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Windows 8 UI 'strategic mistake,' argues design guru

Jekyll and Hyde operating system weak on tablets, terrible on PCs

Microsoft's decision to put two user interfaces (UIs) inside Windows 8 was a strategic mistake that fails novice and experienced computer users alike on both tablets and traditional PCs, a usability expert said Monday.

"That was the true strategic mistake, that they could do 'one Windows' on both tablets and PCs," said Jakob Nielsen, a usability expert with nearly 80 U.S. patents to his name. Nielsen, half of the consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, was formerly a top-level engineer with Sun Microsystems, and has a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction.

"Windows 8 has low usability, amazingly low usability," Nielsen said in an interview Monday, ticking off a host of problems with the UIs of both the "Windows 8 Store" interface -- formerly "Modern," before that "Metro" -- and the "Classic" desktop that's a revamp of Windows 7.

In a Monday blog post, Nielsen cited issues such as the dual UIs, and the human "memory load" that results; a lack of multiple windows in the Windows 8 Store touch-oriented mode; hidden commands; low information density; and error-prone gestures.

Several weeks ago, Nielsen accused Microsoft of throwing users "under the bus" with Windows 8. Yesterday, he reasserted that Windows 8 is a UI mess, one that confuses and confounds users, even those familiar with Windows. And unlike many reviewers and Microsoft pundits, he contended that the Redmond, Wash. developer got it wrong even on the touch part of the operating system, which is virtually the only mode available on Windows RT, the operating system spin-off that powers tablets such as Microsoft's own Surface RT.

"Windows 8 on mobile devices and tablets is akin to Dr. Jekyll: a tortured soul hoping for redemption," Nielsen wrote in his blog. "On a regular PC, Windows 8 is Mr. Hyde: a monster that terrorizes poor office workers and strangles their productivity."

Nielsen based his take in part on testing he conducted with a dozen experienced PC users, who were asked to complete tasks on both traditional PCs and on the Surface RT.

"I had hope that the outcome was that Windows [RT] was great on the Surface RT," Nielsen said in the interview. "After all, that's what it was made for."

But testing revealed that users had serious and persistent problems figuring out what Windows RT wanted from them, and were challenged by relatively simple chores. In one test, the participants were asked to compile a list of three recommendations for a night out, send those suggestions to a friend and acknowledge the reply.

"That was enormously complicated on the Surface RT because of the single window model," said Nielsen, referring to the one-window-at-a-time UI for Windows RT apps. And even though the OS offers a split-screen mode, "None of our test users were able to make this work."

The single-window mode, chided Nielsen, should have required Microsoft to rename the operating system "Microsoft Window." But the problem lies in more than the nonsensical name.

"It's an extra burden on short-term memory," he said, referring to the need to open one app, remember what information was there, or even where that information was, then apply it to another app. "Short term memory is notoriously unreliable. Even something you'd do at home, maybe research a vacation, is difficult to do because it requires comparing and collecting information across multiple windows."

Microsoft's biggest mistake may have been to shoehorn two UIs into a single operating system, but it made a raft of other choices that compounded difficulties for customers.

The charms -- generic command icons that appear at the right when the mouse is clicked at the lower corner, or the user swipes from that side -- are, Nielsen said, "a good idea," but they're easily forgettable by typical users. "The problem is, 'Out of sight, out of mind,'" he said, noting that the testers often forgot to summon them, and then struggled with what do next.

The idea of hidden commands permeates Windows 8 and Windows RT, and although it's smart UI design for a space-constrained screen, like a smartphone, it makes much less sense on a tablet and no sense at all on a PC, he argued. Yet Microsoft rolled it out across all platforms.

Worse, it runs counter to other Microsoft projects -- Nielsen pointed to the "ribbon" that debuted in the company's Office 2007 -- and to the way most websites work.

"The Web relies on 'just-in-time visibility,'" said Nielsen, speaking of well-designed sites that show commands and features in the context, and only in the context, of when they're needed. Users have become "trained," for lack of a better word, to expect that.

"You simply can't design a website with hidden features and expect it to be used," he said.

Some, however, have disagreed with the critics, if not Nielson specifically, who have called Windows 8's UIs into question. They've maintained that users will get used to the usability foibles of Windows 8, or if they can't, that they should just suck it up and learn to live with them.

Those defenses don't hold water with Nielsen. "A year from now, certainly, Windows 8 will seem easier than it was the first week," he admitted. "But at the same time, there will always be these problems. People must think to do something, rather than being reminded to do something, and they will always neglect useful features."

That's no way to be productive, which in the end, is what most people expect from their traditional computers, and increasingly from their tablets.

He also rejected the notion that because users adapted to the shift 17 year ago from DOS to Windows 95 that they will gladly do the same this time with Windows 8.

"The difference is that then they took something really bad, DOS, and added something, Windows, on top of it that was much easier to use," Nielsen said. "This time they're taking the standard GUI [graphical user interface] that has a lot of usability and discoverability, and making a U-turn by hiding features."

The result is a user adrift from the hard-won experience gained through years of time spent working with Windows.

"With Windows 8, you don't feel in control," said Nielsen. "One of the biggest goals of user interface design is to give people the feeling of mastery or control. This is a big, big change. Users have become familiar with the idea that the 'mouse is me,' but Windows 8 largely discards that. People feel a loss of control, and feel insecure in relation to the machine.

"That's the failure, and the missed strategic decision," Nielsen said.

Microsoft has, of course, trumpeted the massive UI changes as a step in the correct direction, not a wrong turn, calling Windows 8 "fast and fluid," labeling it a "no-compromise" solution, and dismissing criticism that Windows 8 is difficult to use.

In an interview prior to the Oct. 26 launch of Windows 8 with the IDG News Service -- like Computerworld, part of IDG -- Tami Reller, the Windows division's CFO, said Microsoft had done hundreds of usability tests during development, both in labs and in real-world settings.

Reller said Microsoft's results were directly opposite Nielsen's conclusions. "Within 24 hours [Windows 8] users were using 80% of the core capabilities of the operating system," Reller told IDG News reporter Joab Jackson. "And they just get faster every day."

What the company hasn't clearly explained, however, is why it did what it did, rather than develop a new OS for tablets that didn't also intrude into PC turf.

Nielsen has some ideas. "There's the marketing angle, of course, the 'Let's make one Windows,' but there's also the fact that it seems to have been engineering-driven," said Nielsen. "And all the engineers were probably thinking, 'It's not so bad, people can figure this out,' because they're brainy people and can manage to keep more things in short-term memory than most. And then there's the Apple envy, wanting to make something cooler than Apple. But they shouldn't have done that at the price of sacrificing usability."

Nielsen was confident that Microsoft could correct the mistakes of Windows 8, in part because of last week's executive reshuffling that sent former Windows division chief Steven Sinofsky packing and promoted one of his lieutenants, Julie Larson-Green, a user interface expert, to head all Windows hardware and software development.

"They've put someone in charge [of Windows] who knows UI, who understands that it's important and understands the usability arguments," said Nielsen. "Going forward, it's vital that the person at the helm inherently understands that you have to design for real people."

Until then, Nielsen said he was sticking with Windows 7. "I'll stay with Windows 7 the next few years and hope for better times with Windows 9," he said.

Joab Jackson of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected].

Read more about operating systems in Computerworld's Operating Systems Topic Center.


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