As much as I like Windows 10, I also liked Windows 7 a whole lot. XP was very good, and after an abortive attempt at replacing it with the simply awful Vista, Microsoft pulled their heads out and produced the magnificent Windows 7, which has never locked up on me, on any machine, in something like a decade of use. The key user interface improvement that Seven made on Vista was to undo much of what Vista had attempted — that is, Seven reverted more to the XP interface.
And Seven begat Eight, which was similarly awful, and Eight begat 8.1, which atoned for the sins of eight by not locking up so much, and by — yup — reverting the UI back to a more Seven-ish experience. Which was more like XP.
In particular, I am referring to the persistent belief across Microsoft that a new menu paradigm is called for, with menus that either float, change contents, or both. There are advantages, and the effort is not without success. But they keep trying to accomplish the change by force majeur. It is true that we must update operating system from time to time. It is not at all true that we also must “upgrade” user interfaces. After all, one of the key attributes of any professionally-designed software in the last twenty years is that the interface is separate from the algorithms. For example, there should be several options on how to delete* a file. Oh, and there are! I can:
- right click on an icon, and select ‘Delete’ (context menu)
- drag that file icon to a trash icon (drag and drop)
- tag the file in ‘Explorer’ (the default file manager) and use ‘menu key’, then ‘D’
- tag the file in ‘Explorer’ (the default file manager) and use menu > File > Delete
- Use an application’s intermediate file dialog (where you go to ‘Open…’ or ‘Save as…’) to select and delete items before actually opening or saving anything
- Use an application’s own menus to delete a file, if equipped**
- Allow an application to delete a file with no direct user action — “just following orders”, as when a garbage-collection routine deletes the oldest second-oldest set of backups to preserve space**
- Use a console (text) interface such as cmd.com or powershell.exe and issue commands like ‘delete file.txt’ (DOS / cmd.com), or ‘rm file.txt’ (powershell)
So it is not the case that the actions we want can only be performed through some specific interface. Why does this matter? Because at any point, Microsoft could have given users the option to use either of two (or more) interfaces on the system.
This is what most users want Microsoft to tell them:
“Here is an updated system with the more familiar interface, and with an optional new one which we think you will love once you get used to it. The old interface is provided for continuity and in support of your productivity. The new interface will take advantage of many of the improvements we have made to this operating system. Take it on at your own chosen speed”
Microsoft used to concern itself with one of the key things that Apple also used to concern itself with — discoverability. This meant that a person could start using a thing and simply intuit basic functionality. This is of course accomplished by anticipating the user’s expectations, and respecting whatever those are perceived to be. It is not the place of an interface designer to insist that the user is wrong — the interface is wrong. Discoverability also meant that as a user progressed into the system, new areas could be discovered just by a fairly monkey-ish process of trial-and-error. The user knows more or less that he wants to listen to a song, and if given a chance, he will get there on his own. No need to refer to the manual for something so basic.***
The Office 2007 and contemporary Windows Vista interfaces were just awful, and could have cost MS real market share if Ubuntu had been ready to receive at the time. But the whole commodity Linux world was fighting Holy Wars against Adobe and others at the time, and presented no soft landing for the hordes suddenly considering abandoning Microsoft.
What hordes? Vista and Office 2007, with their radical, mandatory interface changes, reduced power users and experts to the status of ignorant and embarrassed fools. The ignorant were unaffected, and really liked the cool new look. They were already facing a steep learning curve. They had nothing to lose.
Power users, on the other hand, lost everything. Several layers of habits cannot be adjusted at once. It’s hard enough to change a single thing about your habits, and while clusters of microhabits can be effective units of change, the necessary changes dwarfed any reasonable amount of change by orders of magnitude. The salt-and-peppers of the information workforce had been demoted to beginner status.
This problem was especially acute where it mattered most — at work, where even power users rarely have the ability to tweak user settings in any meaningful way. There were options for some aspects of the new interfaces, but they were hard to get to, or required downloading something, or required registry edits. Fat chance at work. More to the point, many interface aspects were simply forced, and this is the unforgiveable part. There was no technical reason for Microsoft to whip its customers into a new way of behaving. They could have offered both.
