There’s an interesting study of Windows 8 usability by the well known Nielsen Norman Group that may give businesses (and consumers) insights into how the new OS might affect productivity.

Jakob Nielsen points out that the dual nature of the desktop means there is more for the user to learn. The traditional desktop UI must be understood along with the new Metro interface.  This can lead to cognitive overload in his view.

This is intuitive as there is a “cognitive setup time” that is required when switching between environments.  In addition Nielson notes that the user has to carry around more commands in their memory for the two interfaces instead of one.

Windows 8, he adds, restricts the user to a single window in the main UI – which is fine for tablets, but more problematic with larger displays where many applications are running concurrently.

He also critiques ‘flat’ style where shadows or raised type that can convey subtle cues have been eliminated, detracting from usability.


The bottom of the Windows 8 settings menu on Surface RT.

The next issue Nielsen raises is one I have heard repeated quite frequently, namely the low information density of the tiled interface.  Many Windows 8 screens actually convince you that a new phenomenon exists – “display underuse”.

For the enterprise, this is extremely problematic, as workers in many settings need information-rich interfaces to handle complex tasks.  So it will be interesting to see what the enterprise feedback is over time.


So much image, so little information

Another issue Nielson highlights is the ambiguity of tiles.  Very often, you have no idea what a pretty picture in a tile means.  You have to guess at it. Obviously, this depends on the tile creator, but too often, tiles can lead to quizzical expressions as to function.

Hidden charms are another issue that Nielsen’s 12 test subjects – experienced Windows users by the way – found problematic. “Out of sight is out of mind” was the problem.

The last issue highlighted was that many gestures were error-prone. Swiping or ending a swipe in just the wrong place could lead to dramatically different results.

Nielsen goes on to say he thinks that in trying to be a jack of all (in this case, 2) trades, Windows 8 ends up being a master of neither the traditional desktop UI or the “Modern UI” as the Metro-style interface is now called.

More to the point of the enterprise, he views Windows 8 as a productivity sapping software program.  Microsoft must hope this is not true, as it is one of its major target markets.

Do you agree with Nielsen (his full article is here)?  Let me know your thoughts in the discussion below.

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  • jimas

    I feel like the present Windows 8 is only a “Beta” release. Drivers do not exist for many of my devices (including my touch screen monitor), Internet explorer keeps crashing and no fix seems underway. several of my other programs that work in Windows 7 seem to be working in windows 8 until they just stop working – sometimes with a dire message and sometimes not.

  • dibren

    I could not agree more with Nielsen’s study; as a Seniors IT Trainer this new O/S presents a whole new range of issues. Its okay for people who know and understand the background of Windows 7 but for people who have never used either defining the “must knows” “should knows” and “nice to knows” expands each of the topics. I will be encouraging Seniors to look at Tablets and not necessarily ones running Windows 8.

  • Huizhe

    I’ve been using MS Windows since the beginning, I’ve owned and used Macs and Linux machines, and I’ve tried a few other OSs. For what I do, Windows 7 is best and it’s what I like best in almost every way. I just bought a netbook with Windows 8 because I hated the hour or so I spent with a new Android touchscreen tablet (I gave it to my 16-year-old son for Xmas, and he loves it). I don’t own a smartphone or a tablet, and I won’t buy one because I don’t play Angry Birds-type games and don’t need to be constantly connected to the Internet.

    I seriously dislike the new Win8 GUI: it was designed for a smartphone and a tablet with a touchscreen, not for a PC that uses a keyboard and a mouse. I hate its flatness and its lack of scalable windows, so I immediately switch to the traditional desktop GUI. The problem there, of course, is that the new desktop isn’t the same as the old desktop. The navigation functionality of the old desktop has been removed, but it hasn’t been adequately replaced by the Win8 system, which requires many more clicks and scrolls than the Win7 system.

