Usability expert slams Windows 8: 'disappointing' for 'both novice and power users'

Usability expert slams Windows 8: 'disappointing' for 'both novice and power users'

Summary: A leading usability consultant claims Microsoft's newest operating system, Windows 8, is "a monster that terrorizes poor office workers and strangles their productivity."


Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system may be fast, and it may crash less than its predecessors, but a leading usability expert has slammed Microsoft for hiding features, making other things hard to find, introducing two separate working environments, and creating applications with an extraordinarily low information density.

Jakob Nielsen, who holds a Ph.D. in human–computer interaction, has put Microsoft's new operating system under the microscope and highlighted a number of critical issues that affect usability.

First on the list: the confusion caused by the use of both a tablet-oriented Start screen and a PC-oriented desktop screen. According to Nielsen, having two environments available on a single device is "a prescription for usability problems" not only because users have to remember where to go for which features, but also because switching between the two environments in inefficient.

Another problem highlighted by Nielsen is the fact that Windows 8 no longer supports multiple windows when using the new Start screen.

"The main UI restricts users to a single window," Nielsen writes, "so the product ought to be renamed 'Microsoft Window'".

Nielsen concedes that Windows 8 has "an option to temporarily show a second area in a small part of the screen," but writes that "none of our test users were able to make this work".

In other words, Microsoft's attempt at overcoming this problem has failed. Nielsen says its current implementation is problematic because it unnecessarily taxes users' short-term memory and cognitive resources.

But that's not all. Nielsen goes on to criticize the "Modern UI," claiming that the "the new look sacrifices usability on the altar of looking different than traditional GUIs".

As an example, he offers up the following menu:

"Where can you click?" he asks. "Everything looks flat, and in fact 'Change PC settings' looks more like the label for the icon group than a clickable command. As a result, many users in our testing didn't click this command when they were trying to access one of the features it hides."

Another criticism leveled at Windows 8's user interface is that it encourages applications with extraordinarily low information density that make poor use of screen space.


Low information density forces users to have to scroll to get access to information, rather than have it clearly on show.

Another criticism of Nielsen's: the use of constantly changing "Live" tiles, which makes identifying any particular one difficult.

"We know from our user testing of other tablets and mobile devices'," Nielsen writes, "that users quickly accumulate numerous applications, most of which they rarely use and can barely recognize -- even with static icons that never change".

By choosing to go with "Live" tiles, Nielsen says that Microsoft has made the Start screen "into an incessantly blinking, unruly environment that feels like dozens of carnival barkers yelling at you simultaneously". Fun.

Also on Nielsen's hit list: the hidden charms menu bar that "makes sense on small mobile phones," "makes less sense on bigger tablet screens," and "makes no sense at all on huge PC screens," as well as an overly-complicated set of error-prone gestures that "dramatically reduce the UI's learnability."

"On a regular PC, Windows 8 is Mr. Hyde: a monster that terrorizes poor office workers and strangles their productivity," Nielsen writes. Ouch.

These claims should act as a warning to anyone thinking of putting Windows 8 in the hands of thousands of users in an environment where you expect people to get work done. Training costs could eclipse the costs of deploying Windows 8, and offset any savings that the new operating system might offer.

Back in June, I called Windows 8 a "design disaster." As much as I like the speed and performance gains that the new operating system brings -- and despite being rock-solid, snappy and responsive -- as a platform to do real-world work, Windows 8 feels utterly unusable. There's too much mystery meat navigation, and 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.

When it comes to Windows 9 predictions, Nielsen and I are in total agreement.

He writes:

"I have great hopes for Windows 9 on mobile and tablets. Just as Windows 7 was 'Vista Done Right,' it's quite likely that the touchscreen version of Windows 9 will be 'Windows 8 Done Right'".

Image source: Nielsen/UseIt.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Tablets, PCs

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  • Nah, probably all wrong

    According to LD (and others here I might add), W8 is just great, and we should all just suck it up and get used to this new and wonderful Window version.

    Hello, Ballmer, are you paying attention?
    • Windows 8 is a hit!!

      It's also kludgey, counter-intuitive, and frustrating in both desktop and mobile environments - but that's exactly what makes it a joy to use! I express my individuality by figuring it out.

      You just can't make this stuff up! TM
      Apple sucks. Article FUD. End of line.
      • Another dissatisfied Microsoft user.

        As we all know Steve Ballmer is now packing his bags and get ready to move mansion in Switzerland. All due to the fact when he gets the boot he would not show his face in the US again. Mr. monkey boy / developer developer developer Steve Ballmer will have to take his $45 billion and retire someplace where people won't laugh at him.

        The world is globally laughing their heads off at Metro Metro Metro , whoops sorry can't use that name! Microsoft Corporation shares are down to $26 I believe. I wonder why?

        You can't even get a user Interface name like metro of the door and not have to pull it off the shelf really Mr. Ballmer. Some people call this modern really? We all know it's Xbox UI. The only people who love this interface is Xbox gamers.

        If Microsoft's the future of computer interfaces, that looks like a lot of graphics artist will lose their job. Anyone kid in grade 6 to make the tile design. No need to patent that. Who would try to copy it.

        I Think I'll get my tux ready I know there's going to be a farewell party very soon. I know I'll get an invite. You on the other hand, no.
        • LOL! Right, like someone who chose MacNewton as a screen name

          would give an honest and factual critique?

