Blog Post

Is the Windows 8 user experience as bad as experts say?

Earlier this week, Jacob Nielsen, a usability expert, penned a detailed post where he effectively panned nearly every aspect of Microsoft Windows 8 (s msft) from a usability perspective. And by panned, I mean completely ripped it apart. Nielson’s commentary was part of a study where 12 experienced Microsoft Windows users were observed while using the new Windows 8 operating system. And perhaps that’s part of the issue here as Windows 8 isn’t quite like any prior version of Windows at all.

Windows 8 Start ScreenI’m certainly not trying to defend Nielsen’s study, nor the experiences of the dozen participants. In fact, I’ve struggled with the new operating system on a Surface RT review unit and I have 15 years of hands-on I.T. experience in Fortune 100 companies that relied heavily on Windows. Plus I have some previous with experience Windows Phone, which has used a similar interface to that of Windows 8 since 2010. But Windows 8 is more than tiles and touch targets.

There’s a learning curve

I couldn’t figure out how to share a web page, for example, but the function is there; thanks to my podcast co-host, Matthew Miller, I learned that the Charms section has a context-aware Share feature. Closing applications on Surface RT stumped me as well, but then I found out how to do it: While in an application, swipe down from the top of the screen to the bottom and the app will close. Well, it’s supposed to, anyway. Russell Holly at notes that some apps are still running in the Task Manager even after closing them in this fashion.

So part of the issues then, could be due to a learning curve; not from poor design. That’s certainly a problem, but one that can be corrected through education on Microsoft’s part.

Microsoft’s multiple personality disorder

Nielsen is spot on when it comes to the touch-friendly tile user interface and the old desktop mode, however:

Unfortunately, having two environments on a single device is a prescription for usability problems for several reasons:

  • Users have to learn and remember where to go for which features.
  • When running web browsers in both device areas, users will only see (and be reminded of) a subset of their open web pages at any given time.
  • Switching between environments increases the interaction cost of using multiple features.
  • The two environments work differently, making for an inconsistent user experience.

While Windows 8 is probably the biggest break from Microsoft’s past operating systems, it’s not a complete break. Support for a desktop mode is a by-product of legacy design and, to me, represents the largest missed opportunity for Windows 8 tablets. The old Desktop mode is really there for one reason only: Microsoft Office. Instead of creating a Desktop mode for the productivity suite, Microsoft should have created a productivity suite for the touch-friendly environment. It’s as if it was easier for Microsoft to simply cram Office on tablets in a special mode rather than redesign it for effective use on mobile devices. And we know the latter can be done: Look at QuickOffice, iWorks or any number of productivity apps that work well on touch devices.

The world isn’t flat, but icons can be

I don’t quite agree with Nielsen when it comes to his criticism of the flat icons in Windows 8. I find that these fit in well with the tile interface and reduce the amount of flashiness found in icons on other systems. Utilitarian? Perhaps, but isn’t that what a section of choices for device settings is? Here’s a look at what Nielsen is complaining about, in particular.

He notes that few users actually tapped the “Change PC settings” link when tasked to change the background wallpaper in Windows 8; they thought those words were a label. Given that they were using a Surface RT tablet, perhaps the link should be “Change device settings” but this is easily fixable in a software update. The fact is — and it bears repeating — this is a new platform and there’s a learning curve involved, just as there has been for iOS (s aapl) and Android (s goog) devices.

Scaling mobile up or bringing desktop down?

Getting back to the core issue is the approach that Microsoft has taken: One that keeps its legacy alive with a desktop version of Office. Here, I agree with Nielsen when he says:

The underlying problem is the idea of recycling a single software UI for two very different classes of hardware devices. It would have been much better to have two different designs: one for mobile and tablets, and one for the PC. I understand why Microsoft likes the marketing message of “One Windows, Everywhere.” But this strategy is wrong for users.

Looking to Apple, I see a different, so far, more successful, approach when it comes to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Much of the core of iOS and OS X is shared, but the interfaces are different: The former is designed solely for touch while the latter is solely for mouse and keyboard. While some apps are similar — think iPhone, iMovie and the iWorks suite — they’re designed to work effectively on their respective form factors. In some sense, Apple is scaling up from mobile as it brings more mobile user interface tweaks and services to the desktop.

Microsoft on the other hand, is still doing what it has done for a dozen years with its Tablet PC platform: Scaling the desktop down. Granted, it’s doing far less of that than ever before as Windows 8 is the best version for touch devices yet. But that doggone Desktop is still there and once you get there, touch becomes an exercise in frustration and you revert to the keyboard and touchpad on a Surface.