So here I am in 2019, with what should probably be called Windows 11.**** The interface for the operating system itself is pretty tame, because I have been given the option to make it stay calm. So I’m grateful that this bare stinking minimum bar has been met — they offered a choice. The Office suite interface keeps getting worse, however, and along with the proliferation of incomprehensible versions and licenses, I have no idea what product does what anymore. MS is engaged in a decade-long campaign of crippling once-functional software to force you onto their “service” models which do away with pesky things like your property rights. You have no property in the software anymore — you simply consume a service. This is an appallingly bad business model for business, and for any serious user. Imagine buying a car, but you have to rent the engine, and it stops running if it cannot find a record of your payment every morning on first start. Or the next step, wherein power is beamed by microwave specifically to each electric car, in the amount needed at that moment, from a satellite which also must be able to find a record of your payment each time it looks. Or else.
Microsoft is not stupid — they are doing this on purpose. The only threat to this model is those who still own their engines, and who insist on owning the engine in the next car they buy, or else they buy somewhere else. Microsoft’s monopoly position means that they can get away with abuses that almost nobody else can. Who else can? Why, Apple, of course. How? Apple and Microsoft “compete” largely for different market segments, which is no competition at all for most of the portfolio of each. And at any rate, Apple’s frayed vertical integration, where they make the hardware, the operating system, a great deal of software, and the online space which may of the “features” depend upon is just an admitted monopoly abuse parallel to the unspoken way that Microsoft’s dominance in Office software maintains their dominance in the OS market.
Microsoft is changing the user interface for good reasons and bad. The good reasons are found in some of the successes of the ribbon and contextual menus. Some improvements are just that — they take some getting used to in order to find, understand, and use effectively. The “second-guessing” is hit and miss, but the hits are quite helpful. The misses are usually in the positioning of floating menus anyway, where the durned thing always seems to settle down right where you don’t want it. Well, you can’t win them all, and I hardly demand perfection from a sprawling empire of software. I just need it to be useful and accessible.
Which brings me back to the good points of a decade of “improvement” in Microsoft user interface. The most popular improvements have all been reversions. Office 2007 forced the awful new ribbon interface on us — Office 2010 relented to a more XP-like experience. At the same time, Windows Vista itself forced similar changes, and Windows 7 as well relented, back to a more XP-ish interface. Windows 8 forced “Metro”, which was the childish, garish, embarrassing square flipping spinning thing, and you could not get out of it. Metro is the “Candy Crush Saga” of interface design — only fools liked it, and only jerks defended it. Microsoft initially stood their ground, but shot full of holes by arrows and bullets alike, they relented– and 8.1 fixed some of the awful crashiness of 8, and again clambered awkwardly back down the pole in the direction of XP.
Windows 10 has done an interesting thing — it came with friendlier options, so that you could opt to retain a more traditional interface right out of the box, and the install process (we don’t really install any more — what do we do — introduce ourselves?) was surprisingly careful to not railroad you into something like Metro [shudder!]. But by default, the OS still marches pretty strongly toward Microsoft’s chosen inevitable fate. It strides confidently away from you, satisfied that you will follow — after all, you have been through a decade of conditioning.
The contemporary (current at time of writing) office offerings are a bamboozling array. They all look different, and features are being turned off in the desktop version, only being preserved in the “Office 365”, which means pay-as-you-go cloud service license kerfuffle. Honest-to-Goodness, I can’t even begin to use that interface.
Even homely little applications like Outlook, the mail program, are getting the business. And despite the branding, it is apparent that Outlook online and Outlook on your computer have almost nothing in common. Of course they have different interfaces — they are fundamentally different software, with yawning gaps between the supposedly similar functions. You can connect to some online mail services from the desktop version, but not from the online one. Oh, it says that you can, says so right here — but you cannot. Those are not versions, then, but separate products.
