Card Sort Generator

I was preparing for a card sort yesterday, clicking around in OmniGraffle, trying to come up with a good grid for the cards, entering labels, when it occurred to me that there had to be an easier way. A cursory Internet search didn’t reveal anything, so I made the obvious choice, and spent half a day implementing a tool that renders a card sheet PDF from a list of terms:

cardsort.ignorethecode.net

It’s pretty simple. Enter your list of terms, select US Letter or A4, select how many cards there should be on a page, and download the rendered PDF.

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Matt Gemmell has written an extensive article explaining Windows Phone’s user interface from the point of view of an iPhone users:

This isn’t a review, or even a comparison. You can think of it as a sort of traveller’s guide for iPhone users, who find themselves in the land of Windows Phone. It’s also about the platform itself, rather than any specific handset.

Well worth reading.

Nintendo's Mobile Games

Nintendo is collaborating with/licensing its IP to DeNA, a mobile game developer. Some people are reading this as «Nintendo games on iPhones», but I think that’s making some tenuous assumptions. These are Nintendo games in the same way that this is the Apple watch:

Apple-branded quartz watch1

There’s a huge difference between «a watch with an Apple logo», and «the Apple watch».

All of DeNA’s currently available games are free to play. This isn’t entirely new territory for Nintendo, who has been flirting with free to play gaming for a while now. So far, they’ve released a bunch of free-to-play games on the 3DS, including the terrible Pokémon Shuffle2 — which, like these new games, was developed by a third party developer.

Pokémon Shuffle is not the first time Nintendo has licensed its IP to other developers, either. If you don’t remember the Zelda and Mario games for the Philips CDi, please try to keep it that way, because they were horrid.3

That’s not to say that Nintendo’s IP licensing always fails; Capcom made some truly fantastic Zelda games, and Sega’s F-Zero4 was one of the best games on the Gamecube.

Still, if you were one of the people asking for Nintendo to bring their games to iOS back in 2013, this is very likely not what you had in mind. John Gruber writes:

Not sure what to make of this yet, but it sounds like they’re doing what I suggested back in 2013.

Maybe I misread the essays back then, but my impression was that people were hoping that Nintendo would go the Square-Enix route, and release higher-priced premium games on iOS, not that they would license their IP to a third-party and allow them to make Mario-themed free-to-play Skinner boxes.5

In fact, Nintendo explicitly acknowledges that they won’t bring what most people think of as «Nintendo games» to mobile platforms:

We have no intention at all to port existing game titles for dedicated game platforms to smart devices because if we cannot provide our consumers with the best possible play experiences, it would just ruin the value of Nintendo’s IP.

It’s not clear to me what exactly Nintendo’s strategy is. They do point out that their console games sell well:

Last year, an unprecedented thing in the history of the Japanese video game market happened: Five titles for Nintendo 3DS sold more than two million copies each in the latter six-month period of 2014. As this record-breaking incident attests, video game software sales have been progressing smoothly on dedicated video game hardware even after smart devices have become widespread in this country.

Of course, the challenge of asking our consumers to purchase dedicated video game hardware has become harder now that smart devices have widely spread. However, we recognize that our business model of producing both video game hardware and software is effective even today, and we do not share this pessimistic view of the future for dedicated video game systems.

And Iwata acknowledges that Nintendo’s IP is its biggest asset:

When we further analyze the situation, Nintendo’s strength lies in, or our consumers see the most value in and are willing to pay money for, Nintendo IP, such as our software and characters, and we have been creating and nurturing them together with the history of home video game entertainment.

I don’t see how licensing Mario for usage in free-to-play games will «nurture» that character. Iwata suggests that the idea is to use these mobile games as «advertisements» for the real games:

Nintendo has made this decision because we have concluded that the approach of making use of smart devices is a rational way for us to encourage even more people around the world to recognize the great value of the wonderful game software available on our dedicated game systems.

(…)

We aim to construct a bridge between smart devices and dedicated video game hardware that connects consumers to our dedicated video game systems.

For the consumers who are connected with Nintendo through smart devices and interested in Nintendo’s IP, we would like to provide even more premium gameplay experiences on Nintendo’s dedicated game platforms. By taking this approach, we firmly believe that doing business on smart devices will not shrink our dedicated video game system business and will instead create new demand as this broader reach will enable us to provide consumers around the world with more opportunities to experience the appeal of Nintendo IP, and instead of trying to seize the other’s demand, dedicated video game systems and smart devices will benefit from the synergies created between them.

