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September 26, 2002

Not Your Parents' System Tray

Microsoft Research (via Sam Gentile): "As we work, documents are updated, information on web sites is modified, databases are changed, and the people we depend on come and go... Sideshow is an awareness interface with the goal of helping people stay aware of large amounts of dynamic information without overloading or distracting them."

Well, and so was the Windows 95 notification area (aka system tray).  Having a little bit of the screen where applications could notify users of interesting things was a good idea, but: (a) the tradeoff between compactness and rich information, while reasonable in 1995, has shifted the other way with larger screens and more things going on in the background; and (b) greedy applications have now put so much rubbish in the tray that Windows XP now has to hide it all again.

Sideshow tries to fix these problems by allowing a lot more space for notifications -- so applications can provide information like how many emails are high priority and how many are low, or what the stock price actually is, or which of your IM contacts are online and how active they are, instead of just a 16x16 icon -- and by putting the area under user control rather than letting any old app fill it with "I am running!" messages.  (Would you believe my mouse driver puts an icon in the notification area?  Does anybody seriously believe for one minute I want notifications from my mouse driver?)

It's an exceptionally rich environment: lots of information and options packed into a very thin strip of space.  Richer info than the tray is clearly a key issue: users cite knowing who their mail is from and whether it is marked as high priority.  The personalisation story is strong too: the authors suggest an example whereby an eBay auction could provide a link to "watch this item in Sideshow."  It's easy to imagine that all the background activity that interests the user could flow through Sideshow.

So does the road to Longhorn begin here?  Well, it's cosmetically similar to some of the rumours going around, and instinctively I'd leap from my seat and say "Microsoft can't pass this up;" but actually I'm not so sure.  The Longhorn UI has been trailed as "task-centric" -- in the tradition of XP's task panes and Whistler's aborted Activity Centres -- whereas Sideshow is more data-centric.  (Yes, you know and I know that this is a spurious distinction, but will that be enough to stop Microsoft marketing?)  And Longhorn has to sell into countries with poor connectivity: the UI can provide easy ways for users to access the Internet (the "Print My Photos" kind of link), but it can't demand always-on connectivity.  Even in the wired US, this could be impractical in the laptop market.  And it's certainly not the whole UI: Sideshow is about notification and awareness, not working with specific documents or applications.

Frankly, it's too early to speculate where this research effort might eventually fit into Microsoft's UI strategy.  Who knows what the connectivity landscape will look like in 2005, or whether Microsoft will be trying to sell different "editions" to home, business and mobile users?  In the meantime, the Sideshow project looks like a good resource for anyone designing an "awareness" interface.  The authors' conclusion, that users do value awareness but it must be appropriate to them, is useful and encouraging for anyone designing "dashboard" style interfaces, and the paper is worth reading for the design goals alone.

By the way...

...I particularly liked the article which, describing Sideshow, explained that "the company has developed an application that displays a series of windows with useful information on a user's desktop."  Nice to see someone striking out against the flow of only displaying windows with useless information.

...The prototype version of Sideshow was put together in Visual Basic by an intern.  If it's good enough for Microsoft Research UIs...

September 26, 2002 in Software, Usability | Permalink


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