Windows 8 desktop usability problems

I like most Microsoft technologies – for the most part they work and work well.  I like the new Office Ribbon interface, and I think C# is a fantastic language.  But lately their long-term technology commitment is really concerning me, and Windows 8 on the desktop drives me nuts.

My experience with Windows 8

Despite the few people saying that Windows 8 is great, from a usability perspective I find it frustrating.  Before we get to the usability, here’s a quick rundown on the features side:

Pros Cons
Boots very quickly Usability issues (discussed below)
Uses less memory, and has fewer running processes Crashes like crazy on my desktop hardware!
Windows Explorer gets the Ribbon, making common tasks much faster These are nice improvements, but dwarfed by how frustrating the rest of the user interface is
Task manager is slightly nicer

On my desktop I’ve got 4 CPUs and 8GB, and typically I just put my computer to sleep; what this means is that booting faster doesn’t mater – I hardly ever boot!  Taking slightly less memory doesn’t mater – I have lots!  And with 4 CPUs having slightly fewer running processes doesn’t really matter either; I don’t notice a difference. And most computers shipping these days are coming with more CPUs and more RAM, so I’m not alone.  If the usability of Windows 8 was great (or even just good) then I would really appreciate the performance improvements, but usability trumps performance, because if it ain’t usable, I’m not using it no matter how fast!

(Because of the hourly blue-screen crashes on my desktop I actually down-graded to Windows 7 on that computer; my laptop still has Windows 8)

Usability foundation

Throughout this examination I’m going to refer back to several excellent usability books.  To my mind, the usability bible is definitely About Face 3: The Essentials of interaction Design.  My goal here is not just to complain about Windows 8, but instead to carefully examine Windows 8 from a detailed and solid usability foundation.

In my experience there are two main classes of usability problems:

  1. The big kind where you’ve got fundamental design issues that completely misunderstand the user’s goals and the user experience
  2. The little kind where things are just slightly more annoying or slightly more difficult than they need to be.

Of course Windows 8 has both!

The big fundamental design issue

Obviously there’s the jarring transition between your application and the Metro start-menu.  In About Face 3 Alan Cooper talks about avoiding “modes”:

[quote style=”1″]Another principle associated with the modern GUI is the notion that modes should be avoided.  A mode is a state the program can enter where the effects of a user’s action changes from the norm – essentially a behavioural detour[/quote]

Many users – myself included – have found it very difficult to simply navigate around Windows 8 when the start menu keep taking over the full screen.  In Windows 7 the start menu didn’t completely hide everything you had currently been doing –  you could still see it and just click on it.  The user’s previous context was still there.  With Windows 8 my wife is continuously saying “How do I go back?  God’s it’s confusing…”

However, this has been covered by lots and lots of other people on the web, so instead of rehashing how jarring the Windows 8 Start screen is, let’s instead take a look at the smaller details around why the start-screen itself is difficult…

Not just the missing start menu

As one of my favourite ZDNet authors Ed Bott reports, Bringing back the Start menu won’t help Windows 8.  Basically he points out that the new Windows 8 live-tile start screen easily supports all of the same basic functionality that the old Windows 7 start menu supported.  I completely agree with just about everything he’s said.

Response to Ed Bott’s point 4 – Files

The one thing I disagree with though is point #4.  Ed Bott points out that in Windows 7, jumping to your music, pictures, documents or downloads folders was very easy from the start-menu because of the right-hand side buttons linked directly to those folders:

The documents, pictures, music, games, and computer buttons make finding your important folders easy.
The documents, pictures, music, games, and computer buttons make finding your important folders easy.

Ed Bott points out that you can do the same thing with Windows 8:

My Windows 8 file-folders group; it only took about 5 minutes to setup.
My Windows 8 file-folders group; it only took about 5 minutes to setup.

The  major problem is that users must set this up themselves – it’s not there by default in Windows 8.  So I’ve got to figure out HOW to do this, and it’s not trivial.