But I’m not sure that free-to-play games can work as ads for console games. You know, the ones where the developer’s incentive is to create a good game and get people to buy it, not the ones where the developer’s incentive is to trick people into constantly coming back to something that’s actually not very enjoyable. I’m buying Nintendo consoles exactly because I want to avoid these kinds of games.

I have no doubt that Nintendo will make a lot of money from this, at least in the short run. I’m just not convinced that this isn’t going to do more damage than good in the long run. Nintendo’s place in the market should be as an alternative to the terrible free to play games, not as yet another purveyor of them. That’s their value; if you buy a Nintendo game, you know it’s going to be good.

DeNA has published some good6 games, so there’s at least a chance that these will not be too terrible, particularly if Nintendo is involved in the development process. Still, this could easily end up being a case of «be careful what you wish for».

In the end, though, I’m pretty sure the next real Zelda game is still going to come out on Wii U, and not on the iPhone.

Addendum

Nintendo is now saying that at least some games might not be free to play:

Considering the issue further, Iwata said he doesn’t want to «choose payment methods that may hurt Nintendo’s brand image or our IP,» and that it is important to have a business model «parents feel comfortable letting their children play with. Also, it’s even more important for us to consider how we can get as many people around the world as possible to play Nintendo smart device apps, rather than to consider which payment system will earn the most money.»

Also relevant:

Elsewhere in the interview, Iwata clarified that the actual development of games as part of the mobile partnership will «be mainly done by Nintendo,» though legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto will place priority on continued development of Wii U titles. Iwata also reiterated that Nintendo wouldn’t just port existing console games to the mobile marketplace wholesale, owing to differences in the platforms. «My understanding is that, on smart devices, the main demand is for very accessible games which smart device users can easily start and easily finish,» he said. «These are not necessarily the characteristics that people demand from games for dedicated video game systems.»

Sounds promising. I guess we’ll see.


  1. Image sourceback

  2. The Verge: «Nintendo has started making bad free-to-play games like everybody else - Pokemon Shuffle brings the worst of mobile gaming to your 3DS.» back

  3. Remember when Sega still made good games? Getting out of the hardware business sure did wonders for them. back

  4. Hence my argument that Nintendo could make more money selling 60$ games with an attach rate of 50% on the Wii U, than premium-priced games on the iPhone. back

  5. Good for a free to play game, that is. back

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False Dichotomies

Here’s something I’m noticing quite a lot during design meetings. We’re talking about a specific design detail, and somebody takes a stance. «I think we should hide this button in the header of the table, and only show it when the mouse hovers over the header. Otherwise, we have to add this button to every single column, and it’s going to look cluttered.»

Somebody else disagrees: «I would just show it. Otherwise, people won’t figure out that they can access these sort options, because they won’t hover the mouse over the header.»

Now the other people in the meeting are starting to take sides.

«We should show the button, hiding it is not discoverable.»

«I disagree, I think it’s better to hide it, showing it looks ridiculous.»

Pretty soon, you have two groups of people. At this point, the people inside each group are no longer really listening to the people in the other group. Each group is only reinforcing its own position, and coming up with better and better reasons for why their approach is correct, and the other group’s approach is flawed. Trenches are being dug. The situation slowly escalates.

You’re witnessing the human tendency towards tribalism.

Once you have two groups of people, each advocating for its own position and reinforcing its own beliefs, people seem to start turning off parts of their brains. Things get emotional. Assumptions turn into unquestioned facts. At this point, people are no longer looking for solutions, or for common ground. They’re fighting an adversary.

Tribalism based on superficial, insignificant criteria — the computers or phones we use, the sports teams we like, the clothes we wear, the car brands we drive — is pretty common human behavior, and we fall into it easily.

But if you take a step back, you’ll notice that the whole discussion between these two groups is now based on a fallacious assumption. People have replaced the actual question they’re trying to answer — «how should this UI look and work?» — with a different, misguided question: «which of these two options should we pick?1

This is a false dichotomy.

