Windows 8 Has 'Amazingly Low Usability', Says Former Sun Engineer

Two interfaces, a lack of multiple windows and a flat visual style that hinders "discoverability" have been singled out as Windows 8's more significant issues by Jakob Nielsen, a usability consultant and former engineer for Sun Microsystems. Nielsen goes so far as to say that trying to combine a tablet and PC interface into a single operating system was a "strategic mistake" on Microsoft's part.

Nielsen goes into more detail on Windows 8's deficiencies both in an interview with Computerworld and a blog post on Use It. Speaking to Computerworld, Nielsen states that Microsoft's vision of a tablet/desktop OS hasn't worked out:

"That was the true strategic mistake, that they could do 'one Windows' on both tablets and PCs ... Windows 8 has low usability, amazingly low usability."

Nielsen goes on to say that Windows 8 takes control away from users, something they've grown accustomed to with previous iterations of the operating system. He's also not a fan of the low information density that Metro apps seem to have adopted, comparing apps for Bing Finance and the LA Times with their website counterparts:

Despite running on a huge 10.6-inch tablet, Bing Finance shows only a single story (plus 3 stock market quotes) on the initial screen. The Los Angeles Times is not much better: this newspaper app's initial screen is limited to 3 headlines and an advertisement. In fact, they don't even show the lead story's full headline and the summary has room for only 7 words.

It's still early days for Windows 8, but it's hard to see Nielsen's concerns being addressed with a service pack or platform update. As for the apps themselves, there's still plenty of time for tweaks, improvements and innovation from third-party developers.

[Use It, via Computerworld]



    Of course. Windows 8 is a mess. It has one goal and one alone: to get you ready for Windows 9, which will mandate the use of the Windows Store for all software installations.

      And if that truly happened, I'd run Linux exclusively.

        $: sudo apt-get install office
        $: office: package not found

          There's KWord, LibreOffice,, Google Drive.

      that would get them into a lot of trouble in Europe.

      Yeah, I also thought Windows 8's purpose is to make everything ready for Windows 9. You see, there are little touch-screen monitors at all, and Microsoft is pushing all manufacturers to use Windows 8. What can they do, they have no way but to use touch-screens anyway. So a few years later when Microsoft stops supporting Windows 7, and most monitors are touch-screens, they want to sell Windows 9.

      Sounds like a plan, but I think Microsoft may lose the game. You see, Now there are lots of other alternatives that people can use. Android, iPad... even Linux looks nice (Ubuntu and Linux Mint)... OS X can never be as popular as Windows unless Apple allows it to be installed on any computers, which Apple will never do. If only Google introduces a real desktop OS, Microsoft will encounter a serious problem. I might see Windows going down in my life time.

      Yep, every second windows is the one to get.

    "Nielsen goes on to say that Windows 8 takes control away from users"
    Well this isn't true, I haven't lost any control on mine, and I've been using it for months.

    It seems that a lot of these naysayers get fixated on one thing or another. I agree that using Modern you may have less true multitasking and have to rely on unreliable things like your short-term memory. Well, don't use Modern for those tasks, use the desktop.

    Compare W8 RT on a tablet against other tablets. Compare W8 on a PC against other similar form factors. I can't see that on a basic PC W8 takes anything away from the user. If you don't like how your task at hand works in Modern, do it on the desktop.

    Similarly, comparing RT to other tablet OSs doesn't seem to leave much out for me. The main argument is Apps, and that will change in time. All the rest really seems to come down to personal taste.

      isnt it called metro? not modern.

        I think it's the other way around, used to be called METRO now it's MODERN

    Former competitor boohoos Windows.. slow news day?

      Did you read the blog post at all? "Because this column is very critical of Microsoft's main product, some people will no doubt accuse me of being an Apple fanboy or a Microsoft hater. I'm neither. I switched from Macintosh to Windows many years ago and have been very pleased with Windows 7."

        Well, anyone who was pleased with Windows 7 obviously doesn't use many of the features it comes with, as many of his criticisms of W8 would also apply to W7. e.g. The paring down of control in the Settings panel is no different from the clumping together of features in Control Panel in W7. Of course, in both cases the full functionality is still there if you care to find it so power users have lost nothing.

          Nice straw man argument there - trying to paint anyone who likes Windows 7 and not Windows 8 as a hypocrite, without actually refuting any of the criticisms made in the post.

