Saturday, March 10, 2012

The most successful user interface and app platform in the history of computing is being killed

I came across a very interesting case study on the Windows UI. Absolutely worth reading for any Windows enthusiast: Windows 95 User Interface: A Case Study in Usability Engineering. It evoked many nostalgia-inducing thoughts in me. Microsoft had really got its act together with Windows 95 and reached a GUI breakthrough. But they didn't stop there, Microsoft continually refined the Windows Shell in IE4/Windows 98, Windows 2000/Windows Me and perfected it in Windows XP (yes Windows Me shell which it shared with Windows 2000 was a huge step ahead of the Windows 98 one). With Longhorn which eventually shipped in a drastically altered form as Windows Vista, the shell had been heavily changed, in some parts for the better, but in many areas, for the worse. Still it offered a decent user experience. It's a shame Microsoft is totally abandoning these ground-breaking concepts of Start Menu, Taskbar and the desktop while moving on to the Start Screen, whose paradigms of multitasking, switching, launching, searching, notifications etc are all inherently inferior and far less advanced. No one at Microsoft, not even the UX designers have a clue how bad it is. They are just scared of Apple and their growing ecosystem - the flourishing iOS platform, and probably live by the expression "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". And it's not like Windows veterans haven't given the Start screen a fair go and tried to adapt to it with an open mind. Problem is it is less advanced than the Start Menu - the same problem that plagues Microsoft since Vista - create something new and great but it doesn't do all the great things the old one did, not even half of them and then they force their choice on you.

Microsoft should have adapted and extended the existing shell concepts to a touch-friendly UI with a larger surface area. Instead, they re-imagined the concepts of launching, switching and multitasking for the Start screen and in the process, will end up completely ruining the carefully designed Windows GUI. The very reason Metro was introduced was because the existing Windows shell didn't work for touch-based GUIs. Why it didn't work is because the surface area is smaller and designed for the mouse pointer, instead of the fingers of your hand and because touch-based UI also has to incorporate gestures. That part is fairly true, but somewhere in the process of re-imagining things, Microsoft forgot how well the Windows Shell worked for mouse and keyboard. They just don't understand that there is no reason why there must be a unified interface. Add to that their really evil decisions to force a choice on the user ever since the Vista era and to engineer a UI without backward compatibility. With the Start Menu gone and the Start screen no longer having a taskbar, we truly have a disaster on our hands.

The Windows Shell was a masterpiece of usability engineering and now they have ruined the experience by declaring it "legacy". How dare they even call desktop apps and environment as "legacy". Windows Vista, Windows 7 added some truly wonderful features like Start search and jump lists but they also slightly ruined the shell in both releases because Microsoft UX is doing a really lousy job overall since Vista. Windows 8 will completely deprecate it. I expect future releases of Windows to also incorporate the Windows File Explorer into Metro in a dumbed-down form and kill its powerful desktop avatar.

Windows loyalists with a sharp eye, and good understanding of usability and backward compatible interface design immediately noticed the mis-steps in Windows Vista and Windows 7. Vista UX was a disaster for reasons more than just bad interface. The ecosystem hadn't caught up, the stability was questionable and parts of the OS were a work-in-progress. These were all addressed in Windows 7, except of course, the interface issues. However, the core UI concepts of the Windows Shell were so good and remained the same. With the rest of the Vista issues gone, this was good enough for the average crowd, which is why Windows 7 was a success. It's a sad day for Microsoft Windows fans who saw how great the UI was.

Now as for as this Metro UI is concerned on the tablet form-factor, what Microsoft is doing with Metro isn't bad, it's okay but it's nothing special, it still requires more effort to switch seamlessly. And it certainly doesn't match the smooth multi-tasking which the taskbar and Start menu combination offer on a larger screen. Why they couldn't adapt similar concepts to Metro is beyond me. And then, neither the iPad, nor Android-based tablets are doing anything that innovative with the tablet UIs. But at least they are more beautiful than Metro.

Jim Allchin, the guiding father of Windows, is no longer with Microsoft and Microsoft needs a leader who can guide them on user experience of building products in a backward compatible way, I don't believe the current leadership is committed to backward compatibility. Microsoft is not Apple, and if they stop caring about backward compatibility and choice like Apple do, they won't survive.

Windows was a rather unique platform, it was not as closed, proprietary, locked down and controlling as Apple, it was not something like free software or Linux which doesn't reward its developers. Windows wasn't as dumbed down as Apple products, yet at the same time, Windows didn't burden you with so many overwhelming choices (like Linux distros) that it's difficult to make a decision. That all changed after the release of Vista and Windows is today a totally locked down and dumbed down software platform. Apple's platform looks more open, more customizable and more powerful to me right now. Windows 8 is a product of you not objecting to Microsoft removing features in Windows Vista and Windows 7.

On a lighter note, Windows 8 can be summed up as in the following video:


Anonymous said...

I want to believe that MS is just playing around and testing things with Windows 8. I mean, they know that Windows 7 will be here for another 10 years like XP was; why not go crazy and try to stop Apple? I don't know, but you are right to call them out if they are being serious.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, the W7 shell is terrible. It takes twice the clicking to do what was possible in XP.

MS has lost it all together, and I expect W8 will be even worse.

Just wait MS will figure out how to make some of the useful replacement shells (like Classic Shell) stop working with a service pack, or some other innane update.

xpclient said...

I would like to believe that too that this is just an experiment, but what a way to experiment! On a billion customers? The reality is that the User Experience team is so clueless and so bad that they have done a really horrid job of designing the whole app interaction paradigm. Launching, switching, closing is all ridiculously unproductive and non-intuitive, it's seems like a joke. There's no concept of minimize-restore, overlapping or foreground/background windows, or maximize and they are trying their best to convince us that there's no need to close apps too. I read that Julie Larson Green is leading the UX team, in that case, she needs to be fired for making Microsoft Windows so unproductive and deprecating the desktop.

Anonymous said...

The fact that they've applied the same interface stupdities to Server 8/2012 says to me this is a much deeper misguidance problem, not just fooling around with the desktop OS to try to compete for Apple's 'the simpler the better' consumer audience.

Much of this disaster could've been easily minimized while still following the fads they're currently obsessed with, by giving us a built-in choice between 'Simple' or 'Metro' (or whatever they're going to rename it to now) mode, and an 'Advanced' or 'Classic' mode, that would restore all the functionality/UX to the level of Windows 7 plus fixing some of 7's issues.