I like Nielsen’s idea of one platform dedicated solely to phones and tablets. Essentially because of the design choice Microsoft made by lumping the OS for tablets and PCs together, I find that the Surface RT device competes more against other Windows laptops than Apple’s iPad or Android tablets. In my mind, that’s the biggest issue here; not how flat the icons are or the learning curve for Microsoft’s new platform.

97 Responses to “Is the Windows 8 user experience as bad as experts say?”

  1. Jeremy Sands

    Windows 8 doesn’t run any of my software. It is God AWFUL!! Tons of problems, tons of glitches, tons of FRUSTRATION!!!!!!!!!!
    I am running down to Fry’s Electronics to return this new laptop for an exchange with a laptop running an older operating system.
    Warning to prospective buyers:
    Do NOT buy Windows 8!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  2. The grotesque looking, commercially driven UI that comes as standard is depressingly bad. On a touchpad pc it is necessary to run all over the screen to do anything. Clearly Microsoft wants to push touchscreen and mobile use!

    They also have introduced all sorts of compatibility issues. Only newer Office versions are supported, thus those that hate the look and feel of the newer Office products are stuck with a bum deal – and have to pay for the privilege.

    There are issues with other products, including Microsoft’s own products. Menus disappear, Web Access Server is confused about fonts, print content and much more.

    I hope this terrible OS fails. It will take massive efforts by Microsoft to rescue any remaining trust in it and its products. Time for a prosecution I think.

    Is this the last straw that breaks the back of Microsoft’s monopoly?

    Fine by me. They are asking for it.

  3. After 6 weeks of using windows 8 i hate it more today than i did when i first realized how poorly thought out it was

    ive used ms products since there inception

    this is bad, bad, bad

    using a pc now is a such a chore i avoid doing so as much as possible. my ipad gets a lot more attention

    every task takes longer. ms office 2010 compared to 2003 adds more features but is harder to use

    ie 10 is a disaster. finally deleted it to return to firefox

    i deleted bind after 2 days. got tired of all the advertisments

    i doubt i will ever buy another ms product again

    what a total piece of crap

  4. david Horvat

    I hate it and I am being kind

    Stupid tech people change and move everything. this is like playing a game where you have to find hidden doors to access other worlds

    I would fire people who designed it .


  5. Ben Mueller

    I find it absolutely astonishing of how misinformed people are on this subject. I also find it ridiculous how this actually sounds like when XP came out. One of my favorite quotes from that time is, “The taskbar looks like CANDY! Give my my Windows 98 back IMMEDIATELY! This is a crappy OS, even worse than it looks!”

    As you can see, first impressions are not always the most correct. I have been using windows 8 since day 1 of the Consumer Preview. I set that thing up on a Dell Dimension 4700 with a pentium 4 processor. And guess what? It launches even faster than LINUX on THE SAME COMPUTER! Also, I have done extensive testing of applications from previous versions of windows, and EVERYTHING has worked flawlessly. People say Steam doesn’t work on it, but that can’t be true cause I got it working on that ancient Pentium beast that was originally XP, and steam didn’t even work on XP when I was testing it!

    Interestingly enough, I was at a family reunion the other day here. At that reunion there were 2 cousins who had surfaces (They work at Microsoft, got them free) and showed them to the family. No one had ever seen them before (Except for me) and were absolutely amazed by the idea of a REAL computer in a TABLET form. All except one, who was an Ipad freak and refused to even look at it, and just said loudly “only thing is, the Ipad came up with it years ago!”

    Which isn’t even true, you can’t even access the system files of an iPad, much less use a Bluetooth mouse or have a real word processing application. Business-wise, the surface is cheaper, more powerful, and has support for legacy applications, which is far less than the iPad, or even the galaxy’s, can claim to have.

  6. Learning curve IS usability. It’s two different ways to describe the same thing. You cannot have a steep learning curve and high usability at the same time. They are direct opposites. Removing all labels and explanations and replace them with pretty icons does not make the device easier to use. That’s basically how my washing machine is designed, and it’s impossible to understand. My washing machine can do a thousand wonderful things. But I use the same setting every time. Because it’s impossible to understand the simplified icons.

  7. chandler

    windows 8 is a joke and its not something time will fix…its been a good run me hearties but its time to abandon this sinking ship.

    Windows Vista/ Windows 8… its there 3rd OS released since XP and its not gotten better…
    I will stick with an OS I don’t have to relearn to do the same things I was doing before.. WHY…WHY put yourself through it….WHAT are the advantages???

    Stick with semi workable Win7 or fully functional workhorse XP and get your work DONE!

