Is Windows 8 dysfunctional?

In a recently published article Jakob Nielsen thoroughly trashes Windows 8.

This is not your typical Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux argument. There are no attacks on the security flaws, stability or even cost of the operating system. This assault is directed at the area for which Nielsen is famous: usability.

Windows 8, he states, is full of, “hidden features, reduced discoverability, cognitive overhead from dual environments, and reduced power from a single-window UI and low information density”. The changes in the OS have been so drastic that 12 experienced Windows users that Nielsen asked to review the UI had trouble navigating the software to perform even seemingly simple tasks.

And the reason for such a drastic shift in how Windows looks? “Resting on familiar is the way to mediocrity,” said Jensen Harris, director of program management for the Windows User Experience Team.

In my opinion, Microsoft went overboard on trying to be cool. Coolness was the de facto marketing push for Apple products. The Mac UI was cool, the iPhone was a big hit because it was much cooler than the Blackberry and the iPad brought techno-cool to a whole new level. People like cool and it showed because in the mobile marketplace, Apple dominates and Microsoft is struggling to keep up. So instead of working on their mobile line, they made changes to the one thing where they do dominate.


Cool vs. Usable

Those of you who are familiar with Mr. Nielsen know that he favors design that makes something easy to use, over and above everything else. Check out his website to see what I mean:

Jacob Nielsen

While this site might take you back to a time when flannel shirts and grunge were in style, you can’t argue the fact that this site is easy to navigate. There is nothing to distract a visitor from finding exactly what he or she is looking for.

But is this really what users want? Absolutely not; users want to be engaged and drawn in, and the UI is what does that.

There is no doubt that Windows 8 looks great. It captures your interest, but it’s weak in two important areas:

  • Lack of consistency
  • Lack of simplicity

If people can’t easily find what they are looking for and they can’t find it each time they are looking, they are going to look somewhere else.

When it comes to design, these two principles are important. You see, Windows 8 users are locked into their product. Most of them won’t opt for something else due to cost, comfort or compliance restrictions.

Visitors to a web site, that’s a different story. They will quickly hit the back button if they can’t find what they need. It doesn’t matter if the site raises their coolness factor by 100% and gets them a guest spot on the Jersey Shore. If they can’t achieve what they came to the site for, they will leave.

Does this mean everything you design has to look like it was hand-coded back in the Nineties? Absolutely not; in fact Nielsen’s own business website offers a bit more flair, maybe not fifteen pieces but enough to engage potential clients:

Nielsen Norman Group

Is Jakob Nielsen right about Windows 8 or is he full of hot air? How do you create a balance between catchy design and usability in your work? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, uses broken window image via Shutterstock.

  • Ian Turner

    I remember Mr Nielsen from the RWD debate. He got completely slated then, interesting that we now think his site is user friendly. Surely that much text only is a bit over the top? Anyway… I have to say I agree with Mr Nielsen on my initial useage of Win8. I had a chance to play with a touchscreen desktop the other day and there are simply NO indicators that there are hidden stuff lurking just off screen! It was highly annoying. I kept bringing other programs back to focus even when I didn’t want to.And trying to get back to the home screen was nigh on impossible! Ok for users who may learn quickly via trial and error but way to alienate those less used to using computers. Too much of a jump for me I’m afraid and a distinct lack of visual prompts.

  • robooneus

    I can agree that Windows 8 suffers from some UX hiccups, I think they are almost entirely a function of the dual desktop paradigm. There is also a clear learning curve to the OS as you have to learn that functions are hidden outside of view. But once you learn that, it is a quick shift. Any change in the way one interacts with a program is going to require adjustment.

    As for Nielson.. I have read many of his articles, but find the UX on his website pretty terrible. Sure, there is nothing to distract from text, but all of the text makes it more difficult to differentiate separate functions. So much of it is blue, underlined link text that my eyes lose focus easily.

  • Evert

    I do not find Mr. Nielsen site to be very usable. It lacks visuals cue’s to tell me where to find what. I need to actually read everything in order to find what I need. Still, that might just be me. The same applies to Windows 8. I do not understand why people have such difficulties with it? Perhaps it is because I use keyboard shortcuts more than my mouse (RSI). One example; I hear people nagging about the fact that there is no startmenu. But I always used that menu by hitting the windows-key and then type the program I wanted…guess what: this still works like it used to in Win8. The same applies to anything. I only had to learn about 8 new keystrokes. other than that things just look different, but they still work the same. Stuck somewhere? Esc is your friend! Again, it might just be me.

    • Eric Gauderman

      I definitely agree that Nielsen’s site is unusable. He criticizes the lack of informationdensity in Windows 8, but I believe that too much informationdensity is a really bad thing. More info density is very tiring for the user to use becausethe user must keep having to read and read and read and maybe they’ll find what they’re looking for. The use of minimalistic icons is very beautiful and very functional, especially once you have been using the OS for the few hours it takes to get really used to it.

      He also criticizes Microsoft for changing Windows when they should have been working on mobile devices; well, they have been–Windows Phone 8 is beautiful and powerful and unbelievably fast.

    • Paul

      Well, Windows 8 was mainly designed for mobile devices and touch screens. So… your keyboard will not help too much…

  • gspinsights

    Hallelujah – I am not alone – crying in the wilderness – crying into my beer. I so wish consumers could choose what operating system to install on their laptop and that Windows 8 did not exist..As you say – forget the cool and bring back intuitive, use friendly, efficient.

  • Micah Iverson

    I recently blogged about his article as well:

    Windows 8 has some issues, but tell me what OS doesn’t? I have been using Windows 8 for a few months now and can easily say that it’s the best OS I have ever used. it’s fast, it’s stable, it’s familiar, it’s fresh.