A few years ago, there was an argument going on in the Apple community about the iPhone’s mute switch. The mute switch only turns off some alerts, not all of them, which sometimes causes the iPhone to sound an alarm even though it is muted. Very quickly, people took sides, some arguing that the iPhone should not make any sounds when it is muted, others pointing out that this would inevitably cause people to accidentally miss important alarms. Eventually, as always happens, people started arguing that, since this dilemma could not be resolved, it should just be a setting, so everybody could make a personal decision as to which failure — accidentally sleeping in, or accidentally interrupting Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 — would be preferable to them.

But again, if you take a step back, you’ll notice that the options presented — mute mutes everything, mute doesn’t mute alarms at all — are not the only two options. For example, if the phone is muted and an alarm is triggered, it could start out by turning on the screen, then, if the user doesn’t react after a few seconds, start buzzing, then slowly increase the volume of the alarm. This would give the phone’s owner time to notice the problem before the New York Philharmonic’s conductor has to stop the performance, but it would still wake up a sleeping person — maybe half a minute later than scheduled, but that’s well within an acceptable range in almost every situation.

In creative endeavors,2 tribal, black and white thinking can be problematic, because it prevents you from noticing all possible options. Whenever the discussion veers from «how can we solve this problem» to «should we pick option A or option B», you need to take a step back, and ask yourself — and your team — if these are really the only two options.

Is there any kind of middle ground?

Are there entirely different approaches we didn’t consider?

Are there valid concerns the other group is raising, and can we take these concerns into account without completely dismissing our own concerns?

Most often, the answer to all of these questions is «yes.» Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, figuring out that there actually is middle ground is often difficult. If you find yourself in the midst of one of these tribal moments, your best option is often to just table the topic, and pick it back up once people have had time to turn their brains back on, and reconsider their own positions under a more rational light.

And by the way, there are multiple solutions to the «button problem» I mentioned at the top of this piece. Coming up with a few is left as an exercise for the reader.


  1. In the end, you could aways create some prototypes and do a few usability tests to see if hiding the buttons really works, but the argument for hiding them isn’t really a usability argument, it’s an aesthetic argument. If we don’t hide them, the UI looks bad. back

  2. And elsewhere. back

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Geoffrey K. Pullum:

Virtually nothing useful about English grammar can be learned from Strunk. Setting aside a few standard conventions of punctuation, which barely deserve to be called part of the grammar, the grammatical claims Strunk makes are foolish assertions like that however in the sense «nevertheless» cannot be correctly used to begin a sentence; or that none of us cannot take plural agreement; or that passive clauses are inherently bad; or that they cannot have a singular antecedent (so No parent would harm their own child is a mistake; Strunk insists it should be No parent would harm his own child). Strunk condemns words as familiar as very or clever or system, and phrases as ordinary as six people or so warm or the student body. His booklet is replete with hogwash about English.

You can see that Strunk is telling untruths if you simply take a look at the usage in high-quality literary works published when he was in his prime. His claims not only aren’t true of English now; they never were true at any time in the history of the human species.

I read Strunk and White because a lot of people recommend it. Having finished it, I came to the following conclusion: Strunk and White’s only redeeming factor is that even the people who profess to love it don’t actually follow its rules.

I will also second Pullum’s recommendation of The Sense of Style.

Addendum

When people criticize Strunk and White, they usually talk about the section on «words and expressions commonly misused» (if they’re commonly misused, it’s probably not misuse at all; that’s how language works), and the section on the passive voice. These sections are bad, but they’re not the only things that are wrong with the book.

Here’s another rule that I think is harmful: «place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.» This rule makes your sentences harder to read, because words that contribute significantly to the meaning of the sentence are placed at the end of the sentence. In other words, you have to read the whole sentence before you can start to parse its meaning.

The example used in the book illustrates the problem. It offers this perfectly readable sentence:

Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.

As a reader, you can parse and understand this sentence easily, piece by piece, while reading it. Unfortunately, the book suggests replacing the sentence above with this:

Humanity, since that time, has advanced in many other ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

In order to understand what the words at the beginning of this rephrased sentence refer to, you have to read to the very end of the sentence. You can’t parse this sentence piecemeal, you have to read the whole sentence before you can figure out what it is trying to say. This is not an improvement.

