Windows 8: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

windows8Windows 8 has received a great deal of press since its release, some of it very polarizing. Forums are filled with users trying to find a way to shut down their machines. You will also find links to articles dedicated to the head of the Windows 8 design team: Sam Moreau, waxing poetic about the operating system’s Bauhaus influences and authenticity.

As self professed “Windows gal”, I learned to navigate DOS command prompts about the same time I learned multiplication tables, and I am predisposed to like Windows 8. In a nutshell, Windows 8 has a lot going on, not all of it good. Here’s my rendition of the Good, Bad and Ugly:

The Good:

1. Fearlessly Innovative – I appreciate the attempt to merge the mobile and desktop experience although the end result could use some polish it shows they are really considering technology trends. At User Insight, we’ve seen more people turning to their mobile devices for more complex tasks, and it’s obvious that Windows 8 is trying to accommodate them.

2. Beautiful Moments – There are moments you can see the new parts of the UI really shine, the interface “gets out of your way” to let you work or view data in an open canvas format. You can see the thought that went into the design and glimpse how good it could be. This is where I see evidence of Sam Moreau’s discourse and vision of Swedish design and ‘the pure pixel’.

The Bad:

1. Where IS Everything? – My biggest issue with this OS is how much is hidden from the user, with no hint of where to go or what to do. It is acceptable and intelligent to remove unnecessary information once the user becomes familiar with the system, but what about the initial user experience when someone is still learning? If you break someone’s mental model for an experience, you lose their trust and desire to engage further with a system. Simple things that were previously surfaced – like the control panel, standard Windows applications, or even the Restart/Shutdown option (which most Windows users are unfortunately familiar with) are several clicks away, or available only by keyboard shortcuts or behaviors that have not been learned from previous experiences with Windows. While this is a frustration that can be overcome with time, it is very difficult for users to be hit with so much new material all at once. It seems like there could have been an interim step, a tutorial mode or more contextual help to ease the pain of transition.

2. When did my Desktop become a Tablet? – As I mentioned before, I appreciate the attempt to merge the desktop and mobile experience, but it feels like desktop got the very short end of the stick here. Too many interactions rely on mobile-centered concepts like swiping, horizontal scrolling, always-on apps and using a control button to navigate. Whenever I encounter these interactions where I expect mouse-based navigation or the ability to close or minimize an app, I feel like I’m tripping over my own feet and aggravating my RSI. Again, it feels like they stretched too far forward without providing any training wheels. I can see these interactions being really great when paired with their Surface tablet computers, but on my ‘venerable’ 3 year old home PC it’s an aggravation more than a feature.

The Ugly:

Schizophrenic UI – As I mentioned the UI has beautiful moments, however, the overall user experience feels very disjointed. It feels like someone took two completely different operating systems and stitched them together. For instance, there are two different places to access system settings: mobile-centered settings like app notifications and wireless settings can be accessed from the Charms bar, but desktop-centered settings like display resolution required a slog deep through the file explorer (and a couple visits to Google) to adjust. There isn’t even a universal skin you can choose that will affect both the Start screen and desktop environments – there are two separate places with completely different interactions for you to choose the look and feel. It is very jarring to move within the OS and see the very familiar Windows 7-like environment and then have to go back out to the Windows 8 Start screen to interact with something else. It’s all just very strange, and despite Moreau’s assertions about the design aesthetic and experience it feels like they tried to make a compromise between the old system and the new – and, as so often happens, failed to please either side.

The Verdict:

I’m sticking with Windows 7 for as long as my techie husband will let me. That said, while I think that it’s far from perfect, I do give Microsoft points for innovation. I wish they would have either pushed harder or less – either fully convert the OS to revolve around that ever-present Start screen as the new primary navigation device or iterate on the existing Windows 7 navigation and make it mobile-friendly. This half-baked paradigm is very confusing and possibly even more opaque to users than previous Windows operating systems, and that’s saying a lot.

For those of you that are either stuck with Windows 8 on your new PC or are resolved to see it through, I think a lot of the frustrations can be resolved by learning where they’ve put everything – and for that I’ve included a link to a big list of keyboard shortcuts from one of Microsoft’s developers that should help you wade through and find all those things you were missing – like the old Start menu and Control Panel: