Good or Bad: Windows 8 for newcomers

Colleagues John and Ryan were discussing these early videos showing off Windows 8 features. Specifically, in Building “Windows 8,” by Microsoft’s own admission, their upcoming OS sports a major UI change, drawing inspiration from touch-devices (both phones and tablets). My thoughts:

First, as a long-time PC user myself, having a multitasking, highly powerful PC with a visual contextual “heads-up display” interface to programs/apps is exciting. It’s the stuff power users and PC enthusiasts drool over. I can immediately think, “Wow. Fast, visual access to information like never before.” As an existing user and student of interface concepts, I can quickly adapt my mental model to make sense of the “status” and “access” conventions employed by Microsoft’s “tiles” interface concept.

Second, it occurs to me that as an observer of technology on the behalf of new and confused users, Microsoft has clearly followed Apple into the “new mainstream,” focusing on serving existing users more than newcomers. This partially leaves me wondering who now thinks of the unskilled users and newer adopters. (See Mac vs. Windows for newcomer usability for my historical opinion.) Yet, I certainly won’t be a doomsayer about this. I’m going to hope that some of the trade-offs for easy information access and one-touch selection overcome the additional evolutionary stair steps Microsoft is adding that might otherwise hamper those who haven’t been along for the entire PC ride.

But third, and most importantly, for the context of this blog, does the Windows 8 concept make it easier or harder for newcomers? As the video says, they’re getting away from icons in favor of “application tiles.” Will that help? It seems a lot of the demo (and hype) is about every part of the UI being designed for touch, though it will “work great with mouse and keyboard as well” according to Jensen Harris.  “Window 8” will clearly favor touch screens, and as I’ve said before, touch can be a wonderful help for some people. (As a side note, I still think touch is slightly over hyped. Not needing a mouse is great when you just need to push and swipe. But the usefulness is limited to certain types of activities, like consumption of content, rather than productivity. But, admittedly, the elderly are likely more interested in consuming preexisting content than creating it. Just food for thought.) There have been a number of posts (like this one) recently showcasing how iPads and other simple touch-based tablet PCs could help eliminate the adoption barrier for seniors. And to a limited extent, I agree. But like this post/question, Does today’s tech alienate the elderly, I again must wonder if the new system will only be easier to use for those who have already built the mental models for previous computing concepts. (And that’s not an issue limited to the elderly.) For example, as I watch the demo of “Windows 8,” I’m left wondering how a newcomer would know what other programs/apps are running. Sure, swiping to toggle through programs is great, but only if you understand that multiple programs can be running all at the same time. (So in some ways, the first-generation iPad is indeed an easier device for newcomers to grasp than a high-performance PC.) Yet, multitasking is one of the most wonderful features of modern PCs. In order to become PC-literate, one needs to grasp it to be modestly confident with a Windows machine. But with Windows 8, it’s apparently going to be essential because the designers have apparently assumed users already understand the multitasking concept just to be able to use the interface. So how does one bridge that gap for newcomers? (If you want some ideas on how to introduce the concept of multitasking to newcomers, pick up a copy of The Ultimate PC Primer.)

So what do you think? Will Windows 8 be a giant step forward, a step backward, or just yet another experiment resulting in “something different?”

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One Response to Good or Bad: Windows 8 for newcomers

  1. Ben K says:

    As a side note, Apple’s OS X Lion (with it’s Launchpad organization of app-launching icons and touch-screen focus) seems very much on par with the direction of Windows 8. Looks like computer operating systems are heading the direction of smart phones and tablets.

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