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January 22, 2008


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Hi Joshua,

I think a usability study of the Mac dock and the Windows taskbar would be really interesting. I personally find the dock completely unusable and have generally replaced it with third-party alternatives when I've been using a Mac regularly (which I'm not doing at the moment.) At the same time, I have serious issues with the Windows taskbar, too, although I can configure it to behave in a way that I find tolerable.

There are a number of things that make studying the usability of these widgets difficult:

1) For both of them, their behavior changes depending on the habits of the computer user. How many applications do you open at once? For the dock, are those applications that are already in the dock or are some of them not? How many windows are minimized during a typical work session? Does the user typically open many windows from the same application?

2) For both of them, there are easily-exposed changes the user can make to the default behavior of the widget, and these changes have various effects on usability. (Dock: mouseover behavior, size, position; Taskbar: number of rows, window grouping; Both: position, auto-hiding).

3) For both of them, there are hidden (but well-documented) changes the user can make to the default behavior of the widget, and these changes have various effects on usability. (I only mention this because I know a fair number of power users of both OSes who say they *only* find the dock or taskbar usable after applying one or more of these hacks).

My mind starts to boggle when I think about the number of variables that would need to be considered in a rigorous usability study of these two UI widgets. Clearly they're both working for some people, but I suspect that they also have a tendency to be a real source of irritation in the computing experience.

Thanks for the comment David!

I think you're right that directly comparing the usability of the Windows taskbar and the OSX dock would be very difficult. However, the large majority of computer users do not customize their settings, so I think comparing default to default would be valid.

It's just that there are so many other differences between the two OS and the applications they run, it might be very difficult to control for them all.

Actually I was thinking about this further last night and I agree with you-- the default behavior is what matters most. The one way in which configuration options matter is when those options can easily be invoked by accident by a naive user. And I'd also agree that comparing these two widgets on a which-is-better basis is going to be unproductive-- both because of other differences in the two environments, and because it's going to come down to personal preference, which isn't a useful metric.

But I think it's instructive to look at these two attempts to solve a similar set of problems, and recognize that both of them have large usability problems.

Off the top of my head, from my years of using and doing technical support on both platforms:

Windows Taskbar:
- Allows the user to render their system unusable by expanding the taskbar to take up most of the screen
- In default configuration, fails to do a good job of handling a large number of open windows
- In default configuration, contains a quick launch bar which for most users will soon after installation be overfull and therefore fails in its goal of providing "quick" access to commonly-used applications
- Allows you to accidentally drag toolbars onto or off the taskbar, or change their size, without providing adequate feedback about what is going on, providing many opportunities for naive users to render their taskbars useless.
- Provides counterintuitive options on the right-click contextual menu.
- Behavior of hovering, clicking, and double-clicking in clock area is inconsistent with user expectations.

MacOS Dock:
- In default configuration, interferes with application windows and can block access to other UI elements.
- Does not make use of common usability techniques (Fitt's law, positional memory, etc.) to provide quick access to icons.
- In default configuration, fails to do a good job of handling a large number of icons.
- Documents and folders of the same type in the dock look identical; users must hover over each icon to determine which is which.
- Dragging an object off the dock causes it to disappear in a puff of smoke. Okay, I like interfaces with some personality, but this particular choice throws new computer users into a panic.

There's lots more. I haven't even touched on the problems that are introduced (with both dock and taskbar) if the auto-hiding option is turned on. I think it makes a really interesting study exercise.

Informative post... You're selling me on the idea that I should upgrade, too.

I've gt a new one too! M I love the two finger scrolling on the track pad! Wish PCs did it.
I find the mac has so many ways of doing things (plus al the freeware options!) that I forget to use the best ones!

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