Final thoughts on Windows 8: A design disaster

Final thoughts on Windows 8: A design disaster

Summary: The biggest problem with Windows 8 is that it wasn't born out of a need or demand. Its design failures, particularly with 'Metro UI' will likely be its downfall. Here's why.

TOPICS: Windows

A week ago, Microsoft delivered the Windows 8 Release Preview, the final pre-release of the platform before the forthcoming operating system hits the release-to-manufacturing stage. OEMs get their hands on the final code at this stage, which is followed by Windows 8's general availability, where it's available to us all.

I've been following Windows 8 closely over the past few months, spending a lot of time not only with the official releases but also with a number of leaked builds, and I've had the chance to install the operating system on a variety of hardware platforms, both old and new. However, since my primary working platform is a desktop system, this is where I've had the chance to spend the most time with Microsoft's new operating system.

I'm now ready to sum up my Windows 8 experience with a single word: awful.

I could have chosen a number of other words -- terrible, horrible, painful and execrable all spring to mind -- but it doesn't matter, the sentiment is the same.

And I don't say this lightly. I want to like Windows 8. I really do. From a performance point of view, I've no complaints since it's just as snappy and responsive as Windows 7, and will likely get a little better as drivers mature. Hardware support is also excellent; the platform able to handle effortlessly everything I threw at it.

Windows 8 is also very robust and reliable. I did experience a shower of error messages on one occasion when trying to install it on a notebook, but on restarting the installation everything seemed to work just fine the second time around. Apart from this single incident, I've not experienced another crash or lockup while using the Windows 8 Release Preview.

"It just works." I'm trying to think where I've seen that phrase before.

And if nothing else, I want to like Windows 8 because I know that I'll be spending a lot of time using it over the coming years.

But despite being rock-solid, snappy and responsive, as a platform to do real-world work on, Windows 8 feels utterly unusable, and that's down to one thing -- the "Metro UI" user interface.

I'm going to avoid commenting on Metro on touch-based systems for now because Windows 8 is too far off in the future to know what the hardware is going to be like. Instead, I'm going to limit my discussion to using the operating system on desktop and notebook systems.

On the face of it, the Metro UI looks good. It's new and shiny and refreshing, and it looks like it could actually be quite usable. If you've used Windows Phone then the interface feel familiar. Things feel good.

And then you start to use it.

The first problem comes when you try to find the application you want to run. Every version of Windows since Windows 95 has trained us to scroll through a vertical list looking for the applications we want to launch, but with Windows 8, Microsoft has thrown away this concept and instead adopted a system called the Start Screen where the links to all your apps are spread across the screen.

As a result, rather than keeping your attention focused on a small part of the screen, you've now got to scan over the entire screen. The larger the screen, the more area you have to scan. It turns the process of finding the app you want to run into a game of "Where's Waldo?" -- and I detest playing that game or puzzle, or whatever it is.

The last thing I want is for my PC to force me into playing "hunt the app" every time I want to get something done.

Microsoft has offered users an escape chute, given that you're not going to be able to find anything, and added a search feature that allows you to filter the apps by typing the name of what you're looking for. This works, but it's clumsy and makes a mockery of having all the icons displayed on screen in the first place. Every time I'm forced to use it, it's another failure for the Microsoft design team.

Another annoyance with the Metro Start Screen is that all roads lead to it. Almost everything you do ends up throwing you into the Start Screen. I find it utterly crazy that I can go from clicking on a tile on the Start Screen and then be unceremoniously dumped into things like a Classic Control Panel applet or Windows Explorer. Then, to do the next thing, you're back to the Start Screen again.

Bolting on a new user interface is one thing, but when that user interface is incomplete, it makes you question the value of having it in the first place.

But it gets worse.

Not only did someone at Microsoft think that it was a good idea to make Metro the primary user interface in Windows 8, but they also decided to destroy the 'classic' user interface experience too by also 'Ribbonizing' most of the applications. These Ribbon toolbars are packed with small user elements and are fiddly to use with a mouse, and even more fiddly -- at times bordering on impossible to use -- when driven with a finger.

The Ribbon toolbars, which we first saw in Office 2007, weren't developed with touch in mind, but it appears that Microsoft has decided to adopt them as a cheap alternative to spreading the Metro user interface across the whole of Windows 8. Not only do they not work well on touch systems, they're also terribly cluttered and confusing.

