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I have a family laptop where I have created separate users for my kids. My user is an admin, theirs are not. I had assumed that having separate users would have separate desktops. But I have installed programs that have their shortcuts showing up on the other users, and then recently one of them changed the desktop background pic, and it changed mine to that as well.

I've learned there is some kind of default or public desktop. I have used Explorer to look at \Users\username\Desktop and the public Desktop, but it still seems odd. I think the public Desktop on the file system did not contain the pictures, files, and program shortcuts that are actually displayed on the everyone's desktop.

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    The answers below suggest this is something to do with the Public desktop. That could explain the desktop shortcuts, but I'm not inclined to think changing the background would affect other desktops. That is typically a per user setting. The only thing that comes to mind with that is that someone replaced the file you're both using as a background, instead of using the standard mechanism to select a different file. If that isn't what happened, something screwy is going on. – jpmc26 Nov 18 '16 at 1:17
  • Not sure if Win 10 has completely changed the menus here, but can you right click on one of the shared shortcuts, choose Properties, switch to the General tab, and grab the "Location"? This will tell you where the programs are stuffing their shortcuts (in Public\Desktop or somewhere else). – jpmc26 Nov 18 '16 at 1:21
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    Software that changes your desktop picture at install is so bad-mannered and badly designed that you can't trust it to do things the right way. – Chris H Nov 18 '16 at 9:11
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    Do the different local user profiles share the same Live account? If yes, some settings (like color schemes and background pictures) will be synced. – Gerald Schneider Nov 18 '16 at 13:59
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    @jpmc26 Even replacing the file shouldn't do this, and Windows makes a special transcodedWallpaper.jpg for the background file in your own profile when you set the image. You can't have two users share that transcodedWallpaper file. More likely, all of the users are sharing the same Microsoft Account. – Joel Coehoorn Nov 18 '16 at 15:42
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The Public desktop is part of what's going on. The icons you see on your Desktop are a combination of the Desktop folder in your profile, the Desktop folder for the Public/All Users profile, and the special My Computer/Recycle Bin/Network/etc icons chosen for your profile.

The wallpaper is another story. Wallpapers are definitely stored separately per user profile in Windows and will not change for one user just because another changed a file in their own profile. Local Policy might play a part in this. You can use group policy on a local machine to set a wallpaper for all users. But I don't think that's what happened here.

What I believe happened is you set up all of your users with the same Microsoft Account. As of Windows 8, Windows will also want to associate a Microsoft Account with each user. Microsoft Accounts can sync some settings via the cloud... including Desktop Wallpaper. If all of your users are connected to the same Microsoft Account, changing a synced profile setting in one user will change it for the others as well.

If you want to unlink these profiles from the Microsoft Account, it's not hard to find instructions via Google. Just be careful... I've heard stories where unlinking the account can result in losing access to your profiles on the machine. You'll still be able to use the machine, but you'll have to start over with a new profile.

  • When was the Public desktop introduced? In Windows 7? – Peter Mortensen Nov 20 '16 at 10:04
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    @PeterMortensen This answer notes the "All Users" old name. Do you mean when that was first introduced, or when it was renamed to "Public"? If the latter, I think Vista used "Public" too. If the former, it goes back a lot further. Windows 2000 had that. Quite possibly NT too. – hvd Nov 20 '16 at 10:28
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    Yes the public desktop has been a fundamental part of Windows user accounts for at least a decade and a half. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 20 '16 at 12:57
  • @PeterMortensen , the Public profile (and the Desktop folder along with it) was first utilized on Windows client operating systems when Vista was first released ten years ago, so it has been around for quite a while. – Run5k Nov 20 '16 at 14:28
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    @hvd Windows 95 had it, though it was in the "Windows" folder back then. – Joel Coehoorn Nov 20 '16 at 19:50
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Anything that is on the Public user desktop will appear on everyone's desktop when they log into that machine. For example, if you install iTunes, by default it creates a desktop icon on the Public desktop that everyone can use.

Each person will have their own personal folders (Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, Videos), along with their own Desktop... but some things are shared throughout the machine.

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When you install new software, usually you have an option to either install for the current user or all users. When you install for all users, all shortcuts created on the desktop will be created also in the public desktop so it will appear to all users. This is something that is wanted since you don't want to have to install software multiple times on the same machine for every user.

But you are also right that changing the desktop background is something that should be only done by user as it is in that users profile. Something seems weird with the way it was done. But usually this only affects one user.

  • I'm pretty sure that either I wasn't given that option, or I selected only for me, and it still appeared on all desktops. – user26270 Nov 17 '16 at 20:23
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    In that case, the software that you installed was designed to install itself for all users. In which case you'll have to remove the shortcuts for the other users. – IronWilliamCash Nov 17 '16 at 20:24
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    @IronWilliamCash In which case, sometimes, removing it from the new user will also remove it for the old user, even if they don't have admin privileges, even if the new user is created after the installation of the software. The way a desktop works in Windows 10 is odd at times. – user366447 Nov 18 '16 at 14:13
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    @Mast : This again comes down to where it was created. If the shortcut was created on the public desktop, removing it will in fact remove it everywhere. But you can cut it from the public desktop and paste it to your user's desktop and that should fix things. – IronWilliamCash Nov 18 '16 at 16:38
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    When you install new software, usually you have an option. You increase the chance of that being the case if you choose custom/advanced installation rather than default/automatic. Don't just click/click/click trough software installs, read and choose. – Jan Doggen Nov 21 '16 at 10:59
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This may not be the approved method but it worked for me in Windows 10.

Under the folder Users their is a folder Public Desktop. It contains all of the desktop shortcuts that appear to all users. If you remove the shortcuts from the Public Desktop then they are no longer available to the various users that can log on to Windows on this device. My approach was to move the icons from the Public Desktop and place them in the specific user desktop's that needed those shortcuts. Of course only an administrator can work in the Public Desktop or any of the user desktops. If you want to optionally let users pick which shortcuts they want to include you could move the optional shortcuts to a folder and let the users copy the shortcuts to their own desktop when they are logged on to the pc.

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Each User has their own desktop located in their 'One Drive' associated with their Microsoft login. Just move or copy the icons you want to each location. Took me a fews mins to sort this out!

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    While it might be possible for users' desktops to be in their OneDrive, that is not always the case (certainly not in my case). – Blackwood Sep 10 '18 at 18:19

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