13 min read

Stop the hate on Window 8

Stop the hate on Windows 8; or, more specifically, people should stop criticizing the Windows 8 Modern UI. Instead, they should be applauding Microsoft for creating something different, innovative, and good.

I like Linux. I think Gnome 3 and KDE 4 are top-notch, first class desktop environments that can hold their own against Windows or Mac OS X interfaces. BSD and Linux have a lot of great things going for them, and if we take a look at the whole picture, it is clear that there is a lot about Microsoft to not like. But I do not want to focus on those things here. I want to focus on the user experience that people who interact with Microsoft Windows 8 experience, and whether the Modern UI philosophy, approach, and realization is fundamentally flawed. A lot of people seem to hate on the Modern UI, and I do not understand why. I love UX and desktop interface design, and it's a bit of a fun thing for me to hop from desktop environment to desktop environment to savor the unique qualities of each. Naturally, I read up on the Windows 8 Modern UI and the reactions that a lot of people have towards it.

While not the universal opinion, I am surprised by the amount of negative criticism that it has received. I guess this should not surprise me: people do not often like change. But really, people, can we at least take a more unbiased look at Modern UI and not go claiming that it's fundamentally flawed or broken? To that end, I want to try to make a case for why I think Modern UI is not just okay, but actually a very excellent, superior, and much needed feature of Windows 8. Indeed, the Modern UI is possibly one of the only reasons that I find Windows 8 tolerable to use in the least. I would not want to run Windows 7, but I can and do run Windows 8 for getting real work done, and this is largely due to the Modern UI.

Let's go through a few reasons why Modern UI is great, but first, let's hit what I think is the real reason people seem to react so negatively to it.

Modern UI is different. Some people have caught on to this, but for those who haven't, Modern UI is different. It is so different, in fact, that one should have no illusions about applying traditional workflows and traditional metrics for evaluating it. If you want to complain that the new UI breaks your mental model or muscle memory about how things work, then this is a valid complaint. But just because something is different from the way that you have always done things does not inherently make it an inferior product.

A classic example of this is where people claim that you cannot get around as quickly in the interface, or that you fundamentally have a less discoverable or less intuitive workflow when working with Modern. I say that is false advertising and misdirected complaining. I claim that such criticisms are actually critiques of Modern UI's inherent differentness, rather than any true lack of discoverability or the like. In fact, I claim that Modern UI is in fact more discoverable, more consistent, and easier to use than older interfaces.

Modern UI is Innovative. You have to give Microsoft Kudos for being brave and trying something that really is really different than the rest of the world. Unlike most other desktop environments out there today, Modern UI really does take a very different approach to the desktop, and while it leverages ideas and features that have been around for a long time, they have managed to put them together in a fashion that is truly unique and unprecedented. They've created a distraction free, fluid interface with good performance, rich interactivity, and a really beautiful look that completely challenges the traditional assumptions about what a Desktop can be. Indeed, if you look at Windows 8 and compare it against Mac OS X, I'm willing to say that Windows 8 is more innovative than Mac OS X has been in its modern history of UI design and interaction.

OS X has a UX philosophy that goes back a very long time, and it is a good one. It's one that works, and it's one that has a lot of fans. But face it, it's not very new. They've done great things with it, but Modern UI really has innovated on the modern desktop workflow in a way that none of the other major competitors have done. Indeed, I would argue that the only one who has come even close is Gnome 3.

Innovation...from Microsoft...huh, imagine that.

The Information-centric Approach is a Good One. There is a recent interest in distraction free methods of working, and in many ways this is a hail back to the old days of terminals where you worked on one thing and one thing alone. In fact, if you look at some of the most productive Linux users, you'll see that they often have a single terminal open with their text editor or the like and they work in it all day long. The key thing is that they are getting as much use out of their screen real estate as possible; they are getting information out to them in a way that they can process it efficiently and deal with it. Distraction free editors try to do something of the same thing. Web browsers have also followed this trend, with most of them becoming simpler, with less window dressing that takes away from the content. Mac OS X tried to do this with new support for full screen applications, and you'll find this same idea of "task focus" in Gnome 3. Modern UI takes this a step forward and beyond by making the entire interface very information driven. The entire interface philosophy is centered around the idea of presenting content as the primary, and oftne, the sole thing that the user sees.

