Microsoft’s Struggle: No compromises equals bad design

The design of Windows 8 is… interesting. As far as visual aesthetics go, it’s received almost universal acclaim. Its minimal design is refreshing when compared to the textures, gradients and different experiences within iOS. The Metro interface of Windows 8 is very sleek and modern.

As far as the Microsoft Surface device goes, people seem to be giving mixed reviews, wanting it to be more than it is. The hardware has received near-universal acclaim, but the hardware and software integration combined with the software alone seem to be where the device falls short.

No Compromises Equals Bad design

Design is all about making choices. Choosing to focus on one thing rather than something else can lead to a completely different product. Saying no to something, especially something your friends and colleagues have worked on, is always harder than saying yes. So companies often have problems when designing: a combination of bad decision-making, finding it hard to say no to something that’s been worked on in secret for months or years combined with making it work really well for someone who’s never heard of or seen the new thing before is not easy. Things don’t always go well.

There’s an old engineering adage which goes something like this:

Fast, Good, Cheap. Pick two.

This alone shows how important compromises are. It’s often even suggested that being able to even pick two puts you in a fortunate position. Trying to push for all three of these factors will result in bad design: the finished product won’t be ready as fast as you’d like, it won’t be as good as you’d like and it won’t be as cheap as you’d like.

No compromises is a bad design direction.

Windows 8 is the Biggest Compromise

Interestingly, Microsoft not only publicly announced their plans to design Windows 8 with a “no compromises” approach, but they kept us informed of the whole process along the way. Finally, when the product (in this case Windows 8 RT, running on a Surface) was shipped, I can only assume that the Microsoft folks felt confident that it was ready. And good enough to ship. They must have been proud of it.

So, is the Microsoft Surface for Windows RT a “no compromises” OS? In some ways, yes. But this brings with it even more problems than a device which has a healthy dose of compromises.

Input Mayhem

It’s possible to buy a Surface without any keyboard cover and use it just like an iPad. This gives you a touch screen to interact with.

It’s also possible to buy a Surface with a keyboard cover. The keyboard cover consists of a small trackpad, coupled with keys for faster text entry.

It’s also possible to connect a mouse to the USB port on a Surface. This gives the user mouse control.

It’s safe to say Microsoft went for a “no compromises” approach to input options with the Surface. The confusion which will result from this move is hard to measure. Furthermore, Windows application developers have to make their apps work with just a touch screen, with a keyboard and a trackpad, and with a mouse, if they want to target everyone. It’s a mess. Users will struggle trying to use touch-optimised apps with a mouse or mouse-optimised apps with their fingers.

Multiple Desktops (in a bad way)

There are two main UIs in Windows 8 RT. One of them was called Metro, and it’s the one which tends to receive universal acclaim from designers. It looks unique, modern and is simple. (Yes, Microsoft released a simple UI. I’m surprised, too.)

However, the second UI is extremely similar to Windows 7, which in turn is pretty similar to Windows Vista… and so on. It’s a traditional desktop mode, with windows for applications.

This desktop mode has been around before trackpads and touch screens were popular. It’s not optimised for them at all. Using a stock Microsoft Surface (with no touch cover) in this desktop mode has been universally hailed as far from optimal at best, to downright clunky and unpleasant at worst. It’s not great.

Why did Microsoft release the new version of Office on this old, clunky desktop-mode? Surely it would make more sense to have re-written the app for Metro, making it touch-friendly and modern? This is another disappointing sign that Microsoft’s “no compromises” approach was, in fact, the biggest compromise of the device and software.

Comprising the Usability of Office

One of the biggest reasons for the inclusion of the old, desktop-mode within Windows 8 RT is Office. Bundled with the Surface, traditional Office applications Word, PowerPoint and Excel can all run in a familiar environment. Microsoft believes this to be a no-compromises approach. Thumbs up?


These apps are clearly designed to be used with a mouse and keyboard. The Surface doesn’t ship with a mouse and keyboard unless you spend an extra $100 — even then it’s a trackpad rather than a full mouse. This leads me to believe that there will be a significant percentage of users who will buy a Surface and try to use Office without a keyboard cover: they’ll use their fingers. The experience is not well touch-optimised; touch targets are small and easy to miss, there is little visual feedback when touches are made and subtle things like animations and physics-based scrolling seem to be buggy at best, or missing.

I firmly believe Microsoft shouldn’t have shipped this version of Office for Windows 8 RT. I believe this version of Office should be Office Pro. There should be a Metro-UI style version of Office which can run natively in Windows 8 RT, not in the desktop-mode, and integrate well with the rest of the UI. The desktop-mode of Windows 8 RT should be removed.

Move Forwards

The problems I’ve mentioned are software issues. Microsoft is a software company. I’ve previously noted this irony.

Microsoft could disable the old desktop-mode in Windows RT and reserve it for the fully fledged Windows 8 Pro, when it ships. At least older apps could run on it then, rather than the ~4 apps which can run in that mode on Windows 8 RT. Microsoft could confine developers to just touch input and keyboard input, not allowing trackpads or mice to be used with the device. This would streamline the experience and make creating apps less of a headache.

These decisions are all tough. They involve saying no. As I recently wrote on Chasing Perfection, this is the difference between Microsoft and Apple. Apple says no and makes difficult compromises. Microsoft says yes too often, resulting in worse experiences for users.

Drunk people can’t figure it out. Windows XP users can’t figure it out.

Let’s hope Microsoft realises they’ve got some improvements to make, and makes them. I’m watching keenly with my fingers crossed.

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