One thing that Microsoft was always really good at was doing demonstrations of new technology. Bill Gates historically gave barnstorming performances demo-ing products, even when they crashed. Although this sounds quite twee as an area of expertise, its really hard to do. If you want an idea of how hard go on to YouTube and look for Apple keynote product demonstrations before Steve Jobs returned versus once he was back at the mother-ship.
The tile interface
One of the most interesting things that I found about Windows 8 was the tile interface, because of the implied design choices that Microsoft seemed to have made.
Historically, one of the key sales points of using Microsoft software was that there was lots of people who were familiar with it and it consequently improved productivity and reduced training requirements; generally how things work is one boat Microsoft historically hasn’t rocked. There has been some changes like the Clippy help character and the interface of Microsoft Office 2007.
Clippy was removed from future products. As for the interface of Office 2007; well it still cause consternation at the different companies that I have worked at as users have struggled to transfer their skills over. So from a user experience design point of view; tiles took a lot of guts for Microsoft to roll out.
The tiles concept is also an interesting compromise. It move the interface away from 3D eye candy; so reducing processor power required; but still keeps the transitions which are the true magic in modern touch interface operating systems. Which is an interesting trade off in power and performance.
The two dimensional aspect of the Tile interface reminded me of a 21st-century HyperCard stack.
There were a number of aspects of using backwards compatible applications alongside native Windows 8 applications in the Steven Sinofsky demo that looked like a user experience car crash. This difference is even more marked when you think about the difference in philosophy and mindset between the interfaces: from keyboard to touch.
But is it innovative?
One question that I did have about the design choices for Windows 8, was whether Microsoft is being buffeted into these choices by trying to match competitor innovations, or whether this was Microsoft carving a new path.
Let’s look at some of the main features:
- Boot disk on a USB memory stick – in Microsoft marketing speak this is called Portable Workspace; this has been available from the Linux community for years. Apple historically hasn’t gone down this route, mainly because it also wants to sell you the hardware that you boot up on as well. The hardware and the software license are one. In terms of Microsoft’s current business, this isn’t much of an innovation as they already have licenses that allowed consumers to use Windows at home; based on their work Windows licenses: WHERE those machines were not used concurrently – Portable Workspace is a logical progression in terms of licensing terms. My initial take on this, is that Microsoft does not seem to be embracing Intel’s USB replacement Light Peak / Thunderbolt
- HTML5 desktop applications – back in the day Microsoft used to be able to rely on having an army of developers coding the new, new thing for its platform. A lot of that expertise is now working with web technologies. Microsoft’s use of HTML5 desktop applications follows in the conceptual footprints of Konfabulator, Yahoo! Widgets, OS X widgets, Google Gears and pretty much the entire SDK for the HP/Palm WebOS
- App store – Nokia used to have a poor app store experience, but still had one back in the day. Apple have one, Google has one, GetJar has had one for years. As had mobile carriers
Maturation of a platform
Historically, one of the key differences between the Apple ecosystem and the Windows ecosystem was that a PC could be upgraded, with the hardware being much more modular in nature. In reality, there was a lot of work required to get all the pieces to talk to each other and it used to provide hobbyists no end of satisfaction. There is a whole ecosystem of aftermarket board, component and case manufacturers that supported tinkerers and hardcore gamers. The ‘Franken-PC’ was also the entry-level computer for many lower income consumers.
By comparison, Apple computers were considered to be more of an appliance, with true plug-in and play, years before Microsoft described it as a feature of the Windows operating system. It also allowed Apple to take a more holistic systems-based approach to consumer design.
With Windows 8 Microsoft is more closely with component and PC manufacturers to reduce the amount of component configurations and combinations that they have to code for. The operating system also supports system-on-a-chip architectures. Historically compiling lots of different functions on a chip was used as a way to reduce costs in mass-produced consumer electronics. The use of it in PCs implies a different design philosophy, one that is looking to simplify mass manufacture, and by implication that there may not be as much room for differentiation and after-market components.
