Basic Windows concepts – user interface

In this article, I will explain the basic Windows concepts of the graphical user interface. While you may already know these basic Windows concepts or fundamentals of operation, Microsoft themselves have been changing or redesigning certain things for little to no improvement in ease of use or usability. So it’s time to revisit the basics.

The current user interface of Windows, with the Desktop, taskbar, Start menu, Explorer shell, and many other basic Windows concepts arrived with Windows 95.

Desktop

When your PC boots and you login to Windows, the area you see with the background picture or color is called the Desktop. It is analogous to the home screen in smartphones. The Desktop contains small pictures called icons and their text labels which are file names.

User interface basics - Desktop
Desktop

Desktop icons can be files, regular folders, file shortcuts, special folders, or virtual folders. The Desktop also shows the Taskbar which houses the Start button in one corner. Clicking the Start button opens the Start menu.

By default, the Windows Desktop today contains only one icon – the Recycle Bin which is a special folder and a virtual folder that stores deleted files from all user accounts.

Icons

Icons make the user interface friendlier to use. You can select icons with a single click and open icons with a double click by default but you can also set them to open with a single click and select by simply hovering over them. Another way is to select an icon with the keyboard arrow keys and pressing Enter to open it.

User interface basics : Desktop icons and context menu
Desktop icons and context menu

You can right click on an icon to open a menu, called the context menu. It is so named because it shows commands relevant to the context of what you may want to do with the item you right clicked. The context menu can also be opened with Shift+F10 after selecting an icon or with the Menu key if your keyboard has one.

You can also right click the desktop background itself to show another context menu. This background context menu will let you change the size of desktop icons, rearrange and sort them, or hide them.

Shortcuts

File shortcuts were introduced in Windows 95. Shortcuts are links to files, folders, programs/apps, disk drives, websites, virtual folders, devices and other computers, or even any file or folder stored on a networked computer. They are identified with a tiny arrow on their lower left. The original item which shortcuts point to is called the target.

User interface basics: Shortcuts on desktop with tooltip
Shortcuts on Desktop with tooltip

Shortcuts store the path to the item on the file system. The NTFS file system itself also stores unique Object IDs for each file and folder. Shortcuts also store this object ID so if the original target is moved or renamed, Windows can use the Distributed Link Tracking service to still find the target. The shortcut will not break in most cases.

Shortcuts can store various other information such as a comment, which icon is to be used to represent an item, how to launch a window (minimized state, maximized or normally), what hotkey (keyboard shortcut) launches the shortcut, command line arguments/switches for an app etc. The comment of a shortcut is visible as a tooltip when you hover over the shortcut in Explorer or the Classic Start Menu.

You can edit the Properties of a shortcut by right clicking it and choosing Properties. By clicking the Advanced button in a shortcut’s Properties, you can also set only the shortcut to run an app as administrator without setting the app EXE itself to always run as administrator.

Run As Admin

Organizing desktop items & accessing them

Since Windows XP, Microsoft has encouraged users to keep the desktop neat and tidy by showing minimal icons and shortcuts there. There are usability advantages to this. You see, the desktop goes behind any other window. So every time you need to access some icon on the desktop, you need to minimize all windows or use the Show desktop button and only then you can access the desktop icon. When you are done working the desktop icon, you need to restore the window from the taskbar. All this takes way too many clicks.

Start Menu opens on top so you don't need to minimize open apps
Start Menu opens on top of everything so you don’t need to minimize open apps if items are pinned to Start rather than on Desktop

Instead, the Start button has evolved over time to give you quick access to everything on your computer – files, folders, shortcuts, or virtual folders. You can just click the Start button while a window is focused, finish your task with the file or app. Since the menu displays on top of open windows and automatically closes, you don’t have to do a lot of window management. If you use an advanced Start Menu such as Classic Shell or Open Shell, it can even give you direct access to the items on your desktop from the menu itself.

