The disconnect with Windows 8.1: Hiding the utility

The disconnect with Windows 8.1: Hiding the utility

Summary: In making Windows 8.1 work on all types of devices, Microsoft built a lot of ways to do common tasks. Unfortunately, most are hidden from view.


I like Windows 8.1, I've been clear about that. I especially like using it on the Transformer Book T100, as it takes advantage of all available methods of interacting with the OS. I can use the keyboard and trackpad/mouse, the touch screen, and the combination of all of that to get where I need to be and do what I need to do. 

Windows where
(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Given the effort to make common tasks easy to do with multiple methods, why do new users frequently express the opinion that Windows 8.1 is hard to use? After discussing this with a lot of Windows users, I believe it's because a lot of the utility built into the OS is hidden from view.

I'm talking specifically about the menus and functions that are invoked from either the corners of the display or the side bezels (depending on mouse or touch control). This includes both the dedicated Windows control menus that don't change, and the context-sensitive menus that morph to provide control to whatever app happens to be running.

I liken using the hidden controls in Windows 8.1 to what using a keyboard with blank key tops would be like.

These controls have great utility for getting around the apps and the OS. Just invoke the proper menu, tap the desired control, and you're right where you need to be.

Unfortunately, new users often don't feel that way. I interact with a lot of them, and I regularly hear that operating Windows 8.1 is difficult. That's because they can't see all of the hidden menus, and they either don't know they exist or worse, they forget about them. Out of sight, out of mind.

Learning how to do something and then forgetting about it makes some users feel stupid. That's what I've heard too many times to ignore, and that's the last thing that any company wants its product to do.

Power users and experienced Windows 8 users like me don't often have this problem. We've learned, often through trial and error, how to do the things we want. In a way we don't matter, though, as we're already in the group of users who've adopted the new Windows. Microsoft doesn't have to go out and win us over as we're already drinking the Kool Aid.

No, the vast group of potential customers that Microsoft must grab to get Windows 8 moving ever forward is full of folks who have trouble with the new OS. This is because the majority of onscreen controls aren't visible all the time. They only appear when deliberately invoked, which doesn't make many new users feel comfortable. Think about that, Windows onscreen controls aren't onscreen until the user does something to make them appear. Which they have trouble with because they don't know the controls exist, much less that they need do something to invoke them.

Even something as simple as finding a particular app to run can be frustrating for newbies with Windows 8.1. There are multiple methods to get to the Start screen, but not all apps live there all the time.

Not even the Windows button is in the same place on all devices. Some are touch buttons instead of physical ones. Some aren't even Windows buttons at all, and instead are thin buttons on the side of tablets sitting next to other similar buttons. The latter drives me crazy about my Transformer Book T100.

Sure you can swipe up on the Start screen to get the All Apps list to slide up, but that's another of those hidden controls that eludes some users. You can also start typing the name of the app and find it that way. Of course that method is hidden too. If you're on a touch tablet, not even the keyboard is visible until you invoke another hidden control to make it pop up. If you're sensing a theme here, it's because there is one.

The iPad doesn't have this problem. There's only the single home button on the iPad, but it's always there. It always takes the user to the list of apps so the desired function can be easily found. Users don't forget how to do that as the home button is always in view.

Android tablets have even more visible control, which is comforting for users, old and new alike. The home button is always there front and center, and the Return and Menu buttons, physical or touch, are also there. There's an app drawer button on the home screen that is visible, a constant reminder that all apps are a simple tap away. 

It's probably not an accident that these controls are always there. They keep things simple and comforting for the new user. Hit the button, the expected thing happens.

That's what Windows 8 is lacking, and why so many find it difficult. New users must remember where hidden menus live, and what controls they contain once properly invoked. That seems to make some Windows 8 users uncomfortable, especially those who learn how to do something and later forget it, as they don't do it often and there's no visible memory reinforcement. This disconnects the user from the interface.

It's not just newbies feeling this disconnect from Windows 8.1. I still have moments when I'm working away and hesitate to do something because for a split-second I can't remember if I need to reach left or right, up or down. It's just a little brain freeze, but it's enough to make me feel like the interface is not helping me. It's all because those darn controls are hidden, almost lurking in the background, daring me to find them.

I liken using the hidden controls in Windows 8.1 to what using a keyboard with blank key tops would be like. As a touch typist I could type pretty quickly until I hesitated. Then I'd look at the keys to reorient myself and get nowhere for a brief period with those blank keys staring at me.

I can't remember any mobile operating system users telling me they feel stupid using their system, but I hear it regularly from users of Windows 8.1. When pressed, they confirm it's because they have no visual clues that lead them in the right direction. The word 'clueless' crops up in these discussions far too often.

As Windows expert Paul Thurrott recently declared, Windows 8.1 is a "disaster". I don't agree with everything Thurrott says, but I firmly believe that the hidden controls play a big role in the adoption of Windows 8.1. The hidden utility in Windows 8.1 keeps it from feeling intuitive sometimes, and it's hard to bond with an interface that doesn't always seem to help you use it.

