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The locked-screen state on the OS gives you buttons for getting right to what you need, and a reminder of what you need to do.

Co.Design

Microsoft Gets Brutally Honest About Its Bold New Design For Windows

Windows 8 might be the biggest leap forward since Windows 95. And Microsoft insists that they’ve learned from past failures such as Vista.

"I’ve been at the company … since 2006," says Sam Moreau, who oversees design and user experience for Windows. "Internally, that’s code for: Vista isn’t my fault."

Moreau spoke yesterday at New York City’s Soho House, an intimate, members-only club in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Surrounded by the library’s tufted chesterfield sofas and leather-bound books, with a plate of hors d’oeuvres in one hand and a fizzy cocktail in the other, Moreau talked casually about the monstrous task he faces: to rethink the world’s most widely used operating system in developing Windows 8, the most radical overhaul of Microsoft’s premiere software since Windows 95.

"It’s the ultimate design challenge," he says. "You’ve got 25 years of Windows before you. It’s really hard to take all that, and preserve it. There’s a responsibility to preserve it, but you also have this responsibility to evolve it forward--knowing that when you change something, you’re changing how computing works."

Moreau and others at Microsoft refer to this challenge as "the tyranny of having a billion users." In the same way that Google and Facebook can’t introduce a new feature without receiving some backlash, Microsoft can barely adjust a single pixel without causing a worldwide uproar. So imagine what it’ll be like when users around the globe first feast their eyes on Windows 8: a mobile-inspired operating system with Metro-style animated tiles, designed to connect user experiences across PCs, tablets, and smartphones. (The desktop, a common and comfortable concept for users of all ages, has been demoted to a background function.)

"Taking away things wasn’t really the point of our design," Moreau says. "You can’t just change stuff for change sake. We have this saying: Change is bad, unless it’s great."

To wit: For Windows 8, the design team decided against reusing the "Start" button, one of the operating system’s most recognizable features. "It wasn’t like we had this idea to get rid of it," Moreau says. Rather, once the design focus shifted to tiles, the "Start" icon, which gave users access to menus, files, and programs, became irrelevant. "An icon is just this thing that looks like fake glass, is kind of shiny, has a fake light source and drop shadow, but doesn’t really do a good job of telling you all the context hidden inside of it," Moreau says.

Moreau calls interface changes a "promise" to users. If you can’t commit to a change like tiles completely, then it won’t resonate. "Otherwise, it’s just another thing that you’re not confident about how it will work," he says. "If I can’t make that promise universally, then I can’t have it do that job." In other words, you can’t upgrade the design and functions, and just "clutter it with all this other stuff" for good measure.

Microsoft acknowledges there will be a learning curve for Windows 8, but that’s the case with almost any innovative new idea. Moreau cites the mouse, now an extremely familiar product, but a device that Moreau says was "super controversial" when PC makers first introduced it to the world. "People hated it; they freaked out; they didn’t understand it," he recalls. "But I don’t think anybody would say that we should’ve taken the mouse away and not done that evolution. Those types of evolutionary steps take a hump to get over."

For Moreau, the decades-old baggage of Windows isn’t ultimately a downside. There is something rewarding about designing products for more than a billion users. "It’s not like a legacy hanging around my neck--it’s the opposite," he says. "Otherwise you’re designing something that’s irrelevant. I’ve done that before: I’ve worked for companies where all I did for years was vision projects. They were never real; it was all fake or vaporware. It’s super boring. Yes, you can fill your portfolio with interesting and pretty stuff, but it’s not very fulfilling."

He adds, "What’s fulfilling is to take something that really, really matters, and make it better in a way that moves the world forward."

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50 Comments

  • Mike

    Before you post an actual comment, link the desktop that you have right now that is running win8.  State exactly, and factually what you can do with win7 that you can't do with win8 that isn't the result of a third party manufacturer's inability to keep up and i will show you how it can be done.  

  • Ean Bowman

    I'm sorry, MS. The Developer Preview was terribad. 

    I do a lot of WORK on my computer. I'm used to doing things quickly and Windows 7 actually achieved that. Most of the UI elements in Windows 7 feel like they have a purpose and actually serve to make me work FASTER.

    Windows 8's Metro UI instantly got in my way, frustrated me, was broken in the Developer Preview and didn't provide me with any value whatsoever.

    When I hit the Windows key, I want that smart search box that finds my programs and files. It was the absolute fastest way to find anything. Instead now when I hit Windows key it brings up Metro and I have to find the search box with the mouse. Not cool.