  1. Open File Explorer (the new name for Windows Explorer); for a new user just  figuring out how to do this can be a major hurdle (press the Windows key+E).
  2. Right click on each folder you want – you can even do this in the left-hand File Explorer bar – and click “Pin to Start”.  Unfortunately there’s no visual indication if a folder has already been pinned to the start menu.
  3. Go into the Metro start menu.  All your newly pinned folders will appear appended to the right-most group.
  4. Move all the just pinned folders to their own start group by dragging them.
  5. Now to name the group.  You can’t just right-click on the group, or right-click on the group name.  Instead you must zoom out of the start-menu, so that everything appears small.  To do this with the desktop you need to know the Ctrl + Mouse-wheel trick.  Once you’re zoomed out you can right-click on the new group, click “Name group” down in the bottom left, and name the group.

For a new Windows 8 user that’s just upgraded from Windows 7 and looking for something familiar, the above steps are definitely not discoverable!

Problems with “live” tiles

Live tiles often don’t present what you expect

Surprisingly often I’ll click on a tile after seeing something I’m interested in, only to have the application (eventually) load with something completely different.

In the excellent book “Don’t make me think“, Steve Krug talks about presenting the user with what they expect.  If you click on an add for chocolate with a picture of a box of chocolates, the landing page you present should probably have the same picture, and most certainly be a page where you can buy chocolate.

Yet with live tiles I often see something I’m interested in, click it, and am presented with something completely different.  For example, here’s the live-tile for the “Photos” app:

Photos tile
A picture of a cute baby

I haven’t seen that photo in years, and would like to view it and the other related photos in that folder, so I click on the Photos live tile and here’s what I get:

Phots application
The photo app – not showing me any way to find the picture of the cute baby it was just showing me.

There’s absolutely no way to get to the photograph I just saw that caused me to click on the photo app!  Instead there’s a picture of a Ferris wheel – which isn’t even my photograph – and a bunch of choices at the bottom with absolutely no visual indicator on how to find the photograph  I wanted to view!  This drove my wife absolutely crazy with frustration.

Many of the built-in Microsoft tools promise you one thing in the live tile, but give you something different when you launch it.  For example, the news application’s live tile shows an interesting news snippet, but when I launch news I’m looking at news that is days (or weeks) old; I have no idea why the news app frequently fails to update the actual news but updates the live tile.

Similarly, the Microsoft People application will show me a picture of somebody I haven’t seen for a while, but launching the application takes me to the people home page and I then have to search for that user.  It’s like Windows 8 is teasing you by promising to be all about you, but then making you work to find the information it just showed you.

Tiles fail Fitt’s law when using the mouse

When I right-click an item on the new Metro Windows 8 start screen, the pop-up “menu” is down at the bottom of the screen!

Where I right-clicked and where the button is that I need are on opposite ends of the screen.
Where I right-clicked and where the button is that I need are on opposite ends of the screen.

Microsoft’s touch interaction design shows how these buttons are perfectly positioned for people’s thumbs, but for my mouse this “violates” Fitt’s law.   Of course it’s not “breaking” Fitt’s law, it’s just a good example of applying Fitt’s law to see how bad the Windows 8 experience is when using a mouse.  From Wikipedia:

[quote style=”1″]Pop-up menus can usually be opened faster than pull-down menus, since the user avoids travel: the pop-up appears at the current cursor position.[/quote]

But of course with Windows 8 the user must move the mouse to the other side of the screen!

Most live tiles aren’t live

In theory, I really like the new “Metro” tile-based start screen.  Rather then Apple’s tired old Windows 3.1 look with a bunch of dead icons on a screen, Windows’ live tiles are wonderful, in theory displaying useful customized and relevant information.

