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. Windows 8 is about reimagining Windows, so we took on the challenge to improve the most widely used desktop tool (except maybe for Solitaire) in Windows
We knew that using a ribbon for Explorer would likely be met with skepticism by a set of power-users (like me), but there are clear benefits in ways that the ribbon:
- Exposes hidden features that they already use but which require third party add-ons to use in the Explorer UI today.
- Provides keyboard shortcuts for every command in the ribbon, something many people have been asking for.
- Provides UI customization with the quick access toolbar, taking us back to a customization level that is basically equivalent to Windows XP.
We also knew that, similar to when we added the ribbon into Office, there would be concerns about reduced screen real estate. We worked hard to mitigate this issue, and I’ll tell you what we did here a little later in this blog post.
Finally, there are quite a few third-party add-ons that some of our more advanced customers use with Explorer today. These add-ons will continue to work in the right-click context menus in Windows 8, which is by far the most common access point for experienced customers running these add-ins (where discovery and occasional usage are not the primary design points). However, add-ins will not be able to plug into the ribbon UI. This was a difficult engineering choice for us and we expect that many of you will read this and suggest we add the capability–of course if we could get it right this time around we would have done that. A big part of this blog is sharing these choices–tradeoffs–between new features and adding everything we can dream up and finishing. We also think the customization we provide and the improvements are worthwhile this time around.
In a related note, one of the most common requests we get in any redesign is to continue to provide the old user interface along with the new. Sometimes this is suggested as a "transitional" benefit, and other times as a "compatibility mode." We’ve learned over many product cycles that the work to provide this significantly impacts the evolution of the product. The most immediate challenge is that any new commands added to the ribbon then need to be added in the old UI, even if there is no logical place for them. And of course as the new UI evolves, backward compatibility proves doubly challenging. Each time we change we double the number of "old" experiences we carry forward. Our hope is that those who maintain software understand that these are tradeoffs we make in a thoughtful and deliberate manner, and are not meant to be forceful or painful in any way. We are fully aware of the responsibility that comes from changing an interface used by so many people.
A ribbon gave us a lot of layout options and we explored a number of different approaches to tabs and grouping. We decided to go with three main tabs: Home, Share, and View, plus a File menu and a variety of contextual tabs.
The new ribbon
The Home tab is focused on the core file management tasks, and we’ve put all the major file management commands there in prominent locations: Copy, Paste, Delete, Rename, Cut, and Properties. We’ve also given new prominence to two popular heritage features, Move to and Copy to, along with exposing a hidden gem, Copy path, which is really useful when you need to paste a file path into a file dialog, or when you want to email someone a link to a file on a server.
The Home tab is the heart of our new, much more streamlined Explorer experience. The commands that make up 84% of what customers do in Explorer are now all available on this one tab:
The Share tab is for sharing files by typical methods like zipping them up and emailing them to a friend, or burning them to optical media. Or you can quickly share files with other people in your home group or your network domain. It also provides one-click access to the ACLs for the currently highlighted file.
The View tab provides access to options for view customization. We’ve enabled one-click access for turning on/off the Navigation pane, Preview pane, and Details pane, a live preview gallery for the different icon display sizes, quick access to sorting and grouping by column, the ability to quickly add columns, plus easy access to three hidden features: show file name extensions, show hidden items, and hide selected items.
The customization options for the Navigation pane are also much easier to access – in the drop-down menu, you get one-click access to them, including a new option to show or hide favorites.
The file menu and other tools
The file menu lets you quickly open new Explorer windows, access your shortcuts, and change folder and search options. It also includes a hidden feature that we love, Open command prompt, and a really useful new command, Open command prompt as administrator, both of which launch a command prompt with the path set to the currently selected folder.
We’ve provided a variety of contextual tabs that activate in the context of specific files and folders, and for tasks like searching, managing libraries, viewing pictures, and playing music. One of the best examples is the new Search Tools contextual tab which launches when you click in the search box.
The Search tab surfaces a bunch of hidden gems that most people are not aware of, but that could solve some common problems for them. You can quickly adjust the scope of any search, filter by common date ranges, file type, file size, and other properties like the author or name. Then you can save these searches for future use.
Here are examples of some of the other Explorer context tabs: