2013_01_microsoft_featured Theory

The 4 UX Principles Microsoft Forgot That Doomed Windows 8

This is a guest post by Ben Snyder

Microsoft has bet the future of Windows on a risky strategy of creating an operating system that works on both tablets and desktops. This seemingly smart strategy is doomed for a number of reasons, but mostly, they just forgot the basics.

They didn’t know their customer. They didn’t solve a problem. Their messaging is unclear and they ignored user research.

What I want to show you today is just how badly Microsoft missed the mark to use them as an example of what happens when UX principles and business fundamentals are ignored.

Microsoft’s Opportunity

You wouldn’t know it by looking at the laptops sitting on desks near you (which are all probably made by Apple) but Microsoft is still the dominant player in the world of operating systems. According to NetMarketShare, in December 2012, Microsoft had 91.74% of the OS market for desktops and laptops.


1 in 3 computer users today is still running on an operating system that was first released in 2001 (Source).

Astonishingly, Windows 7 only recently got around to being the most heavily used operating system in August 2012. Even in December, WinXP still had 39.08% of the total share of Windows installations. That means that better than 1 in 3 computer users today is still running on an operating system that was first released in 2001.

That’s 12 years people. TWELVE YEARS.


Even in December 2012, WinXP still had 39.08% of the total share of Windows installations (Source).

Off the top of your head, can you name another technology that you own that’s twelve years old? Your phone? Nope. Your physical computer? Nope. Your TV? Nope. Your DVD player? Probably not. Your toaster, fridge, oven, or car? All are likely less than 12 years old.

In the world of technology, Windows XP is practically a zombie. It should have been dead years ago but nothing has been able to slay it. Windows 7 has managed to eat into its user base but that’s only because Microsoft refuses to continue to sell Windows XP.

With less than a year-and-a-half before Microsoft ends all XP support, selling Windows 8 should be a breeze. After all, better than 1 in 3 people who own a desktop or laptop computer are running Windows XP and are badly in need of an upgrade.

If we ignore the tragedy that was Windows Vista and look at Windows 7, we see that it’s currently pushing 50% adoption in the Windows environment. Getting users to upgrade to Windows 8 should be a downhill battle.

Why Aren’t Users Upgrading?

In the same chart, we see that Windows 8 only has a 1.72% adoption rate. This may seem like a decent adoption rate for software that was officially launched on October 26, 2012 (even though versions were available as early as August 1st). Microsoft confirmed that more than 4 million people upgraded over the first weekend it was available but several news outlets have since reported on subsequent disappointing sales figures.

Paul Thurrott from Supersite For Windows, citing a source inside Microsoft, wrote in November that “Sales of Windows 8 PCs are well below Microsoft’s internal projections and have been described inside the company as disappointing”.

The culprit, according to Thurrott, is “lackluster PC maker designs and availability”.

With all due respect to Paul and his analysis, I’d like to offer a different reason Microsoft has had difficulty selling Windows 8.

The UX Mantra

We’ve recently been talking about the UX mantra over at A Better User Experience. It’s “product, market, message, reach”.

Simply put, in order to sell something, you need to know who you’re selling it to, how you intend to reach those people and which appeal works best to sell your product. If you are clear in each phase of the mantra, then you’ve given yourself a really good starting point from which to be successful.

It’s my opinion that both the Surface and Window 8 have had catastrophic issues with their product, their market, their message, and their reach.

Though, you have to give Microsoft credit for trying. After years of sucking Apple’s eggs, they decided to get off their bloated haunches to try something new.

When we look outside the desktop environment, Microsoft has been making solid gains for years. They had a lot of success with their Xbox division. Having finally rid itself of the notorious red-ring-of-death problem, it’s been buoyed by the release of the Kinect and the revamp of the Xbox Live system. The latest update to Xbox Live pushed Microsoft out of the gaming sphere and into the wider home entertainment market.