Paul Thurrott:

In the years since [its initial release], Microsoft has slowly removed all of Windows Phone’s key differentiators. And it appears that the release of Windows 10 this year will be the final death knell for this beloved platform.

(…)

Specific Metro design ideals that have been stripped away to nothing include hubs and panoramic experiences, pivot-based tabs, single-scale UIs that don’t let the user change font sizes or colors, and app bars and app menus. Today’s Windows Phone does have live tiles, but the rest of the system seems cribbed from the iPhone and Android playbook, with hamburger menus and other bland UI.

(…)

And now even the Windows Phone brand is gone, just the latest in a long line of capitulations over the past five years.

When your platform doesn’t sell, you obviously have to make changes. I just can’t help but think that the things Microsoft is changing in Windows Phone (and Windows proper) aren’t the things that caused these platforms to fail, but instead the things that caused them to stand out, to be unique.

Being like everybody else is not the path to success. If your platform is exactly like everybody else’s, but less popular, nobody will have a reason to switch to it.

I’m not sure if Microsoft isn’t learning the wrong lessons from its failures.

Brianna Wu:

The week before last, I went to court to file a restraining order against a man who calls himself “The Commander.” He made a video holding up a knife, explaining how he’ll murder me “Assassin’s Creed Style.” He wrecked his car en route to my house to “deliver justice.” In logs that leaked, he claimed to have weapons and a compatriot to do a drive-by.

After the crash, he sent me a deranged video that Jezebel called “bizarre” and “terrifying.” Sam Biddle of Gawker said that if this happened to him, he’d be “locked in a closet rocking back and forth.” For me, it’s just another Tuesday. My capacity to feel fear has worn out, as if it’s a muscle that can do no more.

This is not just a problem of a bunch of angry, frustrated kids, letting out their frustration on people they probably feel jealous of. There are actual adults in positions of power who contribute to the problem. Wu writes:

When Twitter is completely ineffectual at handling harassment — it’s because women don’t truly have a seat at the table in running it. We don’t have a voice. They tell us they’re going to do better.

When Wikipedia’s highest ruling board chooses to discipline only feminists — it’s because 9 out of 10 of its editors are men. They tell us they’re going to do better.

When a Silicon Valley founder sends a woman reporter a gift basket with a dildo and K-Y jelly then doesn’t understand why it might be offensive, it’s because most of the venture capital system and the tech entrepreneurs are men. We don’t have a voice. They tell us they’re going to do better.

Amazingly, the field of video games is the most misogynistic area in all of tech. The lead writer of Ubisoft’s hit franchise Watch Dogs angrily denied that Gamergate was a hate group, calling such statements a “smear tactic” and an “obvious lie.”

In related news, Wu’s game, Revolution 60, was put up on Steam Greenlight, where gamers vote on games to be made available in Steam — basically the only Windows online games store that matters. It’s no longer available, because, predictably, people used the game’s greenlight page to attack Brianna Wu. It should be noted that Steam’s online conduct rules include this:

You will not: Defame, abuse, harass, stalk, threaten or otherwise violate the legal rights (such as rights of privacy and publicity) of others.

Steam’s subscriber agreement allows them to terminate the accounts of users who violate these rules. As far as I know, Steam has done absolutely nothing about this.

Windows 10: Re-Crappifying Windows 8

People don’t like to lose things. In fact, people hate losing things so much that economists have a special term for it: loss aversion.

In economics and decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Most studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains. (…) This leads to risk aversion when people evaluate an outcome comprising similar gains and losses; since people prefer avoiding losses to making gains.

In any transaction — including installing a new operating system — people tend to focus on what they lose, and ignore what they might gain.

Microsoft is no stranger to this, and, historically, has avoided triggering their users’ loss aversion. Microsoft is famous1 for only adding things to Windows, never taking them away. The result of Microsoft’s approach is plain: Windows is an operating system that has accumulated 30 years of crap.

Windows 8 was a bold attempt to fix this, and to throw out much of that accumulated debris. And, surprisingly, it has worked to a pretty respectable degree. Windows 8, particularly when running Metro2 apps, is an operating systems that is much simpler than any other desktop OS. And Windows 8, unlike iOS, has managed to achieve this without losing much, if any, of the power of a traditional desktop operating system.

