Windows 8 - User experience first impressions

To match a growing need to deliver hi-fidelity designs alongside our wireframes and prototypes and run the latest version of the Adobe Creative Suite, the UX Team here at Webcredible have recently become the owners of brand spanking new Dell XPS touch screen desktop sporting Windows 8.

Before getting our hands on this machine there’d been a hell of a lot of press about Windows 8 – has a release of a new Operating System (OS) ever received so much scrutiny? Last October Microsoft’s launch of not only it’s latest upgrade to Windows 7, but also a tablet device ‘Surface’ (which is confusingly shipped its own OS that’s different from Win 8, known as Windows RT) ignited passionate debate, mostly bad, amongst tech commentators. Typically criticism centres on its flawed usability and deficiencies in a business/productivity setting. Such problems even led to speculation that the chief architect behind these releases was fired.

A few months on the dust has settled and like any decent UX professional I took it upon myself to see if all this negative launch hype held any water. I spent a few weeks ‘expert evaluating’ (from a design professionals/business user’s point of view) whether Microsoft’s latest OS opus can really be that bad.

Getting to grips with the ‘Modern UI’

The first thing you notice about the updated Windows 8 interface (known in Microsoft tech speak as the ‘Modern UI’) is how the ‘Start menu’ has been replaced by the now infamous ‘Start screen’ (see screenshot below). Essentially this is the ‘Start menu’ but in a full screen format, and it replaces the ‘Desktop’ as the default view once you’ve logged in. In a similar fashion to the old desktop it’s possible to personalise the layout of the ’tiles’ (the interactive icons which replace ‘shortcuts’) used to access the new smart phone-esque ‘Apps’ (downloadable from the Windows Store). You can also personalise the start menu as you would the old desktop.

Interestingly (read: confusingly) standard non-‘App’ programs still need to be opened through the ‘Desktop’ (which opened through a tile on the Modern UI is treated as ‘App’ itself). Through this ‘Desktop’ you can run non-Windows store apps, e.g. the Adobe suite and access traditional Windows elements such as the folders like My Documents.

So what’s it like to actually use? Well, I’ve had a little experience playing with the Windows phones from which Win 8 takes its inspiration, and I’ve grown up with Windows, so even after all the negative press I’d thought it’d be straightforward… However, I instantly ran into three rather annoying headscratchers:

  1. With ‘All programs’ no longer available from a ‘Start menu’ (not even in Desktop view!) I got immediately confused. Where would I go to find non-App versions of traditional desktop software? Do I need to look out for app versions of my most commonly used software or are they hidden somewhere alongside them? It turns out that typical non-App ‘Programs’, such as Photoshop, are labelled as Apps too – these can be found by right clicking on the Start screen to open a navigation bar at the bottom of the page, and selecting ‘All apps’. Here you’ll find software that will run as it would on a pre-Windows 8 PC, and once selected will open through the familiar desktop view. To eliminate this step you can add non Windows App programs to the start screen, by right clicking on the program in app view and selecting ‘pin to start’.Realising this task had taken me far too long (and I hadn’t even thought about touching the screen yet) it was time to watch some of the Dell tutorial videos.
  2. It was days before I realised returning to the Start screen without explicitly closing an App (an actual Windows store app, not a program like Photoshop) was in fact minimising it to a ‘task bar’ that runs vertically along the left hand side of the screen. Only thing is, it’s hidden – you access this task bar by placing your mouse pointer in the top left hand side of the screen.Confusingly the taskbar in the start menu is only for Windows store apps but the traditional taskbar still exists in Desktop view. This means a combination of Windows store ‘Apps’ and non-Windows 8 apps can all be open at the same time, but can only be accessed form their respective task bars. Makes perfect sense…right?
  3. Without using touch and with only limited options offered by ‘right-clicking’ (especially when on the Start screen) the use of keyboard shortcuts becomes essential. When it comes to these shortcuts themselves, certain key strokes remain the same (Alt-F4 to close programs for example) – however a number of new ones have been added (and this takes a while to learn). See here for a handy list.

