Windows 8 UX Guidelines: Usability Disappointment or Spot-on UX?

Well we’ve put this off long enough. Let’s talk about the Windows 8 UX. It’s certainly a big topic in the computing and business world, and while the old adage would claim there’s no such thing as bad PR … maybe that saying came about before the internet was a force to be reckoned with. So, is Windows 8 a positive or negative user experience?

There’s sure a lot of negative feedback about Windows 8, but is it just overblown hype, fed further by the malleability of opinions online? Is it actually not that bad? That depends on who you ask, actually. In order to truly judge the Windows 8 UX, you have to look at it from the perspectives of two types of users. Ultimately, Windows 8 was a terrible decision on Microsoft’s part, but we’ll get to that at the end. Like I said, we have to look at this from the perspective of two types of users, the tablet users and the PC users. Because in one case, it’s … fairly ok, and in another case it’s a disaster.

Windows 8 was designed with a tablet mentality in mind. Very reminiscent of the Windows 7 phone interface, it changes drastically the way many basic functionalities of Windows are presented and represented. For tablets, it does it efficiently. Gone is the traditional start menu and taskbar in favor of a full screen tiled system similar to the 7, representing all programs as a series of apps not unlike iOS or Android. Launching one of the tiled app entries will load it in a full screen page mode, with a side dock not unlike Android’s, for controls, configurations and the like. Menus are often full-page affairs, rather than traditional Windows software drop-down menus as well.
One can access the traditional desktop – as an app.

For a tablet mentality, given the smaller screen and touch surface interface, this works fairly alright, with swiping and multi-touch making interaction fairly quick and speedy. The problem here is that it’s incredibly ugly and not fun to look at. The tiles are very uneven and haphazard in the start menu, which will make anyone with an artistic inclination or the slightest bit of OCD want to pull their hair out. However, if you’re used to the paged application and sidebar way of thinking that mobiles and tablets do, aside from being incredibly ugly, Windows 8 won’t be that obtuse.

Installed on a PC, it’s wretched. The paged application layout wastes immense screen real estate with whitespace, multitasking is impossible, and the translation of the touch and swipe to mouse movements is tiresome as all get out. It is almost impossible to be productive with Windows 8 on a PC. The tablet mentality does not interpret well for traditional interfaces whatsoever.

That said, as a user experience, Windows 8 is only going to be workable yet ugly, or absolutely enraging, depending on the device in question. Some have had success in modifying it to use a traditional start bar, task bar and desktop by default, but it destabilizes it and does not change the fact that this desktop is emulated, as are all apps launched through it, meaning that you’re getting 4 year old PC performance out of a brand new PC this way.
Windows 8 is not good UX. It’s passable and unattractive, or utterly broken.

So, how was it ultimately a bad decision either way? Well, the idea of forcing the tablet design on PC users is an indication that Microsoft wants everyone to convert entirely to the tablet and touch technology. While this technology has its place, there will always be a place for keyboards, large stationary displays and mice or similar peripherals. This is an alienating and off putting gesture on their part.

So, is the Windows 8 UX positive or negative? At the very best, it’s unremarkable and ugly, and at the worst, it’s useless and almost insulting. This is Microsoft’s worst UX decision since Microsoft Bob.

Bo Amidor
Boaz Amidor is Head of Corporate and Marketing Communications at WalkMe and Contributing Author to ux blog