Co.Design

Microsoft's Windows 8 Is The Perfect OS That Nobody Wants

Windows 8 looks perfect. But new updates may revert its design to appease consumers. What is going on?

With Windows 8, Microsoft did the unthinkable: The company designed a groundbreaking interface of boxes called Metro that could scale from laptops, to tablets, to phones, to Xboxes--meaning any Microsoft device in any context would always be equally familiar. Not even Apple has been bold enough to merge Mac OS and iOS, which is why it seemed that with Windows 8, the nerds at Microsoft had somehow won the design war.

But the Metro interface hasn’t brought a new golden age for Microsoft. Adoption of Windows 8 PCs has been slow, while Microsoft's Surface tablets have proven a $900 million-plus flop. And nowhere is consumer response more apparent than in how Microsoft has backpedaled, reinstating the Start button in Windows 8.1. This one button drove the Windows interface for almost 20 years. Removing it in Windows 8 marked a paradigm shift of the company's UI. And bringing the Start button back signifies that consumers never wanted something new in the first place.

Adding fuel to the flames, new rumors suggest that Microsoft will revert its design even further, adding more options to run Windows 8 far more like a traditional Windows machine, complete with a full Start Menu and Metro apps that happily run on an old school desktop.

The Start button, lower left, added back to Windows 8.1 desktop mode.

What is going on?

Content Not Chrome

The Start button had been part of Windows since 1995, and its birth was a big deal. Microsoft paid the Rolling Stones millions for “Start Me Up” to be the theme song to the campaign, as clicking this tiny button unfurled all of the information hiding within the computer.

But then Metro came around. Whereas most operating systems are built on desk metaphors--like “folders” or the ubiquitous “desktop”--Metro had evolved past them. One of Metro’s most important mantras was “content not chrome.” It meant that rather than wrapping your files in symbolism and filigree, an interface should present content in as unfettered a way as possible.

Whereas most operating systems would present an icon for your photos--maybe a Polaroid or a roll of film--Metro would just make those actual photos into a slide show within its interface.

As Windows 8 completely shifted UI paradigms with Metro, Microsoft ditched its iconic Start button. That move made sense. The Windows interface had completely changed, and the Start button lost its old significance. Philosophically, the Start button was pure chrome--it hid your files behind something. Metro was about transparency. Metro just had your files there for your eyes to see. Why hide them behind a button?

High Design Vs. Everyday Use

At Co.Design, we’ve been particularly bullish about Windows 8. First and foremost, it’s just a beautiful interface, balancing color, typography, and photography. But beneath the surface, philosophically, it has a certain perfection to it.

Windows 8 "Metro" interface.

Metro is one interface to rule them all. It not only has to scale to many different sizes in an aesthetically pleasing fashion--and Metro’s reconfigurable blocks could scale to any shape or sized screen we could imagine--it also has to work for several different inputs, including tapping with one’s fingers, clicking with a mouse, waving one’s hands through Kinect, or responding to vocal commands.

Compare Microsoft to Apple in this respect--purely academically. Apple falls back on a different interface for laptops, phones, and AppleTV. The company's attempt to build iOS controls into Mac OS, through Launchpad, was an embarrassing failure. (What Mac user do you know who actively decides to leave their normal desktop to scroll through an iPhone interface shoehorned within OS X?) Meanwhile, Metro can perform equally well on a laptop, phone, tablet, or television, because Microsoft figured the design problem out.

So Why Don’t People Like It?

I’ve written a dozen articles championing the design philosophy of Metro, but at the end of the day, I don’t use Windows 8. I still own a Mac, iPhone, and an iPad. And if you look at Windows 8 sales figures, it appears I’m not alone in that regard. (In fact, one analyst firm points directly at Windows 8 for stalling PC sales, rather than driving growth.)

So if Windows 8/Metro is really the better designed solution, why isn’t it thriving? Why is Microsoft backtracking from its groundbreaking interface? With Metro, Microsoft made incredible art and bad design.

First and foremost, good design solves problems.

