The Development of Microsoft User Experience

The Microsoft user experience historically defines the progress of user experience in the digital industry, just as their technology itself has come to define computing. Microsoft has been one of the forefront designers of software frameworks, operating systems and graphical user interfaces since the computer age began. Alas, the Microsoft user experience hasn’t always been spot-on; they’ve made some mistakes along the way, as we all do. That in mind, today, we’re going to take a brief historical recap of Microsoft, and how they’ve developed their user experience from 1975-2013.

Of course, when Microsoft started out in the mid-1970s, computers were a different animal than they are today. Aside from few people having them in their homes, they were very under powered, simplistic devices when compared to modern machines. The earliest small model computers did not even have an operating system, merely a terminal to enter programming instructions. This was tedious, as C was still a new language, and most computers had to be programmed in assembly, the painful low-level language, to which higher languages compile. These languages are only workable to the heartiest, most resilient programmers, which made computers far less accessible to general demographics at the time. This is where Microsoft’s first commanding UX decision paid off, when they ported BASIC, a very easy and very English programming language, to the ancient Altair machines. This set a precedent in the industry and were it not for Microsoft’s brilliance in simplifying UX with this decision, later computers, such as the much loved Commodore 64 and Atari ST, would never have been workable as home devices.

It wasn’t long before Microsoft, partially in a drive to compete with their rivals at Apple, saw a need for enhanced UX by providing a central system to launch software and conduct commands, with no need for programming outside software development. The end-product was DOS, or the disk operating system. While it was somewhat mystifying to those not savvy to computers at the time, lack of programming required further simplifying the UX , making computers all the more accessible. Microsoft was already dabbling in the GUI, or graphical user interface, when their DOS product took dominance of the computer market, but the user experience with early GUI systems was rather poor. It was actually more awkward to use than DOS, and the low resolution reduced the amount of real estate that could be shared by hard data and the trappings of visual interface. While they did market it, Microsoft didn’t push early Windows as anything more than a futuristic novelty until the early 90s, when VGA displays became possible.

As soon as higher resolutions and more colors were available, Microsoft knew that refining Windows would be the key to improving their UX by adding multi-tasking, graphical capacity and potentially a media-rich experience. The visual representation capable through GUI made it simple for even the most non-computer-savvy users to quickly get comfortable with at least daily routine use of the systems. From 1992 to 1998, Microsoft’s Windows was definitive of good design and UX in the computer industry, and their ancillary software, such as Microsoft Office, only served to reinforce the definition of what positive UX meant for computers. As the web became a viable medium, their systems quickly embraced it with Windows 95 being the first natively net-smart OS to be produced.

However, when the turn of the century rolled around, Microsoft made some mistakes that have become truly historical. It’s understandable that with increasing new technologies and device diversities, there needed to be experimentation. With experimentation comes great success alongside great failure. While no user can point out why, Windows ME (Millennium) was not at all well-received, though most tech people will point out there wasn’t anything wrong with it beyond being kind of ugly. XP, which came out a few years later, was far more successful and is looked upon as the best distribution of Windows ever, but there are in fact a couple major user experience mistakes with it. While its GUI is prettier than previous versions, it looks almost like something intended for a child, with bright, colorful plastic buttons and components. Integrating NTFS (NT file system) and user rights for the first time in a home and office Windows version is a mixed bag, as for single-user machines it makes an annoying mess of things, but for family devices, it’s easier for everyone to retain their own rights and privacy with ease.

Then came Vista. Oh, Windows Vista, how history maligns you. Windows Vista is the pinnacle of bad UX for computers, with horrid slow-down in favor of the semi-transparent Aero interface, incredibly obnoxious security that second guesses every action a user takes, and so many changes that did not need to be made. Gone was the picture and fax viewer, which was perfect for viewing any type of image, in favor of an ugly new viewer that supported no animated GIFs, ridiculous new keyboard shortcuts and the ugliest zoom known to man. Gone was the classic ctrl+alt+del to get to the taskbar or restart, in favor of the painful-to-type ctrl+shift+esc. Vista was a UX disaster that turned users off so badly that it was only three years before Windows 7 was put on the shelves.
Where Window ME was just a stop gap, and so the short time before XP was expected, Windows Vista’s short shelf life before 7 was record-breaking.

Microsoft demonstrated, in spades, how to turn a poor user experience into a positive one with 7. Retaining the slick Aero interface, indexed searches and dynamism that Vista actually offered, they reduced the annoyance of the security system and sped up the interface greatly. Unfortunately, they retained the awful key commands and image viewer. Around the launch of Vista, Microsoft made another UX mistake, with the introduction of the ribbon control, which dominates many Microsoft software products today. While critics laud this design for improving efficiency, most users outright despise it. It’s a mess of buttons and tabs with little organization and a waste of real estate.

In 2013, the Microsoft user experience stands at a crossroads. Their love for tablet interfaces seems to have blinded them, with their release of Windows 8 being absolutely worthless on desktops, but great on tablets. Their new Microsoft Office products waste screen real estate and force page layouts on every menu and function, making it feel like a disjointed series of steps to accomplish anything. Windows 8 is a complete shift from traditional design, and it is so bad on desktops that most people who purchase it uninstall it immediately and bring 7 back. This is a UX crisis for Microsoft, and a mistake they’ve made increasingly more often since the turn of the century.