    Nielsen judges everything according to Nielsen. Check out his website, which follows his kinds of guidelines:

    Also the "flat" design is more than just design. There are a whole bunch of decisions there around performance and footprint. The flat design is there because windows 8 is faster and lighter. The design is in fact an integral part of that approach.

      His websites design may be simple, but it's also horrible and unattractive, I immediatly felt like reading absolutely nothing on it due to the fact it was all text with tons of hyperlinks.

      "Flat" design is just another term for "no fake 3D shading and useless graphics".

      We're in the digital age Nielsen we don't need redundant UI to trick us into thinking we're really using a paper style notepad.

    Kinda stupid, I'm using it without and problem or hinderance, infact I use it exactly like windows 7, start menu and all, I dont use the metroUI at all except for select things like the game apps and such.

    So, guy wanting to sell $300 PDF on usability makes statement of how usability on a widely-used product is awful, and he could do better?

      haha well played cleverclogs. paid advertisement perhaps?

    It's disturbing how many people apparently don't know who Jakob Nielsen is, with his long scientific contribution to web usability, which goes back to the earliest days of the Internet.

      Nielsen is a trusted name in the usability game but in the end his opinion is his opinion. You don't need to take it as gospel. I personally like windows 8 but I also like linux and ios. Each to their own.

      @virt - I know who he is, and he is well past his use-by-date. If he had his way everything would be underlined links. Even this very site would not be very useable according to his guidelines. He isn't about innovation, he decided some years ago what was the one way to do things and he is sticking with it.

        Fair observations, though he did a lot of research to arrive at his opinions, so I think they have more weight than that of many commentators.

      So what you're saying is that he is really fricken old?

    "...a usability consultant and former engineer for Sun Microsystems"
    Coming from the company that brought you OpenWindows AKA BrokenWindows and CDE. I'd take what he says with a grain of salt. I mean, look at his website...

    It will be up to innovative third party software to do what Microsoft should have done. During install, there should be an option to chose the start button, or metro. Had I know this option did not exist, I would not have 'upgraded'
    Well done Start8 for your Start button!

    Windows 8 is utterly ridiculous. Nielsen hit the nail on the head when he said that the mistake was trying to design one OS for both desktops and tablets. It's so bad I can't even take it seriously as an OS option. I hope Microsoft learns some major lessons from this mistake.

      But that is not what they have done. They have the Modern UI for tablets and the desktop for proper computers. There is some overlap but mostly it is an either/or proposition for users. e.g. I probably haven't opened a "Metro" app on my new laptop since I bought it a fortnight ago and rather than download and install more apps, I have actually uninstalled most of the apps that install with Win8.

        For now I agree, however the OS is very young and the above probably applies due to there being a very limited number of apps on the Windows App store. With time, applications that were designed for the desktop may be ported to Modern/Metro UI and desktop versions left in the dust. After all, many developers won't want to support two versions of the same application and if the Modern UI versions are more easily made available on Windows RT which lacks the desktop support, then the decision may have been made for the developer.

        If thats the case, then end users will either be forced into the Modern UI, will have to stick to older versions of software (assuming a standard desktop version was ever available and this isn't a brand new app), or they will have to change to a new application which likely has some flow on consequences.

        The fact the Windows Store is quite barren now probably means that scenario isn't popping up an awful lot. I suspect MS hopes that will change and developers will shift to the Modern UI. Besides the whole Windows RT factor, theres also touch screen desktops, 'Pro' tablets and Windows Phone 8 which would all benefit from an App having a Modern UI instead of a traditional WIndows desktop application.

    There is one glaringly bad assumption made here that makes most of this guy's comments completely wrong. Here it is -

    "Unfortunately, having two environments on a single device is a prescription for usability problems...
    ... Users have to learn and remember where to go for which features. "

    This is completely incorrect, as every feature in Win7 is carried over to Win8's desktop. i.e. You can do EVERYTHING you already know how to do in the same place you always have. Well, at least you can launch the feature from the same place so there is no need to relearn anything. e.g. If you want to add a new Bluetooth device, just click on the Bluetooth icon in the system tray or go to the Bluetooth section in Control Panel, just like you always have. It may go to the new Settings panel but that is actually a decent improvement over the old dialog box, so it's no big deal and not really a new thing to learn.