Not all Windows users have problems with it, and many (myself included) like it, but I hear these complaints too often to disregard them. It's clear to me that too many new users have problems using Windows 8.1, and that's a bad situation for Microsoft.

"So tell us how Microsoft can fix this, smart guy", is probably what some are thinking right now. That's a fair question, but I have no answer. That's the situation Microsoft is in right now. I'm not sure there is a solution without a total redesign of Windows.

See related:

Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Tablets, Windows 8

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  • Hidden controls are nothing new.

    Users have known for years they can right click for hidden context menus, so why is other hidden items a concern now? The more you use Windows 8.1, the easier it will become.

    BTW, Thurrott claims everything is a disaster. I gave up reading his stuff years ago.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • Funny, because everything I read

      from Thurrott makes him sound like the most fervent Microsoft fanboy - and I usually only read the stuff on his site, not any secondhand stuff.
      • Then obviously you don't read everything he writes

        because he has quite a lot of negative things to say a lot of the time.
        Michael Alan Goff
        • Feedback?

          Maybe because Microsoft needs feedback. Windows 8/8.1 does not work well for the majority of users that use a mouse and keyboard and Microsoft arrogantly closed the door on them when it didn't incorporate a Start Menu option (I.E. Windows 7). If Microsoft had allowed boot to Desktop and a Start Menu as an alternate option, our company would be installing Windows 8/8.1 machines today, but since they didn't we will continue to install Windows 7 machines. A simple fix that was available in early Beta but was pulled and if it had been left in there would NOT be any debate and Windows 8/8.1 would be selling like hotcakes a fundraiser Breakfast. Plain and Simple.
          • Its Time To Get To Work

            8.1.1 has boot to desktop and Start to apps list (customizable) as well as pin apps to task bar.
          • I'm not saying it's a bad thing

            I'm just arguing against this misconception that he's some sort of cheerleader.
            Michael Alan Goff
      • Touch Gestures

        I think the fundamental flaw is touch gestures. JK and Thurrott dance around this issue and talk about the symptoms but never see the basic problem. It is not just a Microsoft problem but effects Apple and Android.

        When the mouse first came out there was major confusion about how many buttons there should be and what they should do. Eventually this settle down to 2 with optional scroll wheel. Gestures like left button and drag are now understood by everyone. Almost all applications today use the mouse in a similar manor. At the beginning the mouse was very confusing and applications did not use it consistently.

        Now we have touch with swipes, pinch, zoom, rotate, etc. The set of Microsoft APIs for touch are much larger than Androids or Apple. Maybe there are too many choices. Maybe the others are missing something important. Developers are using these gestures in all kinds of ways. Gestures will go threw the same evolution as the mouse. At this point I could not even guess what will turn out to be standard.
        • Good point

          And what complicates the gesture issue is that because these mobile manufactures / OS manufactures patent a gesture (slide to unlock for instance) each company has to come up with something new. If we did away with this, perhaps we can enjoy a common set of gestures across all devices, analogous to the ubiquity of mouse gestures which are not owned by any one company.

          When I consider this problem against Win Phone 8, more often there is a visual queue by way of 3 dots to tell the user there is more, or another screen that can be accessed. This might solve much of the problem with hidden menus.
          • 3 dots...

            Applications in Windows 8.1 (at least Microsoft's default applications) do have the 3 dots.
            The one and only, Cylon Centurion
          • but the OS....

            ....far too often does not.

            I think that JK is spot on. Like him, I like Windows 8 and I know where most things are but, I too have that occasional hesitation. Then again, I remember in 1996, when I switched from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 and I did the same thing....a lot.

            Windows 8 has a learning curve, so did Android. So did Windows 95. Over half of the angry belly aching I hear over Windows 8 essentially amounts to...

            "What was wrong with Windows 7?"
      • Total Disaster

        Paul Thurrott has called windows 8 a total disaster and a Frankenstine's monster. It's actually quite refreshing to hear someone who is pro Microsoft being critical of the company.
        • The monster

          Actually, I'm fairly certain that Thurrott spelled Frankenstein correctly.
    • try right clicking on the start screen

      it doesnt work... rumor is it back in the update coming up, but you are really comparing oranges to peanuts.
      • Right clicking for context menus will be introduced but ..

        not across the board. There will be certain apps that will not take advantage of that feature, as P. Thurott mentions.
        • ... Right click ...

          Anyway, what's the right finger for right clicking on a touch tablet?
          • Touch and hold it until an empty square box comes and it is right click.

            Ram U
      • What's the problem?

        Right clicking the Start Screen still brings up a menu, so what's the difference? The Context menus have no place in Metro, they're awful to use.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
        • The context menus are awful to use

          Only because they are badly implemented. In iOS, the long press pops up the menu, no need to lift the finger. In Windows, the menu pops up only when the finger is lifted. It may have worked well with the stylus, but Windows implementation makes it difficult to use with touch.
          • Difficult to use?

            because you have to touch to bring up a menu and touch to select?
            just how difficult is that?
          • Typical Windows...

            What do you expect from a system where you click START to turn it off.