You need only one

Contents of my Start menu

Do you develop PC desktop software? How many links do oyu need to put into the Start menu?

Only one.

The chart to the right shows a snapshot of my start menu: the actual payload is not even a quarter, the rest is satellites and support files. Other notable findings are:

  • 19 Programs need more than one folder
  • 5 programs created a folder for a single shortcut
  • All 38 Programs need 57 folders
  • one app just had to provide 6 web links
  • one app clocked in with 5 „readme“-type documents linked from the start menu
  • Many manuals but only one „Getting Started“ (which has arguably more rights to a start menu item)
  • A „<AppName> Browser Toolbar Installer“. Oh my, did I really miss your great value addition?
  • Separate „Enable Feature“ and „Disable Feature“ shortcuts for some graphics card feature.

Rules of this informal count: I’ve excluded Standard folders such as „Accessories“ and folders I organized manually (holding less than about 20% of my shortcuts). I’ve also excluded Visual Studio, Sharepoint and the Windows SDK Tools because their tools collections would skew the stats. More on these later.

Modes are additional shortcuts to different start mdoes such as „Safe Mode“, „Reset Config to defaults and start program“, etc. „Readme’s“ covers all kinds of relesase notes, change history, license etc. Data Files are examples and shortcuts to „inner workings“ folders.

Raymond Chen wrote a few posts about the new rules how items in the post-XP start menu get sorted (find out more): Non-folders first, then folders, each sorted alphabetically. Also, application should create a single link without a folder unless they are a suite of separate programs.

That means your program link and its supporting files get torn apart: MyCoolApp is in the first section among the non-folders, its ReadMe and LookatMe and ReadMeToo somewhere else among the folders. More proof that Microsoft is stupidly insane?

Who cares? Starting with Windows Vista,  the majority of PC users have a very easy way to find their programs, just typing one or two letters will make the program show up on many machines. However, sooner or later, search won’t return what you are looking for – you can’t remember the name, there are just to many matches, or you want to get rid of all the irrelevant results.

To me, the new guildelines look like spring cleaning. We are aiming at a simplified Start menu, with one fourth of the items. That’s not only less irrelevant search matches, but also helps keeping the start menu tidy and organized, if you still are the type. Tearing them apart is the key: good programs with a single link get the best treatment, while older programs that grew under Company Name\Program Name\Program Shortcut guidelines are still supported.

Looking at my findings above, most of the files do not belong into the start menu to begin with. Most programs need just one link. The Windows User Experience Interaction Guidelines (WUXIG??!) are pretty clear about it.

The Help Menu is a great home for your manual, your web links, and your readme files. Anything that would clutter the help menu is certainly not important enough for the start menu, anything that’s stable can go into the manual itself. A good help menu can link to:

  • Manual
  • Getting Started
  • FAQ
  • How to get support
  • Release Notes (if you have anything important to say that really didn’t make it into the manual)
  • Licence (if you deem that necessary)
  • Web links (in a sub menu if there are more than ~2)
  • About the application – if you at least put in moerw than jut the default dialog showing the same as the title bar.

Only add the items you really need – if you don’t have any FAQ, don’t start one just to put it in. Make an exception for support, though: unless support is the major maintenance cost, you should make it as easy as possible for your users to contact you.

A few items I found were support and installation troubleshooting.That’s interesting, because hey, if the program fails to start, how am I to reach that wonderful Help menu?

Suggestions: put them on the install medium, make sure they don’t drown between dozens of other files. For download, put the instructions on the web site. If „I installed your program, but I can’t start it“ is significant enough to warrant a start menu item, fix your app. Applications mainly distributed through download portals have a problem here, though: all you get is a 2×2 inch text box between twelve flashing recommendations to scan your registry.

Uninstall goes to the Programs control panel item.

Full disclosure: I hate that. Before Vista, this was royally broken: A slow-to-render list with crippled keyboard navigation, click targets jumping around and unclear sort order – some items start with the company name, others with the program name – and no categories or hierarchy. I already had to organize my programs in the start menu, why can’t I go to the uninstall from there?  Gaaahh!

Emotions aside, I can see some reason, though:

  • Uninstall is an administrative task, not a user task. In many settings, Administrator != User.
  • It’s used very infrequently compared to the other start menu shortcuts. (We hope)
  • Most programs could live with „Start Foo“ and „Uninstall Foo“ – which is a major source of start menu clutter.

Still, it’s suboptimal. A quick search box in the Program control panel applet – similar to the start menu search box – would help a lot. Tiny utilities that many people may try and throw away quickly can well offer an Uninstall option e.g. on their Settings page. This would feel unnatural for a large application, since you’d have to make a very infrequent option prominent enough to be found quickly.

Data Files can go into the application: Examples are best found near Open File  – unless your File menu is already overcrowded. Links to application files „for experts“ can go to Extras, Tools or somewhere near Settings.

Application Modes – that is, different ways of starting what looks like the same program to the user – are a tricky beast. They look ugly most of the time, often usually they are workarounds. If your users suceed in misconfiguring your application so much that they can’t reach the settings dialog, you might need a „reset“. Firefox has a „Safe Mode“ – starting without plugins, because you can’t trust them little buggers. An intermediate „Dashboard“ can be the better solution if the program is started infrequently.

Separating these modes into different shortcuts has an advantage: the user can pick the links he needs most, and put them on the desktop or pin them to the quick launch or task bar.

Not all application have a „Help“ menu, not every program has a settings page – there’s more material for another post.
Until then, here’s a puzzle: What changes would you have to make to your application to make it work with a single Start menu shortcut?

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