A laptop displays a screenshot of a new system tray panel.

Reworking the Windows system tray

Taking what's in the system tray, and making it more logical. Putting all your favorite controls in one place.

January 22, 2017

The system tray (or “notification area”) has been a quintessential part of the Windows shell since Windows 95. It contains icons that are useful to the user, and that offer important system information.

The current system tray can be seen to be “too cluttered” at times.

The current system tray, however, is messy. It’s cluttered with icons that each have their own different flyout style. Some are also missing key functions. There is, for example, no brightness slider in the battery flyout or even in the Action Center. One must go into the Settings app if they want more precise adjustment over brightness. I decided that I wanted to fix all of this, and so have come up with a new, unified “Control Center”.

A unified approach to controls

A new, unified system tray.

I decided to place all the common system controls (and some more specialist ones) onto a single flyout. This gives a user an instant overview of everything that’s important—wireless/cellular connections, battery, OneDrive sync status—and there’s also sliders for both volume and brightness (the latter being something that many people have been asking for in Feedback Hub).

Cellular data flyout.

Tapping any of the options in the list expands it. There can be toggles to switch the item on or off. Flyouts can also display rich information, such as this cellular data one, which allows the user to see information at a glance, such as data remaining and how what apps are using significant amounts of data. Allowing access to quick, glanceable information helps keep users productive as they no longer have to enter other apps in order to get detail.

Third-party developers could also harness this area too—Dropbox, for example, might want to place their own detailed sync status in the system tray.


The Action Center is already a great place for rich, actionable notifications. However, as you can notice in the screenshots, there is a new icon in place of the standard Action Center icon. Cortana is a great personal digital assistant that can get to know you well. With the new space freed up in Action Center (since the quick toggles have been basically moved into the system tray), Cortana can be there to offer advice and information about the task you’re currently doing. I call this Cortana’s Eyes.

When Cortana detects something she can help with, the Action Center icon will change to the Cortana logo. Opening it the Action Center will reveal a small area at the bottom (which expands when the user interacts with it), where Cortana will then analyse what’s on the screen right now and offer help—in this case, she finds the more info on the restaurant.

Cortana is there to help with anything you need.

As shown, Cortana is giving information to the user about the location of the restaurant, its price and cuisine. There are links at the bottom that let the user get directions using Maps, make a reservation directly within the Cortana canvas or call the restaurant though either Skype or by handing off the number to the user’s Windows 10 Mobile or Android* phone.

*Obviously, Cortana has to be installed on the Android phone for this feature to be available.

Cortana is ready to help with anything.

A simple “Hey Cortana, give me a hand” will also trigger Cortana to take a look at what you’re doing and help out. Cortana’s Eyes can also provide help with the current app a user is interacting with.

For example, when a user is in the Calendar app, Cortana can offer suggestions for help on how to create appointments or change the calendar view. In Mail, Cortana could help with adding attachments, etc.

Cortana will, of course, remain on the taskbar as a search box (this has simply been hidden from the screenshots to keep things clean).


This is just a glimpse at my idea to change the way the system tray works. Making changes as radical as this takes a lot of time and thinking — users are already accustomed to the way things are now. Remember when Windows 8 was viewed negatively because of its radical changes? Users need to be eased into a new way of working in order to prevent alienation.


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