Windows 8.0/8.1 Start Screen — You’ve got to be kidding.

Alright, obviously Microsoft will be unaware of this post, and would ignore it even if they read it, but still, I can dream, can’t I?

Here’s the thing. Windows 8.1 isn’t all that bad, except if you consider the shell to be the OS, which is how most people now understand “Operating System.” That’s too bad, because “under the hood” is where the OS really lives, and the colorful GUI that we all have to interact with isn’t the operating system any more than a dashboard is a car.

The tragedy with these new absurd revisions of Windows (8.0 and 8.1) is that the most visible aspect of the shell—the desktop—is also the worst UI design to emerge in a long time. This is, of course, a matter of taste and opinion, but it’s also a matter of the four Most Important Values of a user interface:

      1. functionality
      2. usability
      3. discoverability
      4. configurability

And these are just the places where Windows 8.0 and/or 8.1 makes such a frustrating and unnecessary giant leap backwards. Let’s look at all four at once and marvel at how misguided this software behemoth can become, and how far from obvious utility their creative efforts can stray.

The new “not a desktop” desktop (technically the Start screen), which like all the idiotic Win8 phone-styled mini-apps takes over the entire screen, even if it’s 3840 x 2160, has a couple of potentially useful improvements, and a couple of extraordinarily weird and annoying shortcomings. The overall design has, to much hoopla, been revised to supposedly accomodate tiny smartphone screens and any other display device you might use, including tabletops and 4K graphics monitors—one UI to rule them all. This is a dubious strategy to begin with, but the implementation is so dysfunctional it’s a challenge just to enumerate all the zany disadvantages.

To suite the misguided design goals, app icons have been replaced by app tiles. That might be OK if the tiles were easy to manage, but they’re inexplicably locked into incomprehensible behaviors, as if Microsoft wanted you to waste hours attempting to lay out the desktop the way you want it, and then make sure it’s absolutely impossible. The cunning basis of this user-unfriendliness is a diabolical auto-arrange mechanism that lets you sort of arrange the tiles, sort of control their size, and then insists on sort of color-coding the tiles on the basis of one color it picks out of the tile’s app’s icon. The net result is garish, intrusive, capriciously uncontrollable, and insanely annoying.

The usability experts at Microsoft have obviously all been fired, or were busy designing candy wrappers, or perhaps have all committed suicide. Or, more likely, they’re lost in some Big Corp haze of mission delusion and can no longer imagine real people doing real things with Microsoft products.

Tiles can be “scaled,” which is an improvement (you might make favorite apps bigger than rarely-used utilities). But the scaling is locked into a small range of sizes that varies with the type of app. What’s more, the original icons are not scaled, so you can’t make that beautiful round full-color 3D Flame Painter icon bigger—instead it’s surrounded by a candy orange square that makes it look, at first glance, just like Adobe Media Player, Flash Pro, Google Sketchup, FastStone Viewer, Final Draft, and a dozen other apps with a few orange pixels in their icons. What’s the point—to force garish colors on us while ensuring that they can have no conceivable usefulness? To overshadow all the design effort that software publishers have put into their product image and make sure that all app icons are ugly? It’s so intrusive and counter-productive that the mind reels (and the eyes cringe).

When you make a tile “small,” it shrinks the icon, removes the app’s name, and preserves a fat, gaudy colored box around it, making it even harder to identify.

To adjust the size of a tile, you right click on it, and then—throwing away one of Windows’ most intelligent usability features ever—there’s no context menu. Instead, a big blue bar appears at the bottom of the screen with a constantly varying array of options across it. These options have no stable position, so you can’t use your God-given spatial memory to find one in the same place unless the circumstances happen to be identical to some other situation. From this far-away blue option bar, you locate the Resize icon+caption, click on it, and then select Medium or Small. Where’s Large? Who knows. What if you want Large? Sorry, you can’t have it your way. Why is it better to mouse around all over your display instead of selecting from an at-your-cursor context menu? Because you might be using this GUI on a smartphone. Oh, I see. But I’m not—I’m using it on a big flat panel. And next year it will be on a 39″ 4K flat panel. But that’s my problem, not Microsoft’s, like all of this uninvited nonsense.

To make matters even more insulting, way off to the right on the huge blue option bar is a button called Customize. Click it, and the option bar disappears and the Start Screen seems to revert to its original state, just garish and rectangular as hell, waiting for you to click a tile. You click one. The associated app runs, as expected. What happened to Customize?

Well, what happened is this: In “customize” mode you can rename the groups. That’s it: a whole “mode” just so you can edit the name of a group of tiles. It’s a GUI done by beginners. Oops, no, actually it’s done by a vast team of experts. Weird.

You can also run the mouse pointer into the bottom right corner of the screen, wait for the “charms” to appear, click on the gear charm, then click on the Tiles item in the gigantic non-context menu that slides out of the right screen edge, and turn off (or on) “Show more tiles.” Isn’t it clever to bury this in a whole separate settings area, instead of just including it in the desktop context menu? All the “more or less” setting appears to accomplish is adding a row of tiles to the Start display (which I’ve been calling “desktop,” since it’s sort of a replacement for the icon arrangements I was using on Win 7’s desktop). Lots of interface for a barely noticeable and almost totally useless feature.

Since you can’t have big icons or tiles (unless it’s a tile for one of the ungainly full-screen phoneapps), and you can barely recognize an icon that’s embedded in a brightly colored tile, your only remaining hope for organizing this desktop menu system is to group the tiles according to some sensible scheme of your own. Too bad they won’t let you do that. The tile auto-arranger not only prevents you from laying out the tiles as you wish, it also insists on adjusting and rearranging tile positions according to a fiendishly obtuse system as you helplessly attempt to put them into some rational order. Can you turn off the auto-arranger? Of course not.

I would love to provide a full and clear outline of the logic by which tiles are repositioned for you, but it’s so convoluted that it would take several paragraphs. Suffice to say that sometimes you can get tiles in more than one vertical group, under one title, but usually not (it may even be a bug in the arranger logic). You can sometimes determine the sequence of tiles across a group, but only if the group is either two across or four across. When you insert a tile, the tiles below it, in the current two-column portion of the current group, rearrange in a serpentine fashion to make room, but only if the insertion was in the right two-column portion. If you move a tile in the left two-column portion, and this pushes a tile too far down the screen, then it continues the serpentine repositioning into the right two-column portion, thereby moving every single tile below the intentionally repositioned one. This of course completely destroys any horizontal organization you might have just achieved. The whole scheme is so senseless and annoying that you quickly realize you can’t control the layout and you have to give up.

In sum, all the potential usefulness of big tiles, tile customization, layout by function or work flow, scalable icons, recognition by icon or by color-coding, and simple access to a handful of inadequate options, has been damaged, screwed up, hamstrung, and perversely mangled into a degree of unusability rarely seen in anything but the most inept amateur shareware. The designer (probably a whole building full of designers and market researchers and systems analysts and coders) has achieved the New Coke of user interfaces. Useless, inferior, and pointless, since nobody asked for it in the first place.

Flame off. (Hey, it’s my blog, so I get to flame when I feel the need.)

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