Attention is a finite resource; but no matter how hard you try to use it wisely, it is very easy to get distracted in a multi-tasking environment. While some solutions were offered in "Information overload is real", here is another idea which is based on the principles described in "Question oriented UI design".
Today's trick is to hide the Windows taskbar. Want to find out why it is supposed to help?
As it was discussed in question oriented UI design, the screen should only show information that provides answers to questions that matter to the user. Anything else that is shown on the screen is nothing but visual noise that distracts the user from being productive.
Let's examine a typical process - we're using primarily one program (ex: a word processor, a graphics tool, or a programming IDE) that captures our attention. We need to be focused on the information inside this main program's window. From time to time we might want to look elsewhere (ex: another window with a browser showing some documentation).
Anything else is a distraction, it could be a pop-up from the instant messenger, windows that were left open from the previous time the computer was used (this happens often if you hibernate the computer) or stuff that is "just there" because that's how the system was designed.
Here is a typical programming session in Windows (click to see a large version). The distractions are in the taskbar at the bottom, to be more precise - in the elements it shows us: the currently open windows, tray icons, the quick launch bar, the start button, the current language, the current time.
Now, let's make a list of questions these visual clues can answer:
- what time is it?
- which other windows are open?
- what is the current input language?
- what is the currently open window?
- specific to tray icons
- do I have new email?
- do I have new IM messages?
- what is the CPU use?
- what is going on with the wi-fi connection?
- is the laptop running on its battery?
- which programs can I quickly start?
- is the "Start" button still there? (-:
Which of these questions are relevant to the programmer at the time a program is being written and debugged? Or, which of them are relevant to a writer typing a document in a word processor; or to J. Random writing an email to a friend?
You will most likely conclude that the relevance of the answers provided by these visual clues is minimal. In that case they should go away, because they distract the user.
This is why the taskbar should be configured to "autohide", and invoked only when actually needed. Your mileage may vary, but this has had a positive impact on my performance.
Note that there are several benefits from this change:
- less visual noise and less distractions (the original objective)
- less space is used, hence more space is available for the actual work we're doing (this is a free bonus)
Problems and solutions
Sometimes you accidentally place the mouse to the bottom of the screen, that's when the taskbar will be shown, disrupting your work. Unfortunately Windows does not allow a delay to be set before the taskbar is shown, this results in annoyances when the taskbar is shown inadvertently. OS X does not have this drawback, while Windows does (so does GNOME, by the way).
This can be solved with a third-party tool called TaskbarActivate, which provides various customization options for the taskbar.
If you write text often and you use multiple languages, you'll miss the language bar, especially if the number of languages is greater than 2.
The solution is to enable "Show the language bar" (this is a standard option since Windows XP), this time no third party tools are needed. Now you have a transparent and unobtrusive language bar (click the nearby screenshot).
Comment from: Ion Todirel [Visitor]
I don’t agree, here’s what I do to solve the “noise” you encounter: I have 2 physical machines one for development with only required development tools (without any extra stuff), and one communication (comm) machine for anything communication related, and obviously N-monitors. Now you can connect from the comm machine thru TSC to the dev machine in full screen mode, and the noise level is be zero because you wont receive any notifications from the comm machine while in full screen mode. This also has the advantage that if you need to do a restart or something is screw up on the dev machine (but this is very unlikely since my 1st dev machine is actually a Hyper-V guest and I have lots of snapshots) you still have the comm machine to do other work. Besides on the dev machine I hardly have anything than a couple of VS instances maybe notepad open.
Ion, thanks for the feedback, I totally agree with you. But the problem is that not everyone has the luxury to own several machines. My work computer = my home computer, so I have all my documents and programs in one place - it is difficult to keep them separated.
The N monitor setup is a workaround, I wrote about it on “Information overload is real"; but then, isn’t it a bit unfair that you have to pay for another monitor simply because the OS is designed in a way that makes it difficult to organize stuff?
A good solution is to use several desktops, this feature exists in practically every desktop environment for Linux, but it doesn’t exist on Windows; while the third-party tools that do it on this platform are doing it in a “less than perfect” way.
I always keep the taskbar/panel hidden simply to feel less bad about my measly 1024x768 display. But for my dad, the taskbar just HAS to be there (as in, the door to my house HAS to be there or else I freak out). This probably has to do with seeing “what’s going on” and gaining a feeling of control over the machine.
Anyway my point is, to each his own :)
Constantin, I agree that in some cases you think you need full control, and you feel that the taskbar gives it to you (-:
Is it possible to ask your dad why exactly he needs it there? I am curious about the point of view of other types of users.
The purpose of this article/excercise is to reduce the level of noise and distractions. True, it can happen at the expense of other things (like the feeling of being in control) - so this tip will not apply to all.
I’ve been observing my mother (Ubuntu user), she has a taskbar at the bottom of the screen but she does not use it - when I tell her “switch to the Firefox window” she prefers to click on the window itself (if it is visible), not on the taskbar. If the window is NOT visible - she can get confused, especially if there are several Firefox windows (-: My conclusion is that she is better off without the taskbar because she prefers the “one app I am using takes the entire screen” approach. Which is why I asked about your dad; I’d like to know how he uses it.
I just got an idea - for my mom’s case, I will enable “Expose” in Compiz; it is a plugin that shows large thumbnails of every window when you move the mouse to an edge of the screen, and then you can click on a window to switch to it.
at my workplace i do hide the task bar.. or simply use the workin area of the 2nd screen connected… 1st using for supervising and file management…
at my place i enjoy the usability of 7’seven’s taskbar and i’m lovin’it!!! ;)
Vladimir, what’s your screen size in each case?
I’ve used Windows 7 and the taskbar is indeed much nicer there than anywhere else.
Still, if I take into account the primary reason I decided to get rid of the taskbar (information overload) - the taskbar should not be there, by definition. Yes, you can have a huge screen and space is not a problem, but the human attention span is still a finite resource.
main screen 1600x1200
the home one is 1280x1024
I take into account the primary reason so i do agree with your sollution, it should not be there, by definition. ;)
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