    Win8 makes productivity more difficult for me. Not because it’s difficult to learn. I’ve had no problem figuring things out by myself, and there are plenty of self-help articles that give good instructions about how to efficiently use the OS. The problem is that everything takes more time because more clicks are needed and because I can’t have multiple windows open on my multiple monitors. Another problem is that MS Office 2003 isn’t supported in Win8, and I can’t stand the Ribbon, so I won’t buy MS Office 2010 or 2013. I bought 2007, tried it out, hated it, and wrote off the loss as a necessary hard knock.

    I’ll keep my Win8 netbook and use it the way others use their iPads, Nexus 7 tablets, etc.: to connect to the Net to check email and look up information needed ad hoc for one reason or another, but I won’t try to get any work done on this new netbook. I used to get a lot of work done on my EeePc netbooks with WinXP Pro.

    I don’t think Win8 will do well in business offices unless its first service pack returns all the lost functionality of Win7 to the desktop GUI and disconnects the smartphone GUI from the desktop.

  • Mark

    Windows 8 Pro is different to any of the pervious windows I fins I work a lot faster with the new UI which is the same as my windows phone. I will not go back to windows 7 as windows 8 is faster less time consuming and I really like the side sweep function. all my driver it found even when I take my desktop to work it will find the network printer which windows 7 never found. but then I am use to fast working programming and cad systems which still work in windows 8. I think windows 8 would only appeal to people who can think the way it operates so some people will find harder to learn , certain function might be one or two clicks more than windows 7 but others are less clicks, you have to think differently than any other windows. windows 8 is the logical step that Microsoft would go when you look at the history of windows since windows 95 up.

    • Bay

      Yes Mark. I’m finding that the new Metro UI simply fits a different cognitive style than the desktop UI. Some hate it, some (like you) love it. Perhaps hence the two “personalities” in the one OS. Now if they just gave the user the ability to set a bootup into the desktop UI….

  • smartlinks

    I think that another explanation of Windows 8 as it relates to desktop users is in order. By simple installation of a free “Classic Shell” from SourceForge, the Start Menu can be restored. I see no major compromise of the Windows 8 tiles Start functions. I am very pleased with “Classic Shell”. Classic Shell adds some missing features to Windows 8 like a classic start menu, toolbar for Explorer and others. 96.0% of users of Classic Shell recommended it. It seems to take nothing away from Windows 8 and is very configurable in the Settings/All Settings for Classic Start Menu.

    Why MS didn’t leave the option to boot to the desktop and to retain the start menu (optional
    again) I don’t know. I don’t necessarily want to be presented with a UI and features that make little value without a touch screen.

    Microsoft should be ashamed for not shipping Windows 8 with this configuration option for their longtime desktop users. I am very pleased to have regained easy access to settings and files. On the left hand side of the Classic Menu, I put my most used programs, File Explorer and my most used data file folders.

    Microsoft’s unified Windows 8 system is not optimized for a desktop PC. The last thing we need is more dumbing down for serious work.

    Windows 8 has many improved features which include Speedy Boot Time, Improved Search Function where all you need to do is to type anything, and a search box will appear; File History offers a new, easier way to back up and restore files; Windows Live Syncing and Integrated social networking are additional features. Explore, learn and enjoy these and other features but do not penalize the longtime desktop user.

    • Bay

      I agree completely. Unless Microsoft has a tin ear though, I expect we’ll see these options i.e., optional booting to the desktop and optional Start Menu retention in a future update, and soon. If not, they will continue to be provided by 3rd parties.

      Microsoft has always responded to pervasive 3rd party utilities by bringing out its own version of the utility eventually, but in this case, the sooner the better. I hope they get the memo!

    • Dale Marcell

      Using Windows 8 is a sign of intelligence or should I say, that lack of it! Ask yourself this question, when you were a kid did you ever burn your hand on a hot stove? Like most of us, you most likely did. But I bet your learned a lesson and never did it again. So why are your still using Windows? How many times are you going to let yourself be burnt?