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November 23, 2012

Design Guru Gives Windows 8 Two Thumbs Down

Windows 8 is disappointing, says design expert Jakob Nielsen.

Nielsen, a renowned design and usability guru, said Microsoft has ‘gone soft’ with its new Windows 8 user interface that “smothers usability with big colorful tiles while hiding needed features.”

His summary of the product: “Hidden features, reduced discoverability, cognitive overhead from dual environments, and reduced power from a single-window UI and low information density. Too bad.”

Nielsen’s conclusions were not arrived at lightly. He recruited 12 “experienced PC users” to test Windows on both PCs and Surface RT tablets.

Here is a breakdown of the study:

•  The operating system has a tablet-focused Start screen and a PC-oriented desktop screen. 

The dual screens are “a prescription for usability problems” because having two environments on a single device is confusing for users, he said.

Users are forced to “remember where to go for which features,” resulting in an “inconsistent user experience.”

• Operating system does not actually support multiple windows.

Nielsen, who suggested the product should be renamed Microsoft Window, said while the feature is fine for tablets and Smartphones, it does not work on laptops and desktops.

“When users can’t view several windows simultaneously, they must keep information from one window in short-term memory while they activate another window.”

•  The tiles are too flat, making it difficult to tell what is active. 

The “completely flat” UI sacrifices usability on the altar of looking different, he said.

“Where can you click? Everything looks flat, and in fact ‘Change PC settings’ looks more like the label for the icon group than a clickable command. As a result, many users in our testing didn’t click this command when they were trying to access one of the features it hides.”

 • Live tiles, another of the UI advances in Windows 8, too over-the-top.

The feature, however, completely “backfired,” Nielsen said, adding designers “went overboard” going from live tiles to “hyper-energized ones.”

“The theory, no doubt, is to attract users by constantly previewing new photos and other interesting content within the tiles. But the result makes the Surface start screen into an incessantly blinking, unruly environment that feels like dozens of carnival barkers yelling at you simultaneously.”

• The screen doesn’t show enough information.

Big photos and spacious layouts may be esthetically-pleasing, but it means wasted space and more scrolling for users, Nielsen said.

“There’s such a thing as too much scrolling, and users won’t spend the time to move through large masses of low-density information.”

• Swiping leads to a lot of mistakes.

The UI is full of similar gestures with different outcomes depending on subtle details in how they’re activated or executed, translating into user frustration.

“The tablet version of Windows 8 introduces a bunch of complicated gestures that are easy to get wrong and thus dramatically reduce the UI’s learnability. If something doesn’t work, users don’t know whether they did the gesture wrong, the gesture doesn’t work in the current context, or they need to do a different gesture entirely. This makes it hard to learn and remember the gestures. And it makes actual use highly error-prone and more time-consuming than necessary.”

Nielsen said he plans to stick with Windows 7 for the time being and “hope for better times with Windows 9.”

Nielsen’s biting review of the product is not good news for a company in the midst of change.

Windows 8 Boss Steven Sinofsky left Microsoft last week after 23 years with the software giant.

Despite Sinofsky’s assurances to the contrary, rumors continue to swirl that his exit from Microsoft may not have been amicable after all.

The fact that Sinofsky’s departure from the software giant came just three weeks after the release of Windows 8 and the Surface tablet — for which he was instrumental — raised some eyebrows.

Just last month, Microsoft’s board of directors officially reprimanded Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Sinofsky due to “missteps with the Windows division Sinofsky ran,” according to Business Insider. The reprimand went hand-in-hand with a cut to the annual bonus each is eligible to receive.