Windows 8, Sadly Disappointing

Last week, I was surprised to read Don Norman’s thoughts about Windows 8, and I got excited to test-drive the consumer preview. Norman wrote the book on usability, quite literally, so his opinion matters. He and Jakob Nielsen have previously been critical of touch interfaces, so I had hope that Microsoft had managed to meld the classic keyboard/mouse interface with a modern touch one.

Today, I finally spun up a VM of it and kicked the tires.

What a disappointment. I wonder what Norman saw in it that made him practically glow with praise. Did they only show him the Metro interface? Was it running on a tablet? I’m guessing yes and yes.

I’m not alone by a long shot either. Tim (@oraclebase) wrote a scathing review of Windows 8 last week, which rang true to what I experienced in the couple hours I invested to test it. Even more telling, Chris Pirillo (@chrispirillo) put his father in front of Windows 8 to get a real user’s experience. The results aren’t terribly surprising; it doesn’t pass the parent test.

For everyone, yes even you and me, Windows 8 requires relearning functions that are deeply ingrained after years of using a computer, and that creates a boatload of frustration. Most users do not want to spend time learning; they want to spend time doing.

Frankly, not much has changed since the developer preview I also test-drove a few months ago.

I gave up after a couple hours, but here are just a few major issues that bugged me.

Applications behave differently
While I enjoy the minimalist Metro interface, it removes helpful features like menus. After opening IE 10, I found I couldn’t quit using Crtl+Q. I was stuck in IE for quite some time with no affordance to let me know how to get back to the opening tiles.

Finally (and accidentally) I blundered across the menu, which is hidden by default. You have to mouse into the bottom right corner to pop out the opaque menu of options. There’s no way to know this, since the OS gives you absolutely no clue, at least in IE. I did notice a small glyph there in other applications, but not in IE.

The Windows Live fiasco
I wanted to try out the WordPress app for the Windows Store, which launched last week, to write this very post.

Sadly, the Store refused to accept my Windows Live credentials. After some brief Googling, I couldn’t find an answer, so I began experimenting.

One new feature of Windows 8 is the ability to login with your Windows Live account. I declined that option on setup naturally, but therein lies the key.

Along the way, I discovered that even though you can define very strong passwords for Windows Live, Windows 8 only supports 16 character passwords. As a devoted 1Password user, I’ve seen this from other sites. Unfortunately, Windows 8 gives you absolutely no indication that this is the case, so you’re left to figure it out on your own as you fail over and over silently.

Once I had switched my login to my Windows Live account and changed my password three times, I could finally install the WordPress app.

Of course, I quickly discovered it’s for users only, at least for now. So, all that effort was in vain.

Janky desktop
Along the way, I had to find the Control Panel, which is hidden away and can only be found via search. Once launched, I found myself in the classic Windows 7 desktop interface, minus the Start button and without any affordance to return to the Metro tiles.

Luckily, my earlier fail in IE clued me in on how to do this. Ctrl+Esc is your friend, ironically, given how touch-friendly Metro is. Learn the keyboard shortcuts.

The desktop is just as tacked on and janky as it was in the developer preview. It’s obviously there to ease the transition for classic Windows users, but it’s been neutered so much that I wonder why Microsoft even bothered including it.

Why not make a clean break and force the user to relearn everything? Offering the crutch of an old-school desktop is worse, since its presence only serves as a reminder of how things used to work.

Final thoughts
I actually like the Metro design. It’s clean and fresh, very un-Windows. I’ve been curious to try WP 7 for the same reasons. Metro is obviously the future of Microsoft, and I can see it being very comfortable on a tablet or a standup touchscreen.

Microsoft should get credit for trying to move forward with touch-friendly design that is consistent across devices and form factor. Windows on a phone should be the same as it is on a tablet and a laptop and even on a Surface.

However, the inclusion of the desktop interface shows they’re afraid to alienate users. That makes sense, and I wonder if there will be Metro-only versions sold. Even so, it’s almost an insult to include them together in the same OS. Ironically, this will drive people looking for a new computer to buy iPads and Macs.

One thing is clear though. The days of a keyboard/mouse OS are numbered. Windows 8 joins OS X Lion and Ubuntu Unity as touch-first interfaces. Soon, those of us who prefer a tactile keyboard will be pushed into inferior interfaces for content creation.

