I’ll be honest: I actually like Windows. (Disclaimer: I also like Macs, and I use Linux on a daily basis. Really, no OS is perfect.)
I even liked the oft-maligned Vista! (Sure it regressed in more ways than it should have, but the Aero UI did look nice.) However, in my view, Windows’s real moment of glory came in 2009 with the release of Windows 7. With Windows 7, Microsoft had finally, it seemed, realized the value of customer feedback, and released a version of Windows improved in almost every way. The results were apparent: reviews were nearly universally positive, and the number of Windows 7 installs surpassed the total number of Vista installs in less than a year — more than double Vista’s adoption rate. Clearly, Microsoft had finally gotten Windows figured out!
Given how well-done Windows 7 was, when I saw the first screenshots of Windows 8 “start screen”, I was naturally pretty excited. Not only was Microsoft going to freshen up the increasingly tired Aero UI, but it would also take on the refined visual styling of Windows Phone. (I used a Windows Phone for about a year, and it really does look nicer than the other mobile operating systems.) As a fan of the Office 2007/2010 “ribbon” interface, I had a lot of faith in Microsoft’s ability to take an old UI and turn it into something new while improving it.
Unfortunately, this excitement would prove short-lived; after trying the first few beta versions of Windows 8, I became increasingly disappointed. In order to be fair, I decided that I would refrain from passing judgment until I had tried the final version. Now that the final version of Windows 8 is out, I can finally discuss the problems that I found with it. First off, let’s discuss what is frequently cited as the primary issue with Windows 8:
Two User Interfaces, One Operating System (Not the Main Problem)
This is, by, far, the most common complaint you may have seen about Windows 8. For example, this article notes “Windows 8 still feels as if it’s two different operating systems bolted together” and Engadget says “Windows 8 still feels like two very different operating systems trying to be one.”
Indeed, in Windows 8, there are two disparate UIs: a classic “desktop” UI which looks much like Windows 7, and a new “modern” UI that looks like Windows Phone. To illustrate, the two pictures below show Internet Explorer 10 having been opened from the desktop ui and the modern ui:
Internet Explorer when started in the “desktop” ui.
Internet Explorer when started from the “modern” ui
Not only do the two user interfaces function in very different ways, but the interaction between the two is minimal — in fact, there are many features duplicated in Windows 8 because of this separation. (For example, the Windows “Control Panel” is still present, but it is now joined by the modern-UI “PC Settings”: a second control panel that, in addition to some new settings, also duplicates some of the ones already found in the desktop-UI Control Panel.)
While I do think this is a problem, it is not my main complaint about Windows 8. Certainly, the two user interfaces don’t really complement one another at all, but that’s fairly secondary: after all, basic functions such as copy+paste and Alt+Tab still work between modern-ui and desktop-ui apps, and the modern-ui does indeed look very slick with all its cool animations and colorful minimalist aesthetic. So what has got me so disappointed with Windows 8, then?
The Real Problem: The Sacrifice of Usability for Aesthetics
Let me state again: I think Windows Phone 7 is very pleasant to use — while I currently use Android as my primary phone, I think that Windows Phone 7 feels much smoother and more pleasant. Likewise, I should find Windows 8 similarly pleasant. However, while Windows 8 may look just like Windows Phone 7, it doesn’t act like it — in fact, I argue that Windows 8 misses a key design value that, in part, makes Windows Phone 7 great: visibility.
Visibility, in the sense of UI design, can be defined as:
“the prompts and cues…available to lead users through an interaction, guide them through the accomplishment of specific tasks, indicate the possible actions that can be taken or just inform them about their context.” [source]
To illustrate how Windows 8′s UI lacks visibility compared to Windows Phone 7, let’s have a look at the Windows Phone 7 “Start Screen” (left), compared to Windows 8′s version (right):
Aside from there being a lot more screen space, the Windows 8 version features a notable difference: it lacks the prominent arrow image () at the top right found in the Windows Phone version. What does that arrow do? It animates all the tiles to the left, revealing a list of all installed applications. If you look very closely at the Windows 8 screen the only similar control in the is a small minus sign icon in the bottom right corner ():
Clicking this button does the following:
The start screen seems to zoom out, presumably providing an overview of all the icons you haven’t added yet. If you do want a list of all installed applications, it is a two-step process, as shown below:
1. Right clicking on the start screen slides in a small orange bar from the bottom, which provides an “all applications” button:
2. Pressing that button then brings up the list of all apps:
Simple enough — but unlike the Windows Phone 7 version, the user interface provides no cue to the user to indicate that this action is possible, therefore making the necessary actions much less clear. Now, Microsoft isn’t stupid — they wouldn’t do something like this for no reason. After all, there is plenty of empty space on the start screen — certainly enough to include that “all applications” button. So why didn’t they? There is only one reason that makes any sense: the button didn’t look nice. It interfered with the minimalism that makes the modern-ui so slick-looking, and so, it had to go.
