Monday, 29 October 2012

Windows 8: First impressions

So... I didn't type my postcode in correctly? Huh? Oh... I have to put a space in the middle of it. Great.

This is, unfortunately, a sign of things to come with my first few hours foray in to the new Windows 8 system. Not of ground breaking issues that are going to cripple my ability to operate the computer, but idiotic niggles that aren't telegraphed properly...the sign of lots of thinking but not enough user testing with those unfamiliar with the system.

Starting with a tool to work out how compatible my new Windows 7 machine is, it's clear that the trend of making things super easy to carry out continues unabated; in it's overly-simplistic path cutting out the ease of doing things in the way that lets you maintain your system as you wish.

Not wishing to just upgrade my machine, but to keep the system "dual booted" so I can go back to windows 7 if I need to, the process was something I had to search out. The easy option of installing straight from a download would have ruined my plan to have the operating systems co-existing.

But once I got there the install process was a breeze, and it wasn't long before I was eased in to the new system. But then came the first sign of worries to come, during the install the repeated message of "move your mouse to the corners" was played, to signify that something would happen if you did.

Is this what Microsoft is relying on to deal with informing people of what is actually quite a fundamental shift in their user experience? It turns out, unfortunately, that it is. Those that most need this advice screen are, surely, the sort of people that will get people like me to install Windows 8 on their machine...or will buy it pre-installed from a generic PC selling store. Yet if they start their machine up for the first time with the OS installed, they don't get that prompt again. They are dumped in to a "start screen" and left unceremoniously with no advice on where to go.

Now...this isn't new. Windows XP, Vista, 7... they all left people with a screen and no instruction. However they did have a big (very big in Vista) start button. It invited you to click, and when you did there was a host of information for you to quickly learn. It was a step by step process to ease you in to the basic functions of the OS.

With Windows 8 and it's "Modern UI", previously called Metro UI, you get no such instruction. It's got pre-installed "apps" on the screen ready to click around, but even then that journey only leads you deeper in to the thorny shrubs of poor user experience.

If it sounds like I'm getting overly down on Windows 8, perhaps now I should say that this is all transitional. The fact is that with a bit of a web search, some help from a IT savvy friend or family member, or just some good old fashioned thrashing around with the mouse, you will find out how to work this system. Once you do...you'll be fine.

If you want to go to the start screen (Hey...just call it the start menu, it is almost exactly the same in terms of what it is providing you with), then you hover your mouse for a fraction of a second in the bottom left of your screen. Alternatively you can just hit the windows key.

Can't find what you're looking for? Well, be proactive, more than ever you can really customise your "start" experience to help your own productivity. And simply starting to type will search through your apps and programs quickly...pretty much as it did with the windows 7 start menu.

"But where's the shut down option! This is a terrible system, no-one will ever use it now!" seems to be a cry from those that don't understand how user interfaces develop and evolve. Sure, it's nonsense to all of us that have had the "shut down" button right there in front of us...but this is an artefact of the time you got told never to directly shut the PC off. Now? Hitting the power button usually goes through the process of shutting the system down, or...if your preference is different...to put it in to sleep/hibernate. On dozens of phones and tablets the idea of shutting the system down with an on screen command is laughable.

Is it really ridiculous for Microsoft to move in this direction?

Well, no...but it comes back to that original point of how it's a complete mismanagement of people's expectations. It's not unfair, I think, to say the system has been developed with new users in mind, not experienced ones. Maybe we should take that as a compliment, dumped in the deep end with all of our previous experience weighing us down...at least Microsoft seem to think we're intelligent enough to adapt? Maybe not.

In reality there being a whole series of usability niggles throughout this new experience, and that can't be put down to simply catering for a market of new users, since it is they who will be equally as confused by such poor choices, mainly within the new aspects of the operating system.

Not being able to close or back out of an app to the start menu easily just doesn't make sense. In previous windows people will have minimised things, or hit a task bar icon to switch programs. Putting this out of sight puts an extra movement in their process to move between applications. But, of course, on a phone you'd just hit the back button. Silly me.

Sure, you can go to the start screen, but that process involves the same "go to the corner" that minimise used to do...but now you have to wait for it to show, and that's if you've put your mouse in the right position to show it.

This will only take time to master, but the question is whether this little thing is something people should be asked to learn. If the question is "how can we improve people's interaction with their computer" then this cannot be the answer...reverse engineering the only question that could have been asked to get such an interaction is "what's the shortest route we can make to tie touch screen functionality in with a mouse and keyboard experience, without compromising our key aim of 'immersive experiences'"

In short, it feels like decisions have been made with the wrong question in mind, but that they've made the best of that restriction.

There are other niggles too. I use a dual monitor set up, and this greatly enhances the Windows 8 experience...but I have no way of locking the start screen "on" if I want to, something that might really aid productivity. Instead if I use anything on the "desktop", which will be most of my applications for my job of web development, both screens automatically drop to desktop.

Looking at it like it's just an oversizes start menu, the choice here makes sense...but with such rich functionality it seems a shame to not have that be my choice. Especially since that choice doesn't even seem to work! Open an app on the Modern UI and then go back to the start screen. Now click on your desktop on the second screen...oh, we've now gone back to that application.

Again, this could be useful at times...but in other circumstances I may want the flexibility that comes from using the start screen to quickly navigate back and forth from a large number of applications both on desktop and in the Modern UI.

Another specific example of poor choices is their own Windows Store. It works pretty well, don't get me wrong, it feels to me like it may well end up being the best App store of any of the big three operating system providers. But stupid choices get made that take me out of feeling like this is a slick and well developed system.

If I click on the star rating for an application it doesn't do anything when the application isn't installed. My expected reaction? To go to the reviews that provide that rating. Instead, nothing. Now go to an application that you can't install through the store, the same action now provides a rating for the app!

Except now I can't take that rating away. Shit. Better rate it "3" just in case I never get around to using it and influence it's standing. I feel bad now, and completely out of control because I can't take back this mistake, Windows is forcing me to now choose between lying about how I rate the app in order to not negatively influence this person's work, or to just be "fair" and give an average rating to something I'm not sure of.

Add on to this technical choices that just frustrate, such as the inability to grab POP3 mail through the default mail application, and we have layer after layer of small issues that will take a while to get used to.

I have no doubt though that we will get used to it. Those who are "power users" will, I feel, end up putting many of their programs on the task bar in desktop mode, or as shortcuts on their desktop. It takes a matter of minutes to get yourself back in to the way you used windows 7, just without the start menu...and let's be honest with ourselves...which true "power users" actually used the start menu anyway?

Meanwhile the "Energy saving users" will have a quite immersive, albeit imperfect for now, experience that makes it easy to check (non-POP3) mail and catch up on the news, share some of it on Facebook or Twitter and see how the weather is doing. As the type of people that will rarely have more than one window open the switch from desktop to start screen will barely even be registered.

And at the end of it we have the only OS that will offer a seamless experience between the desktop and the mobile, no longer making people feel like they are taking a "cut down" experience on their portable device. I think Microsoft deserve some applause for the bravery in taking such a step, but they also really need to sit down and solve some of these basic issues too, starting perhaps by doing some proper unprompted usability testing and at the very least understanding the need for better instructions for first time Windows 8 users...be they new to PC, or as old as Windows 3.