To summarise my first impressions, I’d say it seems the basic Windows navigation model is still in place, but the interactions users are required to perform them (opening, closing and minimising) have been updated for multiple screens sizes and touch interfaces. There are a few novel concepts so it takes a while to learn, but even though I’m an expert user I feel like I’ve been jumping through hoops.

If you are looking to upgrade, heed some succinct advice a colleague gave me (and I’m paraphrasing):

“I’ve just tried to forget what I knew before and figure out what I need to do. [Windows 8] It’s not so bad”

A touch revolution?

The key thing I’ve come to realise about using a touch screen Windows 8 desktop is that you are only going to want to use your fingers when accessing Windows store ‘Apps’ or browsing within the Modern UI. Once you’re back in classic ‘desktop view’, aside from quickly returning to Apps loaded on the Start screen, or dragging Windows about to change your view, it’s much quicker to stick to using the mouse and keyboard.

This said, (and admittedly after some practice) when accessing things within the ‘Modern UI’ it does feel natural to use touch to navigate the Start screen and access various menus. Microsoft has stuck to using common gestures such as swiping and pinching – as you’d expect since such interactions have become commonplace thanks to smart phones and tablets. Interacting with the Windows Store downloaded Apps does feel clean, and for want of a better word modern, but over the weeks since I first started playing around with them, the novelty has certainly worn off.
I find it much easier and quicker to use the mouse/keyboard combination.

Admittedly, I haven’t had a go with a ‘Touch Mouse’ or ‘Touchpad’ and I can see how this might change the overall user experience of using touch gestures to navigate Windows 8.

Finally, and just so I don’t come across as a massive killjoy I will bring to your attention a few examples of some futuristic Win 8 touchscreen magic:

Bing ‘Maps’ App

In a similar fashion to how you’d interact with a mapping App on your phone, Bing maps brings this experience to the big screen. Pinching, twisting and swiping to explore the globe is an immersive and awe inspiring experience. The inclusion of the indoor maps which allow you to see inside your favourite exhibition centre or mall adds an extra layer of interest, and some useful functionality.

Handwriting recognition

Tapping a text input field with your fingertip will reveal the ability to enter words and letters by scribing them directly onto the screen with your finger. Whilst the recognition is slightly slow, and if you’re not careful it will misinterpret your strokes, it is generally quite impressive. Though on a desktop the need to use this method of input seems rather redundant, but I’d be interested to see how well it works on a tablet device.

A rocky road ahead

It’s clear Microsoft have been backed into a corner. They went some way to achieving their vision of “a computer in every home” at the turn of the century, but with the mobile revolution they are now certainly on the back foot.

This perhaps explains why they’ve been so bold in the design of Windows 8, it would surely have been a much safer bet to simply release yet another version of Windows 95. I for one am glad they did not – I have tired of having to fork out for new hardware and software to use the same tools I’ve been using since I was 11.

So is Windows 8 the solution to Microsoft’s current woes? Well only time will tell. I’ve no idea whether Microsoft envisions moving toward a Windows RT ‘App’ only future, removing the desktop functionality and requiring every program follow the Modern UI design guidelines (which are numerous and strict). Such a move would be a massive step in a new direction, away from the stale updates to Windows I’ve bemoaned above.

From a user experience perspective Windows 8 does take some getting used to, not massively, but enough to have given me some pause for thought and generate a serious amount of debate in the tech/user experience community. Did Microsoft really test Windows 8 for 1.24 billion hours…?

Pricing is another key factor, and whilst Windows desktops and laptops continue to be much cheaper than Apple’s, Google have just released a reasonably priced notebook which will no doubt send shivers up the spine of Microsoft execs. I think the key lesson learned here is if you’re going to do something radical (especially if you are a behemoth like Microsoft) be prepared to weather initial unpopularity from your user base. If subsequent Windows releases and Win 8 updates truly provide improvement to people’s home and work lives, and its software/hardware solutions elegantly meets customer’s needs (on time and ahead of their rivals), then the Microsoft’s Windows 8 launch debacle mightn’t have such severe long term consequences as the initial poor response would have you believe. 

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