Windows 8 usability: still a struggle for new users

Today I met with a professional software developer and at the end of the meeting brought out a laptop with Windows 8 installed. Had he ever used it? No.

This particular laptop has the RTM (Release to Manufacturing) build of Windows 8 and Office 2010 installed. I logged on with a new profile and put it in front of him. This was good, because Windows 8 ran its start-up sequence exhorting the user to “move your mouse into any corner” and showing the Charms menu.

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This intro was not a success. My contact thought he was being instructed to move the mouse, but at this point in the start-up sequence, the mouse is disabled; it is a kind of pre-roll slideshow.

Microsoft would have done better to show a video of a user performing common actions.

Next, the Start screen came up.

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The user soon found the Desktop tile and clicked it. I then asked him to run Word.

“Ah, no Start menu” he said. Then, being resourceful, he right-clicked the desktop and clicked “New Microsoft Word Document.” Next he double-clicked the new document.

Very good, I said, but now run Word without making a new document.

This was a struggle. Although the new Start screen is called Start, it was not obvious to him that this was in fact the Start menu and he looked for some other launcher on the desktop. He probably could have done something else clever like Ctrl-Alt-Del, Task Manager, File – New Task, but knew that was not what I was looking for.

It did not help that some quirk or bug in Office or Windows 8 meant that there were no shortcuts for Office showing by default in the Start screen. In other words, the Office apps were not “pinned to Start.” I had not intended this.

After some clicking around he stabbed the keyboard a few times which had the effect of performing random searches in the Start screen. This changes the view from big tiles to small tiles, quite disconcerting when you see it for the first time.

At this point I gave him some more help; once he got the idea of typing a few letters to find an application he was fine with it.

“What is the point of removing the Start menu?” he asked me.

I know the answer to that one. The purpose is not to trip up users like him; but nor is it to help him – though personally I do now find the Start screen a better launcher than the old Start menu.

Microsoft designed Windows 8 so that users cannot avoid the Start screen, which is the gateway to the new world of Windows Store apps.

Despite his uncertain start, my victim thought he would be fine with Windows 8 after a few days. I agree.

Nevertheless, most Windows users will have a few painful moments as they get used to the new user interface.

Users less steeped in the old familiar ways of Windows may actually find it easier. I have seen children using Windows 8 and having no problem with it.

Expect fireworks when Windows 8 goes fully public, and more users like David Gerwirtz declare:

… despite the operating itself being a marvel of engineering, ease of use, speed, and underlying functionality — I’m forced to say that it’s unusable for desktops out of the box. Un-frakin’-usable.

He is wrong. Even as a desktop operating system, with mouse and keyboard, Windows 8 works fine. Take the trouble to learn how to use it, and you will soon be just as productive as before.

Those first moments are hard though; and no doubt some will adjust quicker than others, and some will never adjust.

It is also true that while Windows 8 is just as productive as Windows 7, and probably a bit more productive, it is less coherent in its design, thanks to its split personality.

I understand why Microsoft removed the Start menu, but it seems to me the company could have done better in showing new users how to get going. Of course this is an opportunity for OEM vendors to show how they can add value, though history is not encouraging in this respect.

Windows 8 is a brave move for Microsoft; but remember this. Without the new tablet personality, Windows would be doomed to irrelevance in a few years. As it is, Windows is getting a new Start.

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