What was the nature of the feedback that resulted in the change to the highlighting model for Explorer navigation pane?

Gabe wanted to know the nature of the feedback that resulted in the change to Explorer navigation pane.

Historically, Explorer had a navigation pane that contained a folder tree, and the navigation pane could be toggled on and off. From observations and usability studies, we observed that users in general found this toggling burdensome. People liked the folder tree as a form of browsing, but they didn't like the fact that the folder tree kept changing as they navigated through the system. In other words, they liked the fact that they could change the folder tree by expanding and collapsing nodes, but they wanted to be in control of the expansion. They didn't want the folder tree changing autonomously. The instability of the navigation pane came up repeatedly as a complaint. (A conclusion you can draw from these results is that most users do not use the folder tree to determine their current location; they use the address bar.)

It's the same attitude I have toward a previous version of the GPS-enabled mapping system I had on my laptop. When the GPS is plugged in and working, the map centers on my current location. I can manipulate the map, zooming out for a better overview of the area, scrolling around to see what's nearby, but every three seconds, the mapping software automatically recenters the map on my current position. And then I shake my fist at the computer. (The newer version lets me disable automatic recentering.)

Based on the feedback collected by usability research, the navigation pane in Windows 7 by default does not auto-synchronize the folder tree with your current location. Nodes expand and collapse only under your explicit command. Users who preferred the old model where the folder tree always synchronized with your current position (and who were okay with all the movement and jumping around) could return to the old behavior with a configuration switch.

There was a lot of experimentation regarding where to put the configuration switch. Putting the switch as a top-level command was too in-your-face; setting it as a right-click option was convenient enough. And studies showed that users rarely keep switching back and forth between the two styles. They just set it and forget it.

After Windows 7 was released, a follow-up usability study returned positive results and confirmed the value of the new design.

Note: I am not the one who conducted this research. I'm just reporting on it, since you wanted to know, and I knew whom to ask.

Comments (26)
  1. Really interesting. I wish someone would write a book on applied user interface engineering using Windows (and specifically Windows Explorer) to draw its examples from. In the almost 20 years from the first designs of Chicago's Cabinet Explorer, there must have been a lot of interesting finds, and many of them could be used to extract user patterns. It would be really useful for those of us who design user interfaces but don't have the budget to make formal usability tests.

  2. xpclient says:

    Funny how Microsoft thinks that in this case giving choice is important (I agree too that this should be a user choice) but in other cases they removed features from navigation pane just like a kid randomly hitting the keyboard and deleting data. From XP to Vista, you lost the "Simple Folder View" which allowed 1-click folder expanding/collapsing and from Vista to 7 you lost the horizontal scrollbar in the navigation pane. Plus, Windows 7 has the nasty jumping bug (connect.microsoft.com/…/bug-when-expanding-folders-in-explorer-server-2008-r2-and-windows-7) where its scrolls incorrectly when you expand a folder. MS fixed it for Windows 8 but not for Windows 7 – not worthy of fixing eh? And dozen other annoyances like Alt+Enter doesn't work, Explorer doesn't auto-navigate to the folder when using the keyboard arrow keys (you have to press Enter every time), arrows indicating subfolders disappear when the pointer moves to the right pane of Explorer. Not a single change to the navigation pane suits power users and Windows continues to be dumbed down for the lowest common crowd. Where is the "choice" for removal of all these features?

    Like I always say, the Vista/7 shell feels like it was designed by interns or non-professionals. They fooled around with Explorer during Longhorn and forgot to put back the parts back in place. Fortunately, Classic Shell makes Windows Vista/7 usable again.

    [It's not "funny" that sometimes there is choice and sometimes there isn't. It's called "design." -Raymond]
  3. Rodrigo says:

    Funny thing is that these changes are exactly what makes me miss XP.

    I also use Classic Shell, but it's still "imperfect" in mimmicking the old XP behaviour mostly.

  4. Joshua says:

    Just out of curiosity, has anybody actually succeeded in getting XP's explorer running on 7? It's been done with IE6.

  5. John says:

    @Joshua:  Are you telling me that people willingly run Internet Explorer 6 on Windows 7?  I guess it's better than Internet Explorer 5, but still.  Yikes.

  6. Joshua says:

    @John: The reason given by the first guy to publish instructions was as a second browser to test sites in IE6.

  7. Gabe says:

    I asked that question less than 2 years ago. I wasn't prepared for such a quick response.

