The Windows 8 'kick me' sign

Microsoft no doubt knew it was going to have to face a lot of flak over its new operating system. And here's some more.

Microsoft

Look on the flip side of Microsoft's new logo and it says "kick me."

I'm sure Microsoft knew there would be plenty of pushback from bloggers and early adopters in regard to its new operating system. That said, Windows 8's abrupt shift to touch does make it an easy target.

Add a usability expert to that group of Windows 8 skeptics.

That would be Raluca Budiu, a User Experience Specialist at the Nielsen Norman Group.

After reading her comments in an article at Laptopmag.com, I decided to follow up directly and ask her about the challenges users may face with Windows 8.

For instance, the obstacles that Windows 8 appears to throw in front of the user, what Budiu calls the "cognitive burden."

Budiu: The cognitive burden [refers] to learning two different interfaces (Metro and desktop) and keeping track of which application is run in which context. That does increase users' cognitive burden (as there's more to keep in their working memory); it doesn't mean it's an insurmountable obstacle, though.

OK, so there's a learning curve. And she's right. Users don't like steep learning curves.

Next, I asked her about how Windows 8 seems to contravene the productivity principal of Windows. And In the interest of full disclosure, I did mention in my question that I thought Microsoft needed the Metro UI (note: Microsoft does not call it "Metro" anymore) to bring Windows into the 21st century.

Budiu: Microsoft is trying to connect consumption and production by providing the two different interfaces. But its priorities appear wrong: being the default, the Metro interface is the spotlight, while the desktop interface is backstage. In the versions I've seen, even users who want to use Windows for production will have to go through the Metro interface at least occasionally -- for instance, to switch tasks.

Windows 8 feels more like an OS designed for mobile than for the desktop, and the beauty of it is indeed that it's going to be the same on a phone and on a tablet and on a desktop. That certainly has some advantages -- strategic (desktop developers will perhaps be able to more easily create apps for Windows Phone 8), but also in terms of consistency of UI across devices.

However, with that constraint in mind, it seems that Microsoft was forced to make UI choices that are suboptimal for the desktop. Desktop is different than mobile and it's not going to go away in the 21st century. Most of my work involves testing users on mobile and thinking about mobile interfaces, and, from what I've seen, although they use their phones and tablets for a variety of tasks, when it comes to doing more complex research and putting together multiple sources of information, users always say they'd rather do it on the desktop. And that's not going to go away, because the small screen is just too small and it can hold only that much content at a time.

On the desktop, users care about ease of use, being able to use their computers efficiently for powerful tasks, and being able to take full advantage of the large desktop screen. Users may make initial decisions based on UI fashion, but it doesn't mean that they'll not resent designers for those decisions if the system is hard to use. To go back to mobile, tons of poorly rated apps with "cool" designs prove that users ultimately do care about usability.

All good points and, no doubt, a lot of people agree with at least some of them. The only thing that I would add is: if it ain't broke, don't fix it (I've never seen any need to change the tried-and-true Windows file system, for example.)

But let's insert a little balance, too. I think a post at Redmondmag.com offers some perspective on getting past the Metro molehill.

About the Windows 8 start screen, Redmondmag said the following:

Microsoft just didn't get out in front of this one fast enough. It reminds me of the first ads I saw for Vista, which focused exclusively on the stupid "flip 3D" application-switching feature. Microsoft buried the headline there, focusing on something trivial and not communicating very well on what made Vista different. Microsoft's made that same error with the new Start screen, and the world in general has crucified them for it.... Yeah, the new Metro-styled Start screen is going to throw some people for a bit of a loop, but so did the Start menu when Windows 95 was introduced. They'll adapt -- they'll just whine a bit because they haven't had to adapt to any major changes since 2002 when you deployed XP the first time.

And the site discussed why Windows 8 isn't as revolutionary as it looks.

The deployment technologies, support processes, and almost all the rest of Windows 8 are astonishingly similar to Windows 7. I think, in their race to look as cool as Apple, Microsoft is making Windows 8 seem a lot more revolutionary than it is -- and I mean that in a very good way. Enterprises don't like revolution; we like evolution. Small, incremental changes we can cope with...some major cosmetic overhaul, some new concepts, but the same basic stuff at the core.

Let me close by saying that I like Windows 8. But there's no more room for me to bloviate here. I'll do that another time.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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