Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: OSs are leaving the user out of user interfaces

We seem to have entered an age of computing that I didn't see coming: the age of the terrible user interface. Windows 8 is leading the charge with not one, but two awful interfaces. That's what I think, and so does the lord of all interface analysts, Jakob Nielsen. He said Windows 8 is "weak on tablets, terrible for PCs."

But it's not just Microsoft. GNOME, once the leading Linux desktop, is rapidly fading into the background because of bad design choices in GNOME 3.x. What's going on?

I think the problem is that far too many people have forgotten UI 101 -- make it easy -- despite the availability of the handy acronym KISS (keep it simple, stupid).

Since back when Microsoft was still calling its brand-new interface Metro, I saw Windows 8 as a disaster in the making. My biggest complaint was with the cartoonish and annoying tiles. Made for touchscreens, they're fairly usable when you're holding a small device at, say, a 45-degree angle. But when the touchscreen is a monitor sitting on a desktop at something closer to 90 degrees? That results in a phenomenon called gorilla arm, a situation blamed for the failure of touchscreens on the desktop as long ago as the 1980s.

Too bad Microsoft hasn't paid attention.

Nielsen notes an even bigger problem -- one I should have seen myself. "Two environments on a single device is a prescription for usability problems," he writes. Of course it is. It's bad enough that Microsoft wants Windows users to forget everything they ever learned about using the XP and Windows 7 interfaces, but it now wants them to learn two separate interfaces to do the same old things they used to do with one.

At least I understand why Microsoft went wrong. It had this idea of uniting the experience of using smartphones, tablets and PCs. That is clearly what the UI formerly known as Metro was meant to do. True, Microsoft backtracked on that one-interface idea, deciding to include something closer to Windows 7 as an alternative for the desktop. That second-guessing didn't make Windows 8 any better, though, just clunkier.

But why has GNOME fallen off the path of UI sanity? I don't know. One observer wrote about GNOME's mistakes: "I used to be upset when gnome developers decided it was 'too complicated' for the user to remap some mouse buttons. In gnome3, the developers have apparently decided that it's 'too complicated' to actually do real work on your desktop, and have decided to make it really annoying to do."

That observer? Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux.

One GNOME developer who has left the UI behind said, "GNOME has no goals." From the outside, that seems to be true. GNOME's developers seem to think they know better than their users, but those users have fled to desktop environments such as Cinnamon and MATE that are similar to GNOME 2.x.

Is the UI story any better elsewhere? Well, don't get too cocky if you're an Apple fan. Scott Forstall, the man behind the OS X and iOS interfaces, was fired in October, and Jonathan Ive, who had been in charge of hardware design and has a very different aesthetic, is now in charge of all Apple interfaces. Might Ive make similar missteps?

I'd like to think he won't, but when you consider how badly others have done with UI decisions lately, you really have to wonder if even the experts can avoid making simple UI blunders.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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