Windows 8 UI 'strategic mistake,' argues design guru

Jekyll and Hyde operating system weak on tablets, terrible on PCs

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"That's the failure, and the missed strategic decision," Nielsen said.

Microsoft has, of course, trumpeted the massive UI changes as a step in the correct direction, not a wrong turn, calling Windows 8 "fast and fluid," labeling it a "no-compromise" solution, and dismissing criticism that Windows 8 is difficult to use.

In an interview prior to the Oct. 26 launch of Windows 8 with the IDG News Service -- like Computerworld, part of IDG -- Tami Reller, the Windows division's CFO, said Microsoft had done hundreds of usability tests during development, both in labs and in real-world settings.

Reller said Microsoft's results were directly opposite Nielsen's conclusions. "Within 24 hours [Windows 8] users were using 80% of the core capabilities of the operating system," Reller told IDG News reporter Joab Jackson. "And they just get faster every day."

What the company hasn't clearly explained, however, is why it did what it did, rather than develop a new OS for tablets that didn't also intrude into PC turf.

Nielsen has some ideas. "There's the marketing angle, of course, the 'Let's make one Windows,' but there's also the fact that it seems to have been engineering-driven," said Nielsen. "And all the engineers were probably thinking, 'It's not so bad, people can figure this out,' because they're brainy people and can manage to keep more things in short-term memory than most. And then there's the Apple envy, wanting to make something cooler than Apple. But they shouldn't have done that at the price of sacrificing usability."

Nielsen was confident that Microsoft could correct the mistakes of Windows 8, in part because of last week's executive reshuffling that sent former Windows division chief Steven Sinofsky packing and promoted one of his lieutenants, Julie Larson-Green, a user interface expert, to head all Windows hardware and software development.

"They've put someone in charge [of Windows] who knows UI, who understands that it's important and understands the usability arguments," said Nielsen. "Going forward, it's vital that the person at the helm inherently understands that you have to design for real people."

Until then, Nielsen said he was sticking with Windows 7. "I'll stay with Windows 7 the next few years and hope for better times with Windows 9," he said.

Joab Jackson of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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