Microsoft have published a ‘very’ long blog post today explaining their justifications for the new Start screen in Windows 8, especially in regards to usability and finding and running applications. The main reasons for implementing the new Start screen are based around aspects such as reducing DPI sizes on modern monitors making small things harder to hit, scrolling and searching in the Windows 7 Start Menu becoming difficult because of this and larger icons being easier to hit on screen, both because of their size and because the brain finds it easier to remember where things are in a two dimensional space, rather than a single one dimensional one.
I’ll deal with the main points in the blog post, as they offer some valuable insight into Microsoft’s decisions and choices for Windows 8.
Start Screen Icons vs Start Menu Folders
In Windows 8 we assume that there are even more apps (and sites) than the XP/Vista/7 eras and so we needed even more scale. We also wanted to provide an at-a-glance view and a navigation model that requires much less dexterity. By using the full screen, we can now show more apps without the need to scroll or navigate hierarchy. By flattening the hierarchy, we provide a way for you to leverage the iconography of the apps and remove the burden of clicking through folders trying to find an app under its manufacturer’s name. Over time this will also address another common complaint, which is that when renaming, combining, or reorganizing folders (which you might do in order to keep the menu from wrapping) you would lose the ability to uninstall cleanly, and thus subject yourself to a periodic garbage collection of your Start menu to avoid dead links.
In addition to the limited real estate, apps in All Programs are buried under folders and subfolders of hierarchy, without any iconography to help you navigate to the right place. To make matters worse, things are often jumping around as you expