Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Clearing out Windows 8 Usability FUD

Tuesday, 20 November 2012
I am using a Windows 8 for half a year, right from its Developer Preview and it has grown on me to such an extent that now I can't switch back to Windows 7. I don't have touch based tablet. I am using it on my laptop with track pad.  I blogged below video earlier explaining how Windows 8 works great with mouse. If you have not watched the video I will suggest you to watch it first and get all doubts cleared and then decide yourself how it feels


I believe this video is enough to prove that Windows 8 works great with mouse and keyboard. But there are many articles on the web saying how new user interface of Windows 8 is poor, productivity killer. So I am writing this post as a comparison to one such post floating on the web: Windows 8 — Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users. It very well proves how Windows 8 user interface is just bad. The author of the post has an authorative voice in UX design field. In no case, I want to judge his credibility. But I feel my 5-6 months of experience with Windows 8 also gives me some authority. So I am putting my thoughts here. Instead of looking this as a fight between Windows/Microsoft lovers and haters, it is better to analyze facts and come to decision. So I will focus on that. At the end of this post, I talk about very hot usability topic - Start menu vs Start Screen. 

Also I will prefer to ask trying Windows 8 at least for a week. Within a week, I am sure it will grow on you and you will simply forget Windows 7. And this is the best way to judge anything instead of reading any comparison and directly coming to conclusion.

With that I will now discuss the usability features of Windows 8.

Windows 8 UI in nutshell
  1. Basically, Windows 8 is Windows with Start menu replaced with Start Screen. Apps you install from Windows Store run full screen (with no title/status bar) and are touch optimized. The traditional apps like VLC, Calculator, Adobe PDF reader run as they were - with desktop behind them. 
  2. Swipe from left edge for switching between apps.
  3. Swipe from right to reveal Charms bar which contains options generally common to all apps, for example, share between apps, search in app, app settings, and interfacing app with some hardware
  4. Swipe from top or bottom edge to reveal App Bar which contains app specific options - for example in People app - option to filter notifications from Twitter and facebook or if you have selected some text in an app, then swiping from top/bottom may open up text editing options. 
One thing is sure Windows 8 has some new usability features. So learning them is ought to be there. But I don't think understanding above facts and the video takes even 10 minutes. All gestures are intuitive and if you use it for a day they will simply become a subconscious routines. 

Double desktop = Cognitive Overhead or Great Capabilities

  1. Cognitive overhead in switching between environments (ohh, better you should not call it two environment, its just a desktop and a new Start screen) - If you ever have used Windows, then it must be obvious how to pop up Start menu - Windows key. And it must also be obvious how to go back to your desktop Windows+D. Both Windows key and Windows+D are there right from Windows XP, that means at least they are decade old. So at least switching between two environment should not cause any cognitive overhead.
  2. Time cost needed to switch between Start screen and desktop  -  I will call it minimal as it is just hitting a Windows key. Yeah its just Windows key. You dont even need to hit Windows+D combination. Now you will ask how is that intuitive? Ok, what you did to push down Start menu? Hit Windows key again, right? Its just that. The fuss is caused because everyone is forced to imagine Start screen as something drastically new and difficult to understand environment. Yes it is really powerful Screen, but surely everything you did with Start menu can equally intuitively and easily done with Start screen.
  3. Inconsistency in environment  -  This is really a big topic. First, better call it Desktop and Start screen. We are very well aware of the fact that we run "Apps" on tablets and mobiles and run "Softwares" on laptops/desktops. Apps (be it email client, chat client,a news app) are meant for information consumption and softwares (Microsoft Office,IDEs,video editors and many other) are meant creation/developemnt. Obviously we don't interact with both types of programs in a same manner. We need better capability to choose options from complex UI layout in softwares. That is why we use them on laptop and desktop with trackpad and mouse. Apps being concentrated to information consumption, they involve relatively less interactions or better to say less complex interactions and hence they work with touch. Now Windows 8 is meant to provide best of both words. And we know best of both worlds already. We have used all laptops,desktops, and touch devices for many year. To be very clear there is nothing - absolutely nothing new with interacting with desktop apps. All software: Office, VLC, Adobe PDF reader, Calculator all work the same way as they were right from Windows XP. Now come to touch optimized apps they are like apps on any touch device. What might be new to you is that there are new gesture and to be very clear - swiping from edges - but thats it. But again they are swiping gestures - nothing new. Its very obvious that two types of programs - desktop apps and touch apps work differently. But given that we are using both of them for many years it must not be a big deal to switch between them. Whats really new here is that we were using them on two different devices until now and with Windows 8 we can use both of them on the same device. Now you decide whats good. 

Lack of Multiple Windows.... vs fairly enough number of windows

Just have a look how I multitask while chatting with my friend:

I believe ability to work in three windows side by side so neatly is satisfying and I don't think I will be more productive if I find any options to fit in forth window in the same screen.

