The Windows 8 Disaster

In 2012, my computer died. It had lived a long life so this was not much of a surprise. It did, however, mean that I would have to buy into the brand new Windows 8 operating system. When Windows 8 first launched, Microsoft made it very difficult to purchase a new computer on the familiar, and much beloved Windows 7 OS. I’d heard some of the negative buzz, but was given to understand that this was a “learning curve” situation, the result of doddering old PC users who were averse to change. I was myself averse to change, but I didn’t like the idea of paying an addition $100 to “downgrade” my OS. This was a mistake.


Figure 1 Windows 8 Start Screen (CNET 2012)

The Windows 8 operating system was designed to be a universal operating system for a suite of Windows devices, such as the new tablets and Windows phone. In 2012, there was a sense that the tablet was going to displace the classic laptop design. Microsoft, in their rush to catch up with Apple, lock in users, and begin the migration to the cloud, failed to consider the very different ways laptops, tablets, and phones are used.

Laptop computers were designed as portable personal computers. The design of the laptop computer includes a number of affordances for time intensive work involving a great deal of human-computer interaction. The flat base of the laptop with a raised digital display is designed to make interaction while seated, or standing at a high counter, easy. The hinge design also allows the user to angle the screen, easily adjusting the computer to fit each user’s form. The design in very stable, once set up on a flat surface, the laptop is not going to fall over. The ease with which the user can input information is enhanced by the QWERTY keyboard and large graphic display. However, the size and weight of the laptop do not afford walking while operating the device. Additionally, laptops are usually wifi or ethernet dependent. These affordances led to its widespread adoption in the home and workplace, where working environments are more controlled and when work is performed over longer periods of time.

In contrast, smartphones were designed as mobile communication devices. Smartphones can be held comfortably in one hand and easily carried as an accessory. Smartphones were also designed to play games, watch videos, and access digital media while on the move. The convenience of smartphones has led to their adoption in both personal and professional settings, however it small display and relative difficulty (when compared with affordances of a QWERTY keyboard) for composing lengthy messages make them a poor choice for many business or digital media production purposes.

Finally the tablet, which at a larger size than the smartphone, was designed with affordances that fall somewhere between a laptop and a smartphone. Notably, kickstands for propping up screens and QWERTY keyboards are not affordances of the tablet and must be purchased as accessories. Most of these accessories still lack the affordance of the clam shell laptop design, such a range of motion for angling the screen. For many professional settings, the affordances of a laptop still outweigh the tablet. The most notable affordance of the tablet that has not been universally adopted into the laptop is the touchscreen.

This brings us back to Window 8, the operating system designed to be used on all three devices. The tiled display of the Windows 8 Start page was a good design for a smartphone with a touchscreen. Touchscreens afford swiping and tapping. The large blocky icons conform with size of human fingers which make them easy to select and launch. Applications launched on a smartphone are designed to take over the entire screen, which given the small size of the digital display, ensures the viewer can read all the important information presented. Unfortunately for Microsoft, these same design features when put on a laptop computer were counter productive and non-intuitive for the user experience.

On the larger graphics display, the launching of applications that take over the whole screen constrained the number of activities a user could perform at a given time. Multitasking, a simple task of having more than one window open at once, was suddenly a challenge if any of the programs being run were designed in an app format. Additionally, the apps were designed to be launched from the Start page, while more traditional programs like Microsoft office were designed to be accessed from a tradition desktop layout. Moving between these two layouts was, as described by PC World in their review of the operating system, a mess:

If all you need to do is launch an application, you can simply click its tile in the Start screen. If you need robust file management and navigation features, you have to access the desktop. After you boot the machine, pressing the Windows key sends you to the desktop. Unfortunately, the Windows key isn’t consistent in this behavior: If you’re in an app, pressing the Windows key always returns you to the Start screen. Press it again, and you’re in the most recent Windows 8 app. Instead, to move to the desktop consistently, you need to be in the habit of pressing Windows-D. Another option is to move the pointer to the lower left of the screen and click there (though this method works only if you have used no other app recently). (PCWorld 2012)

Even outside of confusion like the above, interaction was nonintuitive. The majority of laptops in 2012 did not have touchscreens so “swiping” left or right was accomplished with a mouse by scrolling up and down. The tile display that was sized for human fingers when displayed on a phone was extremely large on a laptop monitor and made the workspace busy and overwhelming. There was at once too much information and too little. Lack of signaling left users confused as to where they could find basic functions (hidden off the side of the screen, an area that previously had not existed). The affordances offered by Windows 8 were often imperceivable and violated conventions, which Norman argues are cultural constraints as they are learned behaviors “shared by a cultural group.” (Norman, 1999, 41) 

Less than a year later, Windows 8.1 was rolled out which allowed users to boot into the desktop, bypassing the Start screen. However, the damage was done. The failure of designers to consider that different devices had different affordances, as well as different rituals and behaviors associated with them, doomed Windows 8. Murray describes the designer’s task  as needing to be “grounded in the service of specific human needs: this is what gives the work clarity and direction. “ (Murray, 2012, 42) Norman gives his own warning, “Conventions are not arbitrary: they evolve, they require a community of practice…Use them with respect. Violate them only with great risk.” (Norman, 1999, 41)

Donald A. Norman, “Affordance, Conventions, and Design.” Interactions 6, no. 3 (May 1999): 41.

How to Get the Start Menu Back in Windows 8.” CNET. Accessed October 11, 2017.

Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. 42.

“Windows 8: The Official Review.” PCWorld, October 25, 2012.