Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Designing Windows 95’s User Interface

Josh (via Joe Groff):

First, we gathered market research data about Windows 3.1 users’ twenty most-frequent tasks. We then conducted several lab studies comparing Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, focusing on the top twenty tasks derived from the market research data. We also interviewed professional Windows 3.1 (and Macintosh, for comparison) educators, to learn what they found easy and difficult to teach about the operating system.


Although we had opted for an iterative design approach from the beginning, one legacy of the waterfall design approach remained: the monolithic design specification (“spec”). During the first few months of the project, the spec had grown by leaps and bounds and reflected hundreds of person-hours of effort. However, due to the problems we found via user testing, the design documented in the spec was suddenly out of date. The team faced a major decision: spend weeks changing the spec to reflect the new ideas and lose valuable time for iterating or stop updating the spec and let the prototypes and code serve as a “living” spec.

After some debate, the team decided to take the latter approach. While this change made it somewhat more difficult for outside groups to keep track of what we were doing, it allowed us to iterate at top speed. The change also had an unexpected effect: it brought the whole team closer together because much of the spec existed in conversations and on white boards in people’s offices. Many “hallway” conversations ensued and continued for the duration of the project.


Although we abandoned the idea of a separate shell for beginners, we salvaged its most useful features: single-click access, high visibility, and menu-based interaction. We mocked up a number of representations in Visual Basic and tested them with users of all experience levels, not just beginners, because we knew that the design solution would need to work well for users of varying experience levels. Figure 5 shows the final Start Menu, with the Programs sub-menu open. The final Start Menu integrated functions other than starting programs, to give users a single-button home base in the UI.

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