archive with it´s folder structure hidden, but for the user it´s simple.

    Having XP, Ubuntu and MacOS X around the house (and working in sales and doing the odd repairs for Vista) I can state with full confidence that the user experience on the Mac is by far the most enjoyable, mostly due to the UI, I´m torn whether to put Ubuntu or XP in second place, but have no qualms about placing Vista dead last, it´s just too complicated, the simplified parts are terrible IF you have a problem and can´t use wizards, and UI inconsistencies are a nightmare.

    This really isn´t meant as MS bashing, I think XP is in many respects pretty decent, and had hopes for Vista, and still hope it will be usable after SP1 or SP2.

    And for that matter, MacOS X wasn´t very good from the beginning, after 4 MAJOR upgrades it is truly excellent. If MS dares to make as big changes to Vista, it could also be terrific, but then they might need to sacrifice some backwards compatibility.

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