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The Windows 8 UI: How do interface and usability experts rate all the changes?

Ian Paul | Oct. 16, 2012
When Windows 8 debuts on October 26, users will be confronted with the most radical changes to the look and feel of Windows in nearly 20 years. The traditional desktop has been relegated to second-class status, hidden beneath Windows 8's new touch-centric Start screen. And that’s just the first confusing surprise that awaits long-time Windows users.

Other experts are more bullish on the dual nature of Windows 8. Switching back and forth between the two interfaces may confuse some users, as they need to keep track of which application runs in which context, says Michelle Li, a senior user experience designer for Deloitte Digital. Over time, however, users will adapt.

Microsoft has  added some guidance for users to alleviate the pain of switching between the two interfaces. Internet Explorer, for example, will offer to move you to the desktop version if you encounter against something it cant display in the Windows 8 UI.

But why take this dual-OS approach at all? Wouldn't users be better off if each UI were matched as a stand-alone product to a particular device type?

On a 7- or 10-inch tablet, for instance, the Start screen makes sense, because excess desktop-style chrome elements (menus, windows, and buttons) would leave little room for content. Tablets lend themselves to full-screen experiences, so having menus appear and disappear with a few taps makes sense here.

On desktop PCs, however, hiding menus and controls is less efficient. Desktop displays afford plenty of screen real estate to showcase secondary windows and buttons that we find convenient for so many productivity tasks in Office, Photoshop, and other programs. Every hidden control [on the desktop] means an extra action needed to expose that button, Budiu says. For the desktop, that interaction cost does not justify the benefit. Hiding controls just doesn't give you that much extra screen space.

Touching the future

So where is Microsoft headed with Windows 8, the unitary OS designed for desktops, all-in-ones, notebooks, Ultrabooks, and tablets? Could Windows 8's modern UI completely replace the storied desktop one day?

No one knows for sure, but after spending time with Windows 8, I cant help feeling that this is the first step in a much longer interface design journey.

I think that this is a transitional period from old-school Windows into whatever it will turn into, says Clark. Right now we're seeing a fair amount of compromises to accommodate a variety of inputs, form factors, and also older software. As with anything that's a compromise, it's going to feel a little bit clunky. But design is full of compromises.

Sometime after October 26, we should see whether those design compromises pay off for Microsoft and the future of Windows.


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