IE7 mystery: The Prophet answers my call

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?

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.