Windows 8: How I’d Do It

Windows 8 is on the way!

First, watch:

 

 

An unfinished, preview version of Windows 8 is available to the public. It’s more up-to-date than the video above, and looks like this:

windows8 start screen

(click all images for larger)

That above is the new “Start Screen”, which, at least so far, completely replaces the Start Menu.

It currently runs full-screen only, for some reason (like tablets), with no choice to opt back into the Start Menu. It uses an interface style called “Metro”, first seen in Microsoft’s new, failing phone OS, Windows Phone 7. (I did some commentary on the look of Metro at the bottom of this. Only read if you’re nerdy, artsy, or both.)

As pointed out in the link above, I personally don’t like the look of Metro. I think its style is suited for other things (like this pic), but certainly not computers/tablets/etc. Others might see it differently, but those others apparently haven’t been enough to circumvent this huge war that has sparked over the Start Screen. More on this later.

 

Fortunately, the desktop is still here, which currently looks like this:

windows8_desktop2

I think I like the new “ribbon”, at the top of folder windows. Perhaps it has some clunk, but it brings dense functionality, and can auto-hide. (Someone has also shown that it’s quite a bit easier to reach most features than in Windows XP’s interface. Not sure, though, if it’s ultimately faster than Vista’s or Win7’s. (In the list of how many steps things take, more ‘weight’ has to go to things that are used more often.))

 

SO!

The Start Screen and Metro style are the major new things, and I think Microsoft has 2 main ideas lying underneath them… the second of which I like a great deal:

1) Make Windows more accessible and inviting on things like tablets – where Windows 7 failed – without having to make a separate UI for them.
(Not sure why not. I think absolute UI unity, across all systems, is an overvalued concept.)

2) On ANY system, make Windows easier for technophobes, and those who are new to this stuff.
(That’s most of the world’s population. Only 1 billion people have access to computers – a lowly 1 in 7 people – but mostly only through access at work and school. Only about 5% of households worldwide have at least 1 computer inside.)

Good ideas are one thing – and I love their pursuit – but then there’s good execution, which often doesn’t come so naturally…

To start, I believe the developmental progress of the entire world depends on computers not being presented as overly simple “easy-stations”, at least not for everyone. I really like the idea of making stuff easier for newbies, but what about the people who DO STUFF, and what about when the newbies aren’t newbies anymore?

Next, as much as Windows 8 gives that impression of being simple, it’s loaded with stuff that’s remarkably unintuitive. For example, you’ve got the invisible Start Button… It’s literally invisible, sitting in the bottom-left corner of the screen, not showing itself until you mouse into the far corner. (There are a couple videos on YouTube showing peoples’ parents trying to find it. Only watch if you have about 20 minutes.) Windows 8 is crawling with invisible features like this, such as how you flip through and manage open Metro apps. Things like that use invisible zones at the edges of the screen, and worse… for example, in order to see the Metro taskbar, you put the mouse in a bottom-left corner (invisible Start Button), then move the mouse upward. That’s the magic way to show the Metro taskbar. (Tech-savvy users won’t care, but people like my mom will be lost. Windows 8 will surely have to come with a training tutorial, in the final version.)

Also, you know how your running programs normally sit down in the taskbar? Well, the taskbar doesn’t show any of your Metro apps. Not only, but when you’re in Metro, the taskbar there doesn’t show you any desktop apps. It’s like your computer is split into 2 different operating systems, each with its own taskbar. It’s a design disaster.

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Back to the Start Screen…
At least right now, there’s no option to bypass the Start Screen, and just log straight into the desktop… and there’s no option to get the Start Menu back, for the gobs of people who are going to be repulsed by the Start Screen. (perhaps that’s not everyone, but I think it’s going to be a LOT.)

Going further, the OS we have right now, Windows 7, already made launching and managing open programs take more clicks and more time than Vista before it… and now, Windows 8 is looking like it might turn that into a continuing legacy. (For instance, switching between your open Metro apps is a slow, painful process. Even Windows Phone 7 Mango handles it better.)

The “Building Windows 8” blog, written by various members of the Windows Team, makes the case for the Start Screen being more efficient and faster to work with than the Start Menu… however, there are a few significant flaws with the way they present their argument. They first point out (rightly) that nearly every element of the Start Menu is not 100% optimal, and could use some rethinking… That’s fine, but then they miss the most immediate, natural solution of just saying, “So, since the Start Menu isn’t perfect, we need to MAKE it perfect.” Instead, they say more like, “So, the Start Menu is doomed, and the Start SCREEN is the only way to save it.”

