Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

Summary: Is the Windows 8 Start Screen the right replacement for the classic Start menu?

TOPICS: Browser, Microsoft

What follows are my thoughts and feelings related to Microsoft's latest post over on Building Windows 8 about the Windows 8 Start Screen.

Over on Building Windows 8 blog, Microsoft's latest post works hard at trying to convince the reader that the classic Windows Start Menu is both inefficient and outdated. I agree with this so there's no argument from me. The post then goes on to argue that the Windows 8 Start Screen is so much better for both mouse users and those who will be using touch. On this point, I remain unconvinced.

Before I begin

Before I begin, one point I want to make. I've been using Windows 8 now on several setups for many hours, and overall I've very pleased with what I'm seeing. The OS features many improvements that I feel will be of enormous benefit to home, small office and enterprise users alike.

I like Windows, and I like Windows 8.

A lot.


I'm still not convinced that Microsoft plan to shove a touch interface into what is essentially isn't designed to be used that way is flawed, and I'm worried about what effect this may have on both users and the Windows ecosystem in general.

Some assumptions

I'm going to make one assumption here about the PC landscape during the years that we can expect Windows 8 to reign (2012 to say 2015). That is that touchscreen technology on the PC (both on desktops and notebooks) won't become mainstream in this time and that the default input devices that most home and business users will be relying on will still be the humble keyboard and mouse. I make this assumption with absolute confidence. Sure, we're going to see touch-enabled PC from OEMs, but these will feature a premium price tag and as such remain high-end, luxury items. As far as the budget and mainstream markets are concerned (and those two categories will represent over 85% of Windows 8 users), Windows 8 might as well not be touch-enabled.

In other words, touch might one day be big, but expecting it to go big during the three or so years that Windows 8 will shine for is crazy.

Solution looking for a problem

So, what Microsoft is proposing to do in Windows 8 is replace the Start Menu, something that even I admit is kludgy and even with the best will in the world can rapidly degenerate into a confusing hellstew, with a mechanism that's designed primarily with touch in mind. Sure, you can drive it with a mouse, but the overall idea here is to make it capable of being driven with the simplest pointing device - the finger. Problem is, that's not going to be an option for the majority of Windows 8 users. So in other words, Microsoft is making sweeping changes to the OS for the benefit of a tiny minority or users.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Start Screen - it's a solution looking for a problem to solve. If people were clamoring for touch-enabled PCs then the Start Screen makes sense, but they're not, and they're unlikely to be for the foreseeable future.

I have a question for Microsoft. Exactly how is this (something that to me looks like a throwback to the Program Manager days of Windows 3.1) ...

... any easier (to use and on the eye) for keyboard and mouse users than this ... ?

Both involve scrolling, but at least the Start Menu focuses the eye and the user's attention on a small portion of the screen.

Invoking Fitts' law -->

Fitts' law

In the blog post over on Building Windows 8, Marina Dukhon, a senior program manager lead on the Core Experience team, spends a great deal of time talking about Fitts' law. Don't know what Fitts' law is (shame on you!)? It's used to model the act of pointing, either by physically touching an object with a hand or finger, or virtually, by pointing to an object on a computer monitor using a pointing device (and yes, I did get that from Wikipedia!).

How does this fit in with Windows 8? Well, Fitts' law can be used to create a heat map to show how long it takes to reach specific areas on screen. Microsoft has done this for both Windows 7 and Windows 8. Here are the results:

More of the screen is easier to get to for users using the Windows 8 UI than there is on Windows 7 ... but an awful lot of that screen is still red, and that means that those areas are still slow to access.

Note: What's interesting about the heat map for the classic Start Menu is that it backs up the theory I had that pinning items to the top of the Start Menu wasn't the best idea and that pinning to Quick Launch was faster and more efficient.

Another Fitts' law factor that's taken into account is the size of the object that you're trying to click on:

So, to counteract distance that you pointer or finger has to move, Microsoft has made the targets that people are aiming for bigger on the Start Screen. Again, in many ways I can't argue with this when it comes to a touch interface (except that on touch-enabled desktops, where having to wave your hand across the whole screen is likely to be cumbersome and get real old, real fast). Your finger is not as precise as a cursor and you need that extra space to prevent accidental 'clicks'. But why spread all the stuff across the screen unnecessarily for desktop users with a mouse? Across a big screen it makes little sense, across multiple monitors it's insanity. You'll end up having to scan the whole screen looking for the application you want to run. What's more, you'll have to scan the whole screen each time you scroll the screen.

The Start Screen - A new hellstew waiting to happen?

Here's another worry that I have related to the Start Screen. As smart as it looks in Microsoft's screenshots which have a controlled number of applications installed, what's it going to look like a few years down the line?

What's the Start Screen going to look like once installers are done installing all the crap onto the Start Screen (readme files, help, unistallers ... stuff that shouldn't be in the Start Menu any more but it)? Is the whole thing is going to end up becoming a new horrid hellstew of its own, with icons for applications strewn across the entire screen?

