When I opened up my new computer, I was definitely not looking forward to Windows 8. Everything I had heard told me that the user interface was impossible to work with; you couldn’t find anything, the system was slow, and the tablet-oriented design made no sense for a PC user. Luckily, the operating system is a lot more accessible than I first thought, but it still raised some interesting points about what does (and doesn’t) make for a user-friendly design.
Quality Over Quantity
The very first thing I noticed on startup was the sheer number of apps in my startup screen. Half of them were things I had no interest in – news apps flashing their latest updates, ten different alarms and weather calendars I might be interested in, and oversized logos for Bing, Skype, and all the other pieces of software Microsoft wanted me to use. On the one hand, it makes sense to show off the features that separate your product from the rest of the crowd; on the other hand, there’s something to be said for letting the user explore those features on their own time.
The second major issue I found was the abundance of menus. I have a Lenovo computer, which automatically comes with Pokki, an app store/start menu hybrid found on your taskbar. Note that this is not the Windows app store, which I had to hunt down in my cascading start screen. Add this menu to the regular start screen, the charm bar, the “recent” apps menu off to the left, and I was completely confused. There didn’t seem to be a consistent way to get from point A to point B. Should I leave a program on my desktop, add it to the start screen, or access it through Pokki?
So after I took a minute to explore, my first order of business was clearing out some of these menus. If you want, you can uninstall Pokki through the “uninstall programs” menu in your Control Panel. I also went ahead and turned off the Charm bar and the “recent apps” menu off to the side, although I did turn the Charm bar on again later.
After customizing my apps, my start screen was a lot more usable, and didn’t give me as much of a headache. The “view all apps” screen was a lifesaver, since it let me hunt down any app I had accidentally unpinned, without knowing the exact name.
Transitioning from New to Old
The biggest complaint I’ve heard about Windows 8: It’s completely different from Windows 7. But honestly? After disabling the features I wasn’t interested in, it’s really not that different after all.
Microsoft definitely gets some serious kudos for letting you choose how to use your new operating system. If you really, really hate the start screen, you can download the Pokki app (which has your documents and most of the other files you might want to use, laid out almost identically to the old start menu), set your computer to go straight to the desktop on login, and forget that the new screen ever existed. You might need to use it sometimes, but those times will be rare.
Still, I was glad I took the leap and embraced my start screen. If you’re on the start screen, you can start typing the name of a program or specific setting, and a search menu will pop up, meaning you can find things far faster than by digging through menus and folders. Plus, now I have a reason to use the Windows key on my keyboard; it’s a one-button hotkey that pulls up everything I could possibly want to access.
UI Lessons from the Windows 8 OS
Whether you’re building a new operating system, designing the navigation for a website, or laying out an article, there are a few things you need to keep in mind if you want your users to actually be able to use it:
- Keep it minimal. There’s a reason college essays start with an introduction paragraph and a thesis statement, instead of jumping right into the body of the work. Give your users a chance to figure out what’s going on before bombarding them with content and features. If that means a few apps don’t get the spotlight, so be it.
- Make important information easy to access. Long books (and even some articles) have tables of contents, but they also have an index that lets you find references to simple topics. Similarly, the “All Apps” screen lets you find individual apps visually, and that’s on top of the excellent search bar. As always, follow the two-click rule – everything important should be accessible within two clicks.
- Make transitions easy. If you’re rolling out a new version of your software that’s radically different from the old, be prepared to give your users a helping hand. Sometimes, this means keeping around old features you really want to get rid of, just to allow time for the transition. Windows 8.1 didn’t do this as well as it could have, but the effort was there – and it made getting to know my new computer a lot easier.