Windows ConfidentialWhat New Users See on the Start Menu

Raymond Chen

In my last column, I looked at how Windows® determines which applications appear on the list of frequently used programs that you see on your Start menu. But why do new users have stuff on their Start menu when they haven’t run anything yet? (If you need to catch up, my last column is online at

In the initial designs for the Start menu, we planned for the list of frequently used programs to be completely empty the first time you opened the Start menu. You hadn’t run any programs yet, so nothing was frequently used—indeed nothing had been used at all! While this was perfectly logical, it also looked completely stupid.

Imagine the disappointment of people who just bought a computer. They unpack it, plug everything in, turn it on, and everything starts up smoothly. Great! Then they open the Start menu to begin using their new computer and what do they see but a big blank white space. They’re not sure of what to do next. And they’re thinking, "This computer can’t do anything! I should have bought a Mac." In usability terminology, this is called the cliff. The learning curve has become a precipice.

We thought about filling this initially blank Start menu with text. Something like "Hey, sure, this space is blank right now, but as you run programs, they will show up here, trust me." The space no longer looked stupid. Now it looked stupid and ugly.

It took a bit more experimenting, but we ultimately decided upon what you see in Windows XP. Last month you saw that the list of frequently used programs is based on a points system—the programs with the most points appear on this dynamic list. For brand new users, we’ve given some artificial points to various programs. As a result, the initial Start menu presents a sampling of fun programs to give users some idea of what they can do.

The number of artificial points is carefully chosen so that there are enough points to get the desired programs onto the list of frequently used programs, but not so many points that they overwhelm the real points earned by programs as users launch apps.

However, these artificial points were not given if the user upgraded from Windows 2000. In that case, the points that the Windows 2000 Start menu used for Intellimenus were used to seed the Windows XP point system. In that way, the Start menu for an upgraded installation of Windows XP reflected the programs that the user ran most often on Windows 2000 right off the bat.

In the initial release of Windows XP, the artificial points were assigned so that the first three of the six slots on the most frequently used programs list were chosen by Windows and the last three by the computer manufacturer. If you bought a retail, rather than preinstalled, copy of Windows XP, then Windows filled two of those three slots and left the last slot blank. That way, the very first program you ran would immediately show up on the Start menu.

These six slots underwent some twiddling in Windows XP Service Pack 1. Two of the slots were chosen by Windows, one by the United States Department of Justice, and the last three by the computer manufacturer. As before, if you bought your copy of Windows XP at retail, then two of the computer manufacturer slots were assigned by Windows and the last was left blank.

The Start menu is one of the most visible parts of the Windows user interface, and as you can see, a lot of work goes into trying to make it feel natural and intuitive.

Raymond Chen’s Web site, The Old New Thing, and identically titled book (Addison-Wesley, 2007) deal with Windows history and Win32 programming. His seat cushion can be used as a flotation device.

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