Is the Windows 8 user experience as bad as experts say?

Earlier this week, Jacob Nielsen, a usability expert, penned a detailed post where he effectively panned nearly every aspect of Microsoft Windows 8 (s msft) from a usability perspective. And by panned, I mean completely ripped it apart. Nielson’s commentary was part of a study where 12 experienced Microsoft Windows users were observed while using the new Windows 8 operating system. And perhaps that’s part of the issue here as Windows 8 isn’t quite like any prior version of Windows at all.

Windows 8 Start ScreenI’m certainly not trying to defend Nielsen’s study, nor the experiences of the dozen participants. In fact, I’ve struggled with the new operating system on a Surface RT review unit and I have 15 years of hands-on I.T. experience in Fortune 100 companies that relied heavily on Windows. Plus I have some previous with experience Windows Phone, which has used a similar interface to that of Windows 8 since 2010. But Windows 8 is more than tiles and touch targets.

There’s a learning curve

I couldn’t figure out how to share a web page, for example, but the function is there; thanks to my podcast co-host, Matthew Miller, I learned that the Charms section has a context-aware Share feature. Closing applications on Surface RT stumped me as well, but then I found out how to do it: While in an application, swipe down from the top of the screen to the bottom and the app will close. Well, it’s supposed to, anyway. Russell Holly at notes that some apps are still running in the Task Manager even after closing them in this fashion.

So part of the issues then, could be due to a learning curve; not from poor design. That’s certainly a problem, but one that can be corrected through education on Microsoft’s part.

Microsoft’s multiple personality disorder

Nielsen is spot on when it comes to the touch-friendly tile user interface and the old desktop mode, however:

Unfortunately, having two environments on a single device is a prescription for usability problems for several reasons:

  • Users have to learn and remember where to go for which features.
  • When running web browsers in both device areas, users will only see (and be reminded of) a subset of their open web pages at any given time.
  • Switching between environments increases the interaction cost of using multiple features.
  • The two environments work differently, making for an inconsistent user experience.

While Windows 8 is probably the biggest break from Microsoft’s past operating systems, it’s not a complete break. Support for a desktop mode is a by-product of legacy design and, to me, represents the largest missed opportunity for Windows 8 tablets. The old Desktop mode is really there for one reason only: Microsoft Office. Instead of creating a Desktop mode for the productivity suite, Microsoft should have created a productivity suite for the touch-friendly environment. It’s as if it was easier for Microsoft to simply cram Office on tablets in a special mode rather than redesign it for effective use on mobile devices. And we know the latter can be done: Look at QuickOffice, iWorks or any number of productivity apps that work well on touch devices.

The world isn’t flat, but icons can be

I don’t quite agree with Nielsen when it comes to his criticism of the flat icons in Windows 8. I find that these fit in well with the tile interface and reduce the amount of flashiness found in icons on other systems. Utilitarian? Perhaps, but isn’t that what a section of choices for device settings is? Here’s a look at what Nielsen is complaining about, in particular.

He notes that few users actually tapped the “Change PC settings” link when tasked to change the background wallpaper in Windows 8; they thought those words were a label. Given that they were using a Surface RT tablet, perhaps the link should be “Change device settings” but this is easily fixable in a software update. The fact is — and it bears repeating — this is a new platform and there’s a learning curve involved, just as there has been for iOS (s aapl) and Android (s goog) devices.

Scaling mobile up or bringing desktop down?

Getting back to the core issue is the approach that Microsoft has taken: One that keeps its legacy alive with a desktop version of Office. Here, I agree with Nielsen when he says:

The underlying problem is the idea of recycling a single software UI for two very different classes of hardware devices. It would have been much better to have two different designs: one for mobile and tablets, and one for the PC. I understand why Microsoft likes the marketing message of “One Windows, Everywhere.” But this strategy is wrong for users.

Looking to Apple, I see a different, so far, more successful, approach when it comes to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Much of the core of iOS and OS X is shared, but the interfaces are different: The former is designed solely for touch while the latter is solely for mouse and keyboard. While some apps are similar — think iPhone, iMovie and the iWorks suite — they’re designed to work effectively on their respective form factors. In some sense, Apple is scaling up from mobile as it brings more mobile user interface tweaks and services to the desktop.

Microsoft on the other hand, is still doing what it has done for a dozen years with its Tablet PC platform: Scaling the desktop down. Granted, it’s doing far less of that than ever before as Windows 8 is the best version for touch devices yet. But that doggone Desktop is still there and once you get there, touch becomes an exercise in frustration and you revert to the keyboard and touchpad on a Surface.

I like Nielsen’s idea of one platform dedicated solely to phones and tablets. Essentially because of the design choice Microsoft made by lumping the OS for tablets and PCs together, I find that the Surface RT device competes more against other Windows laptops than Apple’s iPad or Android tablets. In my mind, that’s the biggest issue here; not how flat the icons are or the learning curve for Microsoft’s new platform.