IE7 mystery: The Prophet answers my call

IE7 mystery: The Prophet answers my call

Summary: If the Internet is God, and the browser my shepherd, I am a lost lamb who has been waiting for the Prophet to answer my call: What are those icon-less buttons at the bottom of Internet Explorer 7?

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If the Internet is God, and the browser my shepherd, then I am a lost lamb who has been waiting for the Prophet to answer my call: what are those icon-less buttons at the bottom of Internet Explorer 7?

Trying to get an answer from Microsoft about the mysteries of the four icon-less buttons on Internet Explorer 7 has left me feeling like a Mormon standing at the doorstep, waiting for someone who's willing to talk. I asked the great gods of Microsoft PR about buttons -- why did you make it this way? Why are they here? After five days of prayer and waiting for an answer from above, my faith has been tested and my feet are weary, but now I know that someone up there can indeed hear me.

For after five days in the wilderness, a voice spake unto me. So, let me share with you, friends, what the great prophet did relate unto me.

The parable begins like this: ex-Microsoft security expert Jesper Johansson recently uncovered some curious features in IE7.

Near the bottom right hand side of the browser -- next to the phishing filter status alert which intermittently appears -- sit four raised squares that lack icons to explain to users what they are. To most people except Johansson the buttons have gone unnoticed. However, he points out that when you right-click some of the mystery buttons, they turn out to be functional features of the browser: phishing filter, certificate status, add-on manager and pop-up blocker.

"These buttons are still shrouded in mystery for me. I do not understand why they are active, but there are no icons to show the user that. I do not understand why the user experience is different for them and some require double-click and others single click," writes Johansson on his blog.

I tested this myself and yes, he's right. The buttons are like little ninjas that apparently do vital work for the system but remain unexposed.

The question is why. Is it an unfinished or untested feature set or just a mistake? Or was it intentionally made this way to confuse less adept users?

Well, as I said, despite my tested faith, Microsoft did get back to me. Here's what they said:

"Your request actually has to do with a feature in Internet Explorer 7. At a high-level, IE7 has several security and privacy functions which provide users visual cues in a status bar at the bottom of the browser when activated or in use. For example, the phishing filter shows an icon as it works, the pop-up blocker icon is visible if a pop-up is blocked, and so on. While the particular function is still running in the background, the icons remain "off" until the service is explicitly used (such as a pop-up advertisement actively being blocked)."

So it turns out that Microsoft intentionally made the browser operate this way and if you want to know about it, Microsoft's IE7 security and privacy functions are explained here. We should be happy that the developers have added these security features. Or should we?

Craig Herberg, a respondent to Johansson's blog, pointed out the dangers of hiding such features: "This is the sort of thing that drives less-sophisticated computer users crazy. They accidentally click an unlabeled part of the browser, and suddenly a setting is changed! Whatever happened to useability testing by ordinary people -- before software goes into production?" said Herberg.

He has a point. Even though these features are activated "on demand", the way they have been implemented does little to help users determine the security settings of their browser, especially since they are coupled with similar non-functioning buttons and require different actions from the user to adjust the settings, which brings it back to a matter of testing useability.

Last year, at a Microsoft consumer hardware launch, a Microsoft marketing manager bragged to journalists how much care the company took -- at least for its hardware range -- in testing its products before release. He relayed a tale of one Microsoft employee whose job it is to run her sensitive hands over a mouse before it goes into production.

She sits down at her desk with the mouse in front of her -- just like you would at your desk. She closes her eyes and then runs her hands over the mouse's hips, its back, caressing and pressing its buttons. Her talent for detecting the ergonomic qualities of a mouse is so refined that no mouse escapes the lab without her final approval.

I'd be interested to know if Microsoft has an equivalent person for its browsers. If there is, perhaps these features will improve when IE8 escapes the lab? But with these sorts of things, God only knows.

Topics: Browser, Malware, Security

Liam Tung

About Liam Tung

Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, security and telecommunications journalist with ZDNet Australia. These days Liam is a full time freelance technology journalist who writes for several publications.

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9 comments
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  • Soft Hands != User Testing

    The crazy thing is that this PR guy admitted that the height of usability testing for Microsoft's mice division (or at least what he's most jazzed about) is a single person with soft hands. How about letting a real user sample play with it and getting legitimate feedback?

    That's how freakshow features get in Microsoft products, because someone somewhere thought it was a good idea, and now the rest of us are at their mercy.
    anonymous
  • ...and IE6

    Similar buttons exist in IE6 though they blend in with the status bar instead of being raised buttons.
    anonymous
  • IE7

    Is that the same lady who tested Windows Live Mail?..She definately had her eyes closed with that test.
    anonymous
  • Hidden buttons

    Seriously, you'd have to be pretty stupid to not know why the 'buttons' (they're NOT actually buttons) aren't always visible/clickable.
    It all boils down to the very obvious fact that they DON'T need to be visible all the damn time.
    You complain that hidden buttons make users lives harder, but how about visible buttons that don't actually do anything most of the time, thats way more likely to cause confusion.
    To think, you actually got paid to write this column. Seriously Liam, you should give your fee back to zdnet on this one.
    anonymous
  • Steady on

    Easy tiger. I thought it was actually quite a good article compared to the usual standard of ZDNET "journalism".
    anonymous
  • The real question is:

    The real question is why does anyone use IE7?
    anonymous
  • Soft Hands != User Testing

    That's how most "freakshow" features are implemented is MS hardware and software.
    Ever get supplied with one of those split keyboards because they are "ergonomic"? I only have one hand to type with! Try that.
    Every use Outlook Web Access with a screeen reader? Pitiful.
    Unlabeled/Unused buttons at the bottom of the browser are the least of their concerns.
    Because they label something as a feature or ergonomic, the the great unwashed of corporate concern eat it up like manna.

    All in all, no surprises here.

    BTW, the "Security Code" to post a comment is a barrier to accessibility and usability. Also putting instructions after a form field is just bad form.
    anonymous
  • Steady on

    Jeez - relax guy. It's a valid article... I too hate having 'emtpy' button that bottom of IE... I have since IE5 IIRC.
    anonymous
  • And the answer is...

    I could give a dozen good reasons though this thread is not relevant to your question.
    anonymous