Usability Expert Says Windows 8's UI is 'Weak on Tablets, Terrible for PCs'

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Stymied by the new tile-centric design of Windows 8? You aren't the only one. Noted usability expert Jakob Nielsen conducted a small-scale test of Microsoft's new-look operating system by dropping a dozen experienced PC jockeys in front of Windows 8 on a desktop and Windows RT on a Surface RT tablet. The conclusion: Live tiles may be pretty, but Windows 8's usability sure isn't.

Nielsen pulls no punches in the lengthy critique, with an opening salvo that calls the dual desktop and Modern UI modes a cognitive burden for users, echoing what usability expert Raluca Budiu -- who works at Nielsen's Nielsen Norman Group -- told LAPTOP earlier this year.

The hits only continue from there. "The main UI restricts users to a single window, so the product ought to be renamed 'Microsoft Window,'" Nielsen writes, arguing that that experience may work well on a mobile device, but it doesn't make sense on a desktop PC. Ouch! From there, he goes on to criticize the overly active design of Live Tiles, the way the "flat" Modern design fails to give visual clues where a user should click, the emphasis on big pictures as opposed to tight information density, error-prone touch gestures, and the out-of-sight, out-of-mind Charms bar.

The disease spawning all these symptoms, Nielsen contends, is Microsoft's decision to shoehorn a tablet experience onto the desktop interface, despite the gulf in hardware design between the two form factors:

Windows 8 on mobile devices and tablets is akin to Dr. Jekyll: a tortured soul hoping for redemption. On a regular PC, Windows 8 is Mr. Hyde: a monster that terrorizes poor office workers and strangles their productivity.

Nielsen expects Windows 9 to tighten up the tablet experience, citing Microsoft's willingness to learn from its mistakes. Desktop users, however, might be out of luck if Microsoft continues to push for "One Windows, Everywhere."

"(Microsoft) has now thrown the old customer base under the bus by designing an operating system that removes a powerful PC's benefits in order to work better on smaller devices," Nielsenwrites.

CNET's Jay Greene, on the other hand, consulted with Tom Hobbs, another UI specialist, and while Hobbs agrees with some of Nielsen's specific critiques, he thinks Microsoft had no choice but to rip off the traditional UI Band-Aid in one fell swoop considering the monumental shift in direction Windows 8 represents.

"For Microsoft to support incremental change around a new paradigm would be suicide," Hobbs said.

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  • Donny Says:

    The Windows 8 GUI sucks. The Windows 8 GUI is the most unintuitive GUI I have ever seen in a major product. This is not just growing pains. It is not just that I can't find functionalities without going though a convoluted path that sometimes take me in circles, but the fact that the default colors are so washed out with so little contrast that I can't tell where the borders are on pages and documents. The main problem is that there is very little usability transferred from the robust XP that could help in the transition. No one should have to go through the torture of getting accustomed to something that is obviously badly designed.

  • JB Says:

    Windows 8 ui is hated by most desktop and notebook users. My friend who works in the MS support dept says most of them tried classic and said it was a great fix as the underlying operating system is much improved. I have the inside track on win8 service pack 1 and they will not include the classic option as many have speculated. The free classic program that faces win8 with the win 7 desktop is the cure. A great OS with a fixable UI. It's win win no matter what you like so why argue.

  • CocoDrops Says:

    Surely Nielson realises the flaw in his experiment, as someone experienced with W7 and the former editions has a pretty good grasp on the interface and the quickest way of doing things. Maybe compare tests when W8 is as aged as W7 is now to get more accurate results. Or even give someone a couple months with Windows 8 and I would imagine they'd be doing things faster than they are now on W7. I can't imagine that a man of his grandeur would fail to acknowledge this, leaving me to assume that he disregarded it in an attempt to add weight to his point.

    It's this old school thinking from these old school names that have been attacking W8 the hardest. But, despite the scepticism, I really think that it is a breath of fresh air and a step in the right direction.

  • bwebmasta Says:

    It always pays to look at the person making the comment, rather look at the comment first.

    Windows 8 is pretty awesome, and easy to transition to from Windows 7. I can tell you this, my iMac posed a much larger curve than Win8 did. Cognitive challenged? Seriously, if using Win8 has got you challenged cognitively as stated on his review, than you have other serious issues. This guy is an UI expert? Oh, last time I listened to an expert I lost out on a $22K on stocks. Just saying.

  • joeyman9 Says:

    If someone installed 8 on your computer overnight and it booted to the desktop (a choice you can opt for) and you added stardock's 5 dollar start button to the OS, you would be blown away with how fast and responsive Windows 7 had become. In other words, for those who want 7, but want it to be more responsive, yeah, you can have that too. Well worth the 39.99 dollar upgrade to windows pro MS currently offers. I have updated my lenovo x220 (touch screen tablet) and a 5 year old HP desktop and I simply love it. There is no better touch screen computer OS out there and this far......the finest rendition of Windows so far. I have used, and would still like to use actually, linux (Ubuntu) however, their touch screen ability falls far short of windows 8 AND.......I need to use a windows platform to use my daily trading platform. Windows 8 is, by far, well worth the upgrade (especially at the current price). However, all my future computer purchases will have touch screen capabilities.