I love using Windows 8 on my Surface. I’m writing code in IntelliJ on my desktop with a keyboard and mouse, then I’m sitting in a meeting jotting down notes in OneNote, then I’m sketching a new UI while riding home in a train, then I’m reading a comic book at home on my sofa — all on the same device.

This is not to say that Windows 8 is perfect, of course. It has plenty of problems.

The default way of switching apps in Windows 8 is quite atrocious, and putting in-app search into the charms bar can lead to confusing results.

Another issue with Windows 8 is that it works better on touchscreen devices than on mouse-driven devices, yet most people still use it on devices that don’t sport touchscreens.3 Charms, for example, are simple to access on a tablet, but less so using a mouse.

What’s more, there are a bunch of problems that Windows 8 should have solved, but did not, or not entirely — file management comes to mind.

And then there’s the Desktop-Metro dichotomy. The two systems are poorly integrated (and, to its credit, this is one thing Windows 10 improves).

Windows 8 is also uncomfortable at first. In part, Windows 8 manages to combine simplicity and power by introducing a few new user interface concepts. New user interface concepts are never easy, because people have to learn them, and get used to them, and learning is uncomfortable. Asking people to learn new things is fine if you’re introducing a new product, like the iPhone, but less so if you’re introducing a new version of a product that literally hundreds of millions of people use.

In short, Windows 8 is far from perfect. But it is a courageous step in the right direction.

Windows 10 shows that Microsoft has lost that courage, pummelled into submission by the same kinds of vocal users who, back in the 80s and early 90s, decried Windows itself, and demanded that people keep using DOS. In hindsight, I doubt anyone still thinks that this would have been a good idea.4

A few days ago, while setting up an iPad Air, I was once again reminded of how limited iOS is. Installing my apps made it plain just how poorly iOS works for anything but the most basic tasks. Logging into all of the accounts the different apps use required me to constantly switch between 1Password and the app in question, copying and pasting the login credentials — a tedious process made necessary by iOS’s lack of any kind of window management.

When I was done configuring the iPad and picked up my Surface, I felt relief, knowing that the same task would have been simple on that device. I could have simply kept 1Password visible in a split-screen view. To me, that’s Windows 8: the power of a desktop operating system, combined with the simplicity of an iPad. The Surface is an iPad without the drawbacks of the iPad.

That’s what Windows 8’s strength is. It’s also what Microsoft needs, in order to remain relevant. Any update to Windows should acknowledge that fact, and support that premise.

Here’s the problem: Microsoft achieved this combination of simplicity and power by getting rid of, or hiding, much of the quintessential things that made Windows Windows. In fact, when using the Metro UI, the very thing that gave Windows its name — the window — is gone. If you’re working with a user interface originally conceived in 1995, you can’t make progress without breaking a few windows, I guess.

And that brings us back to loss aversion. A lot of very vocal people didn’t like Windows 8.5 I suspect many didn’t like it not because they had given Windows 8 much of a chance, and had, after careful consideration, found it to be wanting, but simply because it didn’t have much of the stuff they had gotten used to. It didn’t look like Windows anymore.

To be clear, the point here is not to blame Windows users for not liking Windows 8, or to undermine arguments against Windows 8’s design. There are valid reasons for not liking Windows 8, particularly on a mouse-driven system.

Instead, the point here is to show how Microsoft caused this problem by its mismanagement of Windows’ design, and, if you’re a designer, to learn from Microsoft’s mistake.

Because this is Microsoft’s mistake, of course. The introduction of Windows 8 is a prime example of how not to manage change. Microsoft made plenty of technical and tactical mistakes with Windows 8. You can’t just take away all of people’s stuff and not expect them to get angry. Of course they get angry. Microsoft should have known that.

Microsoft mismanaged the transition to a new, modern OS with new, modern interaction patterns. And now they are in damage control mode.

I actually had pretty high hopes for Windows 10. Just a few months ago, I wrote:

After the backlash against Windows 8, I was afraid that Microsoft would backtrack from its Metro design language, but this concept video [showing how Windows 10 switches between tablet and desktop modes] makes a lot of sense to me, and seems to mesh well with how I use my Surface.