If having my apps spread out across the screen was actually better than having them in the Start Menu, I'd already be putting my applications links on my desktop. The fact I'm not already doing this says something.

What, no classic Start Menu?

So, if you don't like the Start Screen, you'll be able to disable it and go back to the classic Start Menu, right?

Maybe not.

So far, there's no indication from Microsoft that the classic Start Menu will be available 'officially' in Windows 8. Whether the lack of an official 'on' button for the feature is by design of a trial balloon to see what people think is unclear at present. Maybe Microsoft will eventually back down. That said, I can understand why Microsoft might not want to make it easy for people to disable the Start Screen. If the Start Menu was available as an option, it's very likely that the Start Screen would wither away and die as the majority of users went back to something that they know and has worked well so far.

Closing thoughts

Speaking subjectively, I don't like the Start Screen. It already feels kludgy and awkward. Rather than one huge wasteland for all apps to go into, I'd much rather if there was a way to organize the apps using tabs or something ... and I'm no fan of tabs! Speaking objectively, I don't see the point of the Start Screen when the majority of users aren't going to benefit from it. It's change for the sake of change and unless Microsoft pulls a rabbit out of a hat in terms of making the whole thing far more usable between now and the beta, I predict that it will be seen as a huge mess and something that may cause users to shun Windows 8 in greater numbers than they shunned Vista.

Maybe Windows 8 will indeed turn out to be Microsoft's riskiest product.

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Topics: Browser, Microsoft

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  • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

    MS talks about how inefficient the start menu is because it requires scrolling. Yet, it was the users who screamed about the lack of real estate the vista/7 start menu used which required scrolling and the removal of classic start menu in 7.

    Now they agree and come up with a touch driven "menu" that is clearly not drivable with a mouse. Yes, I've been trying.

    Instead of forcing this metro UI on users they should do what they did with the start menu change in xp/vista. Offer the new UI but allow for users to go "classic" and don't force the metro UI for another 2-3 releases.

    I won't move to win 8 without a familiar start menu option
    • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer


    • The developer preview is bad with a mouse, yes


      But they've already admitted as much. Scroll wheel doesn't work, neither does clicking on the screen and dragging left or right. Both are things I would expect to work for beta, which would help. Personally it's not that big of a deal as I'm already accustomed to using search on the start menu, and the Start Key > Type stuff still works with the new start screen. It actually works better overall.

      That said, I still think they should have the option to use either. The new Start Screen is brilliant for touch devices but I don't know how much tweaking it would take to make it usable for a keyboard and mouse. It would also be really good on a TV with a Kinect sensor. Even if my desktop monitor had a touch screen it would still suck to use because it's too far away, and having to leave the keyboard and mouse to reach across the desktop to the monitor sounds woefully ineffecient.

      I still think the registry key that allows you to disable the start screen in the developer preview is indication it will be an option that can be toggled. I hope I'm not wrong. Of course, Windows 7 still rocks and I really don't have a problem continuing to use it on the desktop. And since Microsoft support the previous version of Windows much the way they do the current, I'm okay with that. Maybe as we get to 2015 and Windows 9 the new interface will start to make more sense. And I'm okay with that too.
    • Touch is only a leaf while desktop is the forest

      WinTeam is so obsessed with tablets they forget what Windows is for.
    • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer


      I can't make heads or tails of the new "non-menu" either. It's non-intuitive for a PC. Looks like it might work on a limited purpose phone though... The Start Menu isn't perfect, but it mostly works. It kinda looks like they did a bad ripoff of Ubuntu Unity, only made it much worse.... (I don't exactly like Unity either except for Netbooks).

      Vista drove me to Ubuntu as an escape, and I only partly came back with improved/fixed Win7 which I find pretty nice overall. Only now I only run Win7 in a VM isolated from physical hardware for specific apps and then shut it back off when done since it isn't needed for normal day to day stuff anymore. Win8 will likely push me over the edge for good. I'm hoping the feedback from the Dev Preview will cause them to go back and rethink a bit.
    • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

      @mike2k: To be fair Microsoft have said scrolling with a mouse and keyboard navigation aren't finished. They know they don't yet work properly.<br><br>Otherwise, I completely agree.

      I also agree with the main article pointing out the new UI is designed for minority of users but given to everyone.

      Except the start screen, Windows 8 looks awesome. So many features will be USPs: Social networking integration, Windows Live/SkyDrive built in, transferring settings across PCs.

      I especially hate how jarring it is to go from desktop to start screen and back again.
    • The inefficiency of touch screens in the desktop

      I fully agree on this. But there is something much worse than the deficiencies you have mentioned. A touch interface is very deficient on the desktop. As items are designed for touch (touch first, according to Microsoft), these have to be large enough to be touched. Thus, the richness of information that can be offered on the desktop is vanishing fast. Our high resolution monitors, designed to include more information, lose all their value as programs and infoscreens are designed for elements that need to be touched. I hate to see what would happen if Microsoft Office is designed for "touch first". It would be totally ridiculous. One would need a 50-inch monitor to fit in the same spreadsheet that can be accommodated in a 21-inch monitor.