Surely another influence is wanting to cater to tablets/touch… so, if that too is the case, why not just ask touch users if they’d like to activate a touch interface?

The biggest point that Microsoft made was something like this:

  • These heatmaps (below) show how long it takes for the mouse to hover over an icon. Green means you can hover quickly. Red means the opposite. You can see how the Start Menu is less efficient, because your most-used icons go up on top, in the distant red zone. The Start Screen, however, can be freely organized, so, first of all, your most-used icons can theoretically all go in the green, and second, there’s tons more space on-screen, so, this cancels the need to have to dig stuff out of the cumbersome ‘All Programs’ menu.

heatmap, windows 8, microsoft, dario d, alphaila

Aside from how easy it would be to redesign the Start Menu, to boost its efficiency, Microsoft overlooks quite a few important things in this efficiency argument:

Argument Flaws

– To start, I doubt that many users are going to put their important stuff in the bottom-left of the Start Screen. I assume most people are going to put all that up at the top. That’s just how people sort stuff; top to bottom. See this heatmap below (which I made in Photoshop, using no analysis), showing where I assume people actually keep their most-used icons:

heatmap, windows 8, microsoft, dario d, alphaila

Also, on the Start Screen, when you create a new group of icons, everything is currently forced to start at the top. In order to put stuff at the bottom, you have to make the group packed full of icons.

The Start Screen DOES show more stuff up-front, which is good, especially if you have an app store where people mass-download all these little apps. However, later, I’ll get to a different way to serve these app-downloading people… (aside from just a new, larger Start Menu, or something).

Next:

– Microsoft forgets that the Start Screen has an opening AND closing animation, whereas the Start Menu instantly pops in and out. This throws a hefty wrench into the whole efficiency thing, and I doubt they’d change the Start Screen to ever appear instantly, like the Start Menu. Too abrupt for something full-screen.

– They forget that the Start Screen doesn’t have a taskbar, so, flipping through the open Metro apps is aimless and slow. (You thumb through them one by one, till you bump into the one you want.)

(I do love that Microsoft is trying to back its design with numbers and analysis. Using scientific info is very enlightening and rewarding, because it’s (supposed to) tell you exactly what’s what. However, one thing that scientific study always needs is “peer review”… which means getting an outside evaluation of the study, to make sure all the right questions were asked, and the info is being looked at the right way. It’s just *incredibly* easy to misinterpret what numbers are actually telling you. Analysis needs to be subjected to all factors, and put to the test. One of the problems is that people want their work (or study) to be fruitful, and not go to waste… so, they easily fall into the trap of “confirmation bias”, which means trying to see only the data that confirms what they want to see. They aren’t asking the question, “What does this info ULTIMATELY tell me,” they’re asking, “How much stuff here helps CONFIRM my theory (or reinforces my work)?” If not paying attention, a person can work with confirmation bias almost as naturally as breathing. Not a blamable thing.)

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Based just on crucial looks, think about Windows Phone 7, which uses the Metro look. To start, Windows Phone 7 did NOT turn the heads of your common buyer, which should probably be a warning sign. When choosing products, I think the masses of uninformed buyers go by:

1) How a product “feels”, as in how the whole presentation tickles their brains.
2) Whether or not they can justify the price.
3) How much they think they can actually use it (…even if they aren’t thinking clearly about this one, and let the “feel” part coax them into over-estimating how much actual use it will be).

As such, why would an uninformed buyer choose the 3rd or 4th-place appealing product (Windows Phone 7), if it both costs the same as the more tickly phones, and doesn’t obviously boast superior functionality?

So, on top of Windows 8 having the same visual non-awesomeness, I think a much larger, more vocal group of people is going to be disgusted by the whole Metro thing, and feel that computing is being turned into something completely unintelligent, and unattractive. It’s clear that we’re dumbing down to serve lowest common denominator… but it’s not AT ALL clear if that’s necessary for the goals that Microsoft wants to accomplish here... like helping the world’s newbies get on board with computers.