But instead of fixing the things that are genuinely wrong with Windows 8, and providing some additional amenities for people who came from earlier versions of Windows, and improving the experience on mouse-driven systems, Microsoft took away many of the things that made Windows 8 work, and brought back Windows 7’s UI clutter wholesale.

This is particularly egregious on touchscreen devices. There’s a reason why Windows Mobile, which basically brought the full Windows UI to a tiny phone with a resistive touchscreen and a pencil, never set the world on fire. Windows 7’s interaction patterns don’t work well on touchscreen devices like Microsoft’s own Surface. And since I use a Surface, much of my criticism is going to focus on design issues on touchscreen devices.

But while the issues caused by Microsoft’s design decisions are most obvious on touchscreen devices, they also apply to mouse-driven desktop systems. I don’t buy the idea that mouse and touchscreen have to be at odds. You can design user interfaces that work for both, and mouse-driven systems profit from many of the UI changes that make for good touchscreen user interfaces — a clean, simple interaction design and large click targets, for example.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the changes Microsoft has made.

Charms

In Windows 8, swiping in from the right shows a bunch of globally applicable actions, and some status information: the battery level, time and date, and your wifi reception.

Want to quickly send an email containing whatever you’re currently working on? Want to search for something, either in your app, or in Windows? Want to go to the start screen? Want to see how much battery you’ve left? Simply swipe in from the right.

Note how the interactive UI appears under the thumb you’ve just used to swipe in from the right. When I use my Surface as a tablet, I usually hold it in both hands; the charms UI appears where I can easily access it, shown below using Microsoft’s own illustration of the concept.

In Windows 10, you instead get notifications, along with a bunch of interactive features across the bottom, and a tiny «Expand» button that allows you to show more of them.

Notice how the interactive stuff is far away from where your fingers are likely to be. Notice how tiny the «Expand» button is, clearly intended to be clicked with a mouse, not touched using a finger. Notice also how, even though there is plenty of room, Windows 10 only shows four of the nine widgets my notification sidebar has. Worst of all, though, is that most of these buttons don’t really do anything. Tapping on them opens the Settings application.

I guess we could discuss the utility of a notifications panel in Windows; personally, I don’t really need to know that my Settings app was successfully updated, and that Dropbox has just synchronized two files.6 The fact remains, though, that the things I used to use the charms bar for most of the time — accessing the start button, sharing something I’m working on, searching something — are gone, and that the layout of the whole sidebar has been changed in a way that makes no sense on a touchscreen.

I’m not sure where the other stuff is, but the start button and search now both reside in the taskbar. Since I’ve had to disable my hardware start button, this means that going back to the start screen is now extremely inconvenient. Also, this is what search now looks like:

To be clear, I’m not complaining about the error message, but about the design of this thing. Why would you replace a clean, spacious UI element — the sidebar overlay — with a messy, dinky little popup window?

In the end, it’s just not clear to me what Microsoft hoped to achieve by removing charms, and scattering the functionality in all kinds of hidden or inaccessible places. If notifications are so important to Microsoft, why not just put them in the charms bar?

Switching Tasks

Windows 8 supported the traditional Ctrl-Tab task switcher. In addition, you could swipe in from the left, and (after changing this setting from the default, weird app switcher, to the sidebar panel), pick one of the running apps.

Again, notice how the interaction design works. You swipe in from the left, and then pick a running app from a list that appears right where your thumb is.

Tap on an app to select it, drag it into the screen for a split-screen view.

This is the task switcher in Windows 10:

To be clear, this is not the task switcher you get when you Ctrl-Tab. This is the task switcher you get when you swipe in from the left. The touch targets are no longer where you can actually reach them, but scattered all over the screen.

The only positive thing here is that Windows finally supports multiple desktops as a native, first-level concept.

App Commands

In Windows 8, swiping up shows some lesser-used features for the current app. A small tab at the bottom of the screen indicates which apps support app commands.

App commands are no longer directly accessible. Swiping up now brings up the taskbar, which offers features that are mostly redundant.

Start Screen

The start screen is probably the worst offender. This is what it looked like in Windows 8.

It’s simple, focused, looks good, and provides the features you want from an app launcher.

This is the start screen in Windows 10.

This is the kind of designed-by-committee let’s-add-every-feature-we-can-think-of mess that made Windows terrible in the first place.

