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In Windows 7 and 8, all the windows of every application are by default automatically grouped into one icon on the taskbar. This happens even when there are two instances of the application running i.e. it's still one icon. When you click on that icon, you can choose which window of that application you want to change focus to.

Some would argue that it is easier and better UX that every window gets its own icon on the taskbar, which is possible in Windows by changing a setting. What is the best way to go?

From my perspective, it is a trade off between clarity vs performance (number of clicks). Which is the most important here?

Note: This is merely about the icons, I would prefer if you base your answer on the idea that the labels are NEVER shown on the taskbar (even though that's not true in Windows).

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Why the downvote? Usually when people downvote, it's because they think the question is too ambiguous or vague, which I don't think is the case here. Could the downvoter please add a comment? –  lesderid Jul 2 '12 at 15:33
    
It is good practice to explain a downvote but doesn't always happen. Try not to let it bother you too much. Remember they also lost reputation when they down voted you! Oh yes and Happy Birthday (: –  Lisa Tweedie Jul 2 '12 at 23:51
    
That's true, but I have the feeling that on Stack Overflow, downvotes are explained more often, oh well. And thank you! :) –  lesderid Jul 3 '12 at 6:58

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

First of all, we have been able to combine windows into one taskbar item since Windows XP, but by default it would happen only when there was no space left. Windows 7 started combining application instances from the get-go. In addition, XP & Vista taskbars would show the number of windows combined under one button:

enter image description here

In Windows 7 & 8, taskbar indicates only whether it's 1, 2, or more than 2 windows open:

enter image description here

Such presentation obstructs the visibility of system status, one of the key usability heuristics outlined by Jacob Nielsen:

The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

However, there's a workaround that allows having individual buttons on the taksbar, which are just the application icons. You need first to change the taskbar setting to "Never combine" or "Combine when full", then you need to create a string called MinWidth in the registry under the key HKCU\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics and set its value as either 55 (for "large icons") or 40 (for "small icons"), and finally log-off/log-in to see the change:

enter image description here

P.S. As I was doing research for this answer, I noticed that taskbar properties in Windows 7 have also lost the generic preview that existed in Windows XP & Vista.

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There's another "workaround" which doesn't combine the buttons and also doesn't hide the window labels. You just need to go to Taskbar properties in Windows 7+, find the "Taskbar buttons" drop down and select "Never combine". –  GotDibbs Jul 2 '12 at 14:10
    
@GotDibbs: True, but I explicitly specified in the question that labels 'are never shown'. –  lesderid Jul 2 '12 at 14:23
    
@lesderid While I did miss that, I definitely still think it deserves mentioning :) –  GotDibbs Jul 2 '12 at 14:38
    
@GotDibbs: Hehe, that's true. –  lesderid Jul 2 '12 at 14:57
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@GotDibbs: This workaround actually requires "Never combine" or "Combine when full" to be enabled. –  dnbrv Jul 2 '12 at 15:55

from my point of view, if the TASK BAR is wide enough to tolerate all the APP icons then just display them ! no need to group these into one. but on the other hand when we are confronted with the TASK BAR space issue, then what you are talking about is definitely very helpful.

to me it depends more on the context.

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Can you expand on this answer? It currently just reads as your own subjective opinion rather than an objective answer. Why is there no need to group them into one if there is space to accommodate them separately? If they are all windows of the same application it's perfectly plausible and logical to group them together. If this isn't an appropriate way of doing it then can you explain why it's not appropriate? You may well be right but you'll need to provide reasoning behind your suggestion. –  JonW Jul 2 '12 at 11:00

I think you question cannot be answered without looking at the larger context. The task buttons serve two major purposes:

  1. Switching between open windows.
  2. Showing the user which windows and programs are open.

The first purpose is only relevant for users who use the mouse to switch windows. If the user uses Alt+Tab to switch windows, it makes no difference how many mouse clicks it would require. This means that discoverability may be more important than efficiency, since the power users might be using the keyboard anyway. The key words here are "may" and "might". It depends on the user base.

It is worth noting that the trade-offs for the operating system are different than for most applications. A user is likely to use Windows for pretty much any task at work and at home. This means that the user is much more likely to learn keyboard shortcuts and conventions.

I would also recommend this post on CodingHorror. It doesn't deal with the buttons but it deals with the problem the problem the buttons are trying to solve.

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