» » » The Windows 8 Task Manager, Chapter 1.

By: Hugo Luis Alberto Repetto Posted date: November 09, 2011 Comments: 0

We are really excited to share some of the improvements we are making to the Task Manager in Windows 8.

Task Manager is one of the most widely used apps, and it has a long history. It showed up in early versions of Windows as a simple utility to close and switch between programs, and has had functionality added to it through several releases to make it what it is today.

As we mentioned during the Windows 8 keynote at //build/, every 15 years or so we choose to update Task Manager. Of course that was said in jest as we have incrementally improved the utility in just about every release of Windows. For Windows 8, we took a new look at the tool and thought through some new scenarios and a new way of tuning the tool for "both ends of the spectrum" in terms of end-users and those that need very fine-grained control over what is going on with their PC. Ryan Haveson, the group program manager of our In Control of Your PC team, authored this post. Note: This post is about Task Manager, not about closing Metro style applications :-)

Windows 3.0 Task List, with buttons: Switch To, End Task, Cancel, Cascade, Tile, Arrange Icons.
Figure 1: Windows 3.0 Task List
Windows NT 4.0 Task Manager with buttons: End Task, Switch To, New Task; and 3 tabs: Applications, Processes, and Performance
Figure 2: Windows NT 4.0 Task Manager (now with “new task”)
Windows XP Task Manager with new Networking and Users tabs
Figure 3: Windows XP Task Manager (with new Networking and Users tabs)
Windows 7 Task Manager with tabs for Applications, Processes, Services, Performance, Networking, Users; and buttons: End Task, Switch To, New Task.
Figure 4: Windows 7 Task Manager
Because Task Manager is so widely used, we knew that any changes we made would be noticed, so of course we were both excited and cautious about the effort. At the beginning, there were a few key problems that we knew we wanted to address:
  • Build a tool that was well designed, thoughtful, and modern. After all, even a technical tool can benefit from a focus on design.
  • Fill some of the functionality gaps that drove some of our most technical customers to use other tools such as Resource Monitor and Process Explorer.
  • Organize and highlight the richness of data available to make it more elegant and clear for those who want access to a new level of data.

How do people use Task Manager?

To really make Task Manager great at what it currently does, we wanted to first understand how people were using it. Over the years, it had grown to support many different scenarios. As of Windows 7, you could use Task Manager to close applications, to find out detailed data about your processes, to start or stop services, to monitor your network adaptor, or even to perform basic system administrator tasks for currently logged on users. That is a lot of functionality.

Because of the investments we made in telemetry, we had some pretty good data to start with. We combined this with individual customer interviews and observation in the research lab to understand what people were doing with Task Manager and why they were doing it.

Image of Task Manager from Windows 7, overlaid with data on usage: Applications and Processes tabs: 85% of all usage; all of the remaining tabs combined: 15% of all usage.
Figure 5: Which tabs are people using?

This data is pretty interesting. What it shows is that people are spending most of their time using the first two tabs, which are pivoted around views of applications and processes. Although it is not surprising, it was interesting to see that the usage was roughly evenly split between the Applications tab and the Process tab. This indicates that there must be some significant detail lacking in the Applications tab, which is causing people to go to the Process tab. So, next we looked at how people were using the Process tab to understand what they were doing there.

Bar chart showing which columns are sorted by users: CPU Usage = 29%, private working set = 26%, ImageName = 25%, User name = 5%, and then Description, Ser-Name, Ap-Task, Ser-Status, Ser-PID, and Ser-Description are all at 3% or less.
Figure 6: Many users sort the process view on resource usage
When we looked at this data, and then correlated it with interviews and observations of users in our research labs, we found that people were using the process tab either to look for something that was not on the applications list (e.g. a background or system process), or to see which processes were using the most resources.
So next we looked at what actions people take in Task Manager.
Bar chart comparing the top user actions in Task Manager: Process tab – End process button = 12%; Process tab – Delete Key to end process, Applications tab – End Task = 20%; all other actions are indicated at 3% or lower.
Figure 7: The goal is often to close or “kill” an app or process
Click to view a larger version of this chart
Looking at the data and talking with customers, we determined that the most common usage of the tool was to simply end or “kill” an application or a process.

Goals of the new Task Manager.

Based on all of the data and our background research, we decided to focus energy on three key goals:
  • Optimize Task Manager for the most common scenarios. Focus on the scenarios that the data points to: (1) use the applications tab to find and close a specific application, or (2) go to the processes tab, sort on resource usage, and kill some processes to reclaim resources.
  • Use modern information design to achieve functional goals. Build a tool that is thoughtful and modern by focusing on information design and data visualization to help achieve the functional scenario goals.
  • Don’t remove functionality. While there are some notable core scenarios, there is a really long list of other, less frequent usage scenarios for Task Manager. We explicitly set a goal to not remove functionality, but rather to augment, enhance, and improve.
A key issue we intended to address was how we could add all of the interesting new functionality without overwhelming users. To solve this, we pivoted around a "More/Fewer details" button similar to the new copy file dialog model.
Windows Task Manager in Windows 8 in default view, with arrow indicating button to show “More details”.
Figure 8: Fewer details view
New Windows Task Manager in More details view, with arrow indicating “Fewer details” button.
Figure 9: More details view
This model allowed us to optimize the default view (“Fewer details”) around the core scenario of finding an application and closing it. It also allowed us to add much more detail in the other view because it would only show up when someone asked for it. In the “More details” view we decided to stay with the existing tabbing model of Task Manager and focus on improving the content of each of the tabs. This would help us to augment, enhance, and improve what we already had, without removing functionality.


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