Microsoft's Strategy For Getting You Used To Windows 8's Radical New Interface: Trial And Error

windows 8 launch event and presentation

Photo: Kevin Smith/Business Insider

Throughout all the Windows 8 reviews that have trickled through over the past few weeks, one narrative remains consistent: The new operating system’s design is radically different from the classic desktop you’re probably used to.And it’s going to confuse a lot of people at first.

In fact, it already is. You may have seen some of the news stories and videos of newbies trying Windows 8 for the first time. The results are a disaster.

As we’ve said before, this confusion will not last forever. Yes, the Windows 8 interface is a radical change from what you’re used to, but Microsoft knows that. That’s why there are a series of consistent user interface themes in in the operating system that will help train users.

We spoke with Sam Moreau, Microsoft’s director of design and research for Windows, to figure out why the company decided to turn the world’s most popular desktop operating system on its head. Moreau has been working on Windows 8 for about two years and is part of the team that conducted user studies on how people naturally use touchscreen gestures and inputs. Microsoft pretty much built Windows 8 around that data.

Moreau used the word “human” a lot when describing how his team designed Windows 8: “This is how humans use touch screens.” or  “This is basic human intuition.” or “These are the human factors that went into the design.” So while jarring at first, just know that the new Windows 8 interface wasn’t just thrown together. Every menu, every gesture, and every toolbar was put where it is on purpose.

For example, Moreau said Microsoft tested how people naturally want to move back a page or screen. Most chose to tap or swipe the from the left, which is why Windows 8 uses that action to send you back to the last app you used. It’s also why the URL bar in the new version of Internet Explorer was moved to the bottom of the screen: to be closer to your thumbs.

“In order to make the computer great, you have to change some of the paradigms,” Moreau said. “But we intentionally brought along some of the existing paradigms and brought along human factors and human intuition.”

The downside? Microsoft is essentially counting on users to noodle around with the operating system and learn how it works for themselves. It’s hardly an ideal scenario. When you first activate Windows 8, a tutorial encourages you to tap the left and right sides of the screen to pull up menus. After that, you’re pretty much on your own. Moreau said users will have to guess and check what works and build on that.

Finally, there are all the older Windows 7 PCs that don’t have touchscreens, meaning if you upgrade to Windows 8, you’ll have to use a keyboard and mouse to get around. It’s arguably more awkward and difficult to use as Windows 8 puts touch computing first.

Moreau said the Windows 8 team kept a lot of of design metaphors people are used to with mouse/keyboard computing in the new interface. That means hovering your mouse over corners to pull up new menus or moving the cursor the side of the screen so the live tile menu scrolls along. You can also simply start typing an app name from the home screen and it’ll pop up.

Again, Microsoft expects users to learn all this through trial and error. In our own experience using Windows 8 with a mouse keyboard, it’s not as easy as Moreau and the rest of the Windows team make it out to be. And we were sceptical when Moreau said users in studies know to move the mouse cursor to hot corners or just start typing to open an app. 

But the theme remains the same. Windows 8 isn’t going anywhere and neither is its new design. You have no choice but to figure it out for yourself. Microsoft seems to think that’ll work.

“One thing we believe is humans learn,” Moreau said. “They actually have a thirst for leaning, especially if you start with these smart repeatable behaviours the reward. They will actually build on top of these things.”

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