User Interface Design is Underrated (Why Windows 8 Sucks)

Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 8, was such a failure and so widely hated that the man in charge of its development was fired within a month of the software’s release. Criticisms of the operating system are many, but the main failure of Windows 8 is that it ruined the User Interface Design that people had come to expect from the Windows product line. For one thing, the software tried to force mouse and keyboard users on desktops and laptops into using a touch screen interface meant for tablets. It also eliminated the Start menu and replaced the famous Windows Start Menu icon with a button that essentially does nothing except bring up the tablet interface. Instead of being able to access your installed applications or browse your computer’s files, you got shunted to a tablet menu that is difficult to interact with. Another extremely annoying feature of Windows 8 was the fact that the user had to make 4 or more button clicks just to shut down or restart their machine. Getting rid of the Start Menu meant they had to introduce a new way to shut down via the mouse, and that involved bringing up the tablet interface window, clicking on Settings, and then clicking on Shut Down and confirming with an additional click. The result of these decisions is that pretty much everyone who needs a new computer to do work or play games hates Windows 8.

These user interface decisions during the development of Windows 8 are somewhat hard to understand. It makes sense that Microsoft wants to develop tablet software so they can compete with Apple and Google. Unfortunately for them, they got so caught up in the tablet concept that they failed to realize the big buttons and limited options for a tablet interface had no place in a desktop or laptop environment without touch screen functionality.  Making the tablet screen the default environment when Windows 8 loads was a huge mistake. Forcing people into using a user environment that nobody wanted backfired badly. Windows market share was already at risk due to the meteoric rise of smartphones and tablets but the decisions they made worsened the situation. It makes me think that Microsoft either did not put enough time and effort into usability testing and user feedback, or they just ignored the data they got from testing their product. That seems like the most likely scenario. Eventually Microsoft was forced to update Windows 8 and make concessions on the design to try and quell the anger they had generated with its release.

This whole situation underscores just how important User Interface Design is. It’s a combination of art and science, creating an interface that people can use easily without needing to really notice it. Good products just work, and don’t force people to think too much about how to use them. Bad design makes a product hard to use and the result is that customers become easily frustrated, because they don’t have the time to think hard about how to use something that isn’t intuitive. This usually causes them to immediately discard the product in favor of something easier to use, something that requires less conscious thinking. Good design rarely gets noticed or appreciated because it is  in the background of a person’s consciousness, facilitating the experience without getting in the way.

A now classic example of this is Apple’s iPhone. Steve Jobs and his team took their collective knowledge of designing user interfaces for 30 years with their various iterations of computer operating systems, as well as the failed Newton handset from the 90s.  Jobs continued this User Interface Design work after he left Apple, founding NeXT and creating a very slick, innovative graphical environment for his computers in the early 90s. The new versions of the Mac operating system that were released after he rejoined Apple in the late 90s reflected the things he and his team had learned over the past 20 years. Bright colors, simplicity, easy access to navigate the computer’s various applications and settings were all features of Mac OS X. The new Mac OS products that came out after Jobs returned to Apple were actually carried over directly from his work at NeXT. This solid foundation in User Interface Design allowed Jobs to take a unique, refined approach to their development of the smartphone, a product that had been tried before, but never before with a touch-only interface. The simplicity and ease of use of the original iPhone had never been done by other handset makers because Apple’s competitors lacked the institutional knowledge of software design. Using the iPhone didn’t need a long explanation, how to use it was made obvious by the inherently via its interface. Apple’s experience in design, along with Steve Jobs’ exacting, demanding standards and patience in developing a great product led to the smartphone revolution becoming one of the biggest business successes in history, creating a huge new product market and thousands of competitors.

The success of the iPhone is especially remarkable when one considers that Apple was a computer company and never made a phone before. They were entering uncharted territory, but their experience with software gave them a unique perspective on the product. By contrast, Microsoft had spent 20 plus years developing UI for their Windows product line, and by the time Windows 8 came out they had created a certain set of expectations for how their products should work. When they got away from the core design principles they had used since Windows 95, customers got frustrated and angry by the experience. Developing a new product is different from developing an iteration of an existing product line, to be sure. Microsoft learned from their experience, however, and the new OS, Windows 10, will re-establish most of the things people liked about Windows 7. Unfortunately the damage is already done. Perhaps if Microsoft had listened to their users in the first place this whole fiasco could have been avoided.