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Windows 8: Task Manager retuned

Microsoft has redesigned the new Windows 8 Task Manager to accommodate both power users and more casual users.

Ryan Haveson

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

For Windows 8, my team took a new look at Task Manager and thought through some new scenarios. We also considered a new way of tuning it for “both ends of the spectrum” in terms of typical users and those looking for fine-grained control over what’s going on with their PCs.

Because Task Manager is so widely used, we knew that any changes we made would be noticed. At the beginning, there were a few key goals we knew we wanted to accomplish:

  • Build a tool that was well-designed, thoughtful and modern. Even a technical tool can benefit from a focus on design.
  • Fill some of the functionality gaps that drove some of our most-technical users 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, find out detailed data about your processes, start or stop services, monitor your network adaptor, or even perform basic system administrator tasks for currently logged on users. That’s a lot of functionality.

Although not surprising, it was interesting to see that the usage was roughly evenly split between the Applications tab and the Process tab. This indicated that there was some significant detail lacking in the Applications tab, which was causing people to go to the Process tab. Next, we looked at how people were using the Process tab to understand what they were doing there.

We found people were using the Process tab to either look for something not on the Applications list (such as a background or system process), or see which processes were using the most resources.

Then we looked at what actions people were taking in Task Manager. Looking at the data and talking with customers, we determined 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 our data and background research, we decided to focus on three key goals:

  • Optimize Task Manager for the most-common scenarios. Focus on the scenarios that use the Applications tab to find and close a specific application; or 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’s a long list of other, less-frequent usage scenarios for Task Manager. We explicitly set a goal to not remove functionality, but instead to augment, enhance and improve it.

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.

This model helped us optimize the default view (“Fewer details”) around the core scenario of finding and closing an application. It also helped us add much more detail in the other view because it would only show up when specifically requested. 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 tab. This would help us to augment, enhance and improve what we already had, without removing functionality.

End processes quickly and efficiently

We know from many third-party tools (or tools such as the Sysinternals Process Explorer) that there are many things we could add to Task Manager for power users. We knew we had to first address the mainstream users because we didn’t want to create something that would overwhelm the majority of our customers.

We will of course continue to value third-party tools, as they allow for specialization and unique innovation around many tasks. For the default view, we designed a minimalist experience that appeals to the needs of the broadest customer base and most-common scenario.

When you launch Task Manager for the first time in Windows 8, you see a clean view of your running apps. We made the default view great at one thing: killing misbehaving apps. We removed everything that didn’t directly support that core scenario.

The value of the default view is all about what we took out. We removed everything not focused on the core task of killing apps, which makes the design focused and efficient. Some of the specific changes include:

  • Tabs were removed, as they distract from the core scenario.
  • The menu bar was deleted.
  • Just the apps are shown.
  • Things that clutter the experience, such as resource usage stats and technical concepts that most users don’t understand, are no longer included.
  • Double prompts were removed. If you click “End task,” you won’t be asked, “Are you sure?” The app is just killed—and done so quickly. So be careful, because you won’t be prompted to save.

The new Task Manager is much cleaner and more focused when compared to the Windows 7 Task Manager with the same applications and windows opened. This is perfect for many users experiencing the pain of a “not responding” app that won’t go away using the app’s Close button.

Diagnose performance issues

A lot of what’s new with Task Manager is shown only when you go to the “More details” view. This is the realm of the power user. Keep in mind that your mainstream users may never want to get into this level of detail, and all of their needs should be met by the “Fewer details” view. Here’s what you’ll see in this new view:

Heat map

The most noticeable difference in the new Processes tab is the new heat map, which represents different values with color. Our telemetry data told us it was common for users to go to the Processes tab, sort by CPU or memory utilization, and then look for applications consuming more resources than expected. The nice thing about a heat map is that it lets you monitor anomalies across multiple resources (network, disk, memory and CPU utilization) all at the same time, without having to sort the data. It also helps you find hot spots instantly without needing to read numbers or understand concepts or specific units.

Network and disk counters

Many power users supplement their Task Manager usage with other tools such as Resource Monitor simply because, in the past, Task Manager did not show per-process network and disk attribution. This was a gap, when you consider that a spinning disk or multiple applications competing for network bandwidth are the root cause of many perceptible PC performance issues. The new Task Manager shows these resources at the same level of detail as memory and CPU.

Resource usage

One of the biggest causes of PC performance issues is resource contention. When a particular resource is being used at a rate beyond a threshold number, the column header will light up to draw it to your attention. Think of this as a warning indicator. This lets you know where to start looking if you’re experiencing performance issues.

Grouping conventions

A big challenge with today’s Task Manager is that it’s hard to know which processes correspond to an application (apps are generally safe to kill), which are Windows OS processes (killing some of these can cause a blue screen), and which are miscellaneous background processes that you might need to explore more deeply. The new Task Manager shows processes grouped by type, so it’s easy to keep these separated while still providing an ungrouped view for situations where you need it.

There are now much friendlier names for background processes (and services, and everything else). In the Windows 8 Task Manager, there’s a line item for “Print driver host for applications.” In the old Task Manager, this showed up as “splwow64.exe.” If you still want to see the executable name for some reason, you can add it back as an optional column.

Grouping top-level windows

One of the most distracting parts of the old Task Manager was that the Applications tab was a flat list that included all of the top-level windows from all processes in the system. While the list of top-level windows is interesting information to have, it’s often overwhelming. Sometimes, you can’t kill a single window without closing all the other windows for that process.

To address this, the new Task Manager now groups top-level windows under their parent process. It allows for a much cleaner view for typical usage; helps you focus on killable processes and process resource usage; and lets you see which windows are owned by each process so you know what will be closed if you kill it.

Integrated search context menu

Have you ever looked through the process list, seen something like “fussvc.exe” and wondered what it was? Adding friendly names was a good first step to resolving this problem (fusssvc.exe is actually the Fast User Switching Utility Service). To really find out what this process is, you need to search the Web.

The new Task Manager integrates a search context menu, accessed by right-click, so you can go directly to your default search engine (which you can customize) to see more details and relevant information. This can make a huge difference when deciding whether a background process is doing something useful or just wasting cycles.

Service host details

If you open the Windows 7 Task Manager to the Processes tab and select “Show process from all users,” you’ll probably see eight seemingly identical instances of “svchost.exe.” This is one of the most commonly noted “not very informative” sources of information.

Of course, some of you know this is really just a service host process and you can add the process identifier (PID) column, go to the services tab, sort by PID, see which services correlate to that PID and then reverse-look-up friendly names for each of the services. However, that’s a lot of work—and not everybody knows how to do this. With the new Task Manager, we show all of the services grouped by process with friendly names for each of them, so you instantly can see what’s going on when an instance of svchost is consuming a lot of resources.

As you can see, we added quite a lot to the new Task Manager (and this article only goes into details on the first tab). Task Manager is a unique opportunity for UX designers and researchers working together with technical program managers and engineers to create a clean, organized and efficient design. We’ve made it more streamlined for mainstream users, and more detailed for power users.

Ryan Haveson

Ryan Haveson has more than 15 years experience leading engineering teams and delivering software and services for some of the world's most recognized brands, including Xbox and Windows. He was a group manager in the Windows Experience team for Windows 8. He and his team designed and delivered end-user and developer-facing features, including the live tile notifications platform and the new Task Manager. He's currently leading the engineering systems group at Qualcomm for the Windows/Windows Phone on Snapdragon division in sunny San Diego, Calif. Reach him at ryanhaveson@hotmail.com or at linkedin.com/in/ryanha.

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