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New era: Windows 8 is designed to be operated by touch as well as with a mouse and keyboard.

Despite some of the more scathing reviews of Windows 8, ordinary users are getting along with it just fine, according to Julie Larson-Green, the Microsoft executive who leads Windows product development. Data collected automatically from some Windows users, she says, show they are adjusting to some of the new operating system’s controversial features without problems.

“So far we’re seeing very encouraging things,” Larson-Green says of the large volume of data that Microsoft receives every day from people using Windows 8 who have chosen to join the company’s “customer experience improvement program.” All users are invited to enroll in that program when they first log into the new operating system. If they do so, anonymized information about how they are using the operating system is sent to Microsoft. Referring to complaints from some quarters, Larson-Green says: “Even with the rumblings, we feel confident that it’s a moment in time more than an actual problem.”

Windows 8 is a radical departure from previous versions of the operating system now used by around 1.3 billion people. Instead of the Start button and menu in use since 1995, it features a “Start screen,” a colorful display of tiles that function as shortcuts to programs and also display notifications—an environment optimized for touch computing. There are also two versions of many software programs—one for the regular desktop interface and one for the new tile-oriented one.

Although some new users will struggle to figure out these features, Larson-Green says that 90 percent of them need just one session to discover the two that are most crucial to the interface design. Those are the Start screen and “Charms,” a menu that offers shortcuts to be summoned by a mouse or finger gestures.

The data collected by Microsoft also show that people are becoming more familiar with the new features over time, says Larson-Green. She previously led a redesign of the Microsoft Office interface that, in 2007, replaced text-based menus with a more visual “ribbon interface,” an initially controversial change that is now widely accepted as an example of good design. “Two days to two weeks is what we used to say in Office, and it’s similar in Windows 8,” she says.

The findings suggest that even those who initially stick to the parts of Windows 8 that resemble previous Windows desktops eventually loosen up, says Larson-Green: “There’s a cutover point, around six weeks in, where you start using the new things more than the things you’re familiar with.” She adds that the lack of tutorials or detailed instructions on how to adjust to Windows 8—something that has attracted complaints—is a deliberate choice. Tests have shown that although people find tutorials “comforting,” they don’t retain much information from them, she says, making them a waste of time.

Larson-Green’s claims diverge dramatically with the opinions of many technology journalists and bloggers. They also run counter to the results of a small research study conducted by the influential usability consultant Jakob Nielsen, who asked 12 people to spend an hour with Windows 8. On the basis of their experience and his own expertise, he concluded that it offers “disappointing usability to both novice and power users.”

Nielsen says that Larson-Green’s indicators may not capture the real problem with Windows 8. “It sounds plausible that people can learn to use Windows 8 to a level where they aren’t constantly stumped after two weeks,” he says. “The real question is whether they will then have reached a higher level of productivity than they had before.”

Nielsen thinks that even once Windows 8’s features become familiar, the operating system still asks more of users than previous versions did: they must remember how to operate both a familiar desktop environment and the new Start screen and related apps, which function very differently. The upshot, he says, is that home users may be tempted to switch to an alternative, such as an Apple computer, while workers will simply achieve less. “My estimate is that power users will not have higher productivity with Windows 8 than they did with Windows 7,” he says. “I fear that they will have lower productivity.”

Elizabeth Mynatt, director of the Institute for People and Technology at Georgia Tech and a researcher in human-computer interaction, says that one of the most important measures of usability in a new computing interface is how people progress over time from their first impression—something Nielsen and other independent reviewers have not yet measured.

“We look to see that people are going to stumble forward rather than end up going down the wrong track,” she says. “None of that will come out in a ‘Wow, this looks different’ review.” Making crucial features “invisible” by hiding them beneath slick design is a common pitfall that prevents progress, she adds.

Larson-Green’s data suggest that Microsoft has at least managed to make features such as the Start screen and Charms visible to most people. But as Nielsen points out, that doesn’t mean everyone will find the work involved in discovering and mastering them worth it.

The real question, Nielsen says, is “how long it takes them to make up for the two weeks spent on that initial learning curve.”

Read our full interview with Julie Larson-Green: The Woman Charged with Making Windows 8 Succeed. 

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Credit: Kin Cheung | AP Photo

Tagged: Computing, Communications, Business, Web, Microsoft, Windows 8, windows 8, usability, Julie Larson-Green, OS

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