    • Ben Mueller

      Dude, if you want XP, microsoft has a free emulator for it on their website. all you need is a pro version of 7 or (I believe) 8, which is quite easy to get your hands onto (the laptop I type this on was 7 pro for less than 200$ on ebay, and still pretty decently powered)

  8. After reading some of these comments I believe people forgot about personal opinions. I see a lot of people talking about the tablets easy use, which on a tablet, WIN8 is easier to use, though to me, still annoying. I admit I am for drastic change but I own a mac so I stepped outside of my box s bit, however, WIN8 simply isn’t a win for some (not all) office workers like myself who knows how easy office is to work. My productivity has slowed down due to this learning curve. I’ve tried to use WIN8 to do many things and the most annoying is tgat is foes not support my college training program for office. Maybe the creators of the site I do my work on will catch up but not anytime soon. I think Microsoft should have introduced WIN8 and kept WIN7 around as well especially since Microsoft knows (yes, they do) that the office programs for us administrative folks can be a bit of a setback. Luckily for me, I was able find a WIN7 laptop at bestbuy for very cheap and considering I use my mac for everything else except work and school training programs, I’m okay with this WIN8 change because I don’t have to use it. For those saying the Microsoft store clerks can help u figure it out, perhaps in your town/city they do but not everywhere. I hated having to go to Apple learning meetings but I understand why they have them, I advise Microsoft to do the same because although I hated the Apple classes, after 2 of them I got over tgat learning curve quick.

  9. WIndowsCrapbyMoronsoft

    Windows 8 is garbage and a reminder of Windows ME when it comes to stability.

    The old phrase “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” must be unknown to every developer at Microsoft. They seem hell bent on trying to reinvent the wheel every f*cking time and failing miserably.

    Win98, Win2K, WinXP and Win7 were the only decent operating systems they put out. Everything else they put out has been crap and everyone knows it!

    Why was there a need for windows 8?!?!?

    Windows 7 was a step in the right direction.

    You’re going to make an OS designed for smartphones, ON A DESKTOP????

    Yeah real smart Microsoft I hope Apple drowns your market share for being so incredibly f*cking STUPID!!

    • chandler

      I have been in the tech field for over 15yrs and I grew up with these OS’s and I have to agree with you 100% I have never been so alienated from my work… I am leaving the field and its because of what Windows has done here…. Windows 8 I think is proof that Microsoft has no understanding of why people buy computers..its not the GUI, its not the FEEL….I do actual work on my computer not playing games and downloading (apps)

      Understand that MS = 98% of the market and if they want it this way its gonna happen..frankly its just time to give in… or get out..

  10. Scaotclysm

    Meh, been using Win 8 since the preview. Hated it at first, but once I accepted the metro screen as just a start menu, it was fine.

    As far as the overall user experience goes, I don’t find it bad at all. I don’t really see advantages over it between other versions of WIndows I’ve used, or my Mac with OSX 10.8.

    I do spend most of my time in the desk top mode though.

  11. I must be one of many who took advantage of the introductory offers to have windows 8 installed
    and after about 3 hours I put back windows 7 filled with disgust
    having grown up with dos and windows 3.1 onwards I can honestly say this is the worst operating system I have ever seen
    Ideal for kiddies or complete newbies to computers but thats all.

  12. Windows 8 is simply crap end of its junk I can not find a good word to say about it. Its like windows 311 but fancier its awful. I think that the person responsible for the interface is a halfwit personally.

  13. It’s really really bad. I have spent the whole day completely wiping and reinstalling Windows 7. Windows 8 was and still is not complete. I was released way before it was stable. It is terrible for desktops and sloppy on mobile devices. Shame on Microsoft. The good news…. I was given a refund without question.

  14. Well windows 8 is certinly different, the closing of apps is the main problem i know you can use a simple alt f4 but people who are not computer literate have to drag the tile from the left to the bottom thats just daft a simple x in the corner of the screen will stop this issue a big fail by microsoft in my oppinion! Its obvious that windows 8 was created for mobile/tablet devices, which im sure will work amazing but from a laptop/pc use its just so terrible, how can you expect people who are not computer literate lurn how windows 8 works when they’ve only just manage the basics on previous versions of windows! Windows 8 an epic fail!

  15. unhappy user

    Again windows does it again selling a beta app not tested and not user friendly just to shut it off you need to waste you time moving mouse till you finally get settings I have gone back to win7 this software is aimed at getting epad_ ipad user back

    All 2 my pc back to 7 I regret even trying it

  16. Brer Bear

    Windows 8 on a PC is awful. It’s not difficult to learn how to use it. It’s just the whole experience is a major step backwards. It’s strictly superficial. We are seeing the “dumbing down” of operating systems. Microsoft makes it seem like the people are too stupid to use advanced interfaces. If I want to see a smartphone interface, I’ll pick up my iPhone. I’ll go with MAC or Linux before I’ll use Windows 8.

