Oct 26 2012

The Psychology of Windows 8

Today marks the release date of Windows 8 for the general public. However, many students have had access to it since August and have tried it. The reactions (also reflected in the media) are mixed - some people claim that it's far superior to its predecessors, others claim that it's an unintuitive mess.

The wikipedia image of Windows 8.

I'm not going to debate about who is right and who is wrong (not in this article, anyways). I will attempt to give a partial explanation of why Windows 8 is getting mixed reactions. The purpose is not to defend Microsoft here, I simply think it can be interesting to understand the way people think.

To do so, I will begin in an admittingly odd way: the assumption that the iPad is a good product. This is certainly a debatable claim, but on the design aspect, Apple did try to make the iPad an intuitive product that is easy to learn and, given the overall reception of the iPad, we can say that that they succeeded.

Note that this is not an Apple-bashing article - I'm making a positive claim about the iPad and it will be the only one I will make.

When the iPad was released, no one (outside of beta testers) had ever used one. It was a new product with a new interface and new gestures required to interact with it. No one knew what those gestures were and no one knew how to configure the device to suit their needs. However, since it was designed to be intuitive (as Apple claims), a lot of it could either be guessed outright (everything is in settings) or would be discovered over the course of its use (gestures can be discovered accidentally).

People adapted and were happy with the device. That's a good thing.

Now Microsoft comes with this product called "Windows 8". That product is designed (as Microsoft claims) to be intuitive and easy to learn and adapted for both desktops and the mobile space. Previous attempts to port the desktop on tablet devices directly back in 2002 have been a failure, so the product needed some new elements adapted for this type of devices - those element are grouped under the "Metro" interface.

Nevertheless, the product itself contains the word "Windows". Where am I getting at? The people that have installed Windows 8 so far are clearly smart and well educated as they do not rely on retailers to do it for them. Those are people that understand the in and outs of the Windows operating system. Now, they encounter Windows 8 and they realize that they have to learn certain things: how to access the Charms bar, etc.

It feels frustrating. It feels insulting.

After years of hardened muscle memory of accessing the Control Panel via the Start Menu, when they don't see it, the negative reaction is instantaneous. It is like waking up one morning unable to use a leg.

Yet, there is little to learn, really. Between iOS and Metro (ignoring the fully-featured desktop here), both are fairly simple. But in the case of iOS, people are exposed to it without any preconceptions. Therefore, they are far more willing to learn how to use it. From my personal experience, I've noticed that the people that adapt to Windows 8 easily are the people that are willing to do it to begin with.

I'm not saying that the other group are unadaptable. If I had been exposed to a large quantity of negative comments about Windows 8 from the media and from my peers, I would have booted up Windows 8 trying to validate their claims. That is, I would look for new features to complain about - the introduction of the Charms bar for instance - rather than trying to understand why it is there. That's just how our minds work - the sooner we admit it, the better.

So did Microsoft make the right choice?

Ultimately, as much as we can pretend Microsoft has the goal of annoying its user base, they actually think that what they're doing is right. Unlike us, they actually have the data to support it. Remember the checkbox that asks whether you wish to help improve the Windows user experience when you first setup Windows 7? That thing isn't for show. Microsoft has measured significant decreases in the usage of the old Start Menu. Similarly, they measured that people do gravitate towards the corners and therefore, would be likely to find the Charms bar eventually - in the same way people are likely to find the gestures in iOS eventually.

That does not validate the correctness of their design. Whether they have made the right conclusion is up to debate, of course. But the data is objective - well, when it is true, at least, but there is little incentive for Microsoft to lie about usage metrics.

Could Microsoft have done things better, differently? Yes. For instance, in their attempt to accelerate the adoption of the Metro interface, they created a Start Menu that was vastly unfamiliar. Had they pinned "My Computer" and "Control Panel" by default on the Start Menu, I conjecture that there would be half as many complaints against Windows 8.

Until some academics do some formal psychological research to invalidate my claims, at least. After all, I'm just a guy that hasn't taken the introductory psychology 101 class yet.