The Start Menu must be stopped

As I struggle to open applications on my PC, I was reminded of a few entries in Scott Hanselman's blog:


This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2005/04/the-start-menu-must-be-stopped.html

It does suck, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen this subject blogged about more. Maybe it’s just that we’re all so used to it by now, we don’t think about how much it sucks and just live with it.

So what’s the best way to solve this? Apple has the dock, which holds most applications, and Gnome has a more task-based menu (ie; Internet - Web Browser instead of Microsoft - Internet Explorer). KDE’s menu is even more complex than Windows, but it does attempt to separate apps into groups at least. I’m not sure that any of these solutions really cut the mustard, though.

http://www.gnome.org/~davyd/gnome-2-10/images/panel-menus-full.png
http://shots.osdir.com/slideshows/slideshow.php?release=265slide=29

I used to feel the same way but I have to agree with the poster above. It takes a minimal amount of time after an application install to re-organize the start menu. With a little bit of effort you can easily organize all your start menu items such that you don’t have multiple pages in your root and child menus.

I’m also the type of person that has 150 icons on my desktop and actually type the first few characters and press enter to run them instead of hunting for what I want and clicking with the mouse. So I’m probably not the person you want to be talking to about UI functionality and usability. :slight_smile:

I’ve used a little app for years that has served me very well. It’s called Blanch.
http://www.jason3d.com/blog/2004/12/10/blanch-start-menu-killer/

It’s kind of like Drop Drawers from the mac. You have tabs that you can drag shortcuts/exe/files/url to. You can have a few or many tabs and size them as needed. You can even drag files to an icon in your Blanch bar to open it in that app. It takes no more than 2 clicks to launch any of the apps you’ve added to your tab. I’ve got mine set to auto hide at the top of my screen. When hidden it’s a single row of pixels. I just mouse up to it and it pops down (you can set the delay time).

This is always the first thing I install on any of my machines. I highly recomend giving it a try.
http://oneguycoding.com/blanch/

I don’t like the Start Menu either, avoiding it as much as possible. I try to put all my commonly used apps in the ‘Quick Launch’ bar: Visual Studio, Command Prompt, IIS, Event Viewer, Services (Control Panel), Add/Remove Programs (very helpful to place this in QuickStart!), Outlook.

Also, I create shortcuts to all my programming tools using autohotkey: http://www.autohotkey.com/ . Great utility.

Keyboard shorcuts / hotkeys ARE cool, I agree, but probably aren’t relevant to a GUI oriented solution like the Start Menu. I use WinKey, myself, for what it’s worth:

http://www.download.com/3000-2344-913626.html?tag=lst-0-1

I really wish the Start|Run menu (Windows-R) item was a lot smarter (Monad?) and could absorb the functionality of something like SlickRun.

I try to put all my commonly used apps in the ‘Quick Launch’ bar

This is a completely manual process, though; the computer SHOULD be able to figure out what you’re doing and automatically build something for you to make your life easier.

While I have found that manually organizing programs into submenus - usually with such prosaic names as “Internet Tools”, “Programming Tools”, “Viewers and Readers”, etc - vastly improves the usability of the Start menu, it is a stopgap measure at best. Not only does it take added time to organize and maintain, most application installers don’t allow you to change the location on the start menu; moving them subsequently can confuse the uninstallers and updaters later. Furthermore, with no standard groupings, it means that any such organization on a given system is ad-hoc, and likely to confuse other users.

In the end, the problem is with the design, as the article mentions, but it goes deeper than just the problem of finding applications. As several observers have commented - Alan Kay, Jef Raskin, and Ted Nelson, to name a few - the entire system of separate applications and hierarchical file systems is at fault. While it is simple to implement and easy to understand in general, it simply does not match the way the human mind works with information, and thus requires considerable extra thought to use.

What is really needed is a system in which data can be arranged and re-arranged fluidly, using a single common interface. Rather than separate applications, the system would provide a set of tools which could be applied to data at need - and which can themslves be searched and organized by the user as needed - for viewing, searching through and manipulating data. While hierarchial structures would be possible, they would not be required, and certainly not enforced.

The problem of course is that no such systems exist, and designing one is gravely difficult. The Xanadu Project has been mired in this problem for forty years and more; Kay’s work at Xerox has been twisted into a caricature of itself, a friendly mask over the same old rotten filesystems. More recently, the “Humane Interface” Project seems to have stalled with Raskin’s death. Despite decades of work on better ways of using computers, in the end very little has really changed.

Very true… The Start Menu can be a pain, if you don’t do anything about it yourself: I organize all entries myself, dragging and dropping menu folders and menu items into my specific folders… The problem though is that when uninstalling apps, these moved startmenu entries do not get removed, since the installer does not know they’ve moved.

Recently I tried ObjectDock (objectdock.com). Not only does this launchbar look great, the non-free version allows tabbed docks so you can set up tabs for various types of apps. Since you don’t use all of your apps on a daily basis, I’ve put only these apps on the objectdock, that I use most frequent. Whenever I need one of the others installed apps, I access them from the Start menu,

I’m also the type of person that has 150 icons on my desktop and actually type the first few characters and press enter to run them instead of hunting for what I want and clicking with the mouse. So I’m probably not the person you want to be talking to about UI functionality and usability. :slight_smile:

LOL, that’s pretty clear – “sailing the sea o’ desktop icons”

++ for SlickRun. Between that and my quick launch menu I hardly ever hit “Start”.

‘ide’ - launched Visual Studio
’qa’ - launches Query Analyzer
’ie’ - launches Internet Explorer
’ff’ - launches FireFox.

If I want to go to a web site, I just type the url. I ended up falling in love with this kind app launching using Quicksilver on OSX and migrating it over to my Windows box. I can’t imagine going back to the ‘Start’ menu now.

Did you notice what kind of menu that use on the page of the study? Yep, it’s horizontal. Go figure.

To Mark Elder - the k/b shortcut for start-run is Windows-R

Its an aside, but windows shortcuts are nice. Windows-L locks your machine (great when you leave for lunch)
Windows-D toggles 'show desktop’
Windows-E opens explorer.

There are others, but those are my faves.

Thanks for the pointer to the Customize Start Menu tab - I just set it to 15, which I think means I’ll cut my use of All Programs by about 99%. On the (old) Mac, I used to have my Recent Applications set at 15 or 20, and rarely needed anything that wasn’t on that menu.

If you’ve got the MSN Desktop Search application installed then just type part of the application’s name into the MSN search window that sits in the taskbar.

For example typing ‘word’ lists ‘Microsoft Office Word 2003’ and ‘WordPad’ in the Programs category of the search results.

MSN DS indexes your exe filenames, and possibly shortcuts to use in the results section of the ‘Programs’ category in the search results quick list.

I use the quick launch toolbar autohidden and docked on the left side of the screen. Fortunately all the apps that I use commonly just fit on this quick access toolbar. You can see an example here:
http://willrickards.net/images/quicklaunch.png

I have never really liked the Start Menu. I really don’t like the Quick Launch bar either. Using the desktop to stored program shortcuts is even worse.

I have used and liked several different command line based launchers. Currently I am using Slick Run
http://www.bayden.com/SlickRun/

I put all my shortcuts in a single directory and rename them to a short name. For example Query Analyzer is just “query”. That directory is then placed in my path. I have Slick Run mapped to the keystroke alt+space. Once it is up I can launch any program simply by pressing alt-space and typing the name of the program - exactly what I was thinking in the first place. If I need a directory I can just type the path to the directory. If I need a web page I can simply type the web address. The Start menu’s “Run” feature is close to giving me this setup without using another program. However, I could not figure out how to map it to the keystroke that I wanted.

If I don’t use a program for a while and can’t remember the name - well I have everything in one directory so I just have one place to look. Once I find the name I don’t need to add a new shortcut or move it to the top of the list because I will remember that name as long as I am actively using the program.

One other advantage to this. If I am on a different computer and I want to run notepad or calculator I just go start-run and type the name. Those programs are already in the path. Then I don’t need to hunt through a start menu I never look at.

The downside - when someone is at my computer they don’t know how to launch anything - well maybe that is not a downside…

This solution is not for everyone because of the setup involved. However I was surprised that it was easier for my wife. When she asks - “How do I type a letter again?” I just say. Press alt-space, type word and press enter. Try explaining how to find Word on a start menu in fewer steps than that.

Maybe it’s just that we’re all so used to it by now, we don’t think about how much it sucks and just live with it.

God bless Microsoft for at least including the “shortcuts to the programs you use most often” feature in the Start Menu. I set this to a really high number in the “Customize Start Menu” general tab; right now it’s at 12. Like most users, we tend to use the same programs over and over so this satisfices for now. It’s when I need to launch a less frequently used app that I run into problems.

Of course none of this makes the All Programs menu suck any less, but it may explain why it’s not a daily problem.

So what’s the best way to solve this?

I find the boring old c:\program files\ folder hierarchy easier to navigate and search for apps than the massive, horizontally cascading All Programs menu. How sad is that?

I do think the 80/20 rule applies here: once we launch the app, it gets absorbed into our automatic “favorites” on the start menu, and as long as it stays there we don’t have this problem. So finding a new app to use for the first time after installing it is a 20% problem.

With that in mind, I think an easily searchable, FLAT columnar list of applications would be perfect. Something along the lines of “Add/Remove Programs” but with a lot more polish, perhaps listing the name of the app, a description of it, the company who created it, the last time I used it (or another user used it), when it was installed, etc etc. It should also prominently feature the full-size 32x32 or 48x48 app icon.

God forbid one should have to take responsibility for keeping things organized things on their own computer.

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel no pity for someone who’s Start menu looks like Scott’s.

Interesting the description of the Longhorn Start Menu that Rob (above) has linked to. See
http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1759,1789345,00.asp

"If you’re like me, your programs menu has no doubt become a massive, unwieldy list of programs, with multiple panes on the fly-out menu. That’s a real nuisance. In this build, a scrolling list of your programs is built in a subwindow on the left side of the start menu. Also, a small dialog entry box lives at the bottom of the start menu.

If your list of applications is very long, just start typing an app name in this box. As you type, Windows will make a guess as to the name, making the scrolling list shorter as you type more letters. It’s a great boon for users with tons of programs."

That’s GREAT! And it’s almost exactly how I tend to launch infrequent programs today-- I have a hotkey for c:\program files, then I start typing the first few characters of the folder name I want.