Here’s Why The Windows 8 UI Makes Sense


Many people are confused and frustrated with the Windows 8 user interface in that there’s a muddy duality to the operating system.  Some parts are obviously Metro style and require a new specific user interface that’s not immediately obvious, while other parts are reminiscent of the Windows 7 desktop interface.  Maybe it will make more sense if you look at it from a different perspective.

On one hand, the new UI is designed for much more efficient interaction since it uses the “four corners” principal which adheres to “Fitt’s Law”; The time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target.  As usability and interaction design expert Bruce Tognazzini once wrote, “Fitts’ law indicates that the most quickly accessed targets on any computer display are the four corners of the screen, because of their pinning action, and yet, for years, they seemed to be avoided at all costs by designers.”  Of course that was written long before Windows 8 came on the scene, and Windows 8 definitely takes advantage of those fast access targets.  The new touch interface design also conforms to Fitt’s law by placing frequent commands right under your finger at the very edge of the screen.  You can actually hold a Windows 8 or RT tablet with one hand and make very small thumb gestures along the edges to do all sorts of things including quickly switching applications.

So from the efficiency perspective, the new Windows 8 UI makes a lot of sense.  Even on a large-screened Media Center PC, Windows 8’s modern UI is much easier to use with a wireless keyboard from 10 feet away on a couch and it’s clear how well it would work if it should support Kinect motion sensors in the future.  However, Windows 8 throws out many of the visual cues and labels needed for new-user usability.  If you slept through the tutorial when setting up Windows 8 for the first time, there is no visual way of knowing how to use the four-corners or edge-swipe user interaction methods for increased efficiency.  One argument for this reduction of discoverability is for the purpose of cleanliness.  There is no more clutter.  Full screen apps bring you beautiful imagery and information without the extraneous chrome and interactivity instructions.  That’s great and all, but only after you learn how to use the new interface and memorize the functions.  Apple was originally praised for this type of design with the first version of the iPhone.  Their user interface is extremely ambiguous and has many non-discoverable elements, just like Windows 8, but once you learn to use it by watching all the commercials (and you are told how intuitive it is), then it becomes intuitive and efficient.

But then there’s the duality aspect of Windows 8 and its classic “Desktop” environment.  People are confused by this because they think of the desktop app as still being the primary part of the Windows operating system as it has been since 1995.  Guess what though… Windows has always had multiple user interface options.  I count four of them in Windows 7:

  1. Windows 7 Desktop – this is the primary one you’re all used to with a taskbar at the bottom and a Windows button in the bottom left.
  2. Windows Media Center – this UI is optimized for both touch and 10 foot big-screen interaction. It can be chosen as the default UI for Windows, supports Media Center compatible apps, and includes its own settings panel.
  3. Command Prompt – Yes, the computer interface of the early 80s is still there.
  4. Windows XP Mode – For increased compatibility in Windows 7, you could always launch a Windows XP virtual machine with its own UI and its own applications.

Even Mac OS X has implemented multiple UIs.  When I started using Mac OS X 12 years ago, it also included a Mac OS 9 virtual machine/subsystem which would load a full OS 9 operating system within OS X so that you could run existing programs that weren’t compatible with OS X.  Yes, there were two different Apple menus, two control panels, and two different UIs.  Then there’s Apple’s Front Row UI which was designed for big-screen 10-foot usage similar to Windows Media Center.  This UI has since been discontinued however.  Of course, Mac OS X still has the command line based “Terminal” user interface as well, which includes functions that are not at all discoverable when looking at the screen.

Sometimes you need support for different user interface designs for different purposes and most especially during transition times.  The “Desktop” tile is meant to act like an app within the new modern Windows 8 interface.  Each program running within that “Desktop” environment behaves as it would in Windows 7 for compatibility purposes, but the Desktop itself behaves like a modern Windows 8 app of it’s own.  You can drag your finger from the top edge to the bottom edge on a touch screen in order to close the Desktop app.  You can swipe from the right to get the charms and settings that are associated with the Desktop app.  You can swipe from the left edge to switch between other apps and the Desktop just as if the Desktop was its own app.

In that same vein, what do you do if you need to do something on an iPad which requires an application that only runs under a different type of interface?  You probably load up a remote desktop app so that you can access that application.  From a user interaction point of view, that’s not much different from loading the “desktop” app on Windows 8. Yes, the Windows 8 desktop environment is much faster and well-integrated but strictly from a user interface perspective, it’s kind of the same thing.  You still have to know how to use two different user interface designs.

On my Windows 8 Tablet and Windows 8 Media Center, the new modern interface is so much easier to use with the touch screen and wireless keyboard (respectively), I’m tempted to remove the “Desktop” tile from the start screen all together.  That’s totally possible, just like it’s totally possible for you to never open a command line interface if you don’t want to.  Still there are times (especially on my desktop workstation) when I need to run classic programs within the desktop style interface, and that’s why it makes sense to have a classic “Desktop” app that’s still available for running productivity and content creation programs that have been in development over the past twenty years or so.  Just like it still occasionally makes sense to launch a command line interface.

If you look at Windows 8 from this perspective, does it make more sense?  Or are you already sold and are looking forward to spending less and less time in the desktop environment in the future?

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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for since they first appeared on the market in 2002. Read more about Adam Lein!