The biggest cloud hanging over Windows 8 is how desktop (and notebook) users will react to the new Metro user experience (which I’ll refer to as MoSh to differentiate the new “Modern Shell” from the app model and Store change). What we’ve seen in the Developer Preview, hints of later builds, and descriptions from Microsoft has already caused a lot of discussion. In a few days we’ll see the Consumer Preview, with its updated and near final implementation of MoSh. The Consumer Preview is likely to be downloaded, and used on a daily basis, by millions of people. The demographics of Consumer Preview users will lean heavily towards Power Users, meaning that those least likely to be happy about MoSh will be the ones putting it under a microscope. These are also the key influencers, so while we can expect they’ll be more negative than the general PC user population their views can’t be dismissed because they will heavily influence Windows 8 adoption. If they are too negative overall then Windows 8 is in trouble. Some will be (and already are) very vocally opposed to MoSh, but we don’t yet know if that is a small minority, substantial minority, or majority. Over the next few weeks we’ll find out.
I’m cautiously optimistic about MoSh’s chances. Before moving on to explain why I should acknowledge that what I say here may have some conflicts with my “Devil’s Advocate” piece aimed at developers. In that piece I picked a specific example of where Tablets come into the picture, and I time-compressed the reactions of the IT hierarchy to many of the changes being introduced with Windows 8, to make a point. Now I’m back to discussing short to mid-term reality.
Let me explain my own usage pattern of Windows. Going back to Windows 3.1, the first version I used regularly, I’ve had the same usage pattern. I always maximize the window I’m working on to take up the full screen. 10″, 15″, 20″, 23″ or larger monitors make no difference. Alt-Tab is my best friend as I rapidly switch back and forth between windows. Sometimes I need two windows on the screen so I can reference one while typing in another, but I hate when they overlap and I have to continually move things around so information I need is not occluded. So my norm is 1-2 non-overlapping windows. When I’m doing software development my pattern changes a bit. Then I like having more than one monitor so I can keep the window I’m concentrating on open on one and use another to keep a few smaller, non-overlapping if possible, windows open as well.
The co-founder of my old SaaS startup likes to chide me about my lack of desire for monitors much bigger than 20″ (although I’ve recently grown quite fond of a 23″ monitor) because his usage pattern is quite different from mine. He likes huge monitors, and the more of them the merrier, so he can have as many windows up on them at the same time as possible. One of my observations though was how much time he had to spend moving windows around on his monitor(s). To me it seemed like the more real-estate you gave him the more time he wasted managing it.
So there you have two people, who have been working together off and on since the 1970s, who represent two ends of the spectrum on how they use Windows’ windows. One question is, whose usage is more representative of the general population of Windows’ users? Certainly if you walk around a software developement shop I think my co-founder’s usage pattern in more common than mine, but what if you walk around the more general user population?
Let me throw out some anecdotal evidence. I go to my Insurance Agent’s office and observe both his, and his employees’ computer usage. In every case they have the app they are using in full screen mode and switch to other full screen apps as they need them. I go to my Dentist and Doctor and observe both the back office and medical personnel using that access pattern. I walk into retail stores and observe the sales people and how they use their PC and it is that full screen/app switching style. I hear call center personnel talking to themselves as they work on their PC and you can tell they are looking at one app at a time. I glance over the shoulder at travelers on airplanes and see a single application taking up the entire screen of their notebook . I watch my wife and she mostly works on a single app at a time. Anecdotally, I see few users who make regular use of Windows ability to display large numbers of windows on the screen at once. Even when I see people using multiple windows, such as those who need a lot of information being displayed at the same time (e.g., security traders) they are using non-overlappingwindows. Of course this is anecdotal data, and a very narrow slice at that, but the data Microsoft collects through its Customer Experience Improvement Program (CEIP) telemetry is extensive and gives them a good picture into actual usage patterns. If it matches my anecdotal data then a design that optimizes for having a very small number of non-overlapping windows makes sense.
How about the Start Screen vs Start Menu controversy? In the Building Windows 8 blog Microsoft talked a lot about how their telemetry suggests that the new Start Screen approach is far superior to the Start Menu for most users. What about anecdotal data? Let’s start with one of Windows’ user experience failures. When Windows XP shipped it was stripped of all desktop icons except for the recycle bin. The recommendation (and guidance to software developers) was to not use desktop shortcuts, but rather to just use the Start Menu for all application access. And the first thing nearly every user did was ignore Microsoft and create desktop shortcuts for all the applications they regularly accessed. Software developers briefly made the default installation not put a shortcut on the desktop, but most reversed that decision on future updates. Look at many users’ (Windows XP, Vista, or 7) desktops today and they look a lot like the Windows 8 Start Screen! Now personally that is not my access pattern. I generally run applications I’ve pinned to the task bar or by hitting Start and typing to cause a search for the app. It is rare for me to actually walk the Start Menu hierarchy. Now my pattern might be reflective of Windows 7 users, but obviously isn’t reflective of Windows XP users (who have neither feature). The sprinkle lots of shortcuts on your desktop pattern is extremely common all the way back to Windows 95. And so for most users it seems that MoSh’s Start Screen actually is an acknowledgement of their actual usage pattern. Having search so well-integrated means that my usage pattern should adapt to it quite readily as well. Moreover, after a few years of iPhone, iPad, and Windows Phone usage the Start Screen paradigm may be very comfortable for me.
The anecdotal evidence and hard data seem to support the choices Microsoft made in designing MoSh. But is that enough to insure that the Windows 8 user experience is well accepted by desktop/notebook users? Hardly. There are two problems. First, while you can optimize for the 70%, 80%, 90%, or even 98% of users that may leave the other 30%, 20%, 10%, or 2% terribly dissatisfied. Not only might you lose those users, they could end up “poisoning the well” so that even users who should be thrilled by the new user experience won’t give it a chance. I know, for example, that if I tell friends and family that I don’t like Windows 8 I can cause at least a dozen people to stick with Windows 7 or abandon Windows for the Mac. And that’s not even getting into the thousands who might be influenced by my blog entries. Second, even though you create something new that you objectively know should thrill the majority of users, change is hard and those users might reject change.
The jury hasn’t even heard all the evidence on Windows 8′s new user experience yet, so figuring out if it can succeed or not is difficult. As I’ve said, I’m cautiously optimistic. But it could fall flat on its face. Over the next few weeks we’ll get our first true look at how users feel about the new user experience. I’m sure many people at Microsoft are holding their breath.