When gadget and web companies want to make sure people can figure out how to use their stuff, they turn to experts like Jakob Nielsen, who's most widely known for his free Alertbox column.
Last year, Nielsen's scathing review of Amazon's Kindle Fire made headlines, alerting buyers to the tablet's choppy scrolling and hard-to-use volume controls. Now, Nielsen has published the results of a study where his firm "invited 12 experienced PC users to test Windows 8," the new version of Windows, on both normal PCs and Microsoft's new Surface RT tablets.
"Weak on Tablets, Terrible for PCs"
Nielsen pulled no punches in summing up his firm's study, saying Windows 8 throws Microsoft's most loyal customers "under the bus" and that it "removes a powerful PC's benefits."
For tablet use, like on the new Surface RT tablets Microsoft brought out to compete with the iPad, Nielsen feels Windows 8's issues are "nothing that a modest redesign can't fix." He thinks we'll have to wait until Windows 9 for that redesign, though, the same way that Windows 7 fixed many of Vista's problems.
The study's participants were asked to perform a series of tasks, such as changing the Start screen's background color. Usability consultants then watched how they did, and noted problem areas. Such as ...
"Where can you click?"
Microsoft's "Modern" UI (previously called Metro) uses flat, monochrome, and extremely simplistic icons, which sometimes don't even have a box around them. Many of the study's participants couldn't find the "Change PC settings" menu, because it didn't have an icon and it looked like it was the label for other settings icons right near it. Tapping in places you'd expect to have a result, such as a running app's title, didn't work, while Microsoft's new swiping gestures were often hard to figure out.
On the scale between "coffee table photo book" and "telephone book," Windows 8 apps are way over on the coffee table's side. In contrast to websites packed with pages of text and dozens of images, Windows 8 apps feature large, beautiful pictures, and only minimal text blurbs beneath. While this gives them a striking appearance, it also means it takes lots of swiping to get anywhere.
Windows 8's Start screen, on the other hand, "feels like dozens of carnival barkers yelling at you," according to Nielsen. The animated "live tiles" which apps use to display up-to-date information are also what you tap on to launch them, so it can be hard to pick out the right one and easy to get distracted.
Time to upgrade?
Nielsen says he plans to stick with Windows 7 until Windows 9 is released. He has an especially unfavorable view of Windows 8 for "knowledge workers ... in the office". This may be the group least likely to see Windows 8 anytime soon, however, thanks to years-long corporate support contracts and conservative IT departments.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.