Their mobile phone division has likewise been greeted with success. They’ve done well carving out a niche for themselves with the Windows Phone. This writer at the NY Times spent an entire article “lusting” after a Windows Phone.

In non-desktop environments, Microsoft was clearly trending up.

It’s funny, the iPad may be getting all the glory in the tablet market now but Bill Gates was one of the first people to really push the idea of a tablet computer. And with Windows XP no less.


Bill Gates was one of the first people to really push the idea of a tablet computer (Image Source).

I imagine that it happened while Steve Ballmer was having one of those “What Would Bill Do” moments.

I don’t know exactly how the idea for the chimera that is Windows 8 came about but I imagine that it happened while Steve Ballmer was having one of those “What Would Bill Do” moments. He looked at the above picture, realized that OSes could TOTALLY be used with a tablet and decided to slap the Windows Phone UI on top of it. Then he did a touchdown dance (or whatever this is).

What they created was something truly original: a half desktop, half tablet experience which confounds most people who use it and which the majority of current desktop hardware can’t run completely.

Problem 1: The Market Doesn’t Exist

This is the first problem, and the one that Paul Thurrott latched onto: They don’t have a ready-made market for Windows 8.

In order to get the most from Windows 8, a user has to have a machine that could function both as a tablet and as a computer. And as of this writing, options are limited. PC makers are fast filling the gap, but so far the only totally Windows 8 machine I see being advertised regularly is Microsoft’s own Surface.

That being said, the Microsoft as an OEM is #4 in devices that use Windows 8.

Microsoft as an OEM is #4 in devices that use Windows 8 (Source).

The fact remains that the #1 problem to Windows 8 adoption is a lack of technology in the home and workplace that can fully take advantage of what Win8 has to offer. My speculation is that until Fortune 1000 companies AND the government switch over to the tablet/desktop hybrid, Windows 8 will continue to suffer low adoption rates.

And make no mistake, Windows 8 HAS suffered from low adoption rates. Believe it or not, Win8 has a lower adoption rate at this point in its lifecycle than Windows Vista and Windows Vista is what originally was to replace WinXP.


Windows 8 has a lower adoption rate at this point in its lifecycle than Windows Vista (Source).

Beyond the low adoption rate, Microsoft has suffered from a muddy message that offers no compelling reason to upgrade.

Problem 2: They Aren’t Solving A Problem

The defining feature of Windows 8 is its tablet/desktop crossover. Quite simply, this product doesn’t solve any user’s computing problems.

If anything, the slow adoption has shown the opposite to be the case: embracing Windows 8 requires new hardware and new know-how. For business and education where the user base isn’t comprised of kids and teenagers, and budgets are almost always tight, this is a tough sell.

Problem 3: The Message They Have Offers Little of Substance and Doesn’t Speak to Their User

Have you seen the Windows 8 / Surface ads? I don’t know that your average person could distinguish between the two. Let’s take a quick look.

The promotion of the product is really focused on the keyboard, and the users really don’t know how to maximize the touch experience. — Michael Birkin

This ad has been playing virtually non-stop for the past few months. In it students on a college campus jump, flip, slide, and otherwise create creative action while attaching and detaching the colorful covers (that also double as keyboards) from their Surface. When not messing with the cover, they are snapping the built in stand, or using their finger to slide icons across a screen.

When you sit down and analyze it, it seems to hit all the high notes of differentiation in a creative way. But in execution, all one can think is “that’s not for me”.

Let’s look at another.

I actually like this ad. It introduces the one feature I can clearly say that I know I’d like from Windows 8: the picture password. The video, if you can’t watch it, shows people unlocking their computer by swiping their finger across a picture in a pattern.

As much as I like this commercial, you know what I haven’t seen? How do you send an email? How does it work with all of my other existing software?

I’ve seen a kid “paint” on it but I haven’t seen a graphic designer use Photoshop.

In fact, the colors and the movement from the first ad combined with the family/non-business nature of the second ad make me think that Windows 8 isn’t for business. It’s for entertainment.

