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Microsoft learns the difference between UX and UI

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James Clark asks if all designers could learn from the mistakes of Windows 8

So it seems one of the bravest – and possibly most reckless – user experience (UX) changes in recent years has failed; Microsoft has announced that it will reinstate the Start Button to its desktop layout.

The announcement is an acknowledgement that it has failed in its attempt to migrate desktop users from their familiar Windows to the tiled layout first seen in Metro for mobile devices and later developed for all devices and called Windows 8.

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On some levels this failure is a shame.

On some levels this failure is a shame

The rationale for behind this migration was solid – Microsoft had seen the future of devices and knew that the majority of activity would be on mobile devices. Microsoft reasoned that it was vital to bring its vast desktop user base into contact with this new mobile world.

They certainly had a product that worked well for mobile – the tiled interface Metro (later Windows 8) was elegant and helpful, superior to the static layout of Apple’s iOS and cleaner than Android whilst just as dynamic.

Betting the company

It also made a lot of sense for Microsoft as they’d only need to focus on a single product rather than parallel one. If Microsoft could bring the market to their way of thinking, they would become the standard for mobile just like they had for desktop. It had always worked this way when they had made changes to Windows in the past.

So they ‘bet the company’ on the change.

Unfortunately for Microsoft things didn’t work out quite how they had hoped. We can be sure Microsoft had expected some resistance to the change – given their 30 year ubiquity in desktop user interface (UI) there could be few companies with such experience in customer resistance to change. But this time the change was not just evolutionary – it was a total break from the past, a parallel with the change from MS DOS to Windows itself.

As it turned out, users hated this change even more than predicted; all their menus had disappeared, the Start Button was gone, and the tiled interface that worked so well with stubby fingers made no sense when using a mouse. In their rush to deliver the future, Microsoft had forgotten ubiquity comes with a price; most people don’t like change.

Skeuomorphism at its finest – courtesy of Apple iCal

Lurking beneath the surface of this problem for Microsoft was the concept of Skeuomorphism – the transference of practical design elements from one application into another where their use is superfluous. Classic examples of this are the Qwerty keyboard and wood panelled cars.

Skeuomorphism may seem a pretty abstract subject area, but for designers it’s vitally important as changes in technology and consumer products mean changes to the how we interact with objects.

Design luminaries like Jony Ive of Apple hate skeuomorphism, as they are forced to add largely unnecessary elements they believe unnecessary.

However as I’ve argued before, for the ordinary user, skeuomorphic design matters – it creates familiar connections to unfamiliar technologies. A Qwerty keyboard allows the user to make an intuitive connection with a device; wood panelled cards provide cues as to the premium quality of the product (no, seriously); showing a reel-to-reel tape rolling whilst recording on a digital device provides a fun connection with the past even for those too young to have ever used reel to reel.

In this way Skeuomorphism creates emotional connections to products every bit as valuable as the clean simple lines of the product itself. In my previous blog post I advised that those pushing for change would be advised to see how consumers responded to Windows 8 which was a break from a skeuomorphic past.

Windows users crave familiarity

This, perhaps, is where Microsoft went wrong. Windows Metro and Windows 8 were beautifully designed for the new mobile medium. The people who bought these devices were early adopters, by definition predisposed to like change and difference.

But the majority of Windows users are not like this; they want familiar, it helps them to navigate the constant blizzard of new technology. In returning the Start Button, Microsoft has been forced to acknowledge that they too have created their own skeuomorph and like it or not, for the time being, they’re stuck with it.

Their consumers have spoken, and to their credit, Microsoft have listened. The design world would be wise to do the same.

James Clark blogs at We plan to go viral and tweets as Ronin_Jim

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  • pferdy

    Microsoft ruined Office for me when they introduced ribbons. I had to move to Open Office or stick with Office 2003. Windows 8 has converted me to Mac OS and XP running in Parallels when I want to use old software.

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