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As I hope to show below, I don’t think we need to go for dead-simple in order to embrace touch-computing and newbie users. I think that if we just execute the Start Screen differently, using most of the same ideas, we can kill 4 birds with 1 stone…

1: Zero controversy, zero risk.
2: All the touch/tablet functionality that Microsoft wants.
3: All the newbie-friendliness.
4: Extra power for techies.

 

First, you’d choose between starting out with a simple interface, or a rich, advanced one:

Newbie Desktop

windows 8, concept, design, dario d, alphaila, ui, interface, photoshop, simple, newbie

Click images for large versions…
(Note: there’s some intentional variance here and there, just to try out different stuff.)

You could also default to having the taskbar auto-hide, so that newbies get a stronger impression of simplicity.

 

It would be nice if the widget board came with a rich collection of additional widgets (or PROMINENT access to an online library), so you could add more stuff, like this YouTube panel:

windows 8, concept, design, dario d, alphaila, ui, interface, photoshop, simple, newbie

You’ll note how I don’t believe in making things look oversimplified as a means to be newbie-friendly. To combat technophobia, I believe Windows should have something like simple, non-corporate-feeling training videos, and maybe intelligent boot-screen messages (like, “If you don’t know precisely who sent you an email, and the reason why, the odds that it’s spam hovers unbelievably close to 100%.”) If some computers are going to boot too fast, the messages could perhaps be added to the login screen, or presented in some other way.

 

 

Advanced Desktop

windows 8, concept, design, dario d, alphaila, ui, interface, photoshop, advanced

 

(here’s that Win 7 article)

By the way, some might point out that the Start Screen sits in front of everything, easily accessible, whereas this would sit behind everything, and require minimizing all your windows in order to get to it. Would that slow things down?

  • 1: No, because the Start Menu is back, and, for launching apps, that’s actually your biggest Start Screen equivalent. (remember, the Start Screen is just a full-screen Start Menu.)
  • 2: I’d introduce some quick ways to minimize, like perhaps turning that tiny ‘Minimize All’ button in the bottom-right into a larger, second Start Button, just for bringing you back to the widget board… and, if you have a bunch of non-maximized windows floating around, maybe double-clicking the desktop would make them minimize.

 

 

windows 8, concept, design, dario d, alphaila, ui, interface, photoshop, resize

 

The advanced and simple desktops are technically the same one. The only differences are how cluttered they start out, what widgets are showing, which taskbar skin is used (maybe), and whether or not the widget board is set to “Full Desktop”. (That would be a simple option. It would block out having traditional desktop icons above and below the widget board.)

With a layout like this, newbie users could easily and naturally work their way up to an “advanced” layout… and advanced users could do the opposite, if they wanted.

Same story with tablets:

 

Tablet Desktop (with Start Menu open)

windows 8, concept, design, dario d, alphaila, ui, interface, photoshop, tablet

HERE, I chose a partially Win7-style taskbar. Not sure how comfortable I am with the fact that additional programs that you launch would alternate appearing on the left and right sides, but it’s an idea.

I think a Start Menu like this could do well on desktop PC’s too (you’ll see some desktop features above, like a disc drive icon), but more thinking would have to go into some of the details, like how to handle larger programs that actually come with several smaller side-apps, or that need to put some important files up front… like you see often in the Start Menu. Maybe some app icons could expand, and show you the stuff they’re bundled with… I dunno. Got stuff to do. :P

 

To refresh your memory real quick, here’s Windows 8, so far:

windows 8, start screen, beta, preview

windows8, desktop, beta, preview

(Fun fact: After Windows 8 loads, you start out FOUR screens away from the desktop. Wading through them is a marathon.)

 

So, we have last:

The Choice Screen

windows 8, concept, design, dario d, alphaila, ui, interface, photoshop, choice screen, installation

 

 

 

(Something similar would come up whenever you create a new user account.)

Here’s a Windows 8 installation screen:

windows8, installation, screen

 

 

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A little analysis…

Looking at Windows 8 so far, I feel that most people new to computers will be trained to feel that most tasks should be overly simple, as in dumb, without much to expect out of anything. Unfortunately, I think that would make people lazy, and less willing to use computers as anything more than enlarged smartphones. (not in a good, convenience way, but like a candy-store app station way.) The whole Start Screen / Metro interface is presented in this painfully simple fashion, which I think enough people will see as kid-style… you know, like educational-software. I think it would channel to the average person this pervasive feeling that computers aren’t important. There are GOOD ways to simplify, and I don’t mind the idea of simple, tablet-like apps on the PC, but I think this system-wide dumbing down will cultivate a laxy-lazy view of technology, more than anything.