When your primary users are business and government, that’s a problem.

And it’s not just me who says that Microsoft blew it. Michael Birkin, head of marketing for Acer (one of Microsoft’s largets OEMs) was just quoted in the Business Insider saying, “The promotion of the product is really focused on the keyboard, and the users really don’t know how to maximize the touch experience.” He also added that the ads are “confusing”.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Problem 4: User Research Was Ignored

In the rush to create the new desktop/tablet hybrid, Microsoft either failed to do, or ignored, usability studies.

Hidden features, reduced discoverability, cognitive overhead from dual environments, and reduced power from a single-window UI and low information density. Too bad. — Jakob Nielsen

Jakob Nielsen wrote an article titled, “Windows 8 – Disappoining Usability for Both Novice and Power Users” which he summarized thusly: “Hidden features, reduced discoverability, cognitive overhead from dual environments, and reduced power from a single-window UI and low information density. Too bad.”

This video does a good job of showing the dual-nature of the software.

Scientific American has an article titled “Why Touch Screens Will Not Take Over” which makes the argument that touch screens will always be a niche device because of something called “gorilla arm”. Essentially, it’s way easier to move your finger a tiny bit on a mouse where your arm is mostly supported by a desk than to move your arms with wide gestures over the course of a day.

Microsoft is betting that we are all wrong. They’re betting – with their largest cash cow – that the world is ready for the desktop/tablet hybrid.

I remain skeptical.

Takeaways

Microsoft has proven inept thus far in almost all facets of launching and marketing Windows 8. It’s instructive to see where they got it wrong, so in reflecting our own projects we can attempt to see if we’re headed down the same road, or if we’re succeeding by avoiding the many mistakes that Microsoft has made.

Know your market: Microsoft created a product their current users don’t need.

Know your problem: Microsoft doesn’t understand why people won’t leave XP (short of through obsolescence) because they don’t understand why people love XP. If they did, they’d port what they love and excise the rest.

Know your message: Microsoft has created such a muddy message that even their own OEMs are complaining about it. It’s because Acer knows that Microsoft isn’t helping them move product. If you don’t know what your users want, it stands to reason that you can’t tell them that you have it. Instead, you’re just dancing and hoping nobody notices.

Don’t ignore existing Human Factors research: Good UX – navigation, findability, usability, discoverability, etc., can’t be thrown out the window because “users aren’t supposed to know what they want”. Users DO know what they want, and while they may not know the ultimate form it takes, they do know when their arms get tired or they get confused. And they don’t like it. When research says one thing and you do another, you do so at your own peril.

Editor’s note: So here is what Ben thinks about the future of Windows 8. What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Ben, or would you like to add something? Let us know in the comments below!

18 comments

  1. Robert Clarke

    Great read Ben, I think you’re bang on (and why I use a Mac). Why such a silly strategy by MS? Really boggles the mind.

  2. Ben Snyder

    In another blow to Microsoft, Samsung announced this week that they were cancelling all plans to manufacture any RT devices in the US.

    Translation: We can’t find enough people who want to buy this stuff.

    It’s hard being a Windows device these days…

  3. Bruno Silva

    Simply put: people need a browser. The end.

  4. Mahmoud El-Magdoub

    A great one Ben. I’m from the early birds who tried win8 ever since it released the consumer version a year ago, and now I’m using the original version which is much better.
    I completely agree with every point that you said.

    Everything I open, opens in a full screen and almost everyday I get lost within the different apps, a common question I ask myself everyday is “how the hell can I get out of here, and where is the stupid close button in this app!!”.
    The PDF reader, the video and audio players, Skype…they all suck big time on win8, and don’t me get started about the horizontal navigation of bing!

    The only thing I like about it, is that it boots fast.

  5. Ely

    Excellent article! I do agree with you Ben on all points.
    My mother, a software engineer, said (when the preview came out) that it seemed to her they didn’t take their most prolific users into account. Businesses. How does “surface” solve to every day tasks of sending email, using Office, spreadsheets, etc?

