Status bar == almost entirely superfluous

Raymond has a short musing about why it’s not a good idea to just punt on difficult questions and ask the user. Makes me think of the good old days on Access – I seem to remember one usability person saying that some non-trivial percentage of users always reacted to dialog boxes by immediately hitting Return, thus chosing the default option. As a programmer writing UI at the time, I found that fact extremely frightening given the number of dialog boxes I had authored.

But what this really makes me think of is a usability test they did on Access one day to see how effective text placed in the status bar was. The test went like this: the user was given some task to do in Access. Unbeknownst to them, we’d stuck a message in the status bar that read “If you notice this message and tell the usability lead, we will give you $15.” Want to guess how many people got the $15? Zero. After that, we were careful not to put any important information down in the status bar, because it was 100% likely that no one would ever see it.

Instead, the status bar is just a nice little waste of screen real estate where we can put cute, innocuous little messages like “Done” (Internet Exporer at the moment) or “Ready” (Visual Studio at the moment).

15 thoughts on “Status bar == almost entirely superfluous”

  1. Totally agree…only time I’ve ever found the status bar useful is when the user is waiting on something and has time to "look around" like a login dialog popup that goes out on the net to check authentication, just so they know it’s doing something (other than locking everything up and putting the busy icon up).

    Speaking of the "Ready" in VS, what’s up with leaving your cursor of the MRU section of the start page and seeing the "Ready" in the Status Bar blinking?!?!

  2. In IE and Windows Explorer, the status bar is a must. For some reason, the IE status bar gets turned off on my machine around once a month. This is exceedingly annoying. While it’s not a good idea to put dialog text there, it’s critical for, well, status.

  3. Indeed. The status bar is not good for user interaction, because you can’t depend on people looking there for things that they’re not expecting to see there. It’s a great place for status items that the more experienced user might like to check. Right off the top of my head: SSL status in IE, autosums in Excel, load times in FrontPage.

    Sure, you could provide other UI for getting this sort of info across – but why? An unobtrusive spot at the bottom of the screen works well.

    Still have to get across to the user that the info is there, but that’s a training issue, that would be equally present no matter where you displayed the info.

  4. I definitely not the "typical" user, but my system has this nasty habit of turning off the Explorer status bar, and it drives me mad because I look at it all the time! (I found a "fix" for this, but after a few days the fix un-fixed itself somehow. Arrrgh!)

    Anyway, why do I look at the status bar? To see to what URL the hyperlink I’m about to click will take me (which is just one of many reasons I *really* hate __doPostBack() in ASP.NET. 🙂

  5. "Almost entirely", not, er, "entirely entirely"…

    I think it’s the ideal place for, well, status information: low-grade stuff that’s useful to have visible but that you often won’t need to have in your face. Like in IE whether it’s finished ("Done") loading a page or if something went wrong. Or telling me in Office if I’m in Insert or Overstrike mode, or whether background printing’s finished. On a typical modern monitor the % of screen real estate is small: about right in fact for the amount of use we make of it.

  6. You should test Emacs users — the tools teaches you to look there because it says things like "did you know you could do that with Ctrl-X Ctrl-X?". Every heavy Emacs user I know watches the status bar like a hawk…

  7. Yeah, that’s why I left myself wiggle room with the "almost," because certainly there are situations in which non-essential-yet-useful information can be put in the status bar for people who are in the know. I use the URL-in-the-status-bar feature in IE all the time, myself. It’s just that you can’t put anything there and *expect* people to see it.

  8. Yeah, and brake lights are almost entirely superfluous, no-one watches them on the car in front, and what’s with all those displays on my car’s dashboard – waste of time !

    And don’t get me started about the system tray, toolbar buttons that show state, scrollbars unless I’m actually in the act of scrolling – ditch them all !

    The status bar is meant to be in your peripheral vision, to illuminate without distracting, to be available when you need more info or to see the casual state of the system – it’s not a spot for "call now for a prize" messages. Some apps I’ll admit really don’t need one, and there are a lot of programs that could use the space much more profitably.

    The way to keep the status bar on in IE is to set the registry key (I think it’s HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwareMicrosoftInternet ExplorerMainShow_StatusBar) and then change the permissions on that value so that your "normal user account" doesn’t have permission to change it (ie read only) – works for me…

    And yes, I am an emacs user…

  9. This could turn into a circular argument: users look at (and miss) the status bar in Windows Explorer *because* it’s useful, whereas the bars are ignored in other apps because the information isn’t valuable.

    Paul’s right that you can’t expect people to see the status bar, but something that usability studies sometimes mask is how quickly (some!) users learn if they use a product every day.

    (Oh – and thanks for the tip Tim 😉

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  12. Yes the status bar should contain only what i would call "debug" information, such which is handy to be visible, but not really needed all times.

    Only useful information I’ve so far seen in status bar are the amount of space free or space taken (explorer) or the link (ie). I hope in longhorn if they have a fast FS they can also show the amount of space taken when you selected directories (files under them), currently on xp it only shows space of selected file objects.

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