Instead of providing a clean, spatial, organizable, zoomable, user-configurable set of tiles, and a simple search field, Windows 10 adds everything. List of «places» you might want to access? Great idea! Automatically generated list of most used apps? Got you covered. List of recently added apps? Why not. Link to more apps? Sure. List of «Everyday apps»? Need that. Weird «Explore Windows» button? Let’s add it. Area for tiles? Why not. Power button? Weird star button? I’m sure we can find a place for that. Start button when you’re already in the start screen? Search field? List of running apps? Bunch of widgets? Current time? Eh, it’s already in the taskbar, so let’s throw that in, too!

It’s like the Windows 7 zombie invasion, where pointless UI elements from older Windows versions suddenly rise from their graves, shamble over to my Surface, and leave body parts all over what once was a beautifully designed, pristine bit of software.

There’s More

These are just the most obvious issues with Windows 10. About an earlier build of Windows 10, Mary Branscombe wrote:

This isn’t hybrid Windows. This is Windows nailed back onto the desktop as if we’d never had Windows 8 and Windows 8.1.

Unfortunately, this is still true for the current build.

The saddest part, though? Removing charms, screwing up the app switcher, replacing app commands with the taskbar, crapping up the start screen — none of these changes were necessary in order to improve Windows’ mousing experience. Microsoft destroyed Windows’ touchscreen experience for nothing.

If you liked Windows 7 and want to see Windows move back to that, Windows 10 is for you. It’s not for me, however, and I don’t really see anything positive about going back to an interaction design originally devised in 1995. Windows 95’s interaction design helped Microsoft stay relevant during the desktop PC era of computing — I just don’t think it’s what Microsoft needs in order to remain relevant during the next 20 years.

Here’s an example. I think one of the things we’ve learned between 1995 and now is that launching applications and managing files are two different things. Back in 1984, when people had half a dozen applications and 20 or 30 files for each, maybe it was okay to just throw everything into the same bucket. But today, this no longer works.

Managing files requires dedicated features, which is why we’ve gradually moved file management into dedicated apps like iPhoto or iTunes. Launching apps also requires dedicated features, which is why it makes sense to have our mobile phones’ home screens dedicated to the task.

Desktop operating systems, meanwhile, stubbornly refuse to learn this lesson. Windows 8 took a step in the right direction, and started to draw clear lines between «file organizer» and «app launcher» features. Windows 10 reverses that step.

Yes, introducing Windows 8 was painful for Microsoft. Continuing the transition to a more modern user interface would have continued to be painful for at least a few more years. But becoming increasingly, and, eventually, irreversibly irrelevant will, in the end, be even more painful for Microsoft.

It’s important to keep in mind that, while users loved Windows 7, it didn’t exactly halt Microsoft’s slide into irrelevance. Yet, Windows 10 is more of the same. You can’t keep doing the same thing that brought you to this point if you want to reverse your course.

What I’m Not Saying

I’m not saying that Windows 8 is perfect. It has plenty of problems.

I’m not saying that Windows 10 doesn’t fix some of Windows 8’s issues. It fixes a bunch of them — things that should have been there from the start. Allowing people to mix desktop apps and Metro apps is much needed, for example.

I’m not saying that Windows 8 works as well on mouse-driven devices as it did on touchscreen devices. It does work, but not as well.

What I Am Saying

I’m saying that Windows 10 is not Windows 8, plus a bunch of fixes. It’s Windows 8, plus a bunch of clutter from Windows 7.

I’m saying that improving the desktop experience can’t — and doesn’t have to — come at the expense of the touchscreen experience. But right now, it does.7

I’m saying that Microsoft could — and should — have fixed Windows 8 without just going back to Windows 7.

The changes Microsoft made to Windows 8 are not the best possible solutions to what ails that system. Instead, they are the ones most likely to get vocal Windows users to stop complaining. Instead of fixing Windows 8, Microsoft made it more like Windows 7. Which is fine for people who loved Windows 7, and think that operating systems should continue to work that way.

But it’s not fine for me, because I never liked Windows 7’s user interface. It’s not fine for the people who aren’t Windows fans, don’t frequent online forums to complain about Microsoft, and only use Windows because it came on the new laptop they bought at the local mall.

And I think it’s not fine for Microsoft. Bringing back Windows 7 is not going to magically make Windows relevant again.

