Windows was designed from the start (pun not intended) 😆 to be easy to use. Usability in simplest terms means how friendly and convenient something is to use. When applied to input devices of a PC, it measures how easy a GUI is to operate with those input devices. With Windows 95 and successive releases, there was a big focus on usability but in recent years, its importance has been sidelined by Microsoft. Let’s go through the basic Windows concepts of mouse usability. Ordinary users and developers both will benefit from revisiting this topic.
Windows makes best use of screen geometry but apps ruin it
Here’s something obvious that you may not have realized. The Windows UI works best with maximized windows, and switching done from the taskbar or by using the keyboard. With Windows 95, Microsoft optimized the UI for use with the mouse and maximized windows. Generally, people who use the mouse for the first time take at least a few hours or days to gain precision over moving the mouse cursor. Over time the speed and precision of moving the mouse cursor improves.
After several months or years of using it, you may gain extreme precision. Professional designers and gamers swear by the mouse for how precise and accurate it is. Yet the truth is that many casual users who are not tech-savvy never gain full control and speed of operating the mouse. To make the mouse easier to use, the UI elements must be easy to target. Any design that requires the user to precisely position the mouse is not user-friendly.
Edges of the screen are special in Windows but many apps don’t take advantage
When a window is maximized, it touches the edges of the screen. The title bar touches the top screen edge. If the window has a scroll bar and the app developer has correctly implemented it, then it must ideally touch the right screen edge. Why? This makes it easier to target (click in) these areas with the mouse. You can just touch the mouse to the top edge of the screen quickly without precisely positioning the mouse over the title bar to restore it down or move the window.
Web browsers which have tabs on top in the title bar make use of the same principle. Because the mouse sticks to the top edge and does not/cannot go beyond that, it is easy to target tabs with mouse clicks to quickly switch between them. If the scroll bar is properly implemented (some developers break this), you can scroll down entire pages up and down by sticking the cursor to the right edge and left clicking.
Finally, the Windows Taskbar also follows this principle and that is precisely why it is at the bottom and why it should stay at the bottom (more on that in the section below). Even if the mouse touches the very bottom edge of the screen, the buttons and tray icons above it remain clickable.
Corners are even better for mouse usability but many apps today break them
Windows makes perfect use of the 4 screen corners. The top right corner is for the Close button of a maximized window. The top left corner is for the window menu or special app buttons. In the Windows 10 Settings app, the top left corner left click is for the Back button, and you can still right click in the top left corner to show the window menu.
The Office button in Word 2007, Excel 2007 and PowerPoint 2007 was also clever for using the top left corner for the File menu – a great concept which Microsoft gave up too soon and regressed.
The bottom left corner in Windows is extremely special and reserved for the Start button which opens the Start menu. Not only that but a right click on the bottom left hot corner also opens the very useful Win+X menu. It wasn’t until Windows XP that Microsoft got this right. In earlier versions, you had to precisely position your mouse over the Start button to open the menu with the mouse. If you clicked the hot corner, nothing happened.
Finally the bottom right corner is for the Show Desktop button (Windows 7 onwards). If you hide the Show Desktop button with 7+ Taskbar Tweaker, you can use the bottom right corner for Action Center.
Taskbar should always be in front of other windows
The taskbar is critical for user to always see notifications area icons. Deskbands (taskbar toolbars) are also located on the taskbar. Deskbands can indicate various important things you need to see all the time such as your internet speed, CPU usage etc.
The taskbar also flashes a window or shows overlay icons to convey urgent notifications. Some people keep the taskbar on auto-hide without properly understanding its function. From a usability and accessibility point of view, you should never set the taskbar to auto-hide.
Some apps cover the taskbar and try to run fullscreen. This is not a good idea either – the taskbar is very important to see a lot of indicators about your Windows PC. Only in some exceptional cases like giving a presentation or watching a picture slideshow or a video, or a fullscreen game is it okay to cover the taskbar.
Other bad choices that affect mouse usability & how to improve it if you are a developer
So you see how the UI elements being easy to target with the mouse improves the ease of use for maximized windows. But that’s not the only optimization a developer can do. It helps the user further if clickable regions of the UI are clearly indicated with a 3D look, that is, if apps have 3D looking buttons and controls, contrasting colors from the background and clearly defined separation lines or boxes from the non-clickable areas.