    Other reasons I find preventing people from upgrading their windows os is because of hardware, cost to upgrade, and previous experiences with upgrades.
    If the computer was bought 12-10 years ago with WinXP, its architecture will not hold nor run Win7, much less Win8. This also prevents people from upgrading their IE7 to 8 or 9. My first laptop, bought in 2001, 20gig HD (gigantic at the time) was “maxed” and came with Win2000, and now it struggles running WinXP.
    Also, cost. Win PCs are popular because they are affordable. If the upgrade costs nearly what you paid for the computer… why should you spend money? Kids need stuff for school; a business and government will not pay licensing fees when they are cutting corners.
    A few friends (average users) mentioned the that UI and behaviour changes drastically from one version to the next. Due to bad experiences, they are more reluctant to upgrade, and dread when their bosses mention possibility of upgrading their systems. This is sad.

    A silly side note about the second commercial (picture passwords)… for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what the commercial was about. Ok, so I can draw arrows on picture?? A friend had to point it out to me.

    I’m curious to see what other Usabilla blog readers have to say.

  6. Benjamin Kuker

    Some of this might change when devices like the Leap Motion (basically a super-accurate Kinect-like sensor that’s smaller than an iPhone, connects via USB, and acts as a touchless interface for any computer) start being sold. Having used Windows 8 for a few weeks now, it’s pretty buggy and has some definite UX problems, especially for a desktop user. That said, I think Microsoft is headed in the right direction. They just might be ahead of the curve a bit.

  7. J. Uytendeal

    I really stopped reading this article after this part: “After years of sucking Apple’s eggs, they decided to get off their bloated haunches to try something new.”

    I expected better from Usabilla. In the past I’ve read this blog with great pleasure. There were insightful pieces and some great tips, but this article rubbed me the wrong way. It doesn’t live up to the standard I’ve become used to,

    Regards

  8. Sabina Idler

    Thanks for your honest feedback. We are sorry that this post did not live up to your expectations. The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and even though this opinion might be quite extreme, we think the article offers valuable insights into the importance of the basic principles of user experience design. That’s why we were happy to publish it on the Usabilla blog. Regarding the use of language, stricter editing might have been appropriate – something to keep in mind for the future.

  9. Ben

    I’d love to know why that sentence caused you to stop reading. It’s factually true. You may not like the phrase “sucking Apple’s eggs” but in a heavily sourced article, that seems to be a style preference instead of a factual one.

  10. Fadi (itoctopus)

    I think this post is a bit harsh on Windows 8 – it’s not doomed yet. In fact, even according to your charts, it seems that it’s still in a uptrend.

    Give it some time – it’s better than the predecessors technically.

  11. Peter B

    With the new ‘innovative’ picture password entry system, if you enter the gestures wrong too many times (very easy to do) then it locks you out with bitlocker and requires you to get an email sent – not to your hotmail address, but to the alternative email address you entered when you first set up your hotmail (for me, 1999). Of course i dont have this alternative email address anymore, so cant un-luck the tablet. To CHANGE this alternative email address takes 30 DAYS for Microsoft… so guess what? that means I cant use tablet for 30 days (unless i do a factory reset)! If it wasn’t for the fact this was purchased by the company, it would have been taken straight back to the store for a refund. Shockingly bad usability, on top of a very very poor UX. Epic fail Microsoft.

  12. Grzegorz Maj

    “Microsoft has bet the future of Windows on a risky strategy of creating an operating system that works on both tablets and desktops. This seemingly smart strategy is doomed”

    It is not. RT is a tablet, build for Metro apps, and it isn’t selling well, why? People wants usable desktop too(if they are buing Windows).

    “Why Aren’t Users Upgrading?”

    Because their old windows machines works well, as you wrote 12 years old OS(XP) still has large market share. On the market you can find plenty of hot devices: smartphones, tablets.. Win8 doesn’t need 15″ notebook, it needs something like Surface Pro so you can replace your old 15″ notebook, and iPad with one device.