  • Robin Foster Says:

    Let the bashing begin... This is unreservedly biased by an Apple sponsor!

  • Anthony Says:

    please . . . what else would you expect from an apple sponsored advertorial . . .

  • Amir Says:

    Windows 8 has been a great experience thus far, with a new touchscreen laptop that I recently purchased I can now see first hand how useful and fun this OS can be.

    Of course it's different from other previous versions of Windows. However, if you want you can customize it to look just like Windows 7. It basically is a Windows 7, just with added features and UI.

    Whoever qualifies these experts as "usability experts" need to do a reevaluation, It seems as though they are just criticizing Windows 8 and clearly biased. Coming from someone who has used Windows 95, XP, Vista, 7, and even Linux I can safely say that Microsoft did a great job with Windows 8.

  • Timo Palomaa Says:

    "I’ve been using Windows and Mac computers for more than 30 years. Does that make me a usability expert too?"

    Then you probably should have learned by now how to click a link. Go read the whole blog post.

  • Jeffrey Hulburt Says:

    yaomrd, speak for yourself. I tried Metro and absolutely hated it! In my work environment that requires multitasking, Metro took a giant leap backward. It's an anti-multitasking UI. Especially if you have a large monitor and lots of screen space to work with. You have these Metro apps optimized for a small phone UI that takes up the whole screen. It's a bloody waste!

    The experts are right in their criticism of Windows 8 and unless there are fundamental changes to Metro to address the fact that it's about as multitasking-friendly as good old DOS 6.22, the direction that Microsoft has taken is, frankly, sickening.

  • Greg Says:

    Agree with other comments. Installed easily. Loads fast. The start screen just replaces the start menu and adds functionality. It takes a little getting used to - maybe 10 mins of playing and you should be comfortable . I wonder if all the negative reviewers only used windows 8 for < 1 min before passing judgment. I've used Mac OS, Linux, android, iOS. Windows 8 is a good unification of tablet and desktop and was certainly easier to learn than Mac OS or Linux.


  • R Gibson Says:

    Dr. Nielsen started his company with a former Apple engineering VP, so I'm not surprised they bashed a non-Apple product.

  • Chris Hughes Says:

    Windows 8 is not a bad OS, in fact I believe it to be one of the best iterations MS has produced. It unifies mobile and desktop computing quite well. I imagine when Surface Pro hits, this point will be far more clear. I believe much of the criticism is only due to lack of an open mind and stubbornness toward change. The only real complaint I have after using it since its release is that the app store needs a bit of filling out. All the multitasking power is still there on your desktop as you remember it, and it really doesn't take long to get used to the changes that the Start screen imposes. I love the live tiles and find it helps personalize what a user finds important in their computing experience as well as giving quick summaries of live information feeds (this feature is great and can only get better).
    With recent touch pad driver upgrades (upgrade those if you haven't recently), or using a scroll mouse, interacting with the UI is fluid and intuitive once it is understood. Swiping between programs and pinch zooming using the track pad reminds me of actually using a touch screen. Power PC users understand the efficiency of using keyboard shortcuts and everything you would expect to find on this front works great. And, need a program or file? Just start typing while in the start screen and you will get live search results.
    All my old programs, including every old PC game I tried has worked (some with compatibility settings as expected). Again, apps in the store need improvement and more options in general (continuing to play Netflix streams when switching between programs would be nice). But, snapping main and secondary apps is great, especially when you make the desktop the primary window. The criticisms above were obviously written by inflexible minds. Obviously change like this would be a "cognitive burden" for such a person. My advice though, take a chance and explore this new and unique OS. You will be surprised by its speed, power, and aesthetic appeal... if you haven't made up your mind before actually trying to understand the how and why of MS's new vision of course.

  • Dave Granger Says:

    Usability Expert? Jesus they have analyst hacks for everything now. Anyway, I've got Windows 8 on my laptop and I rather like it, although many of the apps could use some work. That's not really the OS's fault though.

  • R Gibson Says:

    I've been using Windows and Mac computers for more than 30 years. Does that make me a usability expert too?

    All this complaining about Windows 8 is a lot of nonsense. Once you understand the charms and that the Start page replaces the start button, it makes sense. The upgrade was a breeze, and 8 manages applications and memory much more effectively than any previous iteration. You can tell a lot of creative thinking, development, and refinement went into the design--hands down the best OS available.

  • Leahparonid Says:

    it is still a new kind of OS. its not like everyone liked apple's UI when the macbook got famous.
    still, windows took a great leap and i actually like it.

  • yaomrd Says:

    i don't know these experts on what?

    upgraded my Windows 7 to Windows 8 Pro

    Windows 8, the Greatest Windows ever,

    with NEW live tiles & Apps more usable than other Tablet OS

    with Windows 7 desktop, Software & accessories compatibility


    less than 1H to learn


    Touchscreen or mouse/keyboard smooth as silk

    enjoy it and don't l basher annoying us

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