    On the "Flat Style Reduces Discoverability" front, he is wrong again. In the image used in his blog post to illustrate this point, every single item is clickable. Moreover, when it is not obvious where to click, it actually encourages you to click everywhere, which improves dicoverability. The Modern UI uses a button style where it may not be obvious what is clickable or where to click. Elsewhere everything is clickable.

    Where he is spot-on is about information density but that is apps, not Windows. MS really need to rethink how apps are going to work because none of them work well on a big screen. e.g. In Zune I can see about 50 album covers, as well as 20 or so artists and songs (in lists) when I have it full-screen. OTOH, with the stupid X-Box Music app I can only see about a dozen albums OR artists at a time, which means a ridiculous amount of scrolling around to find what I want. It is absolutely terrible, worse even than Windows Media Player.

    The rest of it, however, seems to refer specifically to the new touch-friendly side of W8, as though the desktop no longer existed. e.g. " 'Windows' no longer supports multiple windows on the screen." This is clearly rubbish, as the desktop supports as many windows as it ever has.

    Overall, these things give it the air of having an agenda, not a fair and reasonable assessment at all. If he wants to be taken seriously, he needs to be consistent. He cannot in one section complain about the dual UIs and then forget the desktop exists when it suits him. I do understand where he is coming from but I think the problem is simply that users are far too used to things being much harder than they need to be, so it never occurs to them to do the obvious thing. Over time, though, I think everyone will get used to this kind of ridiculously simple UI and will wonder how they ever put up with the stuff that seems so easy today.

    Last edited 26/11/12 5:54 am

      Dont even bother, everyone is firmly in their ways. I myself am the same not having used metro at all since install.
      Not because i dont like it but because i forgot it was even there. In w7 i only used start to search programs if they werent already a shortcut somewhere, same applys to w8. Stil yet to find a steam game in my library i cant run on w8

      Not so fast MotorMouth. You cannot get away from the fact that the features you have mentioned are completely half baked. I don't have a problem with metro in and of itself, but the implementation is so half assed as to be completely useless in its current form and an impediment where it shouldn't be.

      On the subject of the settings panel. It's a good idea, but it's a mish mash of features. You can't do all your regular settings functions from that panel, which means going back to the desktop is still a requirement even for all users, which is either frustrating for tablet users because the targets are optimised for keyboard and mouse, or an impediment for pc users because they have gone through a panel that doesn't service what they want to do.

      He is not wrong at all on flat style reduces discoverability. For us "tech savvy" people, it's fine. When we click we know it will be unlikely to have any major consequences. Joe average though really doesn't understand what's going on at the best of times and is scared of breaking their computer. Clicking spaces and text that they don't know is clickable is ultimately confusing for them.

      Information density is actually partly a windows problem as the modern ui dictates how apps should be designed. You would know this well I'm sure. On Saturday I played around with a lumia 800. It was a nice bit of kit, but facebook was almost completely unusable because the guidelines for design has meant that a massive photo sits and occupies the top half of the screen. then there was a bunch of big header text, and then the bottom 3/5's of the screen was what i actually wanted to see. It's not the app developer being inept. I know because facebook on iphone and android uses a far greater amount of screen space for content. It's a modern ui problem.

      As I seem to be saying quite often now on various forums, Windows 8 suffers from being not ambitious enough. the desktop should not exist on the tablet, and office should have a proper metro version with all the features that the desktop version has. the settings and file browsing could have been made into a modern ui style and it would have been way more cohesive and user friendly.
      The desktop should still be front and centre on every other device where touch isn't a priority. It shouldn't be treated as an app. metro apps should launch into the desktop and be resizable windows just like everything else up to this point. It would have saved microsoft a lot of the backlash. Instead we are in the awkward halfway house where are there are lots of good features that work badly at trying to glue the two interfaces together.

      Last edited 26/11/12 11:42 am

        How is the Implementation of the Metro side of Win8 half-baked? It is already superior to iOS or Android - split-screen ability, live tiles, etc. - so if Metro is half-baked, those things must be alpha versions. The apps themselves are definitely half-baked but that is equally true of phone/tablet apps, it's just a little more forgivable on devices you have low expectations for.

