So Windows 7 is now winding its way through to be on the PCs your average users. It’s virtually impossible to know how they’ll like it.
Certainly the development community has been very impressed. A lot of my colleagues have been using it as their primary OS for many months. I’ve had it running since the first public beta. It was very good then, and it’s got better through the releases.
But, as everyone knows. Developers aren’t normal people! Their impressions of the software could prove to be the exception. Developers can see why things are screwy, and their conceptual models are far more developed, enabling them to much more quickly understand how something works functionally.
More importantly, developers are much more rarely out of their comfort zone. And, in my experience of user tests, most consumers are out of their comfort zone most of the time.
I recently spent a couple of hours watching a user who was setting up their (XP) machine. I asked him how he accessed the internet. He showed me that he would log into messenger (because it was set to pop up automatically), click on the ‘unread messages’ icon which would open Hotmail, and then he would enter ‘Google’ into the (Bing) search panel (in IE). He refered to the browser (IE) as ‘Google’. He was very annoyed that he had to keep seeing (optional) Windows Live Today. He was absolutely delighted when I set it so he could launch ‘Google’ directly from a link on the desktop (and a change of homepage). The only ‘advanced’ feature he seemed to be aware of what ‘clear browsing history’ :-)
These tales are not exceptional. They are the norm.
So it’s remains a big question how Win7 will fare in the ‘my mum’ test.
I think it’s got several things going for it. All of which are testament to a strong focus by Microsoft on what actually matters to consumers, and – as I’ve said before – some very sophisticated research and evaluation techniques to back that focus up. For no reason at all, I’ve picked out 7 of them.
1. The number 1 element of user experience is performance
I sat in a Microsoft presentation a few weeks ago. The guy presenting was flipping between a number of decks. I remember thinking, ‘Windows 7′ certainly looks better than it’s predecessors. Then I realised he was using Vista. On the surface of it, Vista looked pretty good and had loads more features. But it was slow at some key things, and it was sort of randomly sluggish.
Everyone knows those pop-stats like ‘the average person spends three years of their life at traffic lights’. How long did we spend watching the blue hoop of maybe-death in Vista? Far too much.
Windows 7 is simply a lot faster than Vista (and even XP) at most common tasks
But this is not just about how long you actually wait.
I think the neatest bit of design I’ve seen in the last two years is the favourites screen (new tab page) on Google Chrome browser. By loading instaneously, it makes you feel like the app is instantly ready to go, even though it could be another 30 seconds till you’ve got your first page loaded.
We know that the Windows 7 team spent a lot of time on this sort of thing, for example making sure the start menu would pop up quickly no matter what. I’m sure it’s faked some of the time. But it works. It makes you feel like you’ve got a snappier computer.
And then they’ve picked out the key performance things – that people actually notice – like sleeping and waking up, and they’ve made sure Windows 7 is way ahead of the pack.
2. Less clutter works towards ‘ feeling of mastery’
For all UI issues, I think rule 1 is that users don’t customize. Remember that over-inflated services bar in XP (the one on the bottom right)? How many people (outside of developers) did you ever meet who had managed to reduce it down to a manageable set?
So quite a lot of the UI in Windows 7 is about reducing clutter. And making things nice, big and clickable when appropriate. Simples!
There is a chance now that an average user might be able to look at their desktop, and scan the start menu, and have some reasonable idea what everything does. Again, this sounds obvious, but it’s been lacking in any other OS I’ve come across.
Windows has always had a fondness for incomprehensible text and excessive dialogue boxes. It’s a small tweak but the UI text in Windows 7 is easier to read and understand, and improved UAC gives you less you have to deal with.
All of these little ‘exceptions’, the times when the user leaves the ‘happy path’, are often paid too little attention in the design process. They are in fact the times of maximum stress for the user, as they stray the furthest from their comfort zone. How on earth do we expect a normal user to deal with ‘host process for windows has terminated unexpectedly’. I don’t even know what to do with that one and I know what it means.
4. A bit of taste
Obviously this one’s subjective, but certainly the backgrounds, themes and login screen in the release candidate are significantly more interesting and creative than anything we’ve seen before from Microsoft. It’s not trying to be too funky, but it feels for the first time in a long time that someone with a bit of taste has been involved in the visual (and interaction) design of the interface.
5. Dealing with third parties
Clearly integration with everyone and their aunt has long been both the key weakness, and key strength of PCs and Windows. The horror show of Vista driver compatibility was arguably its single biggest problem. Win 7 won’t repeat that, since we’ve been through it already (and there’s been a lot of advanced prep with partners). And, a real effort has also been made on the ‘device stage’ functionality to try and make the whole thing feel like one computer experience.
6. Integration of Office apps
I hope the European Commission aren’t listening, but some of the neatest features of Win7 are integration with the UI and features of the apps that run on top of it, and principally the Office suite. The ability to peak into subwindows with Aero Peak is brilliant. Part toy / part useful function, it is very compelling, again building the sense of mastery over everything runnning on the machine. For the first time, the search (from start bar) really works, indexing everything and presenting categorized lists (by source). There are about ten small features like this that add up to real feeling of integration and control. Very neat.
7. Never mind the hype
Arguably the most important distinction between the Vista launch and the Windows 7 launch has been the approach to hype.
What’s worse than suffering at the hands of a dysfunctional operating system? Being told how great it is while you do it.
The defining moments of any OS are not the big numbers, the length of the feature lists or the coolness of the loading animations (whilst important). They are the moments when the user feels ease or disease.
There are lots of parallels in the real world for this. But when a user can’t see how to do something, they feel stressed and they blame themselves. They feel stupid. Not being certain is as bad as not knowing at all. Will what I’m doing really erase all my files? Am I actually in the ladies’ section, because I quite like those trainers? When users are agitated or nervous, they are not building happy memories.
Incidentally, the most misjudged result of this misunderstanding came from a Microsoft marketing campaign, Project Mojave where Microsoft suggested that users were ‘wrong’ about Vista, which is essentially like telling your four-year old that he’s NOT afraid of the dentist.
Instead what we see in Win7 is an absolute acknowledgement that the consumer has the right to misunderstand and make snap and shallow judgements, a fact that many other industries have known for a while.
The story goes that Fiat has a design shop looking at door handles, stearing wheels and ignitions, because these are the only bits most punters will come into contact with in the showroom or on a test drive.
It appears that Win 7 designers and engineers are thinking the same way. They have smoothed the edges, and picked out the occassions when performance matters most, and tuned it up just a bit. Bugger what’s going to make the OS appeal more to devs, what does the consumer care about – a bit less gloss there, a bit more gloss there, a bit faster here, a bit less cluttered there, and the 100 things will make the user feel confident and in control. It may be on an industrial level but it is experience design of the highest order.
Certainly we won’t know until it’s had it’s mass market mauling at the hands of my mum and millions like her who don’t do this for a living. But if I had to bet, I’d say ‘average user’ will like it more than the beta audience. And even better, they won’t know why.