Some have complained that this makes Modern UI a data-consumer friendly interface, but an unfriendly one for content creation specialists. As a programmer, I have to disagree. As a previous 3-d animator and modeler, I would also have to disagree, and as someone who watches and works with graphics designers on occasion, I also have to disagree. If you look at each of these three domains, you'll notice that they often eliminate almost all of the widgets and other interface elements from their environment, or at least, as much as is practical, in order to allow them to see more content. Experts in Photoshop will often hide their toolbars and the like and just work with the image in full screen mode, with a mouse and their keyboard shortcuts to enable a two handed master crafting. 3-D animators or modelers do this all the time, as it gives them more room to work with the very complex and detailed elements that they work with. Programmers do this to a lesser extent, but you'll often see programmers who work in full screen terminals or the like so that they can have two or three columns of code and documentation up at the same time, without all the nonsense around it. That's because, very often, when it's time to get real work done, the work, the content, is more important than the other "chrome."

I am a big fan of the content driven approach, because it tends to be the way that makes me most productive. Others might claim otherwise, but I think that if you actually tested them out, you'd find something different is really the case. Most of the time, people who get real work done are focusing on their work, not on how to start an application. You want your environment to make the work and content that you are either consuming or creating form the primary thing, and make sure that the rest doesn't get in the way.

Modern UI is Efficient. I see a lot of complaints talking about how the Modern UI was designed for touch-friendly devices and that the model doesn't work for the mouse, or that the desktop has now become a second class citizen and so on. I read lots of blogs and videos that complain in loud and boisterous language about how inefficient working in the Modern UI is. I just don't see it at all. When I compare the traditional task bar on the Windows desktop coupled with the traditional start menu with the Modern UI and the new Start Screen, I can't imagine how anyone would think that the old model is more efficient than the new one.

Firstly, the Modern UI is one of the most mouse and keyboard friendly interface anywhere. It greatly reduces the amount of mousing that I have to do, and makes the mousing that I do need to do easier and less strenuous. It similarly reduces the keyboard load on my and makes it easier to get my work done with a keyboard and a mouse. I have not used Modern UI with a touch device yet, and I still think it's invaluable.

Looking at a few examples. Let's first take the keyboard. In the applications that I use, I still get all the common keyboard shortcuts that I am used to and I am still able to use all the productive things that I usually use my keyboard for. Now, though, some things which were always a bit of a drag for me are no longer a concern. One of those happens to be the "type to search" UX standard that is now just a part of Modern UI. Instead of having a specific search field that I have to hunt for every time that I want to make anything happen in the UI, with the type to search functionality built-in to so many applications, I just start typing, and it immediately starts finding what I wanted to find. This is a lot better than having to do some sort of navigation to get to the search field before hand. Before this, the random typing on the keyboard with an application often had little direct or useful effect. Now it does.

And let's talk about the mouse. The traditional desktop interface often favors using smaller textual or icon elements and widgets scattered throughout the environment in order to provide access to functionality. This would include the menu bar, the toolbar, and the task bar. In each of these cases, you had to use fine motor skills to get your mouse to accurately move across the screen to get to a single element that you wanted. Things like switching windows or getting to the start menu requires relatively accurate mouse movement. Accessing common menu items or getting to a toolbar would also require these sort of dexterity. Indeed, in most of my applications, I almost always turn off the toolbar, because it usually takes up way too much space, and I find that menu bars are often too slow. This left me with very little other options. Keyboard shortcuts work for some things, but they are not always the fastest way. Sometimes, the mouse is faster, and I always feel slowed down by toolbars that are either too cluttered or too big.

The Modern UI has delivered a compelling solution to all these problems. Switching between applications is really easy now. In particular, swapping between two applications is something I do quite often, and the Modern UI provides one of the nicest actions for doing this. A simple, gross motor movement of throwing the mouse into the upper left hand corner gets the job done. I whip it up there, with little attention paid to accuracy, and I click. Bam, there's my other window. It's simple, it's fast, and more importantly, I have to do almost zero actual thought about it. It's an easily internalized and easily executed action.

The tiles that are used to get to the various applications other than the last one that you just used are also bigger and easier to see. It's much easier to hit the right one that you want than it is with the little taskbar that was down in the bottom. Moreover, because I usually want to be working in an application rather than swapping around applications all the time, the fact that it's hidden away most of the time is nice. It's at least as fast as the old school task bar with auto hide, if not faster. I don't make as many mistakes getting to the application that I want as I do with the normal task bar. Gnome 3 has a similar feeling with it's dock, but the dock has the unfortunate tendency to grow in size due to the number of icons that I put on it, which makes those icons progressively smaller and harder to get to.