    I'll have to say your GPS system was poorly designed. The one in my car automatically tracks the current location. Panning the map causes it to stop tracking until you cancel panning mode. I can't imagine any time when you would actually want to resume tracking automatically after 3 seconds. I can imagine that you might have a timeout for the panning mode (say, 30 minutes), or you might want the map to pan automatically to keep your current position on the screen (if it ever left the screen and came back), though.

  8. jader3rd says:

    This is honestly one of the greatest things I missed in 7 over Vista. I became quite dependent on the expanding trees for my workflow. I know there's the Folder Option in 7 to expand to current folder, but I want it to behave like it did in Vista where it would expand the current folder too. I'm sad Microsoft did this usability study, I would have preferred it left alone.

  9. Wyatt says:

    @John: Or if your business is stuck with a certain piece of very expensive hardware from a company that went out of business whose interface only works on IE6.

  10. MarcBernard says:

    @xpclient: that's not a "nasty jumping bug" it's "design".

  11. Rick C says:

    @Joshua: "The reason given by the first guy to publish instructions was as a second browser to test sites in IE6."

    That's a stupid reason.  If you want IE6 and you're using Win7, then pay the money to be able to run XP Mode, or set up an XP VM in Virtual PC.  Nobody's going to be using IE6 in Win 7 in the real world, so why would you use that as a testing scenario?

  12. Joshua says:

    @Rick C: It turns out it renders exactly the same as IE6 on WinXP, which was the point.

  13. Rick C says:

    @Wyatt: My company uses a couple of pieces of software that are 16-bit, and we don't have ready replacements for them.  We've all moved to Win7 at this point.  Those of us who are on 64-bit Windows have XP Mode.  It's a little inconvenient but it beats trying to graft IE6 onto an OS it was never designed to work with (or trying something even dumber like getting 16-bit app support in 64-bit Windows.)

    Eventually we will find replacements for the problematic software.  You may find something too.  (I guess Chrome, Firefox, IE's compatibility mode, etc., don't work for you or you probably would have used them.)

  14. Rick C says:

    @Joshua:  <i>As far as you know</i>, it renders the same.  Why not do it the right way and use XP Mode?

    For reference, read <a href="weblogs.asp.net/…/408925.aspx">Pounding A Nail: Old Shoe or Glass Bottle?</a>.  (That's weblogs.asp.net/…/408925.aspx, or do a web search for "Pounding A Nail: Old Shoe or Glass Bottle?" if the blog software doesn't like my markup.  Do read it if you haven't.)

  15. Joshua says:

    1: I'm not doing it: somebody else is.

    2: It was originally done for Vista which didn't have XP Mode and only later verified on 7.

  16. Or you're like me and you have so many folders that the tree is just too cluttered, and you ignore it completely.  There's also the problem I had where my explorer windows would hang (i.e. CPU & I/O on the user interface thread) for a very noticeable amount of time every time I would rename, copy, or delete files/folders.  I turned off the folder tree completely, and got a noticeable improvement in performance when performing file/folder operations.  I guess the folder tree does not update/refresh very quickly, and hangs the UI when it does so.  I haven't missed the folder tree, since it wasn't very usable for me anyway.

    To be honest, I never used it much ever since Windows 95 was released…

  17. Oh, the other gripe I had with the new folder tree is the absence of lines.  The only way to tell which folder is under what is by the indentation.  That means to determine the parent of a folder, I have to look for a previously-listed folder at a lesser indentation – which might not even be visible, if the current folder has a lot of siblings at the same level.  The only way to visually track this as I scroll/look around is the whitespace of the indentation, which isn't always easy if there are a lot of folders.

    At least, back in Windows 95, there were dotted lines connecting everything, which was a visual aid in following these relationships.

  18. Simon says:

    The Eclipse IDE has a similar option – several of the different panels (e.g package explorer, version history) have a "link with editor" button that toggles whether those panels should follow what's happening in the editor panel (e.g when opening new files), or whether they should respond only to direct manipulation. And I think that's the right behaviour, since it's an option I regularly turn on and off, depending on circumstances.

  19. I like the new behavior in Windows 7 explorer much more. I used to use folder tree in XP and 2000 sometimes when I needed to look through the folder hierarchy. In other cases I kept folder pane off.

    Then I liked the favorite places introduced in Vista which let me quickly go to a location I use often. But the folder tree was nearly always hidden because breadcrumb in the address bar allows me to change to a sibling folder easily.

    So I think it's an improvement.

