Summary of Microsoft’s Response to Start Screen Criticism

Yesterday, Microsoft published a lengthy blog post reflecting on people’s negative feedback about the new Start Screen in Windows 8. Here is a summary of what they wrote:

Issues Microsoft DID confront and refute

Usability with a Mouse
Efficiency is on the top of Microsoft’s mind. When considering mouse mileage (distance mouse has to move), target size, loading time, parsing time, and mouse click counts, there is a net gain of efficiency in the Start Screen. They admit there will be a slight transitional period where users will have to learn the new screen, but they expect it to take no longer than a few hours, days, or, at most, weeks. For example, users discover the ability to simply type to search on the Start Screen within hours of using the beta.

Heat map of time it takes to reach icons in Windows 8 (green is fastest)
Heat map of time it takes to reach icons in Windows 7 (green is fastest)

Next, they discuss Fitts Law, which is commonly applied to software design. The law essentially says that the further away an object is, the longer it takes to reach it with the mouse. It also says that the smaller the object is, the longer it takes to acquire it with the mouse. Therefore, while the Start Screen does make the distance between icons larger, it also increases the target size, which actually has a net gain of improving the time it takes to reach app icons, as seen in Microsoft’s images above (click for larger size)

As you can see, far more icons are faster to reach in the new Start Screen. Another problem with the Start Menu is that your most common programs are listed at the top of the Start Menu, where it takes longest to reach. The Start Screen makes those more frequent apps easier to reach. Rest assured that they also considered screen size, form factors, readability of content, layout, visually pleasing shapes, and more. Their result was the Start Screen.

They also touch on the fact that the Start Screen takes the same amount of clicks or even less to get to what you want. In addition to that, the Start Screen can show far more programs when you click it, whereas the Start Menu only shows 10 programs + 10 special links like “Computer” no matter your screen size. Compare that to the Start Screen, which even on a small 10.1″ screen can display 24 squares. The number continuously increases with bigger screens.

User Data Not Including Enterprise Customers
The blog refutes the statements that Microsoft’s CEIP anonymous feedback data doesn’t include Enterprise use. They do this by stating other ways they collect data from enterprises, and make it clear that they have plenty of statistics from corporate users.

Start Screen is less effective “at a glance”
At first the Start Screen doesn’t seem to let you view all your programs as easily as the Start Menu. However, when you look into the issue further, the Start Menu’s All Programs list can only display 20 programs in a single view, whereas even a small 12.1″ laptop running Windows 8 will be able to display 36 programs in the Apps screen. Expanding the Start Menu depending on screen size would simply decrease usability, as described with the Fitt’s Law earlier.

The new Apps list design concept, featuring "groups"

However, Microsoft has made a change in the Apps screen on Windows 8, thanks to user feedback. Since many apps, like Microsoft Office, are typically grouped under a folder in the Start Menu, it makes it easier to find those Office suite apps, even if you don’t know the specific names. In the developer beta, the App screen lacked a feature like that, but Microsoft updated their concept for the App screen, and it now features groups as seen above.

Customization of the Start Screen
Microsoft answered the concern of users who like to drastically customize their computer, and said that they will supporting the flexibility of 3rd party launchers in Windows 8. They continue on to show how customizing is easier with the Start Screen, and how the 2D grid icon layout will actually help users remember where a specific app is, since our brains remember visual details more than they do names.

What about Jump Lists in the Start Menu?
According to user data, Jump Lists in the Start Menu are used so infrequently that they are barely significant. Taskbar jump lists are of course the same and will remain how they are, but the functionality of Start Menu jump lists will transfer over into pinning things like playlists or documents to your Start Screen, through the use of secondary tiles.

Current Improvements Microsoft has made
Thanks to user feedback, Microsoft has made it easier to get to the Apps screen (All Programs list). Now you simply click Search on the desktop, and it will go to your Apps list if you don’t start typing. They are also increasing the number of rows of tiles you can see on a larger monitor, so you can have more apps on the screen at once.

What Microsoft did NOT mention

The Visual UI Conflict Between Desktop and Start Screen
Currently, there is a major visual design clash in Windows 8. The interface of the desktop looks drastically different than the interface of the Start Screen. They simply aren’t one coherent visual design. The issue is that the user has to switch from one visual experience to a completely different one simply to launch another desktop program. Unless Microsoft completely changes the visual design of the desktop (which is possible, since Microsoft has been focusing on the tablet interfaces for now), this jarring visual clash is embarrassing. You would not see Windows Phone 7 randomly use gradients, when the whole design is based on simplicity!

The Scrollbar Issue
The blog also didn’t discuss the extremely annoying scrollbar that you have to use in the Start Screen. Hopefully that will change.

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