My Windows 8 Experience

When I started using Windows 8 I didn’t expect to have issues with being able to organize things the way I want to. At the risk of sounding crotchety and inflexible, I must say that the Windows 7 experience was near perfect and the Windows 8 experience is ridiculous.

In Windows 7 whenever I needed an application, I would browse the programs from the start menu. For me, the layout was natural. I knew what folders looked like. They were manila and rectangular with a tab at the top. They’ve looked that way for all my life. If the application was a standalone one, I would look for it outside of a folder. If it was part of a suite, I would look for a folder by the name of the suite. They were arranged vertically, so I could easily see the length of each name. If I was looking for “paint.net”, then I could easily scroll down to the p’s and look for a short entry. It was quick and painless.

In Windows 7 if I used something like paint.net on a regular basis, I could pin it to the start menu. If it was the only “p” on the start menu, then I could hit the Windows key, then the “P” key, and it would start up. Simple, easy, painless. Okay, in this case I lied a little. “Programs” starts with “p”, so I would actually have to hit the Windows key, then the “P” key, then the “Enter” key. But for most applications it was one key shorter.

Enter Windows 8. Now the Windows key brings me to a butt-ugly assortment of live tile garbage that hurts my brain to look at. I have to search for a tiny little arrow to access the things that I do care to look at, a poor replacement of the programs list – “Apps”.

By default, Windows 8 apps claim to be organized by name, which would be decent if it was true. In reality, some apps are organized by name, and others are organized by category. Gone is the concept of folders, and everything has a colorful image next to it that makes me feel like I’m in CandyLand. The images are so small that they are practically meaningless. I need to read the text next to it to decipher what it is. The organization can be changed to “By Date Installed”, which is useless, or “By Most Used”, which makes everything I use infrequently impossible to find. I’ve changed my app organization to “By Category”, which is somewhat better than the alternatives, but its visual layout and CandyLand icons still cause my head to hurt.

Apps are still arranged vertically, but they now wrap to multiple columns with no logical separation. If the text is too long, it gets truncated so Windows can cram more columns onto the screen. This results in unintelligible entries such as “Download Microsoft SQL Server C…”. What is this app going to do for me? I’ve never bothered to waste my time finding out.

Categories are simply plain text above the apps, which makes them almost invisible. There is no way to hide categories that I’m not interested in. Tell me, honestly, do I need to see all 50 applications contained in Microsoft SQL Server and Visual Studio every time I look at my apps? No. There is no way to remove an app from the list without uninstalling it. Why should I have to look at “Microsoft Web Platform Installer” every time I open the apps screen? I have never used it, and I never will. Same goes for “Windows Media Center”, “Windows Media Player”, and about 100 other apps.

Pinning apps to the start menu now means creating a live tile. I have chosen to bypass the live tile screen because it is absolutely worthless to me. So now, the best alternative I’ve come up with is to pin apps to my taskbar. It’s not ideal, because I generally like having a clutter-free taskbar. Another alternative is creating a shortcut on the desktop. Yeah, that’s not going to happen. The only thing I hate more than a cluttered taskbar is a cluttered desktop.

Some people have suggested using the global search instead of the live tiles or apps screens. Okay, let’s go down that path for a minute. Now instead of hitting the Windows key, then hitting a single character key to immediately access the app I want, I now need to type multiple characters, wait for Windows to think for a bit, watch it present me with some valid results and some garbage, then arrow down or use my mouse to select what I hope is the app I was looking for. Yeah, that’s much better!

Microsoft, you really piss me off with this release. It’s undeniably a step back for PC users. I understand why you did it though. It’s for tablet users. That’s fine. How much of the market is using Windows tablets? Roughly 16%. PCs running Windows are roughly 80%. Sure, it definitely makes sense to replace the PC experience with something optimized for tablets at this time. Definitely! Keep up the good work. We don’t need a PC Windows experience anymore.

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User Interface Design

I attended a user interface training event today from DevExpress, after which I highly recommend UI design training for every developer. Whether you create business applications, web sites, web applications, tablet or phone apps, or whatever, if you have a screen that your users interact with, you should care how well your information is presented on that screen.

Within my company, I can already identify some areas of improvement. I was initially blown away by the speed, capability, and flexibility of our product, as well as the design and elegance of the code it runs on. I am still extremely impressed with it, but I have occasionally found the usability of our UI lacking. Little things like the placement of buttons, the emphasis given to controls on the screen, and the use (or lack of use) of whitespace all make a difference in the usability of an application.

For years I have been intimidated when it came to user interface design. I have thought to myself, and have said out loud that “I am not artistic, so I shouldn’t be a designer.” One problem with that thinking is, as a developer in today’s environment, visual design of an application is inescapable. Chances are that you cannot get away with strictly creating web services, OS services, or simple console applications that perform work in the background. If there are such programming jobs available, they’ve probably been filled already, and the people filling them probably have no intention of giving their seats up. The alternative, then, is to realize that you are creating user interfaces already, whether you like it or not, and to create them the best that you can.

As I learn more about UI design throughout my career, I realize that it is actually less of an art and more of a science. In fact, the more artistic the UI, the greater its chances are of reduced usability. Over the past few years I have become increasingly intrigued by the biology and science of User Interface design. I also seem to have a knack for identifying usable and poor designs. This new perspective helps me to realize that just because I am not artistic doesn’t mean I can’t create well designed user interfaces.