Getting to the start menu is similarly easy. As are the charms. Indeed, one of the great things about the Modern UI is that everything is still within easy reach, but now the buttons are bigger and easier to hit with the mouse, and they take up less space when I do not need them. To be honest, I spend a lot more time with my content than I do with all of these other elements. I prefer to only have the elements that I want to focus on up at the time when I need them, and Modern UI makes this very easy to accomplish by default. This means that it makes more efficient use of screen real estate.

Speaking of screen real estate, why do people complain that the Modern UI is too information sparse? I love that! I only want the information that I care about at the moment, and Modern UI does a great job of this. There are some times when I want to see a lot of things at once, but for those times, at least for me, I am working in a single application or maybe two, and I have very little reason to have more than that open at once. Why? Because more than that means that I cannot possibly process that much information efficiently. I've heard of stock tracking as an example of something that needs lots of information all over the place. But in this case, Modern UI again comes to the rescue because a stock application has more space to work with than the traditional desktop, and thus, opens up more opportunities for presenting that information in ways that the user can consume them more efficiently. So, when it comes to screen real estate, I think Modern UI makes a much better, more efficient use of it than the others do. Why should I be forced to hunt and peck around in a small, dinky little start menu when trying to do something when I could have the full screen dedicated to it in a way that makes it easy to click on things? Mousing is just a lot easier now, and I can have bigger fonts, too, which makes typing and writing easier.

The final one is the close operation. Rather than having to hunt for a small X to close the application, or type the awkward keyboard shortcut, a simple, very easy, fast drag of the mouse will do the trick. Not only is this an easy mouse gesture to perform, it is another example of getting out of the way and letting you get your work done, but being there when you need to do something quickly. I don't have to be very precise when I perform the close app gesture, and it's always easy to get to, without using any of my valuable screen real estate. Yay.

Modern UI is Productive. All of the above and more combine to make what I consider to be a very productive environment. It's content focused, and that helps to make it very producer friendly. I can focus on what I am doing without being distracted by a lot of other things. It's great for content creation where I do not want to be bothered by other things. As a programmer and a writer, those are great things to have. It makes it easier to dedicate more screen real estate to the information I care about and less to widgets and other decorations that I almost never use, rarely use, or don't usually want to look at all the time. It gives me mouse gestures for efficiently accomplishing tasks, rather than requiring the screen to be used by buttons or the like to do the same thing.

Charms are a great examples. When people complain about the consistency and discoverability of the environment, they obviously forget to mention that now the charms form a great central place to do some common tasks, such as inter-application communication, searching, and preferences. Mac OS X recognized the value of this a while ago with their centralized menu system, and in particular, they made it easy to get to the preferences for an application through the single application menu location. Now, Modern UI does this one better by ensuring that not only do you use the same set of motions to get the application settings for an application, but the overall layout of the settings dialog is the same as well. The same is true for sending content from one application to the other, through the Share charm. And using the devices section is great for handling screens and other devices. I make use of this on a semi-regular basis and appreciate it every time that I use it.

Addressing concerns of discoverability. People who claim that Modern UI is less discoverable are just pulling your leg. Modern UI apps have a very consistent method of discovering functionality that is available in the program, and they have a very consistent, predictable interface. When you right click on a blank area in the application, it always pops up the Modern UI equivalent of the menu bar, except that this menu bar is not nested so deep, is easier to navigate, and generally allows you to get to what you want in one, maybe two clicks. Much better than the menu bar, and equally discoverable.

Conclusion. So there you have it. Stop hating the Modern UI. If you take the time to understand why it works the way it does, and actually use it in the way that it was intended, rather than trying to force you previous conceptions of how work should be done, I think you'll find that it is a fast, efficient, and useful interface that can make your working days more pleasant. It's not just some toy interface for tablets and entertainment junkies who don't know how to leverage the power of the computers. It's a sleek, modern, sophisticated interface that gives power users the benefits of a minimalist environment with full features and lots of power. It gives you all the tools you need right within easy reach of the keyboard or the mouse while allow you to be more productive with your work, by getting out of your way and being a transparent interface. Much more so than the previous desktop model of interaction. People should spend some time really switching over their workflows to understand why it's so nice, rather than just grumbling that it's not doing things the way they expect. No, Modern UI is not necessarily intuitive to those who are dyed in the wool traditionalists of the Desktop vein, but if you are really a power user, I would think you're capable enough of seeing the benefits such an interface gives you. Unless of course, your idea of a power user is someone who spends all their time tweaking their environment and fiddling with settings and the like, running lots of applications and clicking or typing around their environment rather than actually focusing on producing something; if your idea of a power user is someone who spends more time using their interface and playing with it than getting real work done, Modern UI is definitely not for you.