Why It’s So Hard to Make a Start Menu

Microsoft keeps trying

Key Takeaways

  • Microsoft has been tweaking its Start Menu Design for a long time.
  • The latest Windows build offers a revamped Start Menu that shows more pinned recommended apps.  
  • Some observers say the way Windows handles the Start Menu can be confusing.
A group of people working and socializing in a cafe.

Tom Werner / Getty images

Microsoft appears to be on an endless journey to perfect the seemingly basic Windows Start Menu. 

The latest Windows 11 Insider build lets you have the revamped Start Menu show more pinned recommended apps. It's part of a long-running struggle to make a start menu that makes everyone happy. 

"Microsoft always was a whipping boy when it comes to Windows design despite the fact that they made a huge leap and invested a lot in their design and brand improvements," Robert Mayer, a software designer at Netflix, told Lifewire in an email interview. "It's very hard to change their brand image, really."

Start Here

The new Start Menu gives users equally quick access to the list of all applications installed on the computer, the applications selected and pinned by the user, and the recommended documents,  Egor Sokhan, head of user interface design at QArea, a software development company, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

The three styles of the new Microsoft Start menu.

Microsoft

"In other words, everything a user may need to begin the work is conveniently presented in the Start Menu," he added. 

False Start?

Some observers say the way Windows handles the Start Menu can be confusing. Former Microsoft software designer Nick Thorsch told Lifewire in an email interview that he's grown so frustrated with Windows that he switched to a MacBook. 

"The Mac's 'Start Menu' is a collapsible tray of app icons, which enables full-screen view," he said. "Microsoft Windows has the start menu, shortcut icons, and system tray, but most people struggle just to figure out how to connect to the internet or print."

Designing a great Start Menu is more complicated than it looks, Sokhan said. 

"The job of a designer is to not only make the menu modern-looking and visually appealing, but also to ensure that it can be used on devices with different screen sizes, on touch screens, and to make it suitable for users with special needs," he added. "This is an all-encompassing, lengthy, and expensive process with multiple iterations that requires precise research and testing."

Any company that's been building software for a long time has a lot of limitations set by previous versions, Mayer said. Windows is built on generations of different codebases, with the first version released in 1985. 

"Legacy is not only about software but design as well," Mayer added. "We can't just invent and add new things every time—everything needs to be consistent and evolving together. A 7/10 idea that is consistent is better than 10/10 that is not."

Product design is complicated, especially when it comes to a massive operating system with more than a billion users like Windows, Mayer pointed out. 

"The Windows user base is way more diverse than the one from Apple," he said. 

"We can't just invent and add new things every time—everything needs to be consistent and evolving together."

Microsoft has experimented a lot with the look and feel of Windows. Aero was introduced in Windows Vista, and then in 2012, they moved to Metro with a mission to unify desktop OS design with mobile one. But Windows Phone was discontinued, and in 2017 the company released the final design system, Fluent. It was piloted in Windows 10 and revamped in Windows 11.

"All these changes are huge and contributed to a UX mess that they currently have," Mayer said. 

Even Sokhan isn't giving a total thumbs up to the new design. He says he doesn't like that Microsoft moved the Lock feature into the Account menu. 

"Windows users expect to see this feature next to the Shut Down and Restart options," he added. "To me, this decision is going to create a lot of confusion and will require the users to take some time to get used to it. Leaving the Lock option in the same menu as the Shut Down and Restart options would be a far better solution."

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