Microsoft discusses Windows 8’s new Windows Explorer interface

Microsoft came forward on Monday to detail how its upcoming Windows 8 platform will feature an enhanced version of the company’s most popular desktop program. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t Solitaire, joked Stephen Sinofsky, Windows Live president.

“Windows Explorer is a foundation of the user experience of the Windows desktop and has undergone several design changes over the years, but has not seen a substantial change in quite some time,” said Sinofsky. “Windows 8 is about reimagining Windows, so we took on the challenge to improve the most widely used desktop tool in Windows.”

Microsoft discusses Windows 8's new Windows Explorer interface

The company looked into the telemetry of “millions of [Explorer] sessions” culled from anonymous, optional studies to decipher what worked and what needed work, wrote Alex Simons, director of program management for the Windows 8 engineering team, at the official Building Windows 8 blog.

“Over the years, Explorer has grown to support a number of different scenarios, many unrelated to file management – launching programs, viewing photos, playing videos and playing music, to name just a few,” wrote Simons. “We wanted to know which of these capabilities customers were really using.”

Simons and his team found that just 10 Explorer commands were responsible for over 80 percent of customers’ usage, though he admitted the data did not account for third-party applications used within the program for standard commands. It’s clear Microsoft views such outside software as competition – or at least motivation.

“Only 2 of the top 10 commands customers invoke in Explorer are available in the Command bar, the main UI element for invoking commands. This further reinforced our thinking that there was a big opportunity here to improve Explorer by making common commands more readily available,” said Simons, admitting the company “had not yet accomplished” such a task with previous iterations. “A clear user interface design principle is that frequently used commands should be easy to get to.”

To reach that lofty goal, Simons said the Windows 8 team works by three main guidelines:

  1. Return Explorer to its roots as an efficient file manager and expose some hidden gems, those file management commands already in Explorer that many customers might not even know exist.
  2. Put the most used commands in the most prominent parts of the UI so they are easy to find, in places that make sense and are reliable. Organize the commands in predictable places and logical groupings according to context, and present relevant information right where you need it.
  3. Maintain the power and richness of Explorer and bring back the most relevant and requested features from the Windows XP era when the current architecture and security model of Windows permits.

The team decided that adopting a Microsoft Office-style ribbon would allow them to honor those ideals.

“The flexibility of the ribbon with many icon options, tabs, flexible layout and groupings also ensured that we could respect Explorer’s heritage,” he said. “We could present a rich set of commands without removing access to previously top-level commands, something we knew was really important to our customers.”

Prior to the decision, Simons opined that the team discussed crafting an entirely new UI. Earlier layouts, including Windows 95 menus, were also considered.

The end result is a new ribbon which reflects the company’s customer usage research.

“The Home tab is the heart of our new, much more streamlined Explorer experience,” Simons boasted. “The commands that make up 84 percent of what customers do in Explorer are now all available on this one tab.”

Indeed, “share,” “view” and “manage” tabs are present and accounted for. Additionally, users have immediate access to library and picture tools as well as the file menu and search bar.

Though Simons noted the importance of ensuring even the computer illiterate could find their way around the updated program, he confirmed that the group is also going above and beyond to cater to “more sophisticated users” who have constantly asked for keyboard shortcuts.

“All of the existing Windows Explorer shortcuts work in this version of Explorer, but with our new approach, all of the approximately 200 commands in the ribbon now have keyboard shortcuts as well,” said Simons. “The new Quick Access Toolbar (QAT) in Explorer provides a lot of customization opportunities. Similar to Office, by right-clicking any button in the ribbon, you can add it to the QAT. Additionally, you can choose to have the QAT display above or below the ribbon, and to display the ribbon in an open or minimized state.”

Saving the best for last, Simons divulged that the “up” button is making a comeback.

Eager to get wrapped up in Windows 8’s new Explorer ribbon? Or disappointed Microsoft didn’t bring a new UI to the table? Let us know in the comment section.