By John Waterworth
Hype surrounding the imminent launch of Windows 8 has so far been dominated by reviews and expert opinion. But, with an estimated 70% of the world’s computers running Windows, we wanted to know what real consumers think of the operating system and how they will cope with the learning curve when they upgrade.
We observed 14 typical users as they interacted with Windows 8 for the first time. All were experienced with Windows, and covered a wide range of ages and ability levels. In sessions lasting from 20 to 30 minutes, we asked them to perform basic tasks such as browsing websites, using social media, sending emails and viewing photos.
If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to preview the system the first thing you will notice is the new user interface (UI) which includes a new style of full screen application and a new Start screen (pic below). Microsoft refer to this as ‘the Modern UI’.
It’s certainly a radical departure from the existing interface and has the potential to create an easier and more engaging experience. But it comes with a huge learning overhead, which we think is likely to slow down adoption of the new system. It may even present an opportunity for competitors to steal market share.
While our participants found the Modern UI fresh and attractive, the radical changes it introduces caused all of them significant problems. At the end of their session, none of our participants felt confident using the new interface.
One participant told us:
“I feel like a baby again. I can’t do anything, not even my very simple list of things like launch Internet Explorer, type in the address, open something in a tab and go to that tab and read it.”
No buttons, menus or toolbars
One principle of the new Microsoft design style is ‘Do more with less’. Designers are encouraged to ‘Solve for distractions, not discoverability … Create a clean and purposeful experience by leaving only the most relevant elements on screen so people can be immersed in the content.’
This approach leaves the interface largely free of the input boxes, buttons, menus and toolbars that are familiar to Windows users. Instead, the Modern UI puts the emphasis on the data that the user is interested in, and asks them to interact directly with that data (by tapping, clicking, etc.) to produce the result they want. It also moves common actions into what are called ‘app bars’, a ‘charms bar’ (pic right) and ‘hot corners’ that users must reveal to use.
These changes left many of our participants confused and not knowing how to complete the most basic tasks. They missed important features because they weren’t sure how, or even if, they could interact with them. For example, several participants did not realise that text fields were editable when writing emails or when sharing content from the charms bar.
Users that couldn’t find the new charms bar struggled with basic search tasks such as finding new apps to download in the store. “That wasn’t a natural place to go look for search. If I was using a friend’s computer, I’d get frustrated.”
The app bar was also a challenge for many participants. In the Modern UI version of Internet Explorer users must right click to reveal the address bar and their tabs, whereas our participants expected these to be available all the time and did not expect to right click to reveal the app bar. “If I was on here clicking things, this would disappear and then I’d have to click back to get the bar back.” “I was going to move onto keyboard shortcuts next, but the last thing I was going to think of would have been the right click to bring that up.”
Harder to switch between full screen apps
In the Modern UI, most apps are full screen. As there is no longer a ‘tray’ showing the list of running apps, our participants found it difficult to get an overview of what they were doing when moving from one full screen app to another. ”Sometimes you feel like you can lose things when you come out of them. You don’t know where they go. On normal Windows they are down [at] the bottom.”
Users who could not find the ‘hot corner’ that revealed the app switcher (pic above left), were often stranded with no clear way to escape the current app. “I’m not quite sure how you get back to the tiles. I want to go back to the colourful thing and I can’t seem to … [eventually finds the start button] That was very tucked away in the corner, not very easy to find!”
Closing the current app was also a problem. To close an app the user must drag from the top of the screen to the bottom. At some point in their session, most participants asked: “Where is my X in the corner?”
Users must combine the Modern UI with the old Desktop UI
In Windows 8, moving to the Modern UI or sticking with the traditional desktop UI is not an either/or choice. For regular tasks, users must move between the two. The Start screen and the built-in apps follow the Modern UI, while Office and most other apps remain in the Desktop UI. This requires users to keep both interface and interaction styles in mind at the same time.
For example, at the Start screen, if a user inserts a USB drive and responds to the prompt to browse the files on the drive, Windows 8 switches from the Modern UI to the Desktop UI and opens a traditional file explorer window.
And the Desktop now appears as a specific ‘tile’ on the Modern UI Start screen. Several of our participants struggled with the concept of having their familiar Windows apps such as Microsoft Office appear behind the Desktop tile. “So you’re going to have to launch one app in order to launch another. You’re just going to confuse people.”
A bold and brave move
Microsoft has always exercised caution when introducing new concepts to previous versions of Windows. They have worked hard to make sure that new features are easy for existing users to understand and adopt. Our findings suggest that the Modern UI breaks this pattern.
There’s no doubt that this is a bold and brave move but people are going to need to set aside time to get to grips with this new interface. Repeated across around 500 million worldwide Windows users, the back of our beermat tells us, by the time every user has switched to Windows 8 there will be at least 300,000 man-years of learning curve time expended. That’s quite a suck on Planet Earth’s productivity.
So the question is not whether Windows 8 is a better product than previous versions of Windows (we think it is). The real question is how the world is going to feel while it learns its way around. Presumably Microsoft is braced for impact, and they probably have shoulders broad enough to wear the storm of frustration Windows 8 is about to whip up. We expect that there should be some lively commentary on social media from newly minted Windows 8 customers. It should be interesting viewing!