Those notification icons, with their clicks, double-clicks, right-clicks… what’s up with that?

(A completely feeble attempt to mimic Michael Kaplan's blog entry titles which carry a much stronger voice.)

Jonathan Hardwick made a short table of inconsistencies in how various programs handle clicks on their notification icons. How are these supposed to work?

The final decision is up to the application, since it is the one that receives the mouse clicks and decides what to do. But what were the intended semantics for clicks on the notification icon?

Left single click: Display a simple interface item targetting the casual user. In most cases, this would be a context menu, but if you are something like the volume control, then a custom interface item (in this case, a slider control for controlling the volume) may be more appropriate.

Right single click: Display a context menu, but one which can contain options for more advanced users. In many cases, the menu will be identical to the left single click menu. (Important: See tomorrow's entry for additional discussion.)

As for double-clicks, you don't need a special rule because there is already a general principle for what double-clicks mean: The double-click action, generally speaking, is equivalent to viewing the context menu and choosing the default action.

For the programs on Jonathan's list, then, the actions should go like this:

  • Left single click: Display a context menu showing applicable quick-access actions, with Open being the boldfaced default menu item.
  • Left double click: Open the application window.

Note that if you go for the left single click, you'll run into a half-second delay because the icon is waiting to determine whether that first click is a standalone single click or whether it is the first half of an upcoming double-click.

Oh, and here's that further discussion on right clicks: The right click and left click distinction was an attempt to provide advanced functionality to advanced users, on the principle that most users don't really use the right mouse button much and will click with the left button by default. This was especially true back when the Windows 95 user interface guidelines were being developed, since the right mouse button was barely used at all in Windows 3.1. It's a new button, may as well use it for something new. In the intervening years, however, things have changed. The right mouse button is much more heavily used by applications, and even novice users are accustomed to right-clicking on things. Consequently, knowledge of the right mouse button no longer carries the mark of the geek that it once did. In fact, there is a nontrivial class of users who are accustomed to right-clicking on icons as their primary means of interacting with them.

The fact that applications which create notification icons historically have done a poor job of distinguishing the left click ("basic function menu") from the right click ("advanced function menu") only makes the distinction even more meaningless. For notification icons, the consequences of this shift in usage patterns and the general confusion in the world of applications that create notification icons is that you are probably best off making your right click menu the same as your left click menu.

Update: Here's a link to the official guidance regarding how users interact with notification icons.

Comments (20)
  1. Rick C says:

    "(Important: See tomorrow’s entry for additional discussion.)"

    I went looking for it, but didn’t see it.

  2. Adam V says:

    What’s worse is that Jonathan refers to the notification area as the "system tray", even though his article was written more than a year after Raymond’s "There’s no such thing as the ‘system tray’" article (

  3. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    A notable example is "safe device removal" icon. Only after long time, it happened to me that you should use left click and wait for the menu, rather than use right click and open that big ugly confusing dialog ("Stop" button? Why Stop?).

  4. Mark says:

    Those notification icons, with their clicks, double-clicks, right-clicks… what’s up with that?


  5. This is known as "diversity".  It is generally considered a feature.

  6. Ken Hagan says:

    "even novice users are accustomed to right-clicking on things"

    I expect they’re just scared. I know I am. I’ve never met an application that did anything more violent than put up a menu when you right clicked, but I’ve encountered plenty that took a single left-click as permission to go and do something. Beter safe than sorry, so I generally right-click when I’m exploring a new area.

  7. Timothy Byrd says:

    I have a friend, who while very intelligent, is at best borderline computer literate. Somehow right-clicking has become dominant in her. When I’m giving her tech support, it’s almost guaranteed that some time during the conversation I’ll say "Unless I specifically say it’s a right-click, I always mean a left-click."

  8. Adam V says:

    Oops. He comments himself about that at the bottom. *remembers to RT(whole)FA next time*

  9. configurator says:

    @Alexandre Grigoriev: That, too, is fixed in Windows 7 – while there’s still a delay for the left-click menu, the right-click menu is the same.

  10. configurator says:

    @Timothy Byrd: I too have a highly intelligent computer illiterate friend. He middle-click everything… Sometimes he even places the mouse over buttons and presses random keyboard buttons trying to get them to work.

    But he’s learning :)

  11. Tim says:

    I’m pleased to hear I got the behaviour of my program’s notification icon correct – cool.

    Now if I can just work out what I need to do to stop that intermittent bug where the notification area doesn’t get redrawn properly when the menu is dismissed, leaving bits of menu on it. :-(

    Quite a few other programs seem to do it, so at least I’m in good company.

  12. Alexandre Grigoriev says:


    Do you have SetForegroundWindow before TrackPopupMenu, and PostMessage after TrackPopupMenu, as in the SDK example?

  13. Miral says:

    I prefer alternative behaviour from notification icons.  Some of them do this, but some don’t:

    Left single click: do nothing

    Left double click: open program window

    Right single click: display menu

    Right double click: do default action on menu (which is usually to open the window)

    Not that people tend to right double click much…

  14. @Alexandre Grigoriev

    I did the same thing for *years*, despite using Windows since 3.1. It had never actually occurred to me to left-click on a notification icon, ever, until late last year. I always double-clicked (to open the program) or right-clicked.

    I don’t know why I did this. I guess it was because they didn’t "look" left-clickable like buttons, or because frequently the right-click menu was similar enough to the left-click menu, unlike in Windows 7 where they get a hover effect when you go over them and the left- vs right-click options are widely different.

    So I used to always go through that insane "Safely Remove Hardware" dialog to stop my USB drive, and curse Microsoft while thinking "Why is stopping a USB drive so insanely difficult?" When someone showed the left-click, my jaw hit the floor. I felt like a moron. I was a stupid user, too!

  15. Miles Archer says:

    Darn, where’s my time machine. I want to read tomorrows entry.

    Pre-emtive snarky comment: This is not nitpicking. It’s a joke.

  16. me says:

    "This was especially true back when the Windows 95 user interface guidelines were being developed, since the right mouse button was barely used at all in Windows 3.1. It’s a new button, may as well use it for something new."

    This was nothing new for people have have used OS/2 2.x before. (Don’t know about 1.x, though). In fact, I was very disappointed that right clicking did not proove as helpfull on Win95 than it was on OS/2.

  17. DysgraphicProgrammer says:

    This is known as "diversity".  It is generally considered a feature.

    In the workplace, in colleges, in genetics, and in many other fields, diversity is a feature.

    In a user interface, Consistency is the feature that you want to strive for.

  18. Tim says:

    Alexandre – yes, I do.  My code even has a comment in it referring to the Q135788 KB article…

    Thanks for asking though :-)

  19. What you want is on the basic menu.

  20. Bulletmagnet says:

    @Rick C

    "(Important: See tomorrow’s entry for additional discussion.)"

    I went looking for it, but didn’t see it.

    Your time machine needs servicing.

Comments are closed.

Skip to main content