Another problem is what's called 'mystery meat navigation' where you're really not sure what anything is or what it does. While Microsoft has moved stuff about and added a whole raft of features, there's nothing that gives the user any clue that these new features exist, or how to find them. Unless users are guided to these new additions, the only way they are going to figure things out is through trial and error.

How many users have the patience for that, particularly in a productivity-centric environment?

There are too many hidden and invisible user interface elements in Windows 8. Take your mouse to the bottom-left of the screen and you get poor replacement to the Start Menu. Take the cursor to the top-left and you get tiles showing apps that are open. Take the cursor to the right of the screen and a charms Ribbon pops out. How is this any better or more intuitive than everything on a single taskbar?

In some areas, Microsoft has added a lot more user interface clutter to some areas of Windows with Ribbon toolbars, and in others it has taken away all visible user interface elements and left people to guess where to point and click.

I just can't shake the feeling that Windows 8 would be better off as two separate operating systems. A 'classic' Windows 8 for regular desktop and notebook systems - which would feel more like a service pack for Windows 7 than a full release -- and a separate 'Metro' version for touch-enabled hardware.

Even at this late stage in the game, it still feels to me like Windows 8 is two operating systems unceremoniously bolted together.

An example I've used previously is that the Windows 8 user interface feels like something out of the mind of a child asked to draw a futuristic car. They'd give you the general car shape and then bolt on something like wings or rockets. Rather than ending up with something new and usable, you end up being presented with a Frankenstein's monster of cobbled together parts that are clumsy and impractical.

And that's how Windows 8 feels to me: clumsy and impractical.

You may think that after a while you will become immune to these annoyances the more you use Windows 8. I don't know. All I can say is that I haven't come to that point yet, and the depressing thing is that I don't think I will.

I'd honestly expected that Microsoft would have refined the user interface experience by the time the operating system got to the Release Preview stage, but it hasn't happened. While Microsoft continues to make concessions to keyboard and mouse jockeys, they don't feel integrated with the operating system as a whole. I can't believe that the user interface was designed from the ground up to work for touch, and the mouse and keyboard. It's all feels far too haphazard and disjointed.

Windows 8 wasn't born out of a need or demand; it was born out of a desire on Microsoft's part to exert its will on the PC industry and decide to shape it in a direction -- touch and tablets -- that allows it to compete against, and remain relevant in the face of Apple's iPad. After a decade of attempting to carve out a market for Windows-powered tablets, there's still no proven market for these devices.

It's not just a massive gamble --- it's too much of a gamble.

The bottom line

There's a palpable fear that Windows 8 will stumble out of the door. I'm hearing this from people within Microsoft, from the OEMs and vendors, and from others in and around the industry. The OEMs and vendors feel especially vulnerable, and if Windows 8 does become 'another Vista' then there will be an industry-wide bloodbath. Analysts are already cutting price targets on Dell and HP, and Windows 8 is still a few months away.

My predictions are that after the initial fanfare following the release, things will play out as follows:

  • Enterprise will continue to demand Windows 7, because to roll out Windows 8 'properly' the costs will rocket due to mass purchase of touch-enabled hardware and additional user interface training;
  • OEMs will sell Windows 7 PCs alongside Windows 8 systems because they will find it almost impossible to present the benefits of Windows 8 on desktop systems;
  • Microsoft will once again find itself in a position where it has to offer longer-term support for the older operating system;
  • Windows 9 will look significantly different to Windows 8, and likely switch back to the 'traditional' Windows interface;
  • Depending on how Windows RT tablets sell, Metro could well be on life-support come Windows 9.

Image credits: Craig Simms/CNET, ZDNet.


Topic: Windows

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  • It works fine

    I've been using it on my laptop and it's fine. Works fine with keyboard and mouse. The one significant gripe I have is the two version of IE that don't speak to one another. It would be nice if there was a "open on the desktop" option on the Metro IE, and it would also be nice to have the ability to run the same metro app side by side using the snap feature.