What is great is how easy it is to arrange these windows: I snapped Messages app to the right. Now on left I have desktop. I used Windows+Right arrow to snap Internet Explorer to right and Windows+Left arrow to snap Visual Studio to left. Yes, Windows+Right and Windows+Left works in snapped in desktop mode also - pretty neat. Of course you can fit in more windows, but then you have to do it by mouse manually. You can even snap two Metro apps side by side. 

Low Information Density vs Putting Only Consumable Enough Information on the screen

Its not low information density, but consumable amount of information in the best consumable manner / per screen.

This actually boils down to Metro Design Language and Metro Design Principles - originated in Zune devices then carried over to Windows Phone and now adapted in Windows 8. This is really a big field - UX designing, typography... The basic conception behind Metro is to make information consumption easy by:

  • reducing chrome
  • extensively using clean typographic cues for making things more intuitive
  • being authentically digital - meaning not attempting to replicate real world metaphor on devices as it is
  • being minimal and having things on screen only if they eases/enhances information consumption, if not just take them out of screen
  • use of intuitive and smooth motions
Its a very well thought design philosophy. We can do two things here: 
  • use apps following Metro design principles for a while and decide whether it is good or bad or
  • learn Metro design principles and language and decide.
For learning Metro for Windows 8 refer MSDN.
For learning Metro for Windows Phone refer 24 Weeks of Windows Phone Metro Design series

Now see what others think about these design principles and design language:
Finally there are articles on the web that go on visually comparing apps written for Windows Phone against their iOS and Android counterparts. You can have a look at them: 1, 2, 3

Now most of the above content is for Windows Phone. But both Windows 8 and Windows Phone follow Metro design principles and language. This follows at least if you think about information density. The best thing is to use them and decide yourself.

Overly Live Tiles Backfire vs. Improve Productivity

Again this deals with Metro. There are guidelines for tile designing. By guidelines all the app text or app logos on the tile very well align on bottom left corner with same margin - yeah guidelines are pretty strict.

But we can easily evaluate them: what you do to open My Computer? Do you read the full name - "My Computer" every time? Or you search for the symbol of My Computer? Or you know it is at top right corner of desktop, so just take pointer there and hit it? or just hit Windows+E? Ok when you see Start screen fair number of times, you will already know where the each tile is. Or if you are a poweruser, reluctant to get your hands away from keyboard- you will hit Windows key and type in Mai, Calc, Mes,.. (for Mail, Calculator, Messaging app) search will instantaneously show up the apps and you will hit Enter. To know how well it really works just watch video I prepared. Its not at all counter productive. I will talk more on this in last section of the post "Does Microsoft made mistake replacing Start Screen with Start menu?".

Flat Style Reduces Discoverability vs Eases Usability

A very deliberate pic:
It does not tell you anything about real context of this UI part, you don't know when it appears and where it appears and obviously you get no idea about what to do next.
Now, notice how upper part is chopped off:

As I said, swipes reveal options and options are obviously clickable. We don't think of options as anything long textual article, we see for where should I click next. In right edge swipe panel, there is a title (with a intuitive big font size) at the top with description of currently running app below it. As you can see, every text in that panel (apart from title "Settings" and description of an app below it) is clickable. Hence I think when you see the whole right-swipe panel, you will surely click on "Change PC Setting".

Charms Are Hidden Generic Commands vs Great Way To Bring Common Things At One Place

For at least a decade, right click menu was also a generic user interaction feature and also a hidden one - very analogous to Charms menu. Normal windows users always know that they can right click on every icon plus they know that depending on type of the file/program that icon represents, the right click menu is going to show different options.  Again right click menu is always out of sight but this does not mean that you forget it. So it is surely not out of your mind. 

The point here is how many time you summon right click menu - well whenever it needs to be. Similarly you will summon Charms whenever you want to share, search, change settings. How many time you change settings of any app? If you want to share a news/article/picture isn't it good to Swipe from right -> Hit Share -> and then select service on which you want to share. Strictly its Swipe+Click+Click - three gestures, no need to generate links (if picture/file is on SkyDrive say), no copying of links, no need to open another app to paste in link and share. Isn't that less fuss? Watch how you can use Share charm to tweet SkyDrive file or mail it.

Now the next point is that not all apps provide search and share capabilities. But this completely depends on the developer of an app. You can think of some obvious apps not providing such capabilities like painting apps, Camera app. But you can intuitively think of apps that must provide such abilities like Search in Windows store (to search apps), twitter apps like MetroTwit (to search #hashtags, twitter handles), News app (to share article).

I feel it is better to have well known approach to discover anything instead of knowing nothing. If you don't know whether an app supports any search/sharing/settings option you will straightaway head to Charms and will see if it is there.