Epilogue

I’m sure Microsoft will clean up Windows 10, and restore some of the tidy visual design, and thoughtful interaction design, of Windows 8. But until then, I’m going back to Windows 8. Or, rather, I’m trying to.


  1. Particularly in contrast to Apple. back

  2. I know it’s not called that anymore, but there’s no usable replacement name for it, so I’m still calling it Metro. back

  3. Touchscreen computers are in the minority now, but I don’t think they’ll remain in the minority. Kids are growing up on iPhones, Android phones, and iPads. A computer without a touchscreen will seem increasingly anachronistic to them, so designing against that trend is an increasingly backwards-looking strategy. back

  4. I think that medium-term, the transition from mouse-driven devices to touchscreen devices is quite similar to the transition from command-line devices to mouse-driven devices. The mouse, like the command line, will stick around, and be used in specialized cases, but most people will gradually move away from it. back

  5. Yes, I realize that I’m also suffering from loss aversion, because I don’t want to lose the things that make Windows 8 such a great tablet OS. back

  6. I’ve never intentionally opened the notifications panel on my Mac. back

  7. By the way, I’m not the only one noticing this. Read the comments on this article, for example. back

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Firefox OS

Gina Trapani:

In the five minutes I had to play with it, I was impressed with Firefox OS. It’s a modern touchscreen operating system with smooth interactions, an array of apps, and all the settings and customizations you’d expect. In my short time with the phone, which was not connected to the internet, I played a game of 2048, poked around the settings, and panned and zoomed around a maps app. I would have liked the 2048 tiles to slide more smoothly, and the map scrolling and panning to stutter less, but the groundwork is there. It is a web-based operating system that worked offline well, and there was no distinction between local apps and web apps.

I’ve been playing around with a Firefox OS phone1 for a few weeks now, and I really like it. I think the most interesting thing about it is how simple everything feels. It feels like the first iPhone, with some additional modern amenities.

The lock screen shows notifications and allows you to insta-launch the camera. The home screen is pretty bare-bones. It scrolls down, instead of sideways, like the iPhone’s.

Firefox OS comes with a bunch of built-in apps, pretty much everything you’d expect from a mobile phone. The visual style of the OS is flat and simple, more reminiscent of Android’s Material design than the iPhone’s gaudy transparencies and layer effects.

If you need more apps, there’s an app store, and thanks to the fact that apps in Firefox OS are all web apps,2 it’s pretty well-stocked.

Like Firefox OS itself, the keyboard eschews any fanciness. It does its job.

There’s really not a lot of crazy stuff in Firefox OS. One small nice feature is that you can switch between apps by swiping in from the left or right screen edge, but there’s no nifty cards metaphor for app switching3 and no spatial menu. Firefox OS is just really simple, solid, friendly, easy to use smartphone platform. And perhaps that’s not a bad thing; perhaps there’s room in the market for a platform like this.


  1. This oneback

  2. Hello, WebOS :-) back

  3. Firefox OS does have an app switcher, of course, just not one as genius as WebOS’s. back

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Panic’s Cabel Sasser:

To be honest, I was pretty nervous to be pulling Coda from the Mac App Store. But when we finally did it, I felt an incredible, almost indescribable sense of relief — mostly because as we began to wrap up bug fix releases, we were able to immediately post them to our customers within minutes of qualifying them.

(…)

The last couple of months of 2014 got classically “exciting” as Transmit iOS was suddenly flagged by the App Review team for a violation — a well-documented situation, both on our blog, and sites like Daring Fireball and MacStories. Thanks almost exclusively to these articles, we very quickly got a very nice call from a contact at Apple, and the situation reversed almost immediately.

(…)

This is the biggest problem we’ve been grappling with all year: we simply don’t make enough money from our iOS apps. We’re building apps that are, if I may say so, world-class and desktop-quality. They are packed with features, they look stunning, we offer excellent support for them, and development is constant. I’m deeply proud of our iOS apps. But… they’re hard to justify working on.

Developers are usually the first to offer constructive, useful criticism of Apple, because they’re the first who have to deal with the issues caused by Apple’s behavior. Panic’s 2014 report reads like a microcosm of many of the things that are currently going wrong in Apple’s larger ecosystem.