    “What they created was something truly original: a half desktop, half tablet experience which confounds most people who use it and which the majority of current desktop hardware can’t run completely.”

    Win8 runs well with old hardware. I’m using it on desktop with 24″ display, I’m not using Metro apps – they were designed for tablets, but I prefer Win8 start screen with tiles than Win7 Start menu. Tiles are faster, than menus.

    “Problem 1: The Market Doesn’t Exist”

    The market exists, but devices aren’t there.

    “Problem 2: They Aren’t Solving A Problem”

    They are solving problem: previous Windows tablets couldn’t be used with touch, now you can. As Microsoft is saying: “Work and play”. Using Win8 in right hardware(Surface Pro) you can play, read news, browse websites – on tablet, using touch. Also you can edit spreadsheets, use photoshop etc.. in desktop mode with keyboard and mouse in one device, which weights less than Mackbook Air.

    “Problem 4: User Research Was Ignored”

    Win8 can be explained in 5 minutes – really, it is easy. Also, user research was not ignored when touch part was developed. Win8 in Metro environment uses edge to get additional menus – because they had research data how users hold tablets, and how they use fingers, that is why, left and right edges are system – to use with thumbs, lower and upper edge is used for app settings, across all apps – consitency. You can switch between Metro apps using left thumb, on iPad: you have to use FOUR fingers.

  13. Jon G

    You ignore the real reasons for MS’ actions. People are not buying desktops/laptops because… everyone wants a tablet. It’s tablet success or death. Let’s face it, most people use their devices only for media, internet, and as a word processor. MS came up with a strategy to appeal to the most people who want a tablet as well as the office business and enterprise sectors. In doing so, they invited the gadget loving media consumers to benefit from the business enterprise features and vice versus. Just because they could have done a better job marketing Surface’ features does not mean they had a flawed business plan. You MS bashers try so hard, it makes me wonder, how much is Apple paying you?

  14. Rob Fitzgibbon

    Well-done and thought provoking article! I wonder if it’s not so much a case of their not speaking to their users so much as coveting Apple’s users – the Windows 8/Surface ad seems so deliberately consumer/lifestyle focused.

  15. Joe

    I could not find one sentence in this article I agreed with, you of course entitled to your opinion.

  16. Julián Acosta Libreros

    Great reading Ben! Thanks for putting it up so simple: we do not need it, or yep, productivity focus user do not need it. As a marketing manager myself, I do not see any differentiation factor that makes me upgrade (and I can do so by paying only USD30 with a coupon i got). I am quite productive with windows 7 (in comparison with xp or vista) and therfore I need not to change. And I hardly think the new office 2013 will be much productive by using hands and finger tips.

    I upgrade my old desktop to the first release beta version of windows 8 and it didnt last a week. Was too confusing and did not see anything useful for me (I find the metro dashboard quite confusing actually). Won’t make that mistake again. There are no 2nd chances

  17. Regis Chapman

    I’ve been using Windows 8 since the Consumer Preview. I understand the UI and UX errors made here- but let’s be honest. It’s not THAT hard.

    I use my Windows 8 as my primary work OS and use a Mac otherwise. It’s funny because I have been firmly against using Launchpad, which is what Windows 8 essentially is. Still, on a second look, I am starting to see some cool stuff about using Launchpad that I didn’t previously.

    If they had already a HUGE group of users of Windows phone, they could drive this sort of adoption, but they’d need iPad-like numbers for that.

    Some notes for people using it- start typing at the Start screen. Pretty much my whole interaction with the Start menu is served by that ONE action. Everything shows up instantly that way- filter on the right. Easy peasy.

  18. Prosper B. Wealth

    Interesting article.

    I had to keep an open mind to read this post.

    Even though Microsoft had to meet their product lunch deadlines, I still think the Windows 8 roll-out came ‘way-out’ 7 steps ahead of its time.

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