  17. Topcat8566

    I installed W8 three weeks ago and have constant problems ever since with the PC freezing, then turning off and rebooting. It is unusable and I am going back to Windows 7 with which I had no trouble. I purchased W8 through the Microsoft web site so assume I have the katest and proper version.

  18. hey i am having some problems with windows 8,i used to have multiple windows on my pc,windows xp on c: and windows 7 on d:,but when i upgraded windows xp,windows 7 stopped working and also xp feature is still showing now,what should i do?

  19. Im fine with a windows mobile os, it’s usefull on a touch tablet. There absolutely no reason for metro ui on my pc workstation with 2 24 inch lcd monitors. I dont need to be forced to use a mobile touch os on a non touch hardware. Just like I dont need a physical keyboard and mouse for a tablet or a phone. Jack of all trades master of none …..

  20. Jonsteritis

    I have to say that I like using Windows 8 more so than my iPad or Android tablet. In fact, I find myself annoyingly trying to use the Windows 8 swipe gestures on the other tablets. I think the swipe gestures are BETTER than iOS and Android. Now as far as a child getting up to speed on an iPad so fast ….. a young child can learn ANYTHING, its all about aptitude. But as we get older we do from experience and our aptitude for things suffers. That is why we have people that have to highly criticize change that breaks with familiarity. Heck, I know people who still can’t get over Windows XP and are scared to upgrade just for the shear fact that they will no longer know how to even turn on their new computer, much less be able to familiarize themselves with it.

    I have been a die hard Apple and Windows user, from OS 6 and Windows for 3.1; A major release requires training and patience. When OS X came out, it threw me for a complete curve for about 2 weeks until I got used to it and embraced it, but Apple put in the ability to invoke OS 9 for old programs or booting back into OS 9 if necessary. Windows 8 still has the desktop, and that is its way of allowing you the familiarity of using non Windows 8 optimized programs and the 4 year old version of whatever you like (unless you are using RT) – but of course you will need to use the good ole mouse and keyboard for that OLD program. Same for iOS, I used PocketPC and Windows Mobile until I got an iPhone 4. It took me a month of pacing myself and telling myself not to take back the iPhone before I got used to it. Its like this when you get a new car, especially when you switch car manufacturers, it takes time to get used to your car nowadays – that’s progress. In fact, a few car manufacturers offer training just so you can figure out how to START and STOP the vehicle; as well as other features.

    Windows 8 is much better than XP Tablet edition and the tablet features of Vista and 7. I have gone from A MacBook Air running VMWare Fusion for Windows 7, and an Android tablet (I do not like iOS on a tablet) to just using an Asus Vivo Tab RT (with free dock), and my iPhone 5. I am leaning toward possibly buying a Windows phone soon to complete the full migration/integration. The only other thing that I am watching for is Linux and its next step to take itself into the same level of Windows 8, that would be a great alternative. I love my “Surface” RT tablet, and it was exactly what I have been waiting for; especially since I have been one of the few avid Windows Tablet users over the years, who have been consistently heartbroken with Microsoft’s attempts at tablet/PocketPC/Mobile offerings from them. But Windows 8 finally hits the spot in my opinion, and Microsoft finally gets it. Lets just hope that the OEM manufacturers don’t destroy a great OS foundation like they have with Android.

    I am a huge Apple supporter (some say I am a “fan-boy”), but the newest Apple hardware offerings for desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone are the weakest I have ever seen in years from them. Their saving grace is that they make the whole kit and caboodle, so that there is only ONE way for Mac OS and iOS to be interpreted. But unless Apple can integrate the Mac and iPad together as one, then it may lose me as a proponent. No matter if they own the whole hardware and software experience.

  21. I’ve been using my surface rt since the day it shipped and yes it had a learning curve mainly because I never actually read the doc. I figured I knew windows but…I ended up actually having to find out how to do a few things.

    Now my android tablet is just an alarm clock and my surface is used constantly. Word, remote desktop, UNC drives,… it all ‘just works’.

    Is win8 perfect. No. Some of the usability issues described in the article are real. If Microsoft had made win8 start in the desktop and if they’d kept a start button it would be just another update. Instead they made a learning curve (dumb).

    The other big mistake is that the metro apps in RT are limited. Updates will make for a richer set of apps. Mail and IE really need richness.