November 19, 2012

Enough Already - The Windows 8 User Interface ISN'T HARD TO LEARN!


Today brings us what is officially the second in what may evolve into a more formal occasional series of “Enough Already” perspectives. The first such entry was our take on the entire Apple Maps App flap.

Going back as far as October 2010, when we first got a good look at what was then the Windows Phone 7 “Metro UI” it was clear to us that WP7’s user interface and user experience model was different than what Apple and Android has long pushed out the door, and that it was different enough to possibly “make a difference.” Note that we did not say at anytime in the above that we either thought or found the Metro UI hard to figure out, hard to use, or otherwise difficult to learn. Half an hour and a user would have it all in hand (we do admit, however, that this proved a problem in the phone store, where a user might typically be willing to spend up to three minutes on such a thing). 


Image via Shutterstock

Fast forward to today, with every flavor of Windows 8 now out the door. Gone is the “Metro” name – it turns out that Microsoft can’t use it due to some copyright issues with a German company. OK, so we have the “new Windows 8 style interface” to bandy about now – but in truth does the UI really need a name? No, no more than Android or iOS have UI names. Of course, third part vendors such as Samsung do attach names to their own particular UI twists, but really, how many mobile users (leaving aside those of us who are supposed to know these things) actually know what Samsung calls its UI? Not many. No one cares.

Since the launch of Win 8 on the other hand, we’ve heard lots and lots of pundit noise about how confusing and hard the new Windows 8 UI is to figure out, how impossible it is for users to switch between the more Win 7-like desktop that is available underneath the Win 8 interface – how schizophrenic the whole experience is, how the transition between the touch/gesture model and the point/click model will drive you nuts. And so on.

Well, let’s get this straight – in fact the Win 8 UI is simple to use. Yes, it takes a short while to work one’s way through what it does and how it does it, but once you’ve done it, it becomes so simple to use that the entire argument becomes nonsensical. Have people really become so lazy that a half hour of “practice” to learn a set of new features and the touch/gesture model is too onerous for them? Nonsense!

The real issue is that the tech literati always need something to care about, and they’ve latched on to new Win 8 interface for no reason other than this. The other of course is that the old Windows “Start” menu is no longer available when one goes over to the more traditional Windows desktop side of Win 8.

Cry me a river!

Not only can one get to all of the start menu capabilities from the new UI end of things, but if you really, really miss having it there are lots of utility companies out there willing to put it back for you.

The Start Menu

The question does come up as to why Microsoft decided to leave the Start menu out of the desktop – Steven Sinofsky, the dude formerly known as Microsoft’s president of Windows 8, has one of his infamously extended and epic blog posts on the topic, and it turns out that much of the reason is related to search, of all things. It makes for a very interesting read, but what is really interesting is the collection of statistics Microsoft has on hand (and that Sinofsky lays out) that the Windows team used to determine that a new approach to Start and search made sense. And in fact it all does make sense.

Of course, the more fundamental reason for doing so was Sinofsky’s other desire - to drive people over to the new Start screen. Here is what we can expect as far as that is concerned: Any user that takes the short amount of time needed to learn the Start screen capabilities will quickly adapt to it and will quickly adopt it. It is a far better mousetrap ultimately. The same is true if a user invests a little bit of time with any of the new Win 8 apps. Try them!

Those among us who rigidly insist on the old way or the highway can always stay attached to the past. No doubt there are still those among us out there that prefer to open up a command line screen window just to be able to use that old, nice, simple – and fast! - DOS command line interface. DIR anyone? CHKDSK? What fond memories!

If you can’t be bothered to learn the benefits of the Start screen or you have some deep psychological attachment to the Start menu (and you don’t want to get psychiatric help for it) then the utility vendors are your next step. We also strongly suspect that most, if not all of Microsoft’s hardware partners will bring the old Start menu back to their versions of Windows 8 in very short order.

Touch, Touch and More Touch

There will always be a need for keyboards. There will always be a need for the mouse/point and click approach. We can’t really imagine using a spreadsheet with only touch and gestures. And we really can’t imagine doing the writing we do on a touchscreen. On the other hand, there have been a few crazy people who managed to write entire novels on Blackberry devices and if we looked around we’re sure we’d find a few iPhone or iPad touchscreen attempts as well. But these attempts are few and enormously far between. With good reason!

Touch won’t replace these other input and pointing devices. And simple keyboard shortcuts won’t disappear any time soon – Windows 8 certainly still has plenty of them. Touch and gestures will only replace what can be improved through touch. But the truth is that touch will replace a great deal of what was once exclusively the domain of the mouse and keyboard. Microsoft needed to move Windows 8 to touch simply because it is the way the world has evolved from a hardware perspective.

That brings us to the issue of multi-touch touchpads - such as those Synaptics provides - on laptops without touchscreens. Granted, using multi-touch gestures on touchpads does take a little bit of getting used to. But just a little. We use a variety of laptops – ranging from a non-touchscreen Ultrabook to older Windows 7 laptops and desktops and to a MacBook Air (there are also iPhones, iPads and a few Android devices in the mix, but let’s keep the focus strictly on keyboard-based hardware).

We are completely entrenched in the tried and true point and click interfaces on these keyboard devices. But once we updated our Ultrabook to Windows 8 and we customized the touchpad on it for our use, it quickly became a spoiler. We now often find ourselves automatically looking for the multi-touch/gesture capabilities where they don’t exist, and it is quite annoying to have them missing. It’s almost as annoying as needing access to your map app and realizing that you forgot your smartphone at home.

The bottom line is that touch is a great thing, and we’re mighty glad Microsoft has made touch happen. We felt the same way when Windows 93 hit the street and we could, as a no-brainer, finally retire DOS for real (that was in great part due to the huge influx of real Windows apps also appearing at the time). As was the case back then Windows 93 was enough of a game changer for us but Win 95 proved to be the real industry turning point.

Windows 8 is a game changer for us as well (and as with Win 93, the availability of the apps in the Windows app store are a part of this) – but we do anticipate that it won’t be until its next major release for it to become the industry turning point Win 95 was. There are also some 2007 Napa cabernets we wouldn’t think to drink in 2010 but that we are opening now. That’s life – refinement takes a little bit of time.

Our advice then is to not let all that tech literati Win 8 noise get in the way. Scope out Win 8 – across every platform, from desktop to laptop to tablet to smartphone - in as much detail as can be mustered. The underlying cohesiveness of the platform across all of these hardware types is a key benefit (and something the enterprise will find quite appealing as well) as well. One of the high value issues here is that it is truly the same UI across all of the platforms – learn it once and you will know it across all of them.

Don’t have any time? We suppose there are always those Dummy and Idiot books to turn to – but wait for them to turn up in your local Goodwill, so you only need to pay a dollar for them – they’ll be there quite soon enough.




Edited by Brooke Neuman



Related Tags

Microsoft    Apple    Tablet
Smartphone    Apps   

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