Story of the week: Design logic behind Windows 8 UI

Ok, it’s not exactly this week, but on 13/02 a reddit user named pwnies (?!), who claims to be an UX designer at Microsoft, wrote a reply about why Windows 8 tries to reconsile the desktop and the metro (aka modern) environment.

The hatred

A lot of people I know say they don’t like the interface of Windows 8. They argue that switching between the desktop and the metro environment is compulsory (since the start menu was removed) and that it interrupts their workflow. They refer to the disappointing sales numbers of Microsofts new OS. Some even say the OS is responsible for the low PC sales recently.

The shared tuxedo coat

So what was Microsoft thinking when it designed the new iteration of their PC operating system? Pwnies (ponies?) states that there are two kinds of Windows users: the power user (roughly content creators) and the casual user (roughly content consumers). In all previous versions of Windows, they had to share the same UI, namely the desktop. Pwnies explains this using a shared tuxedo coat metaphor:

It was like a rented tuxedo coat – something that somewhat fit a wide variety of people. It wasn’t tailored, because any aggressive tailoring would make it fit one person great, but would have others pulling at the buttons. Whatever feature we wanted to add into Windows, it had to be something that was simple enough for casual users to not get confused with, but also not dumbed down enough to be useless to power users.

To get rid of this constraint, UX designers decided to split the playground. Pwnies:

Our hands were bound, and our users were annoyed with their rented jackets. So what did we do? We separated the users into two groups. Casual and Power. We made two separate playgrounds for them. All the casual users would have their own new and shiny place to look at pictures of cats – Metro. The power users would then have free reign over their native domain – the desktop.

Tick-tock

Lower in the comments on reddit, pwnies explains that low sales for Windows 8 are natural, since it is a tick-iteration. Windows has a tick-tock release cycle. Every tick iteration (2000, Vista, 8) introduces big changes, which users naturally dislike. Tock iterations (XP, 7, 9) on the other hand refine these changes.

My opinion

Since reading the post, I must say I like Windows 8 better. I’m starting to use Outlook instead of the Mail and Calendar apps in Metro, and I pinned more programs to my taskbar. I wonder why Microsoft didn’t explain this reasoning in an official announcement. Apple has done something like that in their introduction videos with Jony Ive (which I think are hilarious, as do these guys).

PS: Jay Machalani also wrote an interesting article about the Windows 8 UI, or how he thinks it should be…

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11 comments

  1. Although it kind of sounds like a sales talk, the separation between Desktop and Metro does make sense if you explain it like this. However, I still think they could have tried a bit more to make both views more complementairy to each other. Using both of them at the same time is now not very practical.

    1. The point is not to use them at the same time. Staying in one XOR the other is a better experience in my opinion. That’s why I like Machalani’s proposal.

  2. For me, it was rather clear from the beginning. I was therefore one of the few people that liked the Metro design already from the beginning. And I knew why I shouldn’t use the Metro design that much: the number of features in this design were really kept low, so it isn’t too confusing for casual users.

    On the other side I don’t think the tick-tock cycle of Microsoft is helping a lot. Because when they introduce a lot of new changes they will lose a lot of users I think, users that are not all coming back with a tock release. So, in the end they will end up with less users than before. It is better to make something good from the start than needing two product cycles to do this.

    The idea by Machalani has blown me away, I really think this is what Windows 8 had to look like. It really represents the idea behind Windows 8 as pwnies explains it but better executed than Microsoft has.

    1. I think making something good from the start isn’t always that simple…

  3. I wonder why Microsoft didn’t explain this reasoning in an official announcement.

    Probably because they didn’t want to call the majority of their users stupid?

    1. There’s a big difference between calling somebody a casual user and calling them stupid. A lot of people are “afraid” of computers because they think they’re complicated. I think stating that Windows 8 has a “simple” part could help to pull them on board.

      1. That’s a big difference indeed, and the official announcement would have never used the words “it had to be something that was simple enough for casual users to not get confused with, but also not dumbed down enough to be useless to power users” (which comes pretty close to calling them dumb).

        However, the amount of people that would have misinterpreted such a message would still be big. Coming from a guy whose parents own a computer shop: you wouldn’t believe the amount of people that think they’re computer experts…

        Conclusion: I think people don’t like being assigned to some kind of a stereotype, whatever it is called, and a lot of people would misjudge their own capabilities.

  4. I actually liked Windows 8 from the beginning. It’s a lot different than earlier versions, but I actually find programs a lot faster with the metro interface than with earlier start menus. When I’m on Windows 8, I now find myself starting programs more via metro than by starting them by entering a command in the Execute screen like I did before (via Win+R, thus bypassing the start menu entirely).

    However, I think some features are hidden too much and are not that straightforward to learn. Biggest first problem for casual and pro users: how do I shutdown?? Also no mouse gestures have on-screen hints… This doesn’t really fit completely in the strategy of making things as easy as possible for the casual user.

  5. The analogy with the tuxedo is interesting, but it’s a problem that every designer is bound to face. This reasoning shouldn’t be used as an excuse for a completely spit environment. And neither should the ‘tick-tock’ trend, it is an observation not a motivation. As for the design, I think the real challenge lies in creating a coherent environment, that works for all users. This is what Machalani does better. So, as has been mentioned, this is truly an interesting approach.

    Well thought out article though, you give a lot of information and references. The comparison with Apple is also interesting, but maybe another discussion..

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