The disconnect with Windows 8.1: Hiding the utility

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.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

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. 

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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.

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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.

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