One malfeature in particular has cost me greatly. Windows 7 had a virtual folder called Recent Places, which was available through every file dialog method (explorer, context menu, in-app open, in-app save, search and so forth) and it was gloriously, mechanically, blessedly consistent. I made a lot of bits flow in a recent job which required me to deal with a lot of documents and produce a single document — in text only. We used the share drive as our medium of exchange, which is not a bad way to go if you have some discipline about it (and if you have no discipline, then you need SharePoint or worse to discipline you when you misbehave). I had easily ten folders that I needed to use every day, and every day, most of those folders changed. The “Recent Places” functionality was the perfect mix of volatility and consistency — it was merely the exposure of a stack mentality to the file manager, but it made magic possible.
You set the recent folders thing to be your default view, and within that, you sort by date most recent up, and save that as a default. The first time you need to get to a new thing, you go to the folder wherein lies yesterday’s version — top of the list — and surf UP one folder, then create today’s folder beneath that. Do the same for each of your sources, where if you don’t have to make the new folder, you can still find it with even less trouble. Find the most recent that you have been to (it’s at the top), surf up one level, and then find the most recent which exists (it’s at the top), and dive in. Right there is today’s report. When the month changes, sometimes you have to go up two levels. When the year changes, sometimes you have to go up three.
Critically, you do not ever open yesterday’s file (unless you want to). Windows now sports a quick access thing, which is just another “favorites” or “shortcuts” ghetto of links. There’s also a “recent files”, which is NOT consistent, but which varies by application. But I don’t want the system to focus too tightly.
This may sound like a mighty particular use case, but it is pure magic. What really cemented by lust for this approach was this fact: if you set recent to your default view, and sort by most recent by default, then the majority of everything you ever need is right where you need it. No matter where it physically resides, this system works because of its relentless focus on what YOU are doing.
And it’s gone. Microsoft has taken away the Recent Places functionality. replacing it with three half-assed replacements, none of which singly or in combination can do what the old one did. There’s “Quick Access” thing which may or may not be new, but which MS says we are supposed to use instead of Recent Places.
The folder metaphor is supposed to replicate the actual file folder approach, and a folder is fundamentally not a thing — it is a place. When I go back to a folder, I expect to be where I was yesterday — not to do what I did yesterday. The best that Microsoft now allows is to repeatedly open the same file, and even if you want to use this method of saving a new version, the method to skive off a derivative has also changed.
The new file dialog boxes have reversed the order of almost everything. It’s been two years, and in order to save new version of a file, I still cannot simply ALT+F+A, type filename, hit return. Every. Friggin. Time I have to hit ALT+F+A, then grab my mouse, and click something like “current folder”, and then actually select the damned folder or click into the filename box, and THEN I get to type the name. Something like this — I can’t remember just how it goes — I have to single-step through it every time! Well for twenty years, we’ve been doing it the other way. What gives?
Microsoft’s move to the cloud, that’s what gives. MS is pushing the new interface to condition us away from the functions that we will no longer have. The cloud is not about to try to remember what you were doing last time. Every login could potentially come from a different machine, and how would it go about syncing local records with cloud records? Well, it’s hard, and so they’re not going to do it. Instead, this feature which worked magnificently has been taken off of desktops because Microsoft is really not interested in your desktop experience. They don’t actually own the computer, and it debatable who owns the operating system installed on it. So it’s your problem, not theirs. But in the cloud, they own everything except a fraction of your data. This is where Microsoft is driving us.
The new interfaces are straining to move away from the XP standard with its familiar placement of menus. Even between Macintosh, various Linux or Unix window managers and applications, and Windows, the menus have evolved largely in parallel. This is due to two things — a shared purpose, and a shared origin.
When I speak of the XP-style interface that MS keeps getting beat back to, there’s nothing particularly XP-ish about it except as the high-water mark unobtained by subsequent efforts. XP was like 2000 or Me, which was like 98, 95, and Windows 3.11 before them. And so on in the Apple world, and right on back to Xerox’ Palo Alto Research Center, which pioneered the WIMP (Window, Icon, Mouse, and Pointer) set of fundamentals for the modern user interface.
