Lessons from Windows 8: Don’t revolutionize UI

Lessons from Windows 8: Don’t revolutionize UI

When the Windows 8 operating system was initially released by Microsoft, it tried to don a tablet’s clothing [in its user interface design] .The biggest change to its user interface was the lack of the Start button. Their experiment did not work and Microsoft had to release an update which brought back the Start button.The episode however, served as a reminder of a fundamental principle in UI design: Don’t make the user’s job harder than it already is.

For two decades everyone has been using the Start button to do almost everything on windows. Its not just inconvenient if that button is taken away, it is plain rude. You can almost hear them saying, “Alright, We think its time to remove the Start button from your desktop. You’ll need to get used to it.”

That is a dangerous attitude to have towards your customers. Its easy for successful companies to forget that its their users who made them successful in the first place. Their success itself maybe a factor which causes such an oblivion. Its the customer satisfaction and loyalty that keeps businesses alive. Every company that has ever been successful knows that. Still, so many companies lose their way after becoming successful.

User interface design is one of the most difficult things in software to get right and one of the most critical aspects of software. Skeuomorphism- the design principle that encouraged user interfaces to mirror real world objects, was (and still is) a leading design philosophy that has dominated the world’s electronics over the past two decades. The arrival of tablets and smartphones is forcing a shift from that design paradigm owing to the restrictions in screen size [and also the maturity of the present day users].

Revolutionary user interfaces do not exist. If you need to introduce something new in UI, you have to extend the current user interface to include the new entity, not replace something that has been around for a while with your new idea. It may be good. It may be better than the thing you are trying to replace, but it will be frowned upon because people already know how to use existing controls and they do not want to spend time mastering your new UI.

Apple has always been an excellent follower of the above philosophy. Its UI is gorgeous. Apple knows that and it has consciously kept its UI consistent and has not tried to mess with it. Mac OS X has been through a lot of updates and releases. But it’s UI has always been simple and consistent through the releases. The IOS 7 for iPhone that the company showed off last week also showcases this consistency. The new user interface is neater, cleaner and sharper but it is an improvement over its previous version.Most importantly, its not “revolutionary”.

The question you must ask yourself before introducing anything new is: will this make the user like my product more? Answer to that in terms of hardware is a no brainer. Of course your users want more memory, better display, faster processors and more battery life. But the answer to, “will my new icon be well received by my users?” is unknown. This is because usability cannot be measured until someone uses something.

Its important to stay consistent and not “think different” when it comes to UI. The strategy that seems to work in UI design is: make a small change- measure the response and react. Do not remove the Start button in your next release. [Also, Microsoft has to stop calling its office software an “App”.]. User interfaces are owned by the users as much as they are owned by their designers. Your product may be great. But if the user does not find it easy to access the functionality you provide, your product will fail. Maybe that’s why the its called the ‘USER interface’.

Hrishikesh S


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