    But otherwise this article, like many others from people "in the know" making outrageous, statements and predictions (and then quoting one another to make it seem as though they hold the majority opinion), is considerably overblown. I've been using it on a legacy device not optimized for Win8 - haven't felt any need to roll back to Win7. IMO the Metro start screen is better than the traditional desktop start screen and I see no advantage to the 'start' menu over the 'charms' bar. There's a few things I don't love, but I haven't yet found anything I hate in Win8.
    widow maker
    • Swiping open a locked screen

      has been an issue for me with a mouse. First of all, holding the left mouse button down and dragging up is a very unnatural movement. Second, I can't count how many times that I've dragged it, it went as far up as it will, then it fell back down. Apparently you have to have the mouse cursor far enough down on the screen before you start your click and drag for it to take. So that's all extra motion needed to simply be able to enter a password.

      I haven't tried the newest release yet so perhaps this is fixed. But this is just one small example of how not having a touch screen has been detrimental to the user experience of Windows 8.
      Michael Kelly
      • I just click on the lock screen

        I simply left click on the screen - the start screen rolls up and I have my password box.
        widow maker
      • Another Option...

        While not an easy to get to button, you can activate CTRL+ALT+DEL to unlock Windows 8. You have to go into Administrator Tools > Local Security Policy > Local Policy > Security Options and set "Interactive logon: Do not require CTRL+ALT+DEL" to disabled.
        Big Sparky
      • Just double click the mouse or press enter to get the login screen

        Not sure what this is an issue, just double click and the type the pwd. It is sure simple than Ctrl-Alt-Del or just press Enter on the keyboard (PC 101)

        Common, ignorance should not be the reason to blame a well thought OS
      • you can also

        press the 'enter' key on the keyboard instead of pulling up.
      • Another one

        hit the arrow up key...
      • I simply

        Hit enter. And no group policy change is needed, as the require ctrl+alt+del setting isn't the default anymore, even if the machine is joined to the domain.
      • Any key I think will roll-up the screen.

        It rolls up as I start typing my password, it just doesn't put any character in the password box until it completely rolled-up.
      • Dead Horse

        Not to beat said dead horse, but I think you can also mouse wheel to unlock it.
      • Add the ESC key to the list of ways to unlock

      • They changed that in the release preview

        Now all you have to do is click and boom.... the lock screen slides up.
      • Michael Kelly Swiping open a locked screen

        Really? This is your issue? Clearly you're mentally challanged.
      • Silly

        Press enter. You're about to use the keyboard anyway...
      • All of these replies are making Adrian's point perfectly...

        16 different ways to do this simple task. The problem is that none of them are obvious. You have to stumble onto them by luck. Then they are obvious... Start typing a password without a prompt? The Ctrl-Alt-Del combo is disabled by default? Dumb OS, designed so dummies can use it. Dummies don't know any of the old ways, so they have an easier time. Experienced people have a harder time with this stuff... Enough hate already.
        • Don't be a complete doink.

          For every single person who has to learn how to use a computer from the beginning of time there has always been a learning curve. I like ever other user probably recalls that we had to even be taught how to shut the damn thing off. Dont complain that a revolutionary new OS has some usage featurs that are not immediatly apperant. I dont recall any version of Windows coming with a comprehensive "How too" manual, although I know millions who have asked "why not" by Windows learners.
          • It's the loss of intuitive functionality

            *sigh* It's not about "change". We love changing technology, the new and shiny. This is not new and shiny. Calling this throwback to 1992 the "Modern" interface was surely done in jest, or at least sarcasm. Program Manager 2012, A.K.A. Windows 8, ignores everything we've learned about usability, information density, leading users to the tools they need, differentiating interactive points from background, and simple aesthetics!

            That one must invoke 3rd party applications, obscure key combinations, and numerous keystrokes to accomplish a task that formerly required two clicks is a travesty of interface design.

            There are substantial improvements to security and connectivity "behind the scenes". Had those been incorporated into the beautiful and functional Aero interface, this OS would have been cheered rather than jeered.
            Calvin Saul
          • Its not about learning

            Windows 8 is appalling. Its not a learning curve. It's an unlearning curve. This is evidenced by the massive fall in computer sales, by the MILIONS of disappointed users, by the UNIVERSAL testimony of businesses. How can you overlook all this and say it is just a learning curve problem. Cayble - you have a responsibility not to talk crap.

        The Douginator
      • Wow!

        Why did you not just touch any key on the key board and go to the sign in prompt.