Metro solves the problem of, “How do you map the same interface to disparate devices?” Okay. But is that a real problem for consumers? I don’t think so. I think that’s a design philosophy problem.

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.

The entire “content not chrome” idea is downright poetic--when someone taps a square in Metro, they’re literally touching the information they want. But showing people their vacation photos in a tiny box is not necessarily faster or clearer than showing them an icon of a photo book.

Case in point is the Metro interface running on Xbox One. Any given box could contain a photo link to Xbox music, Xbox movies, or Xbox games, or downloadable content for Call of Duty, the latest episode of a particular TV show, a link to Netflix, a limited time coupon for 99-cent action movies, etc. It can be extremely disorienting to navigate to any particular preconceived destination. In this regard, Metro pushes exploration and discovery, but when you actually want to play a certain game or load a certain app? You'll really want to bypass Metro altogether and just tell the system where to go.

Multitasking photos and mail in Windows 8.1.

Also, multitasking in Windows 8 just stinks. It’s expected that users switch between full-frame apps, as is common on a phone, or enter a rigid split-screen mode. But to try to multitask while keeping up with Twitter, IM, a word processor, and a dozen browser tabs--well, when you consider the problem, you start to realize why Mac OS still looks so clunky in comparison to Windows 8 and iOS, because that clunkiness is, in some paradoxical way, very good for multitasking. And again, the design of Windows 8 multitasking feels like art, presenting each app as beautifully as possible--when in reality, our digital workflows mandate balancing several scraps of information at once.

What Should Microsoft Do Next?

From the outside, it certainly appears that Microsoft is backpedaling by reinstating the functions of the Start button--that they’re tacitly admitting some level of mistake or regret with the brazen interface onslaught of Windows 8 and Metro.

And that’s okay.

The great thing about design is that it can always be redesigned. Windows 8 seemed like the perfectly designed solution to our complicated digital lives on paper. In practice, it’s an academic solution, not a practical one.

It's more than impressive that Microsoft rallied behind Windows 8. Sure, its ideas are a bit of a failure, but they’re moving the dialogue of interface forward. Now, let’s see if Microsoft can fix where the public clearly feels the company has gone wrong.

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140 Comments

  • Hi , problem lies within our-self

    if we don't consider ubuntu (Linux) than obviously Metro UI is Clean , Powerful, Fast and error less , Although there may be some glitches like 3 click to power option, no traditional start menu which definitely ruined the Desktop UI, lack of Apps in Store (most of them are nonsense) but typography is far far better than aero graphic of windows 7 , motion graphics of Android and that of Mac,

  • Itsall Good

    Great, honest and unbiased article. Thank you. I am by no means an Apple fan, but to each their own. Have always been a "Windows" fan until this debacle. When 8 came out I needed a new laptop, but had "issues" with the "jewels" on the side and the mouse pad, it kept opening. Horrible experience, took it back and purchase Win 7. You would have to know how much I dislike Apple to know how much I really must dislike the Win 8 design when I actually considered buying an Apple brand product. I don't know if this issue has been fixed, so I am still using my Win 7 and the good news is can still buy Win 7 products. My friend a work who is a computer guru, also likes Win 7, not sure why. Anyway, I appreciate your great article and how unbiased it was. :")

  • I disagree with your assessment of Launchpad. I've been a Mac user since around 1986. The day I upgraded to the OSX version that introduce Launchpad I started using it tentatively, and within a few days I had it set up to activate with a hot corner, and ordered all my apps into categories that make sense to me. I now almost always start any application through it. In the rare case I can't find the icon for some program immediately, I just type the first letters (usually just 1 or 2) of it's name until the app list is short enough to find the icon I'm looking for at a glance.

