The Windows 8 User Interface

The Windows 8 UI: How do interface and usability experts rate all the changes?




When Windows 8 debuts on October 26, users will be confronted with the most radical changes to the look and feel of Windows in nearly 20 years.  The traditional point-and-click functionality on the Windows desktop will also change, in order to accommodate the needs of the new touch-centric interface. Once they get past the new Start screen and enter the traditional desktop interface, users will discover that the Start button is gone, and that key features such as the Control Panel and Search have moved to the new Charms bar, which pops from the right side of their display.





Microsoft is changing the design of Windows to adapt the OS to our new multi-device world.

“Microsoft is doing something we are all going to have to do soon, which is designing for all these different outputs and inputs,” says Josh Clark, an interface designer and the author of Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps.

But Microsoft’s new direction poses a problem for users: Many people who have non-touch-enabled desktop PCs complain that the new OS is difficult to use.

“The problem for Microsoft is that it has millions of users who are familiar with their previous products,” says Jared Spool, a usability researcher with 30 years of experience (founder of usability training and consultancy firm User Interface Engineering).  Spool says that the question facing millions of longtime Windows users is, “How much downtime are they willing to endure in order to learn about new features that may or may not be useful to them? “


The Learning Curve



It is too early to say how people will respond to tablets running Windows 8, since the devices have not shipped yet, but PC World’s initial reports have been positive.

Early users using the traditional mouse-and-keyboard PCs, however, have experimented with two public Windows 8 beta versions of the OS since early 2012; and their reaction, has tended to be negative.

Raluca Budiu, a user experience specialist for the usability consultancy firm Nielsen Norman Group, has been running user experience tests with the Windows 8 preview releases to see how people deal with the new interface changes. Budiu says that users generally experience difficult points in Windows 8, most notably while hunting around for the traditional functionality that is now hidden in pop-up sidebars.





For example, to scroll through recently used apps on a Windows 8 touch-screen tablet, you simply use a swiping motion with your finger. But on a desktop PC, you must hover your mouse cursor in the lower-left corner of your display, and then move up to see a sidebar with thumbnail listings of recently used apps.





When navigating the new Start screen with a desktop mouse, if you want to see a thumbnail listing of recently used apps, you must hover the cursor in the lower-left corner.

Budiu shared with PCWorld a number of other difficult points from her study with Windows 8 keyboard-and-mouse users:

  • “So far, in our testing, discovering and remembering the different gestures was a big issue.”
  • “Also, reproducing those gestures was difficult for some users. Closing windows and starting all over, which a lot of people do when something is not right—such as, when an app gets stuck—was also very difficult.”
  • “Some mouse gestures are really hard to replicate. For instance, we have seen users struggling to expose the right-hand-side charms by hovering on different sub-regions of the right edge, rather than on the upper or lower corner.”
  • “The right button of the mouse is supposed to be used to expose controls or text fields throughout the interface. Right-clicking is considered a fairly expert user behavior, and in our testing, some users never used it.”

It is obvious that navigating the desktop is not immediately intuitive in Windows 8 in the traditional sense. However newer PCs will try to simplify the task of accessing hidden menus by introducing multi-touch-enabled mice and touch-pads that support tablet-style gestures on a PC.


‘Dual-ing’ Windows

Learning how to navigate one system is hard enough, but on Windows 8 you have, in effect, two different and somewhat separate operating systems: the old Windows desktop and the new touch-friendly start screen. You might be able to get away with spending most of your time in the interface you prefer, but there will be time that you will have to navigate through both of them.




This is how Internet Explorer looks when it is launched from the Start screen. There are no ‘chrome’—buttons or scroll bars.

Each interface also has its own way for interaction and navigation, such as vertical scrolling for the traditional desktop and horizontal movements for the new Windows 8 UI.

“Multiple ways of doing the same thing usually make it harder for people to learn how to do it,” says Budiu. “My guess is that in the long term, most people will stick to just one version of an app—for example, only using Internet Explorer in the desktop environment.”

Other experts state on the dual nature of Windows 8, “Switching back and forth between the two interfaces may confuse some users, as they need to keep track of which application runs in which context,” says Michelle Li, a senior user experience designer for Deloitte Digital. “Over time, however, users will adapt.”

Microsoft has added some guidance for users to alleviate the pain of switching between the two interfaces. Internet Explorer, for example, will offer to move you to the desktop version if you come across something it cannot display in the Windows 8 User Interface.

But why should Microsoft take this dual-OS approach at all? Wouldn’t it be better if each UI were matched as a stand-alone product to a particular device type?

On a 7- or 10-inch tablet, for instance, the Start screen makes sense, because excess desktop-style “chrome” elements (menus, windows, and buttons) would leave little room for content. Tablets lend themselves to full-screen experiences, so having menus appear and disappear with a few taps makes sense here.

On desktop PCs, however, hiding menus and controls is less efficient. Desktop displays afford plenty of screen real estate to show secondary windows and buttons that are necessary for many productivity tasks in Office, Photoshop, and other programs. ”Every hidden control means there is an extra action needed to expose that button,” Budiu says. “For the desktop, that interaction cost does not justify the benefit. Hiding controls just does not give you that much additional screen space.”

Touching the future

So where is Microsoft headed with Windows 8? Could Windows 8’s modern User Interface completely replace the desktop one day?

No one knows for sure, but after experiencing Windows 8, it is obvious that this is the first step in a much longer interface design journey.