Weather app - App Bar Usability perspective

Now let us talk about Weather app as a case study of usability of App Bar - one that opens up when you swipe in from top or bottom edge or when you right click anywhere on the app. First thing first, you should expect any app specific options in Apps Bar. Ehhh, I know I said that many times. But that is what all you need to know. If you want to know weather of any place other than default place detected by Windows, follow below steps:

Now that is a new way to find any app specific feature in App Bar, but is surely well defined way and you will get accustomed to it. What is great is that you can even pin a place to your start screen to know weather at that place. The same can be done in People app to pin your closer ones to Start Screen so that you are always up to date with them. And the great thing is that it follows same approach going through App Bar, when you get to the profile of your closer ones -> Swipe in from top or bottom -> Then select Pin to Start. The same can be done to pin a specific feed of News app to Start screen as shown below. 

What should we call this a consistency or a mess? With Metro, everything is well structured, well thought and well laid down in Windows 8 UI.

Error-Prone Gestures vs Intuitive Gestures

A video is worth thousand words. I don't have a tablet running Windows 8 but below video is really good. It is 7 minutes long, but first two minutes are enough to tell you how Windows 8 shines on tablet with touch.

Let me summarize gestures:
  • Swipe from top or bottom edge to reveal App Bar.
  • Swipe from right edge to reveal Charms Bar.
  • To move across Start Screen its obvious swipe right. Ok now you know you don't have to reach the right edge while moving across Start Screen. But I don't think while moving across Start Screen you will go long to the right edge of a device. Do you go so long to touch the top or bottom border of iPad's screen while scrolling down any webpage. So its rare that you will jumble between scrolling Start Screen horizontally and revealing Charms bar. 
  • To close an app drag it down from top to bottom. You will not jumble it with revealing App Bar since you will have your finger touching the screen all the time dragging it from top to bottom. While revealing App bar you don't bring finger all the way down to the bottom of screen. At least this gesture is surely easier than four finger gesture for iPad to close an app.
  • To switch to last app, just swipe in from left edge. To get the list of running Metro apps, just swipe in from left and continue back the same gesture in opposite direction. Its like moving thumb left and then right.
  • And at last if you don't digest this all stuff, there is decade old Alt+Tab which allows to switch between all apps (desktop and Metro apps). 
  • Now if you want to switch between just Metro app, you can try Windows Key+Tab.

I really dont think anything is difficult here. All are just swipes and they are surely intuitive - if you swipe in from any edge it is going to reveal a panel/bar from that edge only, it will not do any non-intuitive funky thing.

Did Microsoft made mistake replacing Start Screen with Start menu?

Again I don't think. One thing is sure: Start Screen is better than Start menu when it comes to touch. Do you remember you can pin apps in small area above Search box in Start menu. With Windows 8 that area is Start Screen. What I mean is that - in Start menu you were able to pin small number apps, with Start Screen you can pin any number of them, plus you can group them neatly, plus they will show live update on tiles. Now let us see if it requires more clicks. 

  • For pinned apps:
    • In Start menu, you hit Windows key -> Click on pinned app.
    • In Start screen, you hit Windows key -> Click on pinned app on Start screen. Here it is same.
  • When app is not pinned:
    • In start menu, you hit Windows key -> Click on All Programs -> Click on program group (if the app has a program group) -> Click on app icon
    • In Start screen, you can have as many apps pinned as possible. So mostly you end up with same sequence as above: hit Windows key -> Click on pinned app on Start screen. So in fact two click are reduced and I feel this will be the major usage scenario while accessing Start menu/screen.
  • If you are power user reluctant to take your hands away from keyboard, what you do is hit Windows key, type in initials of app/software in search box of Start menu and hit Enter to run that app. Exactly same works with Start screen.

Now, don't forget what you can pin to Start screen: hyperlinks to launch website in default browser,  peoples (from same People app) to launch their updates in People app, weather places, folder location, different news feeds (from same News app). And if you love to customize things madly, you can pin custom commands like say hibernate, sleep, restart right to your start screen as explained here. So in fact there is really a great capability built with Start screen. Again, what you can pin is all dependent on developer of different apps, so there is really no real limit to that. 

Rethinking it all again

Let us get out of the context of Windows 8 critics. Let us forget them and think what is true. 

Very truly talking, the whole decade old PC experience is still there in its original form. You can use all desktop apps the way you were using for more than a decade. So genuinely there can be only two possible reasons if anyone say it sucks with mouse and keyboard:
  1. Switching between Start screen and desktop in Windows 8 -  And as I wrote above, this is still done by hitting a decade old Windows key, so at least this cannot be a problem.
  2. The next is whether Start screen itself sucks - And above section in my post proves that start screen actually makes it fast.
If you think Windows 8 sucks with mouse and keyboard watch the first video. If you think it sucks with touch, watch the last video in this post. If you still think it sucks, then please feel free to comment about exactly where you think so.