    I think Launchpad i one of the biggest UI improvements to OSX of recent years

  • Shachar Oz

    i kinda appreciate how Microsoft handled the whole "i miss the Start button on Win8 system". it feels to me as if big Microsoft has learned a thing or two about lean development from Google (who is expert in releasing partially developed products and then constantly redesigning them.

    i agree that the one UI fit all is not a great design solution, but a great development solution. i agree that Microsoft should continue listening to our critic and fix its products.

    i recommend we all stop nagging about bad products and just continue wisely recommend how to get them better. because it appears like someone is listening :)

  • Les Castro

    Microsoft trained the World in PC skills. Companies & people paid to be trained. If their design geeks decided to take the tech to a "totally different" level then, Microsoft should provide the initiative to "re-train" us. There's a huge piece of the puzzle the marketers at MS missed in their launch! Bad branding guys. The damage has yet to come when the market goes to the tablet world in protest with Cloud on open platform. The Revolution has already started so cut your loses quick enough or you'll have not much left to cut!

  • LA Stone

    I always compare Launchpad to Metro. The difference is only that Apple implemented it in a way that you only see it if you explicitly want to. Metro on the other hand is seriously being forced down your throat. What the two have in common is that neither are useful, but as long as I can ignore Launchpad, I can actually forget that it exists. In fact I'd forgotten what it was called until I read it in someone else's post just now. But Metro seems to be designed to aggravate you into submission. It appears in various unexpected ways. Some settings dialogs now jump you into Metro.

    File types that have default programs on the desktop will forevermore remind you that there's a "new" app for that file type. Of course, we don't care and don't need to be reminded of that. Microsoft is just determined to get you into Metro. And when you decide to keep using the desktop program, it never fails to ask you again and again later.

    Microsoft tried to force us to boot directly into Metro! Everything about Windows 8 is "forced". It begs the question, if Windows 8 is for me, then why am I not given a choice. All the goofball nonsense in OS X is optional. Everything can be disabled. Active corners is a very old addition to OS X. I disabled it as soon as a got a new Mac as well as various other things I didn't like. But not Windows 8. Metro is mandatory.

    8.1 is even worse than 8. Now Microsoft is forcing you to either log in to a Microsoft account, or create a new one then log in, before you can get into your brand new PC for the first time. There's a way around it, but you won't figure it out unless you do some research. Is this for my own good? And when you figure out how to make a local account on your own pc, you won't be able to do so much as play solitaire without logging in, or being harassed about not logging in. That's not an exaggeration. It's the plain truth.

    I've always liked Macs for their beauty and smoothness, but the PC was were I got productivity done. It feels like Microsoft and Apple are trading places now. Windows use to represent freedom to me. Not anymore. Now they've forced Bing into your desktop searches. If you're not savvy, you will never know that you've become a Bing customer. Again, is this for me, or just forcing us into more Microsoft services, totally without our permission or knowledge. I think it's class action lawsuit material.

    And finally, Metro is terrible as an interface. It's terrible on phones, tablets, and especially on the desktop. Microsoft is failing in the biggest possible way.

  • JayMankind

    Perfect OS? It is plain annoying. I have been a WinUser all my life. I don't like it at all. Those wonderful tiles you talk about are noisy and distracting. Sometimes you might have some photos in a folder that you might not want splashed on your desktop. But Win8 does it anyway. I couldn't 'downgrade' fast enough.

  • David Daedalus

    You know what nobody is talking about with regard to Windows 8? The significant amount of acrimony consumers feel towards Microsoft after years of getting screwed by products that don't perform as advertised. Years and years of dealing with Internet Explorer BS, of terrible offerings like Windows ME, and now with huge problems with the roll out of flagship products like Office 360. The problem isn't just the fact that Metro is different, it's that people no longer trust Microsoft enough to make a significant change away from what currently works for them to something that may not. Until Microsoft addresses this serious issue, they're going to continue to have problems getting people to trust them enough to accept significant paradigm shifts.

  • Jan Baer

    The sales numbers show that Windows 7 sales are growing at twice the rate of Windows 8 sales, and this includes the fact that new computers are coming loaded with Windows 8. Keep trying to sell people Edsels, Microsoft.