So, the biggest impression I’m left with is frustration, e.g. I wanted to add screenshots of the OS in this post, but after fighting it for a few hours, I’m gassed.

Have you tried Windows 8? What do you think?

Find the comments.




  1. I tried it out just now, and am very disappointed in it. Your arguments with it are similar to mine. It is way to difficult to follow at first. For the millions of businesses that rely on Windows as their platform to work with, I feel sorry for them in the upcoming future when XP does give them the salute. Windows is heading into a different path, OS X to me is easy but for many its a lot of work to figure out too. I really cannot figure why everything is heading into a stupid faze of life. It’s like everything needs to change just to stay fresh and cool, but its frustrating.

  2. Microsoft is pushing its users into touch. I get that, but what I don’t get is why they’ve decided to smash classic Windows into Metro. The combination is very disjointed and jarring.

    I wonder if they will use different editions, given the feedback. They definitely should, or at least give users the ability to use one or the other exclusively. Metro seems partially baked bc certain functions require the classic interface.

    Apple is going the same direction w OS X, unfortunately, but I guess a small comfort is they will be much less accommodating to the old keyboard/mouse interface. They’ll just force us all into touch, which will suck, but ultimately, will be better for the overall experience.

    I guess those of us who want to stay away from a touch-based OS on the desktop/laptop will still have Linux 🙂

  3. I completely second what you have said, the biggest problem is affordance.  There is no way to distinguish whether a UI element is a button or not. 

  4. I think you can blame the touch movement for that. The tile UI works OK for WP7 bc it’s a pure touch interface, but when you move to a mouse and keyboard, tiles aren’t as obvious a metaphor. People don’t expect such large clickable areas from a keyboard/mouse interface.

    There are so many issues w Win 8. I’m interested to see the final release, hoping it takes some of the feedback to heart. We’ll see soon enough.

  5. At least now we know that Metro purposefully ignored affordances. I disagree w both the narrow definition of affordances and their purpose in design. I can see why affordances matter less to Microsoft though, given how prevalent and frequently used their products are. Still, it’s a steep learning curve without any help, and for Win 8, a lot of relearning.

  6. Upgraded following favourable upgrade for the consumer edition, but now after 48 hours as my main system, I can’t really see what is new. Of course I can see Metro, and it’s very smart, but it’s simply another layer of abstraction. I am appreciating the cleaner file explorer look, but overall the benefits don’t really exist – but the frustrations do.

    I guess as the “App Store” or whatever MS call their “version” of the concept populates things will improve.

    I think Microsoft have risked Balkanising the PC platform further – and should ideas like making Steam compatible with Linux take hold I wonder whether I would find myself perceiving Window’s as the de facto centre of gravity.

  7. Having read some of the comments about a large scale rollout and the UI being the problem, I completely agree. Recently where I work we moved to a Window 7 based virtualised environment via a Citrix RDP application. Now for me the transfer was fine, but for most it was a nightmare – little “features” like snap to the side confused people. Most couldn’t even conceptualize virtualization. Given that this was in reality just a couple of extra mouse-clicks to log in initially it caused immense problems as agents couldn’t work their machines.

    Given what I saw there, the thought of deploying Windows 8 fills me with abject terror for a large corporate environment. At least disasters like the Titanic or Hindenburg are over in minutes or hours – can you imagine 300 call centre agents who can’t access or operate CIM databases?

  8. Pretty sure most enterprises will wait and see, banking on Win 7 as their long-term option. XP will finally be moth-balled, forcing Win 7 adoption. I wonder how many enterprises will see enough value in Win 8 to take the risks you describe.

  9. From a user experience perspective, Win 8 is a confusing mess. The don’t-call-it-Metro piece seems to work fine, especially for tablets, but the extra layer of abstraction you describe makes Win 8 a head-scratching proposition on a traditional PC. Why not copy Apple’s approach and form two OSes, then gradually merge them? Personally, I dislike being pushed toward touch on my Mac, but it makes development sense.

  10. Hey everybody, saw that video today, and wow, he was as confused as I was but not anymore. I’ve got the hang of it and after some thinking, I was like wow, why wouldn’t someone be a little confused at first. I was helping a friend with a router connected to an apple desktop and for the life of me I couldn’t quite get it. Now if I kept at it I am sure I would. MS has a start button its the Metro screen. I have my YOGA with WIN 8 and I am happy with it.