      There no doubt that "touch-based" interfaces are totally inefficient for the desktop. If Microsoft has an issue with the inefficiency of a the Start screen, there are many other solutions, including the taskbar (which MS prefers not to talk about).

      Let's be realistic. Windows 8 is all about the tablets. Microsoft would be happy to sell Windows 7 licenses to others. Possibly, a service pack will provide the same memory efficiency and device drivers to Windows 7.

      The fact is that MS obsessing on tablets (which would prove a distraction) may prove its undoing.
    • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer


      The Kinect is The Answer regarding navigation. The physical keyboard I guess still the best for typing...
  • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

    I still prefer the classic Start Menu. Whenever I have to use a Windows machine, it's one of the first things I set. To me, it was simple and efficient.
    • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

      @msalzberg: It's rubbish. It takes 3 clicks to get into Control Panel, Printers, Network vs. 2 on the XP/Vista/Win7 Start Menu.

      There's no capability for pinning apps directly to the start menu (useful in XP/Vista for apps you use less than ones in Quick Launch), it's redundant in Win7 (pinning to task bar replaces it). You cannot get to Documents, Pictures, Videos, Downloads at all. It has no direct search functionality, like it does in Vista/Win7.

      Microsoft did go back a step by many "All Programs" scrollable. It was better in XP filling more of the screen. I appreciate this was done for low resolution screens though.

      If you mean simple, as in it's basic. Then I agree.

      p.s - Good luck setting it in Windows 7 ;-).
    • I agree, in face everything post 2000 was wrong

      @msalzberg ... When I get a Windows box to use at work (I don't use them at home) I set everything back to basically the way things looked in Windows 2000, which to me was the best Windows because (blush) I worked on a small part of it, but basically it was simple and got out of the way.

      Since then Microsoft has been trying to 'be somebody' with that god-awful Fisher Price looking XP, the half-@ssed Vista trying to copy the Mac by putting hardware graphics in to the desktop, and finally Win 7 where there is just too much going on, too many control panels, too many different kinds of control panels and absolutely no taste.

      I don't want a Windows 'experience'. I want to test my software and get it out, and the simpler Windows is, the better.

      Fortunately the financial services company for which I now work has me leading the new iPhone/iPad/Android product they're putting out, and hopefully it will mean more time with Apple products and less time with Windows. (No time with Windows would be ideal, but I've always been a dreamer).

      Long story short, put it back to the old menu, Microsoft, and stop pestering me.
    • Easy change

      I concur with msalzberg, and would like to see a simple change that would make my use of Windows more efficient: Have the Start button open immediately to what is now the All Programs display. Settings, Shut Down, etc. can be entries in the flat list.

      Big, fat icons and selection boxes are perfect for punching with a finger tip on a tablet -- and absolutely irrelevant on a desktop system.
  • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

    After using OS X Lion (and enjoying the experience), I must admit that I have NEVER used Launch Pad to "Launch" an application on my desktop iMac.

    IMO, Launch Pad and the new Win 8 Start Screen are similar and I must agree with AKH's opinions that the classic start screen is much better in a desktop environment than the new Win 8 start screen in much the same way that the classic "Dock" in OS X is much better to launch an app than the iPad styled "Launch Pad" option.
  • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

    Start screen is only the tip of the iceberg of problems with METRO on a desktop/laptop. The biggest is the lack of any way to have multiple windows open and viewable at the same time. You can't refer to an email while working on a spreadsheet. You can't have a process monitoring program open and visible while writing and email that requires you to reference a pdf.

    Since that is not possible, most productivity workers will be using the desktop full time. Why should they have to mess with METRO if they are only using the desktop?
  • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

    I need my start menu. I won't use Windows without it, plain and simple.
  • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

    This is the same compared to the "Office Button" in Office 2007, and the "Office Button" in 2010. One has a Windows 7 like Start Menu, the other has a new UI feature called "Backstage" that fills the whole screen with various options. I think that is what Microsoft is working towards here. It'll be a hub for your activities, rather than a bland menu.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

      @Cylon Centurion

      But what if I just want to open another program without filling up the whole screen? What is wrong with the always in the background desktop + taskbar + notification tray + desktop widgets as the hub for my activities?
      • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

        @rshol, they might merge that idea into the start screen, or they should. The desktop is the start screen. That would be handy.
      • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

        @rshol: The system tray has needed fixing for a long time. It's so easy to have a mess of icons that don't tell the user anything useful, until you open them one by one.
  • RE: Microsoft is right, the classic Start Menu is inefficient, but I'm not sure the Start Screen is the answer

    I like that Microsoft change the option when a user put a normal led or other monitor that no use a touch screen, that it switch to the desktop screen, like windows 7. When a user brought a Touch screen monitor that is get switch to the Metro applet screen so that the user can use it with the Touch screen. I hope that this will come in Windows 8