I once called it the epic fail of the decade. Now that Microsoft is releasing the ultimate bandage to a poorly designed operating system on July 29 and skipping right over Windows 9 in an effort to distance themselves from Windows 8 (figuratively and numerically), it’s more like the epic fail of a half-decade. On hindsight, it might have been a sign of an even more troubling problem.
Here's a quick update. Windows 10 solves many of the usability problems in the current OS release. It restores the Start button (which operates more like a Start panel now) in the lower-left portion of the screen. You can access settings, start apps, and even drop frequently used docs into the Start menu.
This also means we won’t have to deal with one of the most confusing interfaces in all of humanity (unless you count Linux for the desktop). The “touch” portion -- the array of colored tiles known originally as the Metro UI and then as the Start screen -- was supposed to help tablet users manage and start apps. It was whimsical and fun, according to Microsoft. It matched up with a similar interface on smartphones. It was also terrible. The splattering of tiles looked confusing, especially to new users.
That was the main problem with Windows 8, which debutted in late 2012. For about ten years, I worked in the corporate sector and one of my teams helped design products and ran a usability and design lab. At the time, we wanted to find out if a newly designed hardware or software product would appeal to new users, so we set put them in a room and monitored their actions. We took detailed notes and recorded every action. Then, we wrote reports on how everything worked. If new users felt frustrated and confused, we knew we had to go back to the drawing board.
I’m sure Microsoft did extensive testing with Windows 8, and I’ve seen one of its usability labs in person. I’ve heard that, with the video game Halo, they tracked how gamers played through levels and adjusted the game design to keep people interested (aka, hooked). I’m not really sure how Windows 8 ever made it out of the usability lab. You can try this test yourself. Find a Mac user or someone who still runs an older version of Windows (or try to hunt down a Linux desktop user). Set them down with a Windows 8 (or Windows 8.1) laptop or tablet. Now, ask that person to shut down the computer, add a new app, change the trackpad settings, or tweak the desktop settings.
If you know how to do it, it’s not that hard. You know you have to move the mouse over to the lower-right and hover to see the Settings icon. Good luck, though, because there are actually two different Settings (the one for Windows 8 and the Control Panel left over from previous versions). You might already know there’s a Start button in Windows 8, but new users just don’t get it. When I first tested Windows 8 back in 2012, I asked about ten people to try a few basic functions and every single one of them got confused. A few got angry. Almost every one of them said they hated the experience.
This is a huge problem for IT workers. Usability ties directly into productivity, the time required for support and training, and even the frustration levels of employees. You just don’t feel like you can master the interface quickly, which makes you want to abandon it. The colored tile interface just made people feel inept.
Thankfully, Windows 10 solves many of the problems. There’s no need for a Start screen because everything you need is right on the desktop. You can easily find Settings (I know this because I tested roughly the same ten people again and they all gravitated to the Start menu and found it). Windows 10 makes you feel as though you can be productive again, with or without the tiles.
It’s not easy for a $368B company to correct their mistakes. Windows smartphones are probably going to go the way of the dodo soon. But at least Windows 10 does make amends for Windows 8. Unfortunately, it also seems like Windows 8 was a sign of a deeper problem. Microsoft seemed to lose touch with their end-users and forgot how to be a consumer-driven company.
Here’s my view. There is always a consumer. Even the largest B2B companies, even the megacorps that serve the industrial sector, even IBM should know that there is a person involved at some level who needs to use a product and stay productive. When you make a product intuitive, even if it is a complex IT admin app or a data-mining tool, people will understand what to do. They will get behind the product. When you make a splashy page of colored tiles no one can understand, people will balk. They won’t get it. They’ll question your design ethos.
Now, before we start questioning Microsoft as a company, it’s important to know that Windows 8 was a minor blip on the overall roadmap. As much as I hate Windows 8, the tech giant’s stock has risen steadily since 2012. There was a big slump in February of this year, but they’ve made a nice rebound. Yet, the failure of Windows 8 seemed to feed right into the failure of Windows smartphones and in some ways the failure of other Microsoft productivity apps.
Where to go from here? It's only going to get better. I am a big fan of Windows 10 because of that new Start menu. It works. People seem to get it. Now, Microsoft needs to figure out how to maintain this kind of focus.
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