Like the IBM model M keyboard, “designed by American engineers”, the PARC WIMP interface is the result of a scientific approach to the human-machine interaction. Imagine a surface between you and your computer, through which every bit (literally, “bit”) of data must pass in order to be useful to you. A control panel printed on this surface would consist of a screen (out) and camera (in), a speaker (out) and a microphone (in), a keyboard (in) with a couple of lights (out), and a trackpad (in). There would be other buttons and lights, a slot for inserting data devices and another slot through which the thing would spit out printed sheets. Some additional logistics are needed (electricity, paper, and let’s just say that the network stays on the far side of the surface for all we care right now). Another day, perhaps, I’ll tell you which of these are worthy and why.
Now I personally am fond of text-only interfaces, but these must be well-designed, preferably again “by American engineers”, no matter how international you might hear the internet is. Oh, alright, I’ll admit that Anglophone and first-cousin Europeans (French, Swiss, Dutch, German) contributed mightily, but even so — the internet and the even the web are red, white, and blue beneath the runny cheese.
So we are fresh out of well-designed text interfaces, and the WIMPs have taken over. Still, there are right and wrong ways to go about this sort of thing. And the right way has been honed over time in the same way that the internal combustion engine, gas-cycle refrigeration, alternating current production and distribution, and any number of modern things have already been optimized to a nearly unassailable level of efficiency. The modern windowing interface is in no need of improvement except through the evolution of new features in the underlying application (to include an operating system). These would be new functionality, which should then be made accessible in a discoverable fashion through the windowing interface. One important concept is the desktop database — some systems do it in a useful fashion (Your Macintosh knows where every file is at every time, and therefore [application z] on your Mac never complains that it “cannot find the file”) and others don’t (ahem, Windows), but in any case, it is utterly transparent to the user interface experience. It shows up in what you can do, not in how you can do it.
Out habits are set not merely because we are old and crusty and learned the right way back when dinosaurs walked the earth — our habits are in fact the demonstrably correct, scientifically engineered, evolutionarily-honed, customer-tested, market-reinforced methods for working with information. Now that doesn’t make it easy, and it doesn’t mean that a single habit will suffice.
Different tasks can be suited to different methods. It is well and good to use a mouse to plow through a bunch of directories in order to get where you want to go, but then it is right and proper to use the physical keyboard to specify a filename. Even while I rail against the mouse as just the worst thing in the world ever (really, ask me about it some time), the fact is it’s here to stay, and no successful user interface will be without it again. This is because computers have been commoditized in the same way that cars have, and you no longer need to know anything about either in order to get your money’s worth, and to be genuinely productive — in a lowest-common-denominator kind of way.
But Microsoft’s continued sabotaging of the familiar WIMP interface is akin to the low-rent father who has his son’s gold medal bronzed.
* Just go with it.
** This is the OS allowing an application to act as an interface to system calls. Other API-like communications fit in here as well.
*** This is also a problem in the development versus the adoption of programming languages. BASIC had many flaws, but it was so thoroughly discoverable that young people just dug in and got busy. This is simply not possible anymore. Even Python, well-regarded for making sense and not pooping all over the house, is opaque to a beginner in a way that BASIC never was. Honest, you would have to encrypt your BASIC source code in order to confound a twelve-year old the way that modern languages do.
*** But I’m writing this from my ancient Windows 7 laptop. My user profile folder was created in October 2012, so this thing has about seven years exemplary use on it, including a decidedly tech-unfriendly trip to Afghanistan. I also have a Microsoft Surface, and while I do like it, and Windows 10 — it has just never become home. This Windows 7 laptop has survived two attempts to replace it.
It’s an HP Envy 4 with Windows 7, 8GB RAM and a hybrid disk drive, and I recommend snapping one up. I may get another. This one could die mid-sentence, and it wouldn’t owe me anything.