Monday, May 26, 2014

Windows 8–Strange but Useful

A few days ago, my desktop computer motherboard died. Since a new computer cost only a little more than a new motherboard, it seemed practical to buy a new one. I put my old video card into the new computer (first big mistake) because it had dual ports and thus could support two monitors. The new computer, which came with Windows 8 installed, mostly worked and the video looked really good, but with some strangeness: on bootup, it could take five or ten minutes for the screen to become visible, though it clearly finished booting much earlier; and also Microsoft Flight Simulator X, an older game, couldn’t successfully do any DirectX to the display. DirectX is required in order to see the animation of the game. Reverting to the integrated display adapter that came with the computer fixed these problems and, conveniently, it also supported two monitors.

But, what is really strange about Windows 8 is its user interface. I know I’m not the first person to write about this, but it needs to be said. Several decades ago, Microsoft developed a Windows user interface guidelines document, which contained many good ideas. Among them, if I recall correctly, were three really useful ones:

  • Expose all important functionality somewhere in the interface (e.g., menu item, icon, or other widget.
  • Never implement hidden features – that is, features that require some non-obvious way to get to them.
  • Minimize the number of steps it takes to perform a given function.

Windows 8 violates both of those in quite a number of ways. I don’t have time to go into all of them, but here are a few examples:

  • The start screen has many items on it and may be much wider than the physical monitor screen. In a non-touch screen configuration, one traverses the Start screen (e.g., to see stuff out of view off to the right) by scrolling using the mouse wheel. Nothing on the screen says to use the mouse wheel for this purpose.
  • In the Start screen, there is a down arrow, the purpose of which is entirely obscure to a new user. If one clicks it, a list of all install apps (I think) may be seen. This arrow is not really evident unless the user moves the mouse pointer over the Start screen.
  • There is a useful menu of functions (Search, Share, Start, Devices, Settings) that one only sees by moving the mouse pointer to the upper right or lower right corner of the Start screen.
  • It can take three clicks and several mouse wheel scrolls to run an application that one has not pinned to the Start screen.
  • Many Windows 8 apps don’t show an ‘x’ in the upper right corner, so it’s not evident how to close a program. One closes a program by clicking the ‘x’. However, the ‘x’ only is visible if the mouse pointer is moved to the top edge of the app window. A very non-obvious feature.

Well, I could go on, but you get the idea. Certainly, I eventually will get used to these quirks, but I wonder what happened to Microsoft’s user interface guidelines. Did they change them?  Did they abandon them? Did they simply fail to refer to them? The result is an interface that many users find displeasing and frustrating.