Is the Win8 UI way-cool – or fundamentally

John Dvorak is a curmudgeon, so it’s no surprise that amid all the (more or less) positive buzz about the look and feel of Windows 8, he says he hates it and wants Microsoft to ditch the Metro UI. But at least in its latest version, his argument is more than the rationalization of a knee-jerk reaction. Rather, he points out that for all its visual pizzazz, Metro is, in an important respect, much less usable than the current Windows desktop. The problem, in his eyes, is the replacement of click-to-launch icons with tiles.

Choosing beauty and hipness over meaning

It’s the tiles that have gotten everyone all excited about Metro. Many think they show that Microsoft doesn’t just acknowledge the possibility of a non-PC future, but embraces it. And they’re certainly visually arresting.

But a colored tile doesn’t “say” anything to the average user, absent his or her having used it for a while. To figure out what you’ll get when you click on it, you have to done that a bunch of times already. Or you have to have customized it with content you’ve chosen and formatted. In either case, a serious time investment is needed, to get to the point where you can see, grok, and click a tile as quickly as you can, when you see, say, the Word, Excel, or Outlook icons, on the current Windows desktop. Assuming, of course, that “you” means the average user. Or John Dvorak.

No respect

What’s odd about Microsoft’s move to tiles isn’t just that it brings a phone UI to the desktop. It’s also counter to Microsoft’s tradition of respecting users’ existing habits. Many features, of many Microsoft UIs, seem to exist only because people are used to them.

There’s a good reason for Microsoft to go this route. It shows respect for users, and acknowledges that learning to use applications and their features is difficult and time-consuming. If people have already spent a lot of time and effort learning one way to do something, Microsoft generally doesn’t force them to learn a new way. Even if, in the abstract, the new way is clearly “better.”

A hybrid approach

Desktop icons are the quintessential example a feature you’d think Microsoft would want to keep, for just this reason. Yet they’re gone in Windows 8. What’s odd is that they could easily have been preserved as part of a very phone-like UI. Android phones and the iPhone, after all, use icons arrayed on a field, or rather a set of fields, that we might, in another context, call a “desktop.” Why weren’t those UIs the model here?

The bubble, or the iron fist

It seems unlikely that at a place like Microsoft, artists – or rather, designers – got the upper hand over programmers, as Dvorak suggests. Perhaps the Windows team lives in a bubble where no one uses anything but Win7 phones. Or perhaps someone powerful decided that Windows needs to be roped into an all-hands-on-deck effort to establish the Win7 phone UI as the new standard for every device. As Dvorak suggested earlier this year, the latter seems likely, given Microsoft’s longstanding commitment to the goal of maintaining UI consistency across devices.

Microsoft has done something like this before – recall its jump from DOS to Windows. That move too was driven by opportunism and a willingness to borrow (or steal) rather than innovate. But back then, it chose the right model – the Mac OS. Not following Android or iOS is, at best, an odd decision. And one that, as Dvorak points out, may well be a big mistake.