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Missing the Micro

One cannot swing a cat these days without reading negative reviews about Windows 8, Windows RT, and the Windows Surface line of products. Sure, there are some out there singing their praises, but the central din surrounding Windows 8 is that it does not execute well, from a user experience perspective. The reviews I have read, many from at least unbiased (if not, formerly pro-Microsoft sites and authors) regard the UI of Windows 8 from unusual on the positive end to abysmal on the negative side.

Now, it is true that with any radical change, there will be detractors. For a while, one could almost set their watch by the vitriol surrounding updates to Facebook, which every time they would happen, seemed to touch off a firestorm of “why did they fix it, the old way was so much better” and “Dear Facebook: Give me my old Facebook back, please. Signed, Everyone.” With this feedback about Windows 8, though, something seems different.

In fact, noted usability expert Jakob Nielsen, someone who has been quite fond of Microsoft’s efforts in the past (even the Ribbon UI, apparently) pretty much tore the user experience of Windows 8 apart. In a word, during his user research, he found the interface to be confusing at best and maddening for users at worst. In a word, the wrong solution to a problem people wonder even exists.

The interesting thing about all of this, at least to me, is something I call “missing the micro”. This often happens when corporations get involved in solving problems. That is, they can be so focused on the macro elements of a problem, they miss the micro elements of it. Or, in the realm of software and web design, how the thing will actually be used. User Interface Design is a tough racket, and I definitely do not have all of the answers, but I do know a swing and a miss when I see it, and that certainly seems to be happening here.

The funny thing about building things for people is that people are complicated. Sure, it sounds nice to boil things down to nice, neat, compartmental issues, but the truth is that designing and building things for people is messy. Painting with only broad brush-strokes, boiling everything down to short talking points rarely aides the design and building of great products. The greatness of great things is usually found in its more subtle points, in the tens/hundreds/thousands of effortless, intuitive moments that conspire to create a great user experience. Great user experience, at least to my way of thinking, is about delivering delight. It is not an academic issue, and not something you can prove on paper. It is quintessentially experiential, at its essence, totally human.

And to me, that is what seems to be missing with Windows 8. Attention to detail, and also attention to delight. With many new Windows 8 users, there seems to a cognitive burden without any real clear payoff. At least with desktop PCs (and even laptops), what is to be gained by the 2-D experience the “modern” interface gives us? Time and time again, when I read these reviews (which I read, because I think the innovative intent Microsoft has was/is interesting), that is what strikes me with Windows 8. A lack of depth. Almost like someone who designed a one-inch-deep, horizontal file cabinet. Sure, everything is right in front of you, all of the time, but you lose the ability to arrange things with depth. And, by losing the z-axis of the interface, you have to resort to solving complex problems with only simple tools. PCs aren’t tablets, and vice versa. Different tools for different jobs, and although tablets are eating PC sales, people still need/use these different tools, and trying to shoehorn them all into the same experience really only makes sense from a manufacturing point of view.

Clearly, there are (great) efficiencies created by spreading one kernel over several different form factors, and devices (e.g. Win8, Win8 RT, Windows Phone 8, XBox 720, probably). To me, this seems like a boon to not only Microsoft, but also developers for each platform. This type of synergy makes complete sense from a maker perspective. However, it makes little sense from a user perspective.

Sure, the argument could be made that it is simpler for people to only have one interface for them to learn. Smartphone, tablet, desktop, it is all the same. However, I would ask, what users are asking for this? It is almost like someone getting upset because ketchup and mustard taste different. Of course they do, they do different things. And, is creating the user experience burden of having to make one interface work for everything worth the trade-offs of people who don’t want to learn something new? Personally, I am glad my espresso machine does not make toast. Because, if it did, both would probably be terrible. I purchased, and cherish my espresso machine because it does one thing really, really well. Quality comes from focus, from taking a manageable scope on a problem and absolutely nailing it with an elegant, intuitive solution. To me, Windows 8 seems like none of this. It seems like it is trying to solve a problem that may not really exist, all the while, alienating core users, and forcing people to sacrifice quality of experience in the name of sameness. Personally, that is not a deal I think users want to make.

 

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