          Oh, but you did put a smile on my face with your comedy routine. :)
          William Farrel
          • William Farrel knows from honest and factual

            One need look no farther than every MS related post on this board to see that William Farrel's stock in trade are honesty and facts. Which is why he would be the very first to acknowledge Windows 8 headlines such as "Sales 'Well Below' Microsoft Projections" and "Microsoft Windows 8: How Bad Could it Be?" and "Windows 8 Slow Going But 2013 Should Be Better, Retailer Says." William Farrel would agree that Googling "Windows 8" does not put a smile on his face. So, good for MacNewton.
    • An important view/consideration

      I copied the comment below from a reply of mine to a poster much lower in the thread, because I think it is an important consideration regarding Metro and its usability on the desktop. Feel free to disagree, but thoughtful rebuttals would be appreciated.

      "The consensus seems to be that Metro is good on tablets and smart phones. The only reason it is the only option in W8 is because MS is desperate to somehow conquer mobile, and ramming it through on the desktop, given the dominant position of Windows, will somehow make users, once comfortable with Metro, gravitate towards Metro and therefore MS in mobile.

      I bet, whatever the usability assessment of Metro on the desktop may have been within MS, the future success of the corporation itself trumps ALL. Metro on the desktop is a Trojan horse into mobile, plain and simple. Usability is not a relevant consideration for MS at this juncture."

      What do you think?
      • the guy got it

        More or less, this is what Microsoft's pipe dreams look like.

        Let's see what will be the reality when they wake up.
      • More subtle

        I think you're close on this. I don't think making users more comfortable with Metro was the primary consideration, though. I think it was about market share numbers for luring app developers. If it was easy to turn Metro off in Windows 8 on the desktop, it would be hard to argue that every user of a Windows 8 desktop is a potential customer for somebody's Metro app.

        And there is going to come a day when there are Metro apps that people want to run on their desktop computers. Not sure if those will be enterprise apps or consumer apps. But should Microsoft have left the Start button on the desktop and let people decide for themselves when it was time to make the switch? Only time will tell.
      • Agree.

        I fully agree. Microsoft are riding on the waves of the previous decades sales and have an awesome amount of leverage when it comes to Windows. What they miss is a gut feeling for the end user, like Steve Jobs had (and NO I'm not an Apple fan!).

        Only naive Windows users will fail to see what Microsoft are attempting, and the rest will be outraged at this blatant and agressive marketing maneuver. Unfortunately, judging from the comments everywhere on the Internet, it seems that 50% of Windows users belong to the group and 50% do not. So what Microsoft have done is essentially split its user base into two groups, alieantaing a large number of people.
        Jason De Donno
    • My humble opinion

      Windows 8 - $39 well wasted.
  • 5, 4, 3, 2, 1....

    Just counting down to the first post from somebody who's going to call Jakob Nielsen a "Microsoft hater" who knows NOTHING about usability.
    • RE: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1....

      Jakob Nielsen is a "Microsoft hater" who knows NOTHING about usability.

      (I know you saw that coming, but I just didn't know what to do before Loverock got in).
      Hardrock Davidson
      • Not to worry

        Loverock will probably chime in below with "Hi! Hello there!!!", plus he'll share his wisdom with us in a separate post.
  • On so-called expert vs. a company filled with experts

    Windows 8 was designed by some of the very best user experience experts in the world, and because one solitary expert disagrees, MS' own experts are wrong? Tsk. Windows 8/RT excels on touch based PCs, yet OEMs are pushing yesterday's devices with the OS. There is nothing wrong with Windows 8/RT itself. There is something wrong with OEMs not realizing that they need to excite their customers with inspiring whole system packages, and promote these packages.
    P. Douglas
    • "One solitary expert"

      How is that rock you've been hiding under.

      In denial much?
      • Had me laughing

        "Windows 8 was designed by some of the very best user experience experts in the world"

        Name one! MS has never been known for great UIs.

        Issues with Win8 UI have been obvious to testers since release, how can they continue to be denied?
        Richard Flude
        • Windows 7

          The UI is great. Frankly, XP was good in its day and despite all the whining, so was Vista (and if you installed Hotfixes, it was solid by summer of 2007), but 7's UI is definitely better.

          As for 8, haven't used it. May try it out, but I may just wait for 9.
          I'll take 7 over OS X every time. I know a lot of people love OS X, but I find it nothing but a ball of confusion.

          Could I learn it? Sure, but the premium for Macs is too much to bother. The only reason I'm considering 8 is it's only $40.00. If I don't like it, I can sell it or just chalk it up as a small loss.

          That said, I've read many things about it that are troubling and this guy is not the only critic of the UI.
      • He said expert DT

        The collective whinings of Microsoft haters still don't crowd source as an expert ;-)
    • A Company Filled With Good Engineers

      Microsoft is a company filled with good company engineers, and they can make great OSes, but not when it comes to the UI, they screw it up royally with Windows 8.

      What do you call yesterday’s devices? The ones with mouse and keyboards that everybody is using to do their work? Sorry we cannot all be “cool” and play angry birds all day, we have a mortgage to pay and we need to be productive. Windows 8 is a silly toy of an OS that sucks on the desktop.
      • Sux for gaming

        and the usual "incompatible programs during the first 12 months of a new microsoft OS" frustrates me to no end, W7 or GTFO.

        incompatability issues are as bad or WORSE than WindowsME, remember that debacle...