This is a dangerous mentality to water down the mighty PC with. For one, think about human progress in the upcoming times, and how reliant it will be on technology… Now, what do you think will happen if you tell people to start thinking of man’s most powerful workhorse as a lazy pony? The point: I believe you can still get EVERYONE on board here, without going the pony route.

Next, if these issues cause enough ruckus out there, and the whole thing is a flop, I think Microsoft might feel VERY awkward trying to later reintroduce things like the Start Menu, and the “regular” approach to things. They might want to trash everything that was part of the equation – including past stuff that worked – and introduce something else completely new. (More risks, and more new stuff for the entire world to learn.)

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Now, I don’t question for a second that at least SOME of the people behind Windows 8 probably see it as “cool, lively modern-style”. (If that were NOT the case, they would have named Metro something like “kids” or “education”, and dumped it)… but here’s the thing: those who advocate things almost always see them from the best possible angles that you could see them. It’s a psychological issue that all people face, which is part of how we get things like poor movies. Like with movies, those who are most closely tied to their creation (writer, director, etc) usually think everything is looking great… (just watch “making of” segments, and see)… but, had others been given a meaningful chance, they could have pointed out that there were serious flaws. Rarely does someone TRY to find flaw in their creation, because it’s so uncomfortable, and leaves you discouraged. (I have this theory that there are actually very few bad movies/books/etc; just a whole lot that have to be seen from very, very specific angles.)

In the world of creating things, it’s massively important to be self-critical, and also not turn away outside judgment. It helps us uncover the other ways in which our stuff might be seen, and not just the good ones.

By nature, I think we people go through this 2-step thought-process when analyzing our own creations, or the things we advocate. There’s some variance from situation to situation, but, in general:

1) We ask ourselves, “Can I find ANY angle from which to see this where it WORKS?” (We usually start out only interested in whether or not something of ours CAN work, almost trying to MAKE IT work.)
2) If we succeed in the above, we think we’ve got it, and try NOT to uncover anything contrary. From then on, we’re all set, and plant this seed of belief… which we furiously try to only water with further reassurances.

This thought-process is devastating to artists and all kinds of “creators of stuff”, which is why it’s SO important for us to be surrounded by respected opinions… corrective, often critical voices. (We just have to make sure that these are constructive voices, specifically trying to make our work BETTER, and not vampires, trying to discourage us. The key is: don’t only tell me you don’t like something. Tell me how you COULD like it.)

Being SELF-corrective is mighty useful as well, just as long as we’re willing to actually sit there, and try to find holes in ideas that we’ve already fallen in love with. On one hand, our minds may have a nasty aversion to allowing opposing thoughts to threaten our ideas… but being self-critical is probably the most useful approach of all, because instead of creating something, THEN getting feedback, you criticize your ideas before you’ve even done anything. (I personally save tons of time on my projects by trying to find flaws first.) I imagine that close to zero people do this, because, until you know its true value, it’s difficult… Trying to sink your own stuff can be very rapid-fire with the challenges, so, in one brainstorming session, you might easily offer yourself more opposition than you’d normally come across in a long time. However, the power it gives you in fixing and improving all of your aspirations is invaluable. It’s like… would you rather spend your life pursuing junk ideas that often fail, or almost always hitting the mark?

(I think the kinds of ideas we need to judge within ourselves are quite varied. It could be whether or not a project or hobby will be as worthwhile as we thought, whether or not a “good idea” of ours will ACTUALLY work, whether or not we’re over-estimating the quality of things we’ve created, etc… Now, we do need SOME defense from these thoughts, because even our everyday thinking can bombard us with all manner of false insecurities about things… so, it helps to really pay attention, and notice when our fears are either just blank illusions, or plausible but not ultimately correct.)

So, my impression of the Windows 8 preview, so far:
I think it’s good ideas, just being presented wrong. I’m bothered by Metro and the Start Screen, but I like some of the underlying ideas. I’d just present the whole thing from a different angle.

(For further digging on Windows 8 issues, see this article, on CNet.)

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