Do people really want to look at multiple windows at once?

  • I'm referring to Jakob Nielsen's alertbox from November 19, 2012. He complains about the lack of windows in Windows 8:

    Lack of Multiple Windows = Memory Overload for Complex Tasks

    One of the worst aspects of Windows 8 for power users is that the product's very name has become a misnomer. "Windows" no longer supports multiple windows on the screen. ... the main UI restricts users to a single window, so the product ought to be renamed "Microsoft Window."

    The single-window strategy works well on tablets and is required on a small phone screen. But with a big monitor and dozens of applications and websites running simultaneously, a high-end PC user definitely benefits from the ability to see multiple windows at the same time. Indeed, the most important web use cases involve collecting, comparing, and choosing among several web pages, and such tasks are much easier with several windows when you have the screen space to see many things at once.

    When users can't view several windows simultaneously, they must keep information from one window in short-term memory while they activate another window.

    I personally disagree with the opinion, that users really want to see multiple windows at once. Of course at the taskbar of my Windows 7 there are many active applications, documents and websites. But I use them all full-screen mode and just switch between them in the taskbar.

    The only case when I drag two half sized windows next to each other is for example if I want to compare two versions the same document or if I want to move files in windows explorer.

    However, to my mind for collecting and choosing information on the web, multiple windows are just confusing. Is there an explanation for Nielsen's statement? Are there any usability studies on the use and potential benefits of multiple windows? When the first windows version was published, it was a great benefit to work with multiple applications at all (multi-tasking). But I doubt, that it is a great benefit to distribute lots of small windows on your screen...

    I'd say it completely depends on the scenario. It's not a simple case of "It's good" or "It's bad"

    Short answer: Yes! I hardly ever maximize windows.

    Also: even with maximized windows you can see multiple windows at once, if you have more than one screen. And for software developers (among others) that is *very* common.

    This is definitely a case where what's best for a power user is inappropriate for a regular user. Some developers use tiling window managers (I myself use ratpoison), but I think we all agree our mothers really, _really_, don't want to use a computer that way.

    So apparently you've never seen people use multiple monitors then...

    +1 I'm up voting and disagreeing with the OP. As a *power-user*, (do I need to add "simultaneous" here?) multiple open windows is the default mode I *always* work on. And I know at least some who do.

    +1 and I agree with the OP. As a software engineer - I focus on one window at a time. (Yes, I'm doing web development too). IMHO many people use 1 "work" screen and 1 e-mail/surf/outlook screen, but not the same time.

    @JohnBaber my stereotypical mother still uses more than one window, however. Just because one of the two extremes in tech skills uses windows doesn't mean that the other extreme doesn't use windows.

    "Tiles are the new windows" You've heard it here before :) (Computer Science reinvents stuff all the time.)

    Tiles make a lot of sense on mobile devices. Not as much sense on big-screen desktop workstations. But it all comes down to context. What are the tasks being performed and who's performing the tasks. The failing (being nitpicky--I do think Win8 has a lot of good things too) of Windows8 on the desktop, IMHO, is the typical Windows problem of trying to be everything for everyone.

    I think Nielsen is a bit overzealous to be honest. He does mention snap view, but *none* of his test users could get it to work? Really? This seems to be then leading the assumption here on this question and answers that since no one could get it to work, that multitasking is dead on Win 8 which is not the case. More difficult? Arguably yes.

    One of my biggest complaints with PC videogames is that they almost universally start in fullscreen mode... which never works perfectly on a multi-monitor setup. And at work it's worse, especially if I am working on a brand new webpage and need to test it in "every browser"... not so easy to do if I can only look at one at a time. Let's just hope they realize how terrible an idea it is to take away functionality by the time they release Windows 9. I mean really, using ANY other windows OS you have the option to do fullscreen whenever you like.

    @GotDibbs Depending on the version of Windows (or a hidden setting I don't know about), "snap view" either creates a sidebar that other windows can't overlap, or simply resizes the window you're "snapping" so that it fills one side and allows other windows to sit behind/in front of it. If either was expected and the other happened, then "can't get it to work" is a valid result.

    @Izkata A valid, but *blanket* result. Detail to that end would be appreciated since he makes it sound like multitasking on Windows 8 isn't possible.

    Those "maximise"/"restore" icons at windows in most OS intend to solve this problem and has been around almost since the birth of GUI. This question would have been impossible some 5-10 years ago with desktop only. Now we never had a more varying set of devices with different screen sizes/resolutions as well as varying use cases.

    Just thought I'd mention there's some interesting discussion going on on Hacker News about this question -

    As a programmer, not having multiple windows open would be crippling. Some tasks _require_ comparisons making a multiwindow environment a prerequisite to doing that activity.

    Try using Word with - say - 6 documents on Windows 7 (or Linux). Spread them across the screen in a resized state. Now you can easily remember which document is what, by their position, even if they are overlapped. Now minimize all of them and try to select a specific one from the popup view on the taskbar. Things become irritating. Now maximize all of them and try to select a specific one with Alt+Tab. It is even more irritating. This is what one window means. Believe me, I'm doing my thesis right now.