The consequences of this attitude pervade Windows 8. As it turns out, right clicking an empty area to make things appear from off-screen is ubiquitous throughout modern-ui apps. (And, just as in the start screen, there is no indication of this — anywhere.) For example, when opening a new tab in the modern-ui version of Internet Explorer, the “tab” thumbnails slide in from the top, and quickly slide back into the top of the screen.
Modern-UI Internet Explorer showing open tabs
Given that they slide upward into the top of the screen, one might expect that they would slide back in if the mouse were moved to the top. However, only a right-click on an unmarked area of the webpage will bring up the tabs. While this is, in practice, easy enough to memorize, it makes no sense to me, as a user of the software (I discovered it by accident.)
Even the desktop UI is not exempt from the “minimalism first” attitude. Take, for example, the start button that has been found in the bottom left corner of Windows since it was introduced in Windows 95:
It’s gone! Or is it? Move the mouse pointer to where it would have been, and…
…there it is! Even the venerable start button, it seems, couldn’t escape from the march of minimalism. The problem with this? The start button provides users with something visible to click on — hot corners are certainly useful (I’ve had custom ones set up on my Mac since 2005), but they don’t provide any indication that there’s anything there in the first place. In fact, even major corporations have taken issue with this; recently Samsung, a major PC manufacturer, announced, “in an effort to minimize the potential frustration caused by Windows 8′s new look”, the company will be installing a visible start button on their Windows 8 computers.
There are, of course, other similar problems found throughout the OS, but there’s no need to continue listing them here. On the other hand, I’ve been using Windows 8 to write this article and I really haven’t had any problems at all, once I got past some of the initial quirks. Why is this? Because…
The task manager redesign found in Windows 8
Beneath the Insanity, Windows 8 is the Greatest Windows Yet
While there are many problems that I have talked about (and far more that I haven’t), there are some really nice improvements in Windows 8! Searching from the start screen goes faster, the whole OS runs and boots very quickly even on my ancient hardware, there is a new wonderfully designed task manager based on user feedback, the new version of explorer finally has abilities like being able to open powershell windows in your current folder as administrator, having the taskbar on multiple monitors is finally supported, and so on. Furthermore, I’ve talked with people who use Windows 8 on a day-to-day basis and love it. If my criticisms are correct, then how could this be the case? There’s a simple answer: it’s perfectly usable once you’ve memorized it.
For example, take my earlier example about how difficult it is to pull up a list of all installed applications. Now, how often do I really pull up a list of my applications? Almost never! Usually, I just hit the start key and type the first few letters of the program I want. This is still present in Windows 8 (opening the start screen and typing starts searching), and it is faster than ever (but once again, it’s completely hidden.) Furthermore, all the keyboard shortcuts from Windows 7 continue to work in both the desktop and modern ui, so heavy users of keyboard shortcuts will require even less adjustment. This, to me, makes it more of a shame than anything — Windows 8 easily could have been the best version of Windows ever — but somehow, in addition to some very great decisions, it ended up being saddled with some very poor ones.
The problem is not that Microsoft tried to make an operating system that would be well-suited to both iPad-like tablets and traditional keyboard and mouse desktop computers — that idea is not, I believe, inherently flawed (though I realize that many would disagree with me). The problem is, quite simply, that Windows 8′s designers chose to sacrifice too much when it came to making controls visible. This is a sacrifice that, I believe, will come to haunt Windows 8 when it is finally released to consumers. If history tells us anything, it’s that the first impression an operating system makes tends to cement its reputation — for example, while Windows Vista hardware support had improved a year after it was released, it never was able to shake off its reputation of not being compatible with anything [source]. In this way, will Windows 8 also find itself saddled with a similarly negative reputation based on users first impressions of its initially inexplicable UI?
I, unfortunately, suspect that it might.