Microsoft's Windows Chief on Windows 8: You're Doing It Wrong!

It can take days to weeks for users to adjust to Windows 8, the new head of Windows product development admits in a recent interview. What's wrong with this picture?

In an interview with the MIT Technology Review, Julie Larson-Green explained that most users "don't have trouble upfront" with Microsoft's new operating system. But for those that do, it can take some time to get used to. 

"Two days to two weeks is what we used to say in Office, and it’s similar in Windows 8," Larson-Green said. "We do a 'living with Windows' program where we watched people over a series of months in their household. A lot of people don’t have trouble upfront."

Larson-Green should know; she was the mastermind behind the "ribbon" interface that appears in the most recent versions of Microsoft Office. She told the Tech Review that it took about the same amount of time for users to become accustomed to the ribbon interface as it did for Windows 8. 

Let's think about that for a minute. At least on the surface, there are two immediate responses to that point:

  1. A business productivity perspective.
  2. The out-of-the-box, consumer response.

Neither favor Microsoft.

Is Windows 8 More Efficient?

Productivity is an interesting metric; Basically, it equates to useful work done in a given amount of time. Generally, increased efficiency equals increased productivity, but that's not necessarily true: an inefficient process that adds an extra step or two can be just as productive if performed quickly. Put another way: the Macintosh OS may in fact be simpler and more efficient than Windows 7. But I never completely switched because years of habit made me more productive on Windows.

The same thing may hold true for Windows 8, at least according to Larson-Green.

"Some people who review it for a shorter period of time may not feel how rich it really is. We’re going for the over-time impression rather than the first 20 minutes out of the box. We’ve found that the more invested you were in the old way, the more difficult the transition is, which is unfortunate because we first hear about everything in the tech press. Those are the ones that we knew up front are going to have the most challenge."

Way to alienate your influencer base, Julie. Are you saying that Windows 8 wasn't designed for the liberal tech press "experts, but for the real 'Mericans who have never used a computer before?"

In all seriousness, what we haven't seen from Microsoft is any justification to buy Windows 8 based on productivity. To be fair, the switch from Windows Vista to Windows 7 didn't provoke many productivity studies, either; aside from an English town council that loved Windows 7, as well as an English gambling community, Betfair, which felt similarly, most merely assumed that Windows 7 was far more efficient than Vista. What we do know, however, is that usability experts, such as Jakob Nielsen and Raluca Budiu, have panned Windows 8 for aspects like too much "cognitive overhead," a fancy term for forcing users to remember how to do things in a new way. 

In fact, Larson-Green herself put it well in 2009: "It was really about how we make the PC more productive, and get out of the way more so that people can spend less time interacting with the PC and more time doing the tasks they use the PC to do," she told InformationWeek, describing Windows 7.

From a productivity standpoint, the bottom line is this: Yes, new applications and technologies require training. According to Microsoft, at least some percentage of users take up to two weeks to get up to speed. If you're a decision maker at a large enterprise, are you wlling to sacrifice two days to two weeks of your entire employee base to learn an operating system that replaces a perfectly functional Windows 7? Two weeks of lost productivity costs a heck of a lot of money.

I'd be asking this question: If Windows 8 can make up that lost time in some other way, shouldn't Microsoft be telling us about it? So far, it hasn't.

Found The Windows 8 Charms Yet? Good Job!

From there, Larson-Green gets a little patronizing. 

"Over 90% of customers, from our data, use the charms and find the start screen all in the first session," Larson-Green added. "Even if you’re a desktop user, over time there’s a cutover point around six weeks where you start using the new things more than the things you’re familiar with."

Patting your customers on the head for using the basic functions of the operating system isn't something she should tout. It's something that she should assume. But although I'm not entirely sure where Larson-Green is going when she refers to desktop users (versus mobile? the desktop UI?) one thing is clear: six weeks is an awfully long time to start using the "new things".

Comparisons to Apple are unavoidable. How long does it take a new user to learn how to use an iPad? Some time, certainly. But days? Weeks? And I would argue that discovering new features should be a delight, not a chore.

In many ways, this is Microsoft's equivalent of Apple's pathetic "you're holding it wrong" moment on the iPhone 4.

Most customers are invested in the "old way," Ms. Larson-Green - and that's not a problem, it's actually an advantage for Microsoft since that old way usually involves your products. Instead of blaming the customers, many think you should have met them halfway. At least.