    But I have to agree with the dotted lines connecting tree nodes it was easier to find the parent folder rather by the indentation alone.

  20. voo says:

    @Simon I've used eclipse for years now, often (ok, not really but it sounds better than "sometimes") wondered what that strange setting would do and never saw any immediate changes when enabling it, so set it back and ignored it.

  21. Neil says:

    @jader3rd Personally I'm not a fan of auto-expanding the current folder, in particular it gets in the way of finding the target folder to drag-n-drop into.

  22. Ivan K says:

    One thing about the new highlighting model that caught me out when first using Windows 7 was it became possible for me to inadvertently wind up deleting a folder instead of a file.

    I also like the way Explorer used to synchronise things, so I have auto-expand turned on, everything shown, etc. And I'm not a cantakerous hidebound reactionary, but I always go with the classic desktop theme and then try to customise it to look as much like NT4 as I remember. And I turn off most of the performance animation, etc frou-frou.

    So, not sure about how it looks in Aero, but…

    1 Navigate to a folder using the tree.

    2 Select a file in the list (Details view, of course). The folder in the tree becomes 'inactive highlighted', and the file is 'active highlighted.

    3 Re-select the folder in the tree. *Both* the tree folder and file list are 'active highlighted'.

    4 Become distracted from this navigation sequence by yakking to your workmates or whatever and allow the mouse pointer to drift back over to the list without clicking anything.

    5 Go ahead and delete that file you have highlighted, using the shift-delete, ignore dialog box method, of course.

    6 Wonder wtf is happening while Explorer happily obeys your command to delete the entire folder.

  23. Joe says:

    @Marc Bernard

    [that's not a "nasty jumping bug" it's "design".]

    You mean its an error made at design item rather than implementation time?

  24. Joe says:

    [A conclusion you can draw from these results is that most users do not use the folder tree to determine their current location; they use the address bar.]

    Yet the resulting redesign of Explorer makes both the folder tree *and* address bar unusable for determining their current location.

  25. Steve says:

    @xpclient – Did it every occur to you that perhaps the largest community of users for Widnows is the average consumer, not power users?

  26. Kurt says:

    @Steve: I don't agree with xpclient's militant tone, plus of course the fact that Raymond probably had nothing to do with these changes. However, I am one of those average consumers and have been using Windows since Windows 95 was released (ok, maybe slightly above average due to usage over so many years), and I do agree with most of the points xpclient made regarding Explorer's reduced functionality.

    1. 1-click folder expanding/collapsing.

    2. XP and earlier versions' horizontal scrollbar in the navigation pane, or Vista's horizontal auto scrolling (Windows 7 just cuts off the folder name and displays it only in a tooltip, which is *not* acceptable. Also, I have my 2 panes set to specific widths depending on my resolution, with a set number of columns of my choice in Details view, and so don't like to constantly drag the divider to resize the panes.)

    3. Alt+Enter doesn't work (my muscle memory keeps making me press it, and then I wait a tick, realize my "mistake", press Shift+F10 and 'R').

    4. Explorer doesn't auto-navigate to the folder when using the keyboard arrow keys (big keyboard user, this is very irritating indeed).

    5. Arrows indicating subfolders disappear when the pointer moves to the right pane of Explorer.

    6. (Thanks to JamesJohnston) Absence of dotted lines (really want these back).

    7. (Thanks to Ivan K) New Windows 7 highlighting model that makes it possible to inadvertently delete folders instead of files (oh my, I have done this more than once and it feels downright stupid, but of course I *never* did it on earlier versions of Windows! >:( Clearly they got the highlighting wrong in Windows 7.)

    8. Anemic Details pane (PITA more like it), with stupid 15-file limit and no free space or folder size information. I don't care if it slows down my PC! Just give me a functional status bar like Windows 95/98/XP had or at least a way to toggle it, especially if I'm not on a network.

    9. Extremely confusing dialog when file being copied/moved already exists.

    Plus many more that I'm sure I'm forgetting right now, and am sure Microsoft knows about as well, but deems getting rid of them all as some sort of great design improvement (in some cases they seem to have acknowledged their fault and changed it in Windows 8 according to some sites, but who knows what else will have disappeared from it?)

    Sorry, didn't want to repeat these old complaints, but I have to deal with it every day. I am not going back to an old unsupported Windows version and on the whole I really like Windows 7, but I would like Microsoft to improve many other areas in Windows and leave things that work well already alone.

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