Windows 8 Earns Thumbs Down From Usability Expert

Windows 8 is out and the reviews are in. But is the operating system proving a success with users?

In a Nov. 16 posting on his Supersite for Windows, Paul Thurrott claimed a “trusted” source within Microsoft had told him Windows 8 was off to a “weak start.” That source cited PC makers’ “inability to deliver” fantastic Windows 8 devices as a key reason behind the soft sales.

Pondering reasons behind a possible weakness in Windows 8 sales, Thurrott postulated some theories of his own, including a sluggish economy and “lingering questions” around the departure of former Windows division president Steven Sinofsky. But subsequent re-posters and pundits have focused on one idea in particular: the confusion inherent in Windows 8’s design. As Thurrott wrote:

“Microsoft’s new whatever-the-F-it-is operating system is a confusing, Frankenstein’s monster mix of old and new that hides a great desktop upgrade under a crazy Metro front-end. It’s touch-first, as Microsoft says, but really it’s touch whether you want it or not (or have it or not), and the firm’s inability to give its own customers the choice to pick which UI they want is what really makes Windows 8 confounding to users.”

Windows 8 offers the user a Start screen of colorful tiles linked to applications; the desktop, while still available, is accessible only by tapping or clicking a particular tile. Microsoft made this radical change so that Windows 8 could operate on both traditional PCs and touch-enabled devices such as tablets.

That new user interface has attracted some praise from reviewers. But one noted usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, recently slammed the dual interfaces as unintuitive at best, and a case of total cognitive overload at worst.

“From a traditional Gates-driven GUI style that emphasized powerful commands to the point of featuritis, Microsoft has gone soft and now smothers usability with big colorful tiles while hiding needed features,” he wrote in a Nov. 19 blog posting. “The new design is obviously optimized for touchscreen use (where big targets are helpful), but Microsoft is also imposing this style on its traditional PC users because all of Windows 8 is permeated by the tablet sensibility.”

His comments don’t exactly get any more upbeat from there.

Of course, none of the experts’ comments about usability will really matter if Windows 8 turns into an enduring hit. But if Thurrott’s source is correct, and Windows 8 sales are starting off weaker than expected, it could be an indicator that a significant portion of users finds something disagreeable about the operating system’s design. With Microsoft itself still largely tight-lipped about sales numbers, it will be some time before anyone knows for sure.

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