    Keep in mind that the Modern UI is designed to run on a device. On Desktop Windows 8, it's still there but I use the normal desktop 99.9% of the time. Across three monitors. Sometimes I'll use the new (and long overdue) so-called smart scaling to have multiple RDP windows on one monitor where I can watch them while running email in the other far monitor while my text editor or whatever else I'm doing is on the main monitor. Windows 8 is just fine. Nobody's forcing you to use the designed-for-devices UI 100% of the time.

    @MarkAllen - The problem, which I believe has been addressed here a couple of times already, is that Microsoft has made Metro the default interface *even for desktop*, and it seems that the only way to *stay* in the standard desktop mode, without having to switch to it at every startup, is to install third party software. This sends a screaming message that Metro is what MS wants you to use.

    @Shauna Not at all. You simply click the large "Desktop" tile and never think about it again. The only time I see the Modern UI is when I want to start program that I don't already have pinned to the task bar, and it's actually quite good for that purpose. I'm sure that Metro IS what we're meant to be using but unless they modify it to use multiple monitors it's not realistic for me at work. I can drag the Modern-UI to a different monitor but cannot start two Modern UI apps and have them on two monitors at the same time, for example.

    Phones have multiple windows! They just occupy the whole screen. Plus there are sometimes overlays, like virtual keyboards, which are window-like objects. On Android for instance, you have multiple running tasks and can switch between in a list, from which you can also kill tasks. Furtheremore, there are pop-ups and dialogs which, when dismissed, go back to the original window. Windows that cannot be resized or positioned are still windows. There is at least one window manager for the X Window system (one named Rat Poison: eliminates the mouse) which full-screens every window.

    For me, its a difference between overlapping windows and tiled windows. When developing, I need my IDE to have multiple tiled panes. When they start overlapping that means my monitor is too small. I need lots of context open at once. I need good tools to switch between contexts. Some contexts need multiple tiled panes.

    @Kaz - And that's exactly why I don't use my phone for my programming work, and only use my phone for writing when the writing doesn't require research.

    People who use multiple windows don't know how to alt-tab correctly. People who don't use multiple windows really hate themselves when they want to drag and drop a file from explorer into gmail.

  • I've always viewed it as a matter of "state" tracking. When I use a computer, I am doing a task, not using a program. This task may be something as simple as check email, and only requires one window open. Or it could be complex, such as design a section of a code project.

    In the more complicated case, the task is independent of any individual program. I need to have multiple programs open, such as a web browser, terminal(s), and editor. While I'm doing that, I offload as much thought off onto the computer as possible, so I can concentrate on the task.

    Thus, the computer needs to keep track of where my windows are and ease the process of using them all at the same time. Transfer of information between programs should be seamless. Switching focus should be seamless. If I am entering a command in the terminal, and need to look up an argument, I would open the docs in my web browser, and leave it up for reference while I'm typing.

    Then, when I have another command to look up, switching over to the "paused" browser and moving around in the docs should not make my terminal disappear. I may need to look back at the history while I'm examining docs.

    This is the use case that is destroyed by a single window OS. Any and all tasks the user does that cannot be done in a single monolithic program, or if they do not have such a program, requires that the user keep "state" information inside their head.

    Of course, I really should define state. State is things such as:

    • current paragraph
    • open tabs
    • calculator results
    • spreadsheet graphs
    • chat history
    • results of find command

    These things all define the current context the user is operating in. They are pieces of the task at hand, and make no sense outside of the task itself. If the computer does not handle these details for you, then the user has to.

    Therefore, everything the user wishes to accomplish requires far greater effort expenditure for an annoyance if they do not have a monolithic program to do everything. The monolithic program is a bad idea for a variety of reasons covered elsewhere, leaving us in the place Joel mentions. That is, the user can't get rid of the small annoyances, becomes frustrated, and leaves.

    @AnnaPrenzel Your welcome. As a developer, my examples skew that way, but note that any business person you talk to has several different programs open at once to fulfill some business task they are working on. And, this leaves aside entirely the concept of task switching, where you leave multiple windows open on one desktop, and switch to another desktop to change tasks. The computer keeps your entire "state" available for you to switch back to, like having part of your desk for one thing, and using another part for something else instead of getting rid of your old item, which isn't finished.

    To add, regarding annoyances and the single window assumption - a lot can be learned from the Linux community's recent issues with the paradigm switching. When Ubuntu first came out with Unity on its desktop version (not the netbook-specific version), it functioned in an "everything maximized" mode. While this isn't quite the same as the iOS-esque "one window at a time, ever" mode that Win8 leans toward, it operates under the same (IMO, flawed) assumption - that people only use one window at a time, because they can only input into one window at a time. ...

    ... That design decision was so rejected by the community that even the very next version reverted back to "windowed" as the default mode for programs (unless changed the last time it was opened). The lesson learned was that you don't need to maximize the world (unless you're using something like TMux, who in the world would want their terminal window maximized on a 1900x1200 screen?), and that while people may only be able to input into one window at a time, they actually *use* more than that.

    @Shauna: Exactly what I was thinking about. I used Ubuntu for many years until it switched to Unity, was appalled and ditched it in favor of Kubuntu.

    FWIW, I have been known to maximize terminal windows on 2560x1440 screens, in the rare case I'm looking at log files with really long lines....

    My setup has a 2560x1440 screen mounted in *portrait* orientation. :D

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