Windows 8: Microsoft's big hodgepodge on the desktop

Windows 8 marks one of the biggest transitions in Microsoft history. It brings the unification of their device platforms, mobile, gaming and desktop to one strikingly beautiful experience that is consistent regardless of device. However, it appears the company may have lost its way as it seeks to become fully-Metro.

If you've been using the Consumer Preview for the last week, you will have had one of two experiences. Either it went really well for you, and you've fallen in love already -- or -- things were great at first, and then it dawned on you that Microsoft is a long, long way from getting Windows 8 right.

Windows 8 is truly great, and revolutionary for the company, considering that the start menu has been around for over two decades in one form or another, but it seems Microsoft has forgotten its roots amongst this, and has forgotten that the large portion of their users are enterprise users, resistant to change or don't have a touch based device. It appears they are living in a world where only certain case studies matter, and are forgetting about how the majority of PC users use their machines.

After spending well over a week with the Consumer Preview (I foolishly did an in-place upgrade of Windows 7), I could almost praise or complain all day about Windows 8. It's really a love/hate relationship for me, but there are some massive issues that the company hasn't dealt with yet. I'm not talking about the preview applications in this article, because they are irrelevant and far from completed.

Metro at center stage, stuck in the past out back

There is no denying that Metro is sexy. From when we saw it fully implemented on Windows Phone, then the Xbox 360 many fell in love. Journalists proclaimed "this is the future" and "Microsoft has finally gotten it right" and there's no denying that's what Microsoft did there. The experiences on those devices is polished, beautiful and works flawlessly. Whilst I'm aware that Windows 8 is still unfinished, some things appear to be staying.

Pictured below is what Microsoft really wants you to see when you open the Metro interface. A sexy array of live tiles that constantly update you with the latest informatiion. That's true, to some extent. This is the front of stage.

Unfortunately, this isn't what happens at all with Windows 8 in the real world. Put it on a desktop PC, keep it for a few days or weeks, and then your Metro experience will look like a cluttered array of dog vomit once you scroll across.  Applications that install to the old start menu pin all their rubbish here. Backstage, behind the curtain is not what Microsoft wants you to see before you use the product.

It appears this behavior is by design to seperate Metro style apps from desktop applications as developers can't change their icons to look sexy and full-tile sized unless it's Metro based. On my corporate PC, I know this is going to be filled with manuals, ODBC connectors and rubbish that I'll never use, and the only solution is to manually unpin.

Less intuitive

Want to get to the Control Panel? You better have a shortcut handy, because it's bloody well hidden now. My initial impressions of Windows 8 were great... except I couldn't figure out how to customize it to make it my own past pinning things to the start menu.

If you follow your instincts like me, you'll go where you expect to find it. First of all, you need to get to "My Computer," but there's no longer an icon for that. Opening Explorer by pressing the folder icon will do that for you, and then navigating to "Computer" in the left pane will get you there.

Second, you have to actually find Control Panel. The ribbon, with all its useful tools for the "average user" is hidden by default, and the bar that showed the "Control Panel" link is now gone. Is a user going to know to open the ribbon to find it? Probably not. How will they know?

You could always consider the new route. Move your mouse to the upper right or bottom right corner of the screen for a second, wait for the charms to appear, then click the settings charm, then click Control Panel and you've made it.

Now that you've gotten here, you want to figure out how to change the color of the Start Screen. Easy enough, right? Well, that's not in this Control Panel. You'll need to go back to the charms, hit the settings charm again, then, at the bottom of the massive panel (that covers a good quarter of the screen) click "More PC settings" (not control panel or personalization, both of which are options that make sense) and you'll be launched back into some sort of Metro control panel that doesn't correspond to the traditional one.

It's almost laughable what comes next. Administrators who complained that things are slower, more confusing and harder were told that Microsoft has made it easier, just right click on the start icon that appears when you mouse to the lower left of the screen and you get power user options. Useful, perhaps, but how will anyone know they are there unless they read about it?

Windows 8 doesn't offer an easy way to discover or learn about these new features, it just throws you in the deep end, assuming you'll just figure it out. Your average office worker who wants to change the start screen color probably would have given up as soon as they realized it wasn't in the Control Panel, it's easier to assume you just can't change it then go looking for it.

The issues are just as deep when it comes to simple tasks such as shutting down. Paul Thurott wrote on the Windows Super Site today that "shutting down is easy" and that those who are claiming that Windows 8 requires more work are "silly." He claims that doing the below is easier than it was before:

Keyboard. WINKEY + I, UP ARROW, ENTER, U.

Mouse. Charms, Settings, Power, Shutdown.

Touch. Charms, Settings, Power, Shutdown.

How is that intuitive at all? How does the user even know to look there? Since when was shutting down a setting? Paul claims that "we aren't in the 1980's anymore, you shouldn't be shutting down" but unfortunately, that isn't the use case at all. Offices and homes alike around the world shut down their PC's at night save energy and the environment. My mother will just unplug the PC if she can't find the shut down option within thirty seconds, so Paul's argument is invalid.

For mouse users, how will they know the charms appear by moving to the top right or bottom right? This isn't explained anywhere. Perhaps Microsoft will add a compulsory tutorial, just like the ones that appeared in Windows 95 and XP. I feel that the best user experiences are those that are self-revealing. A user should be able to use the OS and just know where things are, or be able to discover new things and be excited by them, not feel like they have to work to figure it out. It could be a simple "just type" to imply search is built in to the start screen. 

