Monday, 26 November 2012

Windows 8 review

Over the course of the last couple of years my view of Microsoft has changed. They have seemed to be on a roll. First with the original surface – those bespoke multi touch tables, then Kinect and its promise of coming to the desktop, and recently with Metro, the new Surface and Windows 8. Microsoft seemed to me to be on the up. They were the guys who were innovating, who were not content with the exiting paradigms. With Metro, I had my concerns about the design approach of mixing two UI approaches in one OS, but hey the design was refreshing and far away from the skeuomorphic tendencies of the Apple mobile offerings. What’s more they proudly boasted “Windows 8 is the most widely used and tested pre-release product we’ve ever delivered,”. Bring it on.

So, it was with great anticipation that, on the day of its release I installed Windows 8. Admittedly my laptop was ancient, I bought it when Vista had just been launched, but one of the great things with Windows 8 is that it will still run on this old hardware. Sure it would be better to have a touch screen machine, but money is tight. I did look at getting a new machine, and was tempted by all the new laptops pre installed with the new OS. Some of which looked very affordable. But these are the non touch screen models. The cheapest touch screen Dell I could find was £879.

So I was stuck with my old PC, and I suspect I am in the same boat as the bulk of Windows 8 users, either upgrading or using a cheap machine and no touch UI. So what is it like?

Metro a promise unfulfilled
It is fast to load. But although it was the launch day, it still required updating – as it does on an annoyingly frequent basis. On first impressions it looks slick and tight. The tiles look good and bright, the Metro, (or whatever it is now called) UI is attractively simple looking. But, oh how quickly a dream can be destroyed.

Once you start to use the touch UI it starts to fall apart. The simplicity and cleanliness of the UI is partly down to its distinct lack of functionality. The core apps such as IE, calendar, maps seem so paired down that their functionality is compromised. Surely what has been learnt form the IOS App revolution is that touch screen does not have to mean lack of functionality. Surely even the most basic calendar would make it easy to switch between day, week, month and even year views? But in Windows 8 these options are hidden in the bottom task bar. It seems impossible to move an event from one day to another by dragging, or any other method except going in and changing the event parameters. Could be my lack of touch, but come on get this right.

The issue of off screen controls is surely one which must have raised some issues during the testing. A central tenant of a WYSIWYG interface is the notion that functions are laid out in front of the user, or represented by visual labels or icons. With Metro functionality is hidden at the side, top and bottom. As a new user I found this very hard to get to grips with. What can I do here was never clear. Design concept  over function.

The whole design of Metro seems to be an antidote to the increasing skeuomorthism of Apple’s recent designs. Skeuomorphism is the practice of making a design appear to look like its real world counterpart. So the Apple calendar has a stitched leather header and torn paper embellishments. The design establishment has heavily criticized the approach. Interestingly it does not seem to be a turn off with the general public, or maybe that even in this day of social media they are yet to voice an opinion. It is seen as rather tacky and over ornate. It is against the modernist aesthetic of simplicity and form follows function where the UI is a highly functional element of the design and almost fades into the background. Rather than attempt to draw attention to itself.

The UI is so slimed down it fails to contain sufficient content. Edward Tufte has long crusaded for higher information density. 
"Match the information density in your presentation to the highest resolution newspapers [The Wall Street Journal has the highest resolution of all]" Tufte

While this may be extreme, Metro seems to be taking the PowerPoint school of UI design and putting as little content as possible into its screens. Metro is not alone this delusional view of communication is rife in the marketing and design community. It is taken to its extreme in apps like Haiku Deck where you are advised to only use minimum words to explain a concept. At least in a presentation the presenter will expand upon the limited message. On a device you are alone and want to consume, not simply admire the design.

And then there is the idea that you do not need to see more than one browser window at once. Surely there is a way of implementing tabs or some other solution. The general lack of multiple windows in the Metro UI is odd for a laptop or PC UI. Granted it is a common limitation of mobile and tablet OS – the notable exception being the defunct WebOS – but once you are on a laptop it should be supported. Microsoft’s answer to this is to make Metro only one half of the OS. (Update, I found the multiple windows – off the top of the screen )

Metro takes minimal design to the extreme. The basic button, is a building block of UI design since the days of the Xerox Star. In Metro it has been stripped down to a level where it is merely a symbolic image with or without a label. Sometime the symbol has no enclosing boundary and the text looks the same as other on screen text. The act of rolling over (which is nonsense on a  touch screen) is  sometimes the only way of knowing that the area is interactive. This is following trends in web design, where visual design and the expected sophistication of the end user negates the need for clear, or what is perceived as excessive visual clues. As someone with a background in design and fine art the design of Metro was alluring. But time and again in web UI evaluation we find that users do need clues. They are not as sophisticated or as quick to grasp what to do or how to do it as we would like. Websites are fashion victims. Of course there is a bedrock of usability design, but the visual design and design tricks evolve and follow trends. Often short term trends. This is not what one wants for an interface which has to last for years. It is a core element and should rid itself of the notion of fashion. I feel Metro is a UI of today, but it is already failing because of its design stance.

Desktop and the demise of the start button
If you want to do real work and forget about touch then you launch the desktop. So now instead of having to learn one way of interacting users have to learn two. Is this a good idea? I expect not, it is a comprimse of a legacy system combined with the need to keep up with new forms of interaction.

The desktop is an evolution of the Windows of the past, but it does have at least one fundamental change which make it harder for old hands to transition. That is the removal of the start button.  I can understand that the start button may not easily sit at the bottom right hand corner anymore because you could have your desktop beside a Metro app. Then it would be easier to miss a hotspot in the corner of that “window”. But its complete removal is a bit extreme.

Once you have managed to get to the desktop, a single click on the Metro start page, but not a global element of the off screen Metro functions – then you instinctively reach for the location of the old start button to run a program. If you click the spot where start was you are thrown back into Metro. To actually open an app without starting from a file you need to:

·      switch back to Metro,
·      access the all apps button from the off screen bottom taskbar,
·      right click on an application and then the bottom taskbar will appear and give you the option to pin to the taskbar.

You are not pinning to this taskbar you will not see any visual indication that you have achieved your task or any confirmation. You are not pinning to the Metro taskbar but the desktop taskbar.

I can’t think of a worse way to introduce people to the new desktop. There is no intuitive way of doing this. There does not seem to be a way of doing it within the desktop environment. I want to change the desktop so I have to go into Metro? If you use the desktop help and search for “start button” you don’t find anything useful. Because the start button does not exist, so there is no help relating to this feature. Try “pin applications to taskbar”, nope no joy. This is bad.

I may be missing something, but I approached Windows 8 as a novice user, I did not watch the introduction videos till after I had struggled for a while, and even then they were of little help. I am an experienced design and usability professional who has worked in UI for 24 years, used more operating systems and their various incarnations than I care to remember. But in the end I had to reach for Google to find an answer to this basic, basic task.

I will battle on with Windows 8 to find its hidden depths. Admittedly within Metro there are some nice features, but I see these problems as fundamental issues. Microsoft may innovate and test to the nth degree, but they still don’t get it user interface or experience design.

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