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.
"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.