New Windows chief: The tech press doesn't get Windows 8, but newbies do

The complaints you've been hearing about problems with the Windows 8 combined tablet-desktop interface aren't due to the operating system's design, says Microsoft's head of Windows product development. Instead, the tech press is too set it in its ways to recognize the power of the new operating system. Newbies, she says, understand Windows 8 more quickly.

Microsoft's head of Windows product development at Microsoft, Julie Larson-Green, said that in an interview with MIT Technology Review in which she discussed the design theory behind Windows 8 and the future of Windows.

Larson-Green was named to her position when Windows honcho Steven left Microsoft several weeks ago. Although there were rumors that he left because of design problems with Windows 8, Larson-Green's appointment to her position should put those rumors to rest. As MIT Technology Review notes, she "took the lead on drawing up the first design brief for Windows 8."

In the interview, she says that Windows 8 was consciously designed to have two separate interfaces, one designed for touch, and one designed for keyboard and mouse:

"It was a very definite choice to have both environments. A finger's never going to replace the precision of a mouse. It's always going to be easier to type on a keyboard than it is on glass. We didn't want you to have to make a choice. Some people have said that it's jarring, but over time we don’t hear that. It's just getting used to something that's different. Nothing was homogenous to start with, when you were in the browser it looked different than when you were in Excel."

As for complaints that the duel interfaces are confusing and make Windows 8 a kludge, she says that those complaints are fueled by the tech press, who are too set in their ways to recognize something truly new. People who haven't used computers as much, she said, are quicker to recognize the worth of the new operating system:

"Some people who review it for a shorter period of time may not feel how rich it really is. We're going for the over time impression rather than the first 20 minutes out of the box. We've found that the more invested you were in the old way, the more difficult the transition is, which is unfortunate because we first hear about everything in the tech press. Those are the ones that we knew up front are going to have the most challenge."

I'm in the tech press, and I've complained about the dueling interfaces from the first time I tried the earliest release of Windows 8. I reviewed every release and found the same problems with every one of them. And I've certainly spent more than "20 minutes out of the box" with Windows 8, and not only for my reviews. I've written a book about Windows 8, Windows 8 Hacks, and I'm using Windows 8 as I write this. I've spent countless hours and many months with the operating system.

Based on all that, I still think the operating system is confusing,  a sort of Rube Goldberg invention combining two interfaces that don't belong together. And I'm not alone. Well-known interface guru Jakob Nielsen tested Windows 8 with a dozen users, and found that Windows 8 is badly designed for tablets, and even worse for PCs. He cites dueling interfaces, reduced "discoverability," "low information density," and more. Here's what he had to say about having two interfaces in a single operating system:

"Unfortunately, having two environments on a single device is a prescription for usability problems for several reasons:

* Users have to learn and remember where to go for which features.

* When running web browsers in both device areas, users will only see (and be reminded of) a subset of their open web pages at any given time.

* Switching between environments increases the interaction cost of using multiple features.

* The two environments work differently, making for an inconsistent user experience.

(You can read his report here.)

Many other people, not just those in the tech press, echo what he has to say. The fault with Windows 8, from my point of view, isn't with the tech press, but with Windows 8's basic design.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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