    Basically Windows 7 is a very smart UI. Windows 8 feels poorly conceived and offers the user little to nothing in terms of functional benefits.

    You are at fault for the new Vista or WinMe, sir. I'm sorry to say. 

  • SarahJ87

     Learning curve?Here's a crazy idea, how about products which are intuitive and easy to use?

  • Mike

    What are you basing that on?  I have been using windows 8 since the earliest betas, and have found that the ui is very intuitive.  There is nothing poorly conceived about it in my opinion.  page transitions are clean, crisp and concise.  resources are rather minimal as i am running win8 on a laptop with a celeron p4600 dual core with 8 gigs of ram.  In terms of functionality, i have yet to find something that i can do on win7 that i can't do on win8.   I am running sql, java, framework, and it has done great at what it was designed to do.  It does a great job of integrating my social life, and work life onto one system.  I have my calendars synced across my laptop, desktop, phone, and tablet.  I have my mail synced across all platforms.  I even have the stuff that my kids like to use integrated across.  my kids can watch netflix from one device to another with ease, even bringing in my xbox.  While i am sure that there is a learning curve, if you are shooting down the os without actually trying to find answers to the questions that you have, you won't have a positive experience.

  • Chris Poland

    Because putting hidden buttons and tiles on the screen is super intuitive to most users.  I would argue Microsoft hasn't learned from it's past mistakes.  For 10 years they failed to cram a desktop OS onto a tablet (over, and over and over).  Now, they have the opposite problem.  They have a decent tablet interface that they've shoe horned onto the desktop.  Same mistake, different direction. 

    A lot of this could have been avoided by simply leaving some of the old functionality of having the ability to enable it.  I can't take any "usability" arguments seriously when most things take more clicks, more mouse movement and the jarring experience of being taken out of the desktop context everytime you want to start a program that isn't pinned to the limit space on the taskbar.

  • micahsa15

    Just start typing!!  Hit the windows key and start typing. You don't need to hunt for the search  box.

  • PBeCREATIVE

    So, the world is truly run by social media/apps now and we all must be mobile users? Not sure if this is going to be bank or bust for Microsoft. Hopefully they will focus on more than one sector of the consumer base and remember the broader base/workplace environments that make up a large part of the billions of users and not chase Apple's high design business model. Change is good, but change for the sake of change is not.

  • Mike

    the vast majority of the world is going to mobule computing.  you don't have to work hard to find evidence of that.  look at apple and android

  • Mick

    I love what they've done. They've taken the already beautiful Metro UI and ramped it up for the desktop. Kudos for the all the hard worked they've poured in to this. The desktop doesn't need to look boring and they've acknowledged this. Now we've got something that is fast, smooth, sleek and intuitive! Everything else looks boring in comparison now.

  • $6393360

    What, you have three 27" screens? No problem, just use this user interface we made for mobile phones and tablets.

    And please buy your software from our app store - we want that 30% cut, so PC as we know it has to die.

  • TN

    What? You expect design excellence out of Redmond? Ha! Clearly the attempt at meeting two separate needs by layering them falls short, will do nothing but confuse existing users, and terrify new ones. Hard to imagine how any of us couldn't come up with 5 ways to improve this. Best news for OSX/IOS today.

  • Dawes

    This is just awful.

    I know they are looking to be *completely different*, but it just looks like they are shoehorning a mobile interface onto a desktop. Other than just doing it for a different look and function, it makes zero sense. 

    Tiles might work great on a win phone, or an xbox but in practice, it's dumbed-down social-media cuteness. I'm working on code or cutting video, why do I care what someone is posting on Twitter? I'm busy WORKING. 

    Instead, the interface team has shifted priority to deluging a user with peripheral, distracting interface information that have zero use while I'm sitting at a desktop. Oooh - let me see what new games are on the xbox live! What's for sale in the store?

    You know what I DON'T see on these screens? A quick, efficient way to get to programs and data. 

  • Mike

    really?  you can't find a way to get to a program.  you can drop your third party program as a tile on the start menu.  you can hit the windows button and just type the name of the application and it will start it for you.  you can hit the winbutton + D and it will pull up the desktop.  what cant you do quickly and efficiently if you take the time to learn it.

  • Craig

    Just press the Windows key on your keyboard and it goes straight back to the old Windows 7 style desktop. Not that hard was it.