The verdict is in: Windows 8’s redesigned user interface stinks. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen issues these verdicts every time an innovative piece of software gets loosed upon the world. His tastes are unpredictable and sometimes weirdly at odds with how everyday users react to these products. The iPad? Riddled with problems. But that much-loathed “ribbon” in Microsoft Office? Genius! So I read his lengthy takedown of Windows 8’s tiled interface (once called Metro, now called Modern UI) with my usual mixture of interest and bemusement. Here’s the tl;dr version: Windows 8 is full of unfamiliar things and unfamiliar things are often a pain in the butt to use.
But here’s the thing about PC desktop interfaces: they’re ALL a pain in the butt to use. If you’re a Mac user like me, you probably think OS X is a paradise of usability and intuitiveness. Guess what? It isn’t. I had this plain fact thrown in my face recently when I gave my old Macbook to my mother-in-law as a gift. She had been using a Windows PC for years so she wasn’t starting from zero; heck, she loves Pinterest. Still, it took a surprising amount of effort to simply walk her through basic things like launching and quitting applications, downloading and finding files, and connecting to the internet. I was left with an inescapable feeling that, even after 20 years of graphical user interfaces and the WIMP paradigm, pretty much nothing about using a personal computer is “intuitive”; it’s merely familiar or unfamiliar in the details. Would my mother-in-law have found a Windows 8 PC, with all of its usability “sins”, any more annoying to use at first than the Macbook I gave her? Honestly, I doubt it.
This isn’t to say that user experience research is a red herring and sweating the small stuff in UI design is pointless. But the differences in usability between, say, Mountain Lion and Macintosh System 1.0–or Windows 8 and Windows 95–are pretty incremental. What really pushes human-computer interaction forward are updates to the basic underlying metaphors. Does Windows 8 muddle the difference between clicking and touching screen elements in confusing ways? Sure. But it’s still a familiar WIMP metaphor tricked up in some unfamiliar (for now) window dressing. Meanwhile, consider the difference in usability between Windows 8 and a command-line metaphor like MS-DOS. Windows 8 doesn’t seem like such a steaming pile anymore, does it?
What makes Windows 8 most objectionable is that it seems to be a transitional form between the dominant interface metaphor of the last quarter-century and whatever comes next. And not just in terms of software, but hardware as well. As long as the personal computer is a “typewriter with a screen,” incremental variations on the desktop metaphor–and awkward attempts to retrofit touchscreen behavior onto it, including Apple’s own iOS-like updates to OS X–will be hard to escape. Nielsen himself admits that on mobile devices and tablets, Windows 8 makes a hell of a lot more sense. But is it unusable on a PC? I doubt it. It may catch on, it may be an epic flop, it may be something in between. The point is that every desktop PC interface sucks, and always has. Like democracy, it’s the worst possible system–except for all the others.