Additionally, even when there is a tour (I'm pretty confident Microsoft's marketing department will make sure of it), will users be that enthusiastic to change their behaviour in one swift step like this?

The start key

This is perhaps the change that irks me the most. The start button has always done one of two things:

  1. Open the start menu
  2. Close the start menu if it's already open

That start button behavior has been changed in Windows 8, as one would expect, but now it behaves entirely unintuitively:

  1. Open the start screen
  2. Close the start screen if no Metro apps opened
  3. Cycle to previous application if Metro app opened

If Microsoft wants users to embrace the change, they need to understand that Metro will not be where the majority of desktop users want to spend their time. They should still be able to escape the experience the same way they know how, rather than searching for the desktop tile.

Apple is the master of incremental changes, introducing feature by feature, eventually creating something larger and ultimately less confusing than changing everything at once. Microsoft wants their users to love Metro and embrace it, but the reality is that average users want to get on with their work, be it in Word or Chrome, not in Metro. On a tablet, Metro makes sense, you work and breathe in it.

The future is beautiful, but scary

Despite the issues that Windows 8 has in its infancy, I love it. The changes are great for me, and I'm willing to embrace them, but it leaves me wondering how my mom would feel using Windows 8. Most of Microsoft's user base are the uninformed not-so-tech savvy users that just want to check Facebook, watch movies and be done with it. They don't want to learn something new, or are willing to, but only if it's simple and sexy. Unless somebody tells them how to use the new version of Windows, they'll probably just complain it's worse and more cluttered than before.

Microsoft has the sexy of Metro down, but it appears they don't have the simplicity there yet. When you sit in front of a Windows PC now, you understand to some extent how to use it because of the way Microsoft has consistently developed their UI until now. When you sit down in front of a Windows 8 PC right now, there's nothing that really indicates to you what to do, and self discovery isn't easy since there are no visual hints of where the start menu has gone.

I had pondered putting this to the test by putting a "average" user in front of a PC to really show how confusing and non-intuitive it is, but Chris Pirillo beat me to it. In the video below, he puts his father in front of the PC and asks him to use it as he normally would. The results are less than surprising.

This isn't a very scientific test, but nor is it something that is uncommon. I've done this on a few other friends, and they had similar issues locating basic functionality (such as the start screen) that should be easily discovered. On a tablet, it  truly is intuitive. With a mouse, that action isn't as simple or fluid so it's harder to discover.

Some may argue that the start menu being moved is a silly discussion as users will learn new behavior, such as charms usage or pressing the start key, which is true, however many of us know people who've never even used the start key on the keyboard. Users aren't as willing to make a big change in behavior, but little ones over time can usually change their overall behavior as their not forced into a completely new way of thinking.

The other side of the fence

Almost everyone will detest bringing Apple into the argument, but you really have to look over the fence to understand what Microsoft may have done wrong here. Apple recently announced it's latest iteration of OS X -- Mountain Lion -- which is an incremental update to their operating system. On the surface, Mountain Lion may not look like much, but it's easy to see the end game here. 

Apple is slowly bringing the feature set of their touch devices to the desktop, it's easy to see that they'll probably add touch to their desktops too in the future, but they're doing it in a way that users understand the changes piece by piece.

First, in Lion came the app store, inverse scrolling like on a touch device, FaceTime, LaunchPad and full screen applications. All of which are very similar to their iOS counterparts. Mountain Lion brings the notification center and messaging; both of which look exactly the same as their iOS counterparts and will eventually be very intuitive to use. A simple two finger swipe to the right will reveal the new notification center. 

Apple's approach is to change things completely -- but only over time -- and to not disrupt the user too much in one go. Mac commentators may complain that the interface is old and out of date, but the reality is that users really don't care, and care about consistency and new features, and Apple knows this. It's entirely unlikely you'll see them overhaul their interface until it's almost to the point where the incremental iOS additions are the entire interface, and users would have been trained how to use it over time, barely noticing when things change dramatically.

The end times?

It's clear that Microsoft's approach is the inverse. They are replacing what everyone knows with something that's big, and different. There are a few things that look the same, but navigating Windows 8 in general is not the same as getting around in previous versions.

I don't know if offering users guidance in the form of tutorials is enough here for users. As much as Microsoft wants everyone to embrace tablets, forcing such a big change without slowly slipping it past the users' nose might not work. It has to be easy, quick to learn and self-revealing. Microsoft may be pushing touch, hard, but not too many users have touch yet, and they won't even really consider it a "must have" this year. Somehow, Microsoft will need to make touch on a laptop sexy and attractive.

Users have taken two very extreme different sides on the topic of Windows 8, with one side saying that "this is the best thing Microsoft has ever done" and the others grabbing their oars and preparing to jump ship.

What no-one has presented is real world data, from the perspective of an actual consumer, which is the purpose of the preview. If the reactions I've seen from "average" people that I know is any indication, then it ranges from "Oooh, shiny" to "I don't know how to deal with this, give me the old one back." Technology enthusiasts seem to have a very different reaction, proclaiming the great things it can do.

There is no conditioning or easing into Windows 8, you're just thrown into a stone-cold Metro future.

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