  • Wayne

    Launchpad is a failure? That's news to the former Windows user who switched to a Mac after trying out Windows 8. I'm happier with the Mac than I ever was with Windows and find Launchpad to be very convenient. Windows 8 may have a lot going for it from a theoretical viewpoint, but for a lot of people it fails to address our needs on a day-to-day basis. Personally I'm less concerned with how it looks than with how easy it is to get my work done.

  • Victor Hugo Leon

    Absolutely agree, Windows 8 is a small error now, but this is because the user is not ready for such a minimalist interface at this time. This news article is perfect. Thank you very much

  • Armin

    Great article! You say though:

    "Philosophically, the Start button was pure chrome--it hid your files behind something. Metro was about transparency. Metro just had your files there for your eyes to see."

    I wouldn't call the start button as giving me access to my "files", because thats just not true. Explorer lets me access files, the start button gives access to installed programs, system settings, searching, etc. The fact that it has come back means that these are the things people like to do quickly and from a familiar place.

    I dont like Windows 8's bipolar syndrome, where it constantly lives between 2 worlds - the clean an minimal metro stuff, which looks cool, but just is not very productive and the old desktop style that really hasn't changed much at all.

    For me where Windows has really missed a trick and why people still prefer Windows 7, is that realistically we like to run different software, the stuff we want, we want to do different tasks, and there really is nothing in Windows 8 that helps me be more productive. On the Mac side there is a ton of useful software from the start, PDFs, Mail, Music, Movies, its all there to get me started.

    I set up a lot of Macs and PCs at work and the amount of software I have to install on a PC just to be ready for someone to do things on is incredible: adobe reader, winrar, vlc, chrome, etc. This is an area where I was hoping Microsoft would invest more time. Give me basic useful software right from the start and dont just make it "OK", make it better than the rest. I am still amazed at the general level of suckery of Windows Software - is it really that hard to make good looking software for Windows?

    As there are more and more specialized Operating Systems like Steam OS (which will serve a large portion of current Windows users), Chrome OS, etc. I hope for Windows that they go back and get the basics right - make something that is simple, efficient and most of all something that is evolutionary, rather than trying to be revolutionary.

  • ffinder

    Microsoft's Windows 7 Is The Perfect OS
    That EVERYbody Wants Back..

    The only reason Windows 8.x sells
    is because all new Laptops, etc. come with it preinstalled . .

    Microsoft pushed a mobile OS down desktop/laptop users throats . .

    ff

  • Eduardo Borges Pinto Osório

    This is a perfect resume for the design problem of W8. If you look from distance to a PC running windows 8, is like "omg, this is good" but when you start using in a regular basis, interacting with the OS, you see that it isn't practical. The interface is boring, all the elements feel the same. You can touch the content, yes. But the content can't be treated as the same, you have to differentiate these contents.
    I think Microsoft have a long road to unite the two things, the beautiful of the interface with the day by day use. And yes, the start button is an anchor for the classical windows user, vanishing with this from night to day was one of the key elements to the major failure of Windows 8.

  • Bryan J. Maloney

    Windows 8 looks like crap. It interferes with me getting jobs done. If I want a little toy, I'll buy a toy. I buy a computer to get work done.

  • jack_rozzo

    I think Windows 8 main problem is not about design, which if enough attractive and user-oriented doesn't really make a difference today, but about its insufficient APP Store and its misleading Brand Image.

    Windows has always been the "business" computer and now, suddendly has shifted to the design field. Well it's a hard shift for consumers to digest: especially for Mac users which will need several years before being able to leave the "cosy workspace" Apple has been building for them since 1984.

    But I think the Windows 8 design IS a groundbreaking one and in a couple of years Apple and Android will follow the design-path Windows has opened.

  • cvxxx

    I have better things to do than watch the reinvention of the wheel. I do not have a touch screen nor is metro any use to me. I want to get down to what i want to do with out wasting time. The fan boy learning some cockeyed foolishness because some kid thinks it is cool. I was one like that fan boy 20 years ago. But now I sit turn on, get to what I want right now.