The PC looks like it is discarding its hobbyist heritage and becoming an appliance; a bit like the same journey that radio went through in the early 20th century, or the motor car over a longer period.
A focus on the middle
I get the sense that power users are being abandoned with Windows 8, it is a world away from a hard day’s graft in a CAD programme, or Excel; based on a hope that it gains the resurgent consumer demand for touch computing devices.
Is touch all its cracked up to be?
One of my colleagues Becky talks about the way her young daughter pokes and prods at their iMac computer screen to try and interact with it. Seeing something like that makes one think that touch is the THE future. I think that touch has a future but is only one part of the future.
First of all a trip back in time: touch interfaces aren’t new. Some of the earliest computing work on touch interfaces was done as part of American efforts into defence, with light pens being used as part of the SAGE system that utilised computing technology to help detect inbound Soviet bombers and direct US missiles to intercept and destroy them. This was all developed in the 1950s and put online by 1963. SAGE influenced the original research that would eventually begat the ARPANET; what most people acknowledge as the precursor of the modern internet.
What was interesting about the SAGE system was that the light pen operators didn’t have to type that much, so it made sense to keep their hands on the screen.
Now move forward to 1968, and Doug Engelbart’s now famous technology demonstration to the public of the work done at the Augmentation Research Center – which was part of SRI in Menlo Park. Engelbart demonstrated many of the concepts that we now take for granted: desktop video calling, WYSIWYG interfaces, graphical user interfaces, the computer mouse, file system structures and hyperlinks. Engelbart was probably building on research and a body of knowledge that would have come out of the SAGE system on man-machine interaction; from a technological, ergonomic and human behavioural point-of-view. The big thing that came out of that demo was the prominence that was given to the mouse, over a touch interface. This was because, if you are creating content by typing, it is a bit of a pain to move your fingers then on to the screen.
If we move forward to 1983, Hewlett Packard launched the HP-150, this was a MS-DOS compatible computer with a touch screen and keyboard. It didn’t sell that well, Bob Cringely in his book Accidental Empires talks about how engineers not using the touch screen whilst working on the machine before launch: preferring to use the arrow keys on the keyboard instead showed how difficult it was to put the touch screen into human behaviour.
When the HP-150II was launched the following year, the touch interface was only an optional extra; which was rarely chosen by customers.
If we move forward to the present day Apple is taking a two-pronged approach to touch: with a touch screen interface on the iPhone and iPad; where as the Mac product range has track pad-related interfaces. There are some commonality of gesture controls but that’s it. A lot of this is down to user contexts: the iPhone and iPad are about information consumption and doing kiosk-like tasks; whereas the Mac range is about content creation. With content creation; users like to keep their fingers closer to the keyboard hence the track pad solution. Also because this is closer to the metaphor of the mouse; Apple hasn’t adopted a universal look and feel across all the devices. You can certainly argue that it is narrowing the gap between them but the important bit to emphasise is not their similarity but their differences: what Apple has chosen not to do.
For my sins, I worked for a brief while in consumer banking; part of the work that I did was with front-line contact centre staff. Whilst I was there, we moved from terminal style screens where you moved around by pressing the tab key to a full graphical user experience (GUI) requiring operators to use a mouse as well as their keyboard.
Whilst there was lots of research to indicate that GUIs help productivity, we found in our particular context that that just the opposite occurred. Average call times increased as contact centre operators slowed down their calls to match the speed at which their worked through customer account computer screens. Having to constantly move their hands from keyboard to mouse, together with increased time it took to render the complex screen started to add up during peak hours resulting in longer customer wait times and an increase in levels of customer dissatisfaction.
I am not trying to say that touch is bad, but that different user contexts require different approaches, and like previous technology manias before it where vendors glom on an idea regardless of any context considerations. So I am a bit concerned about the user experience design for Windows 8.