Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Lessons for IT from Windows 8/Metro

Windows 8: worse than Vista. Most people I talk to say so, the numbers back them up, and now it could be that even Microsoft sees the truth. So why did Windows 8 and the Interface Formerly Known As Metro fail? It's a good question, especially since the answer could keep you and your own development team from a similar design fiasco.

Rumors are flying that Microsoft is going to do a lot more than just bring back the Start button in the next Windows version. A lot of smart people are saying that it will abandon its Metro interface on laptops and desktops. It took long enough.

The facts are simple. Nobody wanted Windows 8 in 2012. Nobody wanted it in 2013. Even Microsoft should know that no one will want it in 2014.

Look at the numbers: In November, Windows 8.x finally went over the 10% usage mark for all Windows PCs, according to Net Applications. Huzzah? Hardly. That puts it behind even the dreadful Vista in its rate of market adoption.

Where did Microsoft go wrong? A lot of people, including me, found "Metro" appalling from the start. Start? Yes, that reminds me of one big problem: A lot of people have spent money on a third party's Start button replacement. Not just people, actually. PC vendors like Lenovo, too.

What's so awful about Metro? Well, it's ugly as sin, requires you to learn all new ways to do your same old work and actively gets in the way of workflow. What more need be said? Actually, a lot more, and Mark Wilson, a writer at Fast Company's Co.Design, says a lot of it. And he's a fan.

He's a fan of the design, anyway. He writes, "First and foremost, it's just a beautiful interface, balancing color, typography, and photography."

That's nice. But Wilson admits that he doesn't actually use Windows 8. He uses a Mac.

Where Microsoft went wrong, Wilson says, is that it set out to solve the problem of different devices (PCs, phones, tablets) having different interfaces. But outside of design circles, that's not a problem anyone cared about. As Wilson puts it, "The consumer design problem is, 'How do I make this device as intuitive as possible?' or 'How can I streamline the process of getting someone the file he wants?' People care about speed, efficiency, clarity, and delight. But a phone interface matching a laptop interface is about as important as socks matching underwear. It's nice, but on most days, probably the last priority on your mind."

Exactly. And Wilson also notes that the design gets in the way of how people work on PCs. Multitasking is just a lot harder when you have to switch between full-frame apps or use a rigid split-screen mode. You have no way to see information from multiple apps at a glance. Those full-frame apps look great but get in the way of real work. The PC is presenting you with the same multitasking options you get on a phone. Wilson is right again, and may I add that most people would prefer getting PC-like multitasking on a tablet rather than tablet-like multitasking on a PC?

Let's hope Microsoft has learned something from all of this. But there's a lesson for anyone doing system design. Whether we're designing a program, a website or an interface, giving people something that's lovely to look at isn't as important as giving them something they can actually use. Lose track of that fundamental design principle and you'll also lose your users.

So the next time you start an end-user project, keep that in mind. Microsoft can survive blunders like this. Your business might not be that lucky.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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