52

The movement of the "start button" from the corner to the middle seems to be so much hated that it was impossible for me to find any justification for it in a short search, because all the results were clogged by tutorials about how to move it back to the corner.

Having it in a corner is the best place when using a mouse, because it requires less precise aiming, the cursor can be immediately dragged to the corner without even looking. I would guess having the most used button in the center of the taskbar instead of the corner might be marginally useful for touch-only devices, but are there other serious reasons for placing it there? A cynic might say that they changed it for a misguided marketing reasons so that it "feels different", but there is surely more to it than this.

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  • 27
    Beware of concluding "so much hated" when talking about OS adoption. Power users vs. regular users represents one of the largest vocal minority / silent majority splits! P.S. I hate it too... Dec 2, 2021 at 11:42
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    My opinion / urban legend is that Microsoft wants Windows to look like a Mac Dec 2, 2021 at 16:59
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    The one thing I used to always be able to tell customers is "click on the wavy Window thing in the lower left corner'. Then they stopped making it wavy. And now not in the corner. Ugh. Dec 2, 2021 at 18:37
  • 20
    Isn't this more gradual progress to make Windows undesirable for all possible users and uses, starting with Vista? Dec 2, 2021 at 19:00
  • 10
    Users hate change.
    – Criggie
    Dec 2, 2021 at 21:51

6 Answers 6

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The interview in the Wall Street Journal gives the answer from the Diego Baca, Microsoft's principal design director. When asked about a placement of the Start button he said:

I do remember we wanted to make sure that the start button felt efficient, and we also noticed Windows has become more flexible in terms of the devices that it’s used on: from tiny tablets to PCs to these gigantic, 50-inch, ultra-wide monitors. And when you have these giant monitors, the button is no longer in the periphery—you need to actually travel in order to interact with the button. So we wanted to put the menu in the center...not shoved into a little corner, where sometimes people might miss it.

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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica Looks like so, although the last argument is very weak. People just don't miss the start button on the left, it's been there for decades. This looks like the usual jabber to justify change for change's sake. The average Windows users with whom I've talked seem frustrated because once they settle with an workflow, Windows change it again. Luckily you can easily change this via taskbar settings.
    – LoremIpsum
    Dec 3, 2021 at 14:06
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    @LoremIpsum To be fair, when Windows 95 was introduced, enough people overlooked the button that they first added the word "Start" next to the logo, then when that wasn't enough, they added an animated piece of text pointing to it saying "Click here to begin". And that was back when most people considered 800x600 a high resolution, so the button took up a much higher proportion of the UI. With a high resolution widescreen and minimalist design, the Windows 10 button is actually quite subtle if you didn't know to look for it.
    – IMSoP
    Dec 3, 2021 at 16:17
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    @IMSoP excuse me, but Win95 was always labeled "START", it was not a word they added later. Source: I was part of the MS Win95 launch team and ran the beta almost a whole year before launch. Dec 3, 2021 at 19:51
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    @Mazura Different people use things differently - maybe you prefer desktop icons, which I have completely disabled, or use Cortana, which I also disable. The Start menu has been how Microsoft expect you to find things for 25 years, so it's a little paranoid to see some conspiracy in making it obvious.
    – IMSoP
    Dec 3, 2021 at 23:41
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    @TorbenGundtofte-Bruun, Raymond Chen says that the "Start" label was added as part of usability testing: devblogs.microsoft.com/oldnewthing/20030722-00/?p=43083. While that's (presumably) pre-launch, that's probably where that story comes from. Dec 4, 2021 at 8:59
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Unless one of us here at UX SE is the person who made the decision on this design, we can't really be sure.

There is some information on design choices made in Windows 11 in this post from their blog: Windows 11: A new era for the PC begins today.

With Start at the center you have quick access to the content and apps you care about and through the power of the cloud and Microsoft 365 (sold separately) you can see recent files you’ve been working on regardless of which device you were using, even if it was an Android or iOS device.

So it seems they are trying to achieve what they failed with Metro. That is having a design language that scales seamlessly from device to device. Which you already suspected.

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    Hmm, how exactly does Start being at the center and not at the corner helps scaling seamlessly from device to device?
    – LoremIpsum
    Dec 2, 2021 at 16:27
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    In addition to this, Windows is still trying to push tablet PCs or 2-in-1s and they found the windows key in the corner to be very inconvenient, Inconvenient to the point where most tablet or convertible windows machine (including Microsofts surface) was already including a capacitative-touch windows button at the center edge of the screen. Dec 2, 2021 at 16:37
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    @LoremIpsum If the Start menu is in the bottom left corner, and you hold the device in your right hand, can you reach the left corner with your thumb? Depends on the size of the screen, but the larger it gets, the harder it is to reach. You could put the menu in the bottom right corner instead, but then people who hold the device left-handed would have the same problem. Putting it in the center makes it equally (in?)convenient for both hands. Dec 2, 2021 at 17:35
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    By the way, although I find yours a good answer, I don't see how Microsoft's quote adds anything to the explanation.
    – LoremIpsum
    Dec 2, 2021 at 19:06
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    @LoremIpsum They're saying you have "quick" access, so maybe they're referring to the fact that if your mouse is near the center of the screen, it's less travel distance to get to the start button now? Obviously not considering that if it's in the corner you can just ram it in there and click without worrying about being to the left or right of it...
    – user
    Dec 2, 2021 at 21:11
10

Well, beyond the fact that there's a better adaptability for devices with a touch-pad as mentioned in the question, I see other specifications regarding design.

In the same way the question refers to the lack of justification for the relocation of the centered start button, I have personally always questioned the layout of the content located on the left.

I always had the feeling that Windows has a hard time leaving the navigation system based on the stagged of folders and subfolders from left to right. System that sometimes works and sometimes does not, and the design of the start content is a clear example. The user is pushed to follow a type of navigation from left to right, from bottom to top and then from top to bottom in each quadrant, scrolling down to see the content without knowing where it ends, a real chaos:

enter image description here

When we analyze an interface we tend to think of "conventional" users who use a mouse, touch-pad or fingers. But when it comes to something more global such as a work application or even more an operating system, the design must meet optimal accessibility standards and tested to the maximum. It's difficult to even imagine the effort that a user with an adapted mouse must make to follow the path of this diagram.

The centered design is more permissive, the lack of conditioning regarding folder-subfolder navigation and not having to align each quadrant's content to the left makes it more agile.

  • There are only two visual paths, translatable in greater simplicity and clarity
  • The only one scroll is no longer infinite and uncertain, the navigation dots indicate the beginning and the end

enter image description here

Additionally, placing an element to the left or right totally conditions the layout of its content, while the central location has more flexibility. A screen is not a book, it offers many more possibilities in terms of design, so there is no point in conditioning it with a left or right layout. In a book the layout can be subjected to the spine or the double page center. Making a type of layout to the left or right in a screen is trying to find a non-existent spine, something absurd in my opinion.

enter image description here

The conditions of a design are set by the designer himself, the less obstacles he chooses:

  • Greater is the ease to design
  • Better will be to find a suitable location for each component
  • Easier will be the interpretation by the user, in this case translates into better navigability

An extreme example: there's a boom around driverless cars, but the design is still conditioned to the presence of a driver, therefore the cabin remains rectangular and the seats positioned one behind the other. If the car doesn't have a driver why are there no circular car designs ...

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    I don't think the driverless car analogy is very relevant. Currently there are no true driverless cars, all current cars have to support the ability of the driver to take over if necessary. But this wouldn't preclude the other seats from taking different arrangements even in traditional cars. Yet they don't because of other factors, such as having to get in and out of the car, and importantly controlling the motion of the occupants in the event of a collision.
    – Glen Yates
    Dec 2, 2021 at 22:26
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    I think the "spine" analogy is a bit overplayed. Yes, for exploring an interface, being able to expand in all directions is useful; but for repeated use, having a consistent anchor is useful. It also contradicts your own point about accessibility: placing content relative to a consistent "spine" gives a target path for the cursor to follow. Your Windows 11 diagram conveniently glosses over the initial path taken to find the top left corner of each sub-panel, which is a more complex motion than the one shown in your Windows 10 diagram.
    – IMSoP
    Dec 3, 2021 at 11:29
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    In fact, the more I look at it, the less meaning I can find in your comparison. Windows 10 has two columns, one has a scrollbar, the other is a customisable panel which easily could have one. Windows 11 has two panels, one with "navigation dots" which are just a different kind of scrollbar, and one which is dynamic and looks to be fixed size; it still has the old "all apps" list, but it takes an extra click to reach it. None of this seems to have anything to do with whether the whole menu is anchored to the corner or not.
    – IMSoP
    Dec 3, 2021 at 11:42
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    @Danielillo Your two diagrams are not comparable. The Windows 10 diagram shows a continuous path, going up from the Start button to the top of the first column; the Windows 11 diagram shows a series of disconnected arrows, with no path between them. And your comment about "without knowing where it ends" is simply nonsense - both columns have scrollbars on Windows 10.
    – IMSoP
    Dec 3, 2021 at 12:06
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    Here are some more comparable diagrams for accessing pinned apps (assuming scanning the panel, not jumping to a memorised position inside it) and the alphabetical list of all apps (I don't actually have Windows 11, but from the screenshots I've seen, the "all apps" link is top right, then shows the list aligned left).
    – IMSoP
    Dec 3, 2021 at 13:42
1