  11. @Tom: Win 8 seems much more logical on touchscreens, but for the desktop, it’s still very jarring.

  12. Hi Jake, initially yes, jarring is a good term to use. I was dumb founded when office went to the toolbar as well, now I can’t imagine going back. I do have some trepidations about making the conversion to win 8 on the desktop but I will be upgrading shortly. Being able to carry one device that gives me a tablet and then converts to get some real work done priceless as they say.

  13. @Tom: I know several people who have returned machines that came w Win 8. One even insisted the store put Win 7 on the new machine.

    Not everyone has the patience and curiosity to relearn how to use a computer.

    Enterprises are a whole different problem too, since many users will need to be retrained, which is a cost issue. Same thing happened w the Office ribbon you mention.

    Yeah, it all goes away after a while, but it’s generally bad. I get why MSFT did it, but why keep the old Desktop at all? Just rip off the Band Aid and force everyone to learn the new way. Providing the old way as a crutch would be fine if it weren’t bundled in Win 8, e.g. offer two editions to ease the transition.

  14. I get it, had the same learning curve from win xp to win 7. I am in a very large corporation so I understand “enterprise”. I wouldn’t turn back to xp, in fact I have two machines at work one is xp and one windows 7. Every time I have to use the xp machine I grouse, because none of the “pin” features exist. I guess my point is, I see the initial learning curve but in the long run I’ve reaped far more productivity then I lost on the initial rollout. It’s kind of like getting anything new. I see your point though because I felt the same way when I first looked at win 8. As far as ripping the band aid, you really want to be limited to one or two apps per screen? That’s how the tablets are, 15 taps to cut and paste something from one app to the next. I will tell you I was very disappointed in how they handled media center.

  15. @Tom: I don’t recall there being much of a learning curve between XP and 7, although I haven’t used Windows much since 2008 when I bid it farewell as a native OS. Only run it virtually when necessary now.

    But yeah, technical change is never easy in an enterprise.

    Your point about productivity in the long run is spot on, but Win 8 puts a steeper relearning curve in front of users, which causes abandonment before the gains come.

    Consumers have that luxury, but enterprise users won’t. In the end, that’s a good thing bc the latter will be forced to relearn and eventually will reap the rewards.

    My comment about the Band Aid was a strategic one. If the future is Metro, the easement of keeping the Win 7 Desktop is just a crutch. Eventually, everyone using Windows will have to go Metro.

    To be clear, I’m not arguing for the limitations of Metro or the single-threaded nature of most touch-based OSes. Copy/paste is a great example of a massive loss in productivity in touch interfaces.

  16. Jake, why does it have to be Metro or traditional windows? MS gives us options: want all metro all the time then stay in metro. Want traditional windows, hit desktop from the start screen (rather than the start button) or hit the particular app you want to use in desktop and enter windows desktop and get to work (I think this is where the confusion comes in) and if you want both your good to go. The more I think about it the more I like it and the more I think MS may have hit the mark, the best of both worlds. All I know is I am getting more comfortable with it and just updated my desktop. Nice to have settings syncing between my desktop and tablet. Huge productivity saver ;-).

  17. @Tom: Too many options is not always a good thing. It’s confusing and jarring to have two OS interfaces; it’s cognitive overload for the user to have too many choices.

    Just bc you *can* learn new behaviors doesn’t mean that’s the best way.

    Syncing is a nice feature to be sure.

  18. The way I see it in the desktop/laptop, tablet, phone lifestyle that we’ve become accustomed too, MS has just taken one extra device out of that equation and synchronized the interface between phone and PC. Hows that for usability and productivity. Unlike some others companies I can think of, this saves some serious cash, the environment, and lightened the load on my shoulder. P.S. the desktop conversion went nicely and I am a convert. Like I said before, metro is an enhanced start button it’s that simple.

  19. @Tom: The future vision seems nice, Metro on all your devices, data synchronized, etc. Not entirely there yet, but it makes sense.

    Very few people are buying into the full ecosystem, or so the WP 7 numbers tell us. Maybe WP 8 will change that.

    While I like the idea of Metro, it takes work to learn how to use it. That initially turns off the casual user. Many will come around, but many will jump to Apple.

    I’d be much more complimentary of Win 8 if it didn’t include the old school Desktop.

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