    I 4 machines running Windows 8 and I just sign in with my Microsoft account and lots of my data is synced across all devices in a matter of minutes – it’s awesome.

  • Amy

    I have been struggling to complete very simple tasks, like finding programs, right clicking on images to open in a selected program. I was just trying to look at some photos yesterday and this crazy slideshow thing kept popping up and you cannot right click on images in it.

    I am a web designer and I am on the computer every day clicking away from program to program, so I know my way around a computer. I can just imagine how frustrating it is for people who are not so quick to learn on the computer.

    I just got a new hp laptop and it came with 8 pre-loaded on it, I debated whether or not to try to put 7 on it myself. But here I am, its been a few days and I am giving it a whirl. Hopefully I will get used to it. I just pray its not Vista all over again, I really got screwed last time I purchased a computer when it came with Vista.

    Maybe timing is not my thing when it comes to computer purchases ;(

    • meddle0ne

      If you want to find a program you just start typing it. The problem isn’t that windows 8 is too complicated. It’s that you are used to using an OS that is too complicated so the simplicity escapes you.

      • Jamie Wallace

        Im sorry, I don’t agree with this comment at all. A computer is supposed to be functional and productive not dumbed down and restrictive. Like Amy above, I am also a web designer and have been using Windows since Win95. People in general I think do not wish to learn technology and are very ignorant towards it. MacOSX is also going down the same route. And dont even get me started on iOS.

    • gspinsights

      Aha – I too bought an HP netbook as Toshiba’s were not available in Holland where mine decided to stop working and found myself with Windows 8. How easy would it be to remove Windows 8 and put XP or something else on it ? What are the implications – if any ?
      Thanks Amy.

  • meddle0ne

    When you ditch your mouse for a multi-touch track pad it makes much more sense.

  • rmwebs

    He’s not wrong. It almost feels as if there were 2 groups working on Windows 8. The ‘old team’ of people who liked the traditional Windows desktop, then the ‘new team’ who were instructed to create a ‘cool’ new UI.

    The problem is, that it feels like at some point, Steve Balmer blasted in with his big bald skull, screaming that he wanted everyone to use the new UI and not the old one, and that to help with that, we should discourage users from using the old UI.

    So they removed the start button, meaning if you have a non-metro app, you cant actually launch it without going into the program files, or entering modern ui.

    Personally, I hate it. Either completely change to a new UI, or dont change at all. What MS have done is not made up their mind, and instead released a half-assed attempt at modernizing their product. It failed. It sucks. I wont be using it.

  • Bravo.I

    Using the Windows 8 developer version sometime back was really horrible; I don’t know much about the end product, but I’m not planning on using Windows for a long time anyway.

    “If people can’t easily find what they are looking for and they can’t find it each time they are looking, they are going to look somewhere
    else.” – Definitely…

  • Ryan Van Der Wal

    I am not quite sure about win8 still. What I do know is that once you’ve gotten used to a certain style of interaction it’s hard to switch to something new and is bound to seduce some frowns, occasional sighs and head shaking ;) On the other hand I appreciate the courage to try something new.

    As for mr. Nielsen, I am a great admirer since he started his whole usability rant. On the other hand he sometimes takes it too far and takes the fun out of systems to use. Part of the usability of a system is in the attraction to use it. And a little exploratory learning is IMHO good to have the knowledge stick to the inside of my skull.

    Only thing is I am a webdeveloper/consultant intent on getting a job done is the most expediate manner possible and when my OS is against me I am likely to switch ;) Enough paradoxes for everyone? Enough for me and I am back to enjoying my sunday reading on windows 7 LOL

  • Jesse Dijkstra

    This blog would be very usable if the article that is mentioned is actually linked.

  • mayra

    Why are your comments looking all crazy?

  • Ali

    I disagree with this article.

    somehow its like facebook with timeline, people dont like the facebook because they dont even try to work it out. It just need some time to get around with windows 8.

    lack of consistency and simplicity?? Seriously?? check again mate, because as far as i know windows 8 UI is the best UI they ever made. It got simplicity and elegant design.

    “If people can’t easily find what they are looking for and they can’t find it each time they are looking, they are going to look somewhere else.”

    Try using the new search features of windows 8 it helps.

    Try it before you dislike it.


  • Jaken Gardner

    I think it is usable and not disfunctional and i like that they have brought more cloud computing forward as this blog i was reading shows that windows 8 is now vastly improved

  • Joost Bollen

    “you can’t argue the fact that this site is easy to navigate”

    False – The information overload makes it a needle in a haystack to find the information you want. Jakob Nielson’s old site is a bad example of UI.

  • bgbs

    Windows trashing is getting old already. I understand that it was cool to trash windows 3-4 years ago, but now if you are still trashing, not only are you old school, but you’re an old fool. My point, it’s 2013 and people have largely moved on and settled in.

    I think there is a misunderstanding between web usability and OS usability. Most critics, for some reason believe that OS is like a website, if you can’t find something you’ll move on to something else. An OS is not a search engine or website, it’s an OPERATING SYSTEM. You don’t move on to the next operating system because you can’t find something. For the most part, you don’t go to a website to do operational tasks, and you certainly do not launch Windows Documents to look for a job.

    There is this mentality out there that UI has to feel natural, organic, consistent and simple. Although I agree with that to a certain degree, but we mustn’t forget that most tasks we accomplish today on computers, were part of a conditioning process, not because it came natural to us. When the dust settles, people will continue using Win 8 while the same old critics continue to stumble over the same issues.