Except that most live tiles aren’t that live, they display their same old static icon, just like Windows 3.1 and Apple iOS (just in a rectangle instead).  All of my desktop application’s – even the newest ones from Microsoft – just sit there.  Visual Studio’s 2012 icon isn’t alive with the latest Visual Studio blog entries.  The Office icon’s could show office blog entries, or the latest edits made by my collaborators on Office 365, but they don’t.

Even Metro apps that should be live aren’t always, and I’m not quite sure why.  I have several news applications which sometimes show the latest headlines, but usually just sit there with their static icon.

CBC news and tech-blogs used to show me the latest headlines, but now they don't.  Maybe they don't like me anymore.
CBC news and tech-blogs used to show me the latest headlines, but now they don’t. Maybe they don’t like me anymore.

Using a tile to uninstall a program

Windows 8 Metro style applications  tiles allow you to uninstall an “app” very easily, just right click on the tile and choose Uninstall:

It’s easy to uninstall a Metro-style application.

But for desktop applications it’s a different story.  Clicking uninstall on a desktop application’s tile opens up the classic desktop “Add or Remove Programs” window.  The desired application is not selected, and you’re left scrolling through looking for the application you already selected:

Uninstall window
Didn’t I already select which application I wanted to uninstall?!

Viewing pictures; Arg!!

I started using File Explorer to search for the photographs.  In the old Windows 7 days when you double clicked on a photograph, it would open Windows photo viewer, and you could easily delete photographs, launch an image editor, and move back and forth between all the pictures in the current folder, rotate an image, etc.  All the sorts of things you expect to be able to do with a collection of photographs!

The Windows 7 photo viewer - a little piece of easy usability nirvana.
The Windows 7 photo viewer – a little piece of easy usability nirvana.

While I was writing this blog post, my wife sat down on my Windows 8 laptop to look at the photographs I just downloaded from the camera.  Here’s the resulting Windows 8 experience…

[quote style=”1″]Oh yeah, this is Windows 8, what a pain in the ass!  How do I open this in Photoshop?! Shouldn’t I be able to do something with this? Right click! Isn’t this right click?!  Hey, are you typing what I’m saying?!  Stop that![/quote]

I would show you a picture of the Windows 8 experience, but my wife is still using the computer, and the experience is really just the picture you clicked on minus anything useful – even when you right click.  No open, edit, crop, rotate, nothing.

Fortunately Windows Photo Viewer is still in Windows 8, and you can get the default image open behaviour back by right clicking on a photograph in File Explorer, choosing “Open with…”, and then choosing “Default”.   Then choose “Windows Photo Viewer”.

A small improvement to the default Windows 8 behaviour when viewing images.
A small improvement to the default Windows 8 behaviour when viewing images.  The rototiller in the top-right picture is how using Windows 8 feels; it’s hard work and involves a lot of manure.

Of course, you have to know about this trick, and for most users the default image experience on the desktop is much worse than on Windows 7.


Users are willing to try something new, so long as they can experiment and trying things and discover how things work.  In this now famous video of a guy’s dad trying to use Windows 8 we can immediately see how hard it is for a user to learn Windows 8.

Modelling users: Personas and Goals

About Face 3 devotes an entire chapter to the discussion of personas and goals.  At a very high level, you can’t study usability unless you have a sense of what types of users will be using your software, and what goals they will be trying to accomplish.

It seems clear that Windows 8 went through a lot of usability tests for mobile users, and basically no usability testing for tradition desktop/mouse users.  Their keynotes and usability videos call out their attempts to make it a great experience for touch users, and the entire UI seems based around touch.


For the vast majority of mouse wielding desktop users, Windows 8 is very frustrating.  Just more evidence that Microsoft is forgetting about their desktop users.  Microsoft is trying to push the tablet as just another computer, but right now their tablet OS – even on my desktop – is a really lousy computer OS.




One thought on “Windows 8 desktop usability problems”

  1. Windows 8.1 details are now available, and it sounds like they’ve addressed some of the complains I had with Windows 8 (especially around photo viewing and editing).

    Automatically updating Windows Store apps sounds pretty nice too.


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