Too many desktop icons also increase clutter and make the background picture look less visually appealing.

Taskbar

Windows are usually represented with buttons on the band at the bottom called the Taskbar. The taskbar revolutionized the user interface when it was first added in Windows 95. The taskbar buttons also have small pictures called icons and the name of the window may optionally appear next to it.

User interface basics: Running and Pinned Apps
Some pinned and open apps on the Taskbar

Minimized windows disappear from the screen but remain as buttons on the taskbar. Maximized windows take up the full screen except for the taskbar. Full screen windows can cover the taskbar too.

The taskbar is by default always on top, which is a good thing. Hidden windows may not show a taskbar button at all even if the app is running in the status (notification) area. Some apps run completely hidden, in the background, without any taskbar or status area icon.

Notification area (system tray or status area)

The notification area of the taskbar, is also referred to as the status area as it is not just for notifications but also for long-running apps. As of Windows 10, notifications can be shown as balloon tips or Action Center toast notifications. This area also houses the date and time, icons for volume, network, power, input language and many others.

User interface basics: Notification Status Area
Notification Status Area showing a large number of icons

Some icons may briefly appear and then disappear. For example, the Location icon appears when location is accessed by an app. The Printer icon only appears when printing something. The Safely remove hardware icon appears when removable devices are connected.

Improving taskbar productivity

Active (focused) windows are represented on the taskbar in a different background color. For Windows 10, you can improve the appearance and contrast of these buttons on the taskbar so the buttons look pressed down. As long as taskbar buttons are not grouped or combined, left click on an active window button minimizes it, whereas left click on an inactive window switches to it. Not combining taskbar buttons significantly improves productivity of minimizing and switching between apps.

Rearranging taskbar items

User interface basics: Rearranging Taskbar Items
Rearranging Taskbar Items and tray icons by click and drag

You can left click and drag taskbar buttons left and right to rearrange them. You can do the same with notification (status) area icons. There is a tiny arrow at the beginning of the notification area which reveals a small popup flyout pane where you can hide icons from the status area. Tray icons can be dragged over this arrow and then inside the flyout panel to hide them. Similarly, icons from inside the panel can be dragged outside to the status area to always show them and their notifications. Inside the tray popup pane too, you can left click and drag icons to rearrange them.

Customizing taskbar with 3rd party apps for restoring removed functionality and increased productivity

If you have optimized the taskbar for productivity and usability, you can right click a taskbar button to access its window menu or jump list. Left clicking and dragging a taskbar button towards the screen’s center will also show its jump list. Hovering over a taskbar button will show a thumbnail or a list. There are plenty of advanced options possible for the taskbar with third party apps.

Deskbands

Deskbands (taskbar toolbars)

Finally, the taskbar also contain additional deskbands which are toolbars with added functionality. The Quick Launch toolbar was one such deskband in older releases of Microsoft Windows. You can add third party deskbands (toolbars) to expand the taskbar’s functions.

User interface basics: Showing 3 deskbands
Showing 3 deskbands (toolbars)

Start menu

Along with the Taskbar, the Start menu was a killer feature of the user interface when it was added. The Start Menu contains direct links to everything on your computer. You can access everything on your computer from Start. It contains file shortcuts to programs and apps, various special folders, virtual folders and direct links to access Windows Settings. You can access any file or folder via the Start menu’s search too.

Advanced Start Menu
Open Shell is the most advanced Start Menu

If you install an advanced Start Menu such as Open Shell, which restores a huge of deleted functionality and customization from previous releases of Windows, you also get direct access to files from within the special folders, and access to items within virtual folders as well, without even having to open File Explorer. Advanced Start menus like Open Shell also allow you to drag items inside various Start menu subfolders to rearrange and sort them.


Windows is an extremely complex operating system that has evolved for several decades with too many concepts to be explained in one article but these are the basic ones a novice user needs to know about the user interface.

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