Web design guru Nielsen slams "misguided" Windows 8 interface

Windows 8 home screen

Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen has become the latest industry watcher to criticise Microsoft's new Windows 8 operating system for being difficult to use.

Nielsen, a former Sun Microsystems engineer who specialised in making the vendor's enterprise software easier for people to use, enlisted the help of 12 "experienced" PC users to test Windows 8 on a PC and Surface RT tablet.

In a long and detailed post on his Alertbox blog, Nielsen shared the group's experiences of using the software, shedding light on several areas he claims could cause problems for users.

For instance, he starts the post by taking issue with the software giant's decision to offer end users a choice between using a tablet-focused Start menu and more traditional desktop screen.

I happen to think Windows 7 is a good product and Windows 8 is a misguided one.

"The two environments work differently, making for an inconsistent user experience," wrote Nielsen.

He is not the first industry watcher to take umbrage against the design of Windows 8, as Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, recently admitted to finding the operating system "confusing."

He also took issue with Windows 8's live tiles feature, which provides users with a summary of the most up to date information from within an app.

This feature works well with weather, calendar and email apps, he said, but the same cannot be said for many others.

In some cases, the ever changing appearance of these apps can make it difficult for users identify them, and can also be distracting for users.

"The theory, no doubt, is to attract users by constantly previewing new photos and other interesting content within the tiles," he wrote.

"But the result makes the Surface Start screen into an incessantly blinking, unruly environment that feels like dozens of carnival barkers yelling at you simultaneously."

Windows 8's new Charms feature, which consists of a panel of icons that users can slide in from the right side of the screen and use to share or search for content, was also scrutinised.

"The Charms work poorly at least for new users. Because [they] are hidden, our users often forgot to summon them, even when they needed them," said Nielsen.

"Furthermore, the Charms don't actually work universally because they're not true generic commands...Enough disappointments and users will stop trying a feature."

He said the operating system's shortcomings are nothing a "modest redesign can't fix", and said he has "great hopes" for Windows 9 on mobile devices.

"The underlying problem is the idea of recycling a single software UI for two very different classes of hardware devices," he added.

"It would have been much better to have two different designs: one for mobile and tablets, and one for the PC."

In his summing up of the operating system's features, he described Windows 7 as a "good product", but described its successor as a "misguided" one.

"I derived these conclusions from first principles of human-computer interaction theory and from watching users...One doesn't have to hate or love a company in order to analyse its [user interface] designs," he concluded.

Caroline Donnelly is the news and analysis editor of IT Pro and its sister site Cloud Pro, and covers general news, as well as the storage, security, public sector, cloud and Microsoft beats. Caroline has been a member of the IT Pro/Cloud Pro team since March 2012, and has previously worked as a reporter at several B2B publications, including UK channel magazine CRN, and as features writer for local weekly newspaper, The Slough and Windsor Observer. She studied Medical Biochemistry at the University of Leicester and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism at PMA Training in 2006.