        I love your air of superiority - "us tech savvy people". In my experience it is "tech savvy people" who have trouble doing things differently. "Joe Average" is happy to click all over the place because he knows he knows nothing. I've witnessed it countless times on Zune support forums - users who don't think to try the most obvious thing because they assume it has to be more complicated.

        BTW, in case you didn't actually bother to read my comment, I agree completely about the information density issue. It is the no. 1 reason I don't use the Metro stuff. I like some parts of it, I just get sick of all the scrolling around I have to do to find things. Strangely, I don't get that on my phone at all.

        Your description of the Facebook app does not match with the Metro design principles at all. A quick glance at Contacts will confirm that - small photos and text. It definitely sounds like whoever made the app did a shithouse job of it but I thought you could do Facebook from the People hub? (I wouldn't know myself, never tried it.) Interestingly, the way they do apps on WP7 is much, much better than in Windows 8. It seems that with each iteration, MS move further and further away from what initially got me interested in the Metro design language. ZuneHD's pure text approach is still far and away the best implementation I have used, Windows 8 the worst.

        I really don't see how the desktop is treated as an app, when it is the only place where you can do all the things you associate with Windows. Just because there is a tile to take you there, doesn't demote it in any way that I can see. It is still "front and centre" of my computing experience, as it is where I spend 99.98% of my time. Starting at the Start Screen simply saves you a step when you first start your computer every day.

          Sorry, I wasn't trying to imply that just metro is half baked, the whole OS is.

          I guess my experience is different to yours regarding people interested in tech. I have always found that the people interested in technology are the ones interested in learning to do new things with it.

          I was agreeing with your comment on information density, but i disagree that the blame is the developers. the problem is universal as even the Microsoft official apps suffer from it. Therefore it's a problem with the design language. Perhaps its not such a problem on the phone because you are going to have to scroll regardless, and horizontal scrolling results in more content being moved with less motion.

          The desktop is treated as an app for sure. When you startup w8 you go to the start screen. Having read your comment, I understand you see this as an advantage because you just tap whatever you want and go. You could say that that was able to be done with a well arranged desktop in the first place, and the start menu acted as a well organised locker for lesser used apps and things like the control panel. Anyway back to the topic. When you open a metro app, it lives in metro land, and you can switch between metro apps. you can also swap between the desktop too in the metro app switcher, but you cannot swap into the applications on the desktop from the metro interface without first going to the desktop. In this way, the desktop is an "app". when you press the start button to go home, you don't go home to the desktop, you go home to the start screen. What if i just wanted to swap directly between a metro and desktop app? it's a two step process as far as i understand. Now you could just not use metro apps, but then that means you get to miss out on the way that Microsoft wants to see apps happen in the next 5 or so years.

    I'm just going to say this: go to Nielsen's website,, and ask yourself if you want to take user experience advice from this guy.

    To me, his website has horrible usability and user experience. Information density is not the be all and end all of usability.

      I disagree, without going back there can you tell me what was on the left and what was on the right? Whilst it might not be heavily styled in a modern fashion, the content is very easy to navigate, organised in two distinct streams, the search is prominent and links are obvious. My gripes are that it didn't act in a fully responsive way scaling nicely to portrait on my phone with sufficient margins and more anally the lack of alt text on the social media icons, accessibility standards and all.

      I think most of the points are valid, at the end of the day the 'average' user is going to have problems discovering functionality. The 'power' user will need to re-learn processes and find ways to work with reduced functionality.

      "Instead of noticing the great new things you can do with windows 8, what you immediately start noticing is what you've lost" - youtube id mobileopportunity

      Last edited 26/11/12 12:23 pm

    Right .... and we listen to a "Sun" UX expert? The guys that brought us the hideously unbearable Java UI experience?

      How are those two things related? Can you prove he worked on Java UI components?

    Having just upgraded I have to agree about the information density in Metro apps. I have two 1080p monitors, why can I only see 8 things in the store without scrolling. Everything is so too big.

    oh noes!!! TWO environments!!! SO confusing!!!!!

    So much hyperbole.

    Windows 8 and Windows 7 are almost exactly the same.

    Instead of having that poxy, shitty start menu, you now have a fully customisable, metro one. As well as installing legacy software, you also have the option of apps you can get from the Windows store.

    What's the issue? You CAN have multiple windows. Right-click "Open new window".

    In other words, everyone that has used it so far is either a moron, or freaked out by the metro start menu.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now