Also, having text labels for every button or action is important. Text goes a long way in making the user interface elements immediately clear to the user. Developers should avoid the use of only icons or only images and symbols for buttons and clickable elements especially on big screens. Tooltips augment the labeled buttons. But making the user hover over each button to see its tooltip in order to explain its function is awful.
Rant: Mouse usability is being broken over the years
App developers breaking all standard window conventions and behaviors
Over the years, I have come to observe that a huge number of apps are no longer optimized for mouse usability. They ignore these hot corners and edges and modify their Close buttons, title bars and scroll bars so that they no longer work. By using custom close buttons, custom and disappearing scroll bars or non-standard modifications to the so called non-client area, developers destroy the mouse usability for corners & edges of maximized windows.
The image below shows the imaginary zones (hot corners and screen edges) that apps should never break. And yet we see an increasingly high number of apps not respecting these and breaking mouse usability with corners & edges.
Users moving the taskbar to the wrong location on screen
At other times, people unwisely move their taskbar to the left, right or top. While I respect individual preferences, this is just not ideal for the way Microsoft Windows is designed to work. If you move the taskbar to the right or the top, the Close button loses its hot corner. You must then precisely position your mouse over ❌ to Close maximized apps.
If you move the Taskbar to the left, that’s somewhat reasonable but you still lose hot corner access to the all important window menu. App developers are increasingly sidelining this window menu (e.g. Google Chrome and all other web browsers). The only small consolation is that some web browsers are using the top left corner for accessing their own menus.
Using only icons in the UI, no text labels, or hiding text behind more clicks
Another huge issue in apps being developed today and even operating systems like Windows 10 and its successors is the use of only-icons to convey information for the sake of making the design pretty. Developers often make the user click more buttons or hamburger menus ☰ to reveal labels. Or they make the user hover over each icon to explain its function. Do not hide user interface elements behind more buttons and clicks if there is plenty of screen estate. All these are awful design habits. If you design this way, your users won’t find your app intuitive.
Objectively inferior flat and colorless design becoming popular for style
Lastly the 3D look is disappearing from all user interface design and everything is being flattened, making it harder for the user to know what area of the UI is clickable. Contrast between clickable and non-clickable parts of the UI is being intentionally reduced. Separation lines are being outright removed or faded out so much that they are impossible to see. We even see these issues with the Windows 10 taskbar and how it takes several third party apps to fix it.
This last point I will make in this article about usability has more to do with hardware – specifically mice and touchpads. Given that the Windows user interface is heavily designed for both left click as well as right click, and sometimes even middle click and scroll wheel, getting that tactile feedback for clicks is super important.
Therefore it is imperative that you avoid any “touch mice” (mice which are without physical buttons to click. As well, you should avoid any laptops without dedicated touchpad buttons. I already talked about this in my article, What type of laptop you should buy in 2021.
Despite the Precision Touchpad spec that Microsoft has, most laptops come today with clickpads. These are trackpads without separate buttons or where the clicks are integrated with the pointer moving area. They are a terrible invention by Synaptics who makes touchpads.
The problem is they cause accidental taps and clicks, or sometimes the touchpad driver ignores left or right clicks when using them with two fingers simultaneously touching the pad. If one finger is used for moving the pointer and the other constantly resting on the button for fast clicking/tapping, it is a huge challenge.
This is because a clickpad perceives such an arrangement of two fingers constantly resting on the pad as multi-touch and causes weird errors in operation. Microsoft has not realized that Windows is different from macOS. Windows laptops absolutely need to have touchpads with buttons even though MacBooks don’t. Microsoft needs to work with PC vendors to get this right.
In touchpads that have dedicated buttons, the clicks are separate, so there is no question of accidental tap to click. It won’t ignore left or right clicks, cause accidental scrolling or gestures firing, or accidental drag and drop operations due to two fingers touching the trackpad.
So now you know the basics of mouse usability. If you are a casual user, you can benefit from the tips in this article by using maximized windows along with hot corners and edges. You can also make sure that you have set the taskbar at the bottom. Plus, you shouldn’t set the taskbar ideally to auto-hide for speed of operation and not missing critical notifications.
If you are an app developer, you know what to do and what not to do for your app. Always test your app to make sure you haven’t broken these rules because it increases the ease of use. The chances of your app being more successful increase if you follow these rules.