Without speaking to the people at Microsoft who made this decision (or reading documents published by their decision makers), no one can say for sure. I don't even know if it was human factors engineers or marketing that made this decision. It's Microsoft, after all.

I can say that I moved my taskbar icons to the horizontal middle of the screen many years ago. My cursor tends to be towards the middle of the screen, so moving the icons to the horizontal center reduced required cursor travel distance.

Furthermore, I have performed numerous optical workflow analyses of my eye movements while physically positioned in front of a computer screen (and, separately, at flight controls in commercial aircraft). My focal area tends to be around the center of the screen when using a computer. As such, moving the icons towards the center of the screen reduced eye muscle fatigue.

The only downside of less eye movement is that I must be even more mindful to perform eye exercises a few times per hour when using a computer. I was already doing this regularly, so it didn't require a significant behavioural modification.

1

Even though the reasoning for the center placement given by Microsoft, and then further detailed in Danielillo's answer, does in fact make a lot of sense from a UX point of view... it is also interesting, both historically and conspiratorially, to think back to the origin of the Windows menu, and the Start button, from Windows 95.

At the time, it was considered to have been a poor (even laughable) imitation of the Apple menu, from System 6.05 (and prior), which was (and obviously still is), in the top left1.

Now that mobile devices have become much more prevalent - often outnumbering desktop devices in some parts of the world - the bottom centered "Home" button, and its Android equivalent, is now, in some respects, more ubiquitous than the left hand side placing of the Apple menu/Start button in the respective desktop OS.

So, logically (from a Microsoft point of view), it would make sense for Microsoft to imitate this center placing of the "Home" button - of these (relatively) new-comers who have finally achieved market dominance - by now relocating the Start/Windows button to the center of the screen, as well.

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Jobs2 had placed the Home button of the first iDevices on the bottom, or top, left corner - which would now seem to be an utterly bizarre placing - in order to replicate the desktop experience. If this top, or bottom, left placing of the Home button had taken hold and gained acceptance, would Microsoft still now be moving the Start/Windows button to the center of the screen..?

Somehow, I don't think so.

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery.


1 Yes, Apple did derive the Apple menu from the Xerox GUI, but that's not the point of this particular Q&A.

2 Maybe Jobs, ahead of his time, had already realised that center placement provided a better UX experience on the iDevice, than a corner placement? No doubt, in the original Human Interface Guidelines (1995) there is an explanation as to why the corner placement was originally chosen.

3
  • Windows Phone has / had the Start button on the bottom center as well. Dec 4, 2021 at 13:29
  • Exactly, thanks... on Windows 7 (and later) devices (all post the initial iDevices), the Windows button was moved to the center, whereas WinCE (prior to iDevices) had a Start button on the left. Which backs up up my point about mimicry. Dec 4, 2021 at 14:14
  • "It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Jobs2 had placed the Home button of the first iDevices on the bottom, or top, left corner - which would now seem to be an utterly bizarre placing - in order to replicate the desktop experience." - he'd never do that. No UX person would. Bottom middle is just obvious for a button that most people will operate with their thumb on a hand-held device - can be easily reached by both right- and left-handed people.
    – Tom
    Dec 5, 2021 at 2:24
0

When screens get bigger and bigger everyday why should you be looking at a corner all day long instead of making use of your hi-res device and look straight at the middle of the screen? Seems like a reasonable decision to me. Should have been done so since Windows 95.

Starting apps has moved up from being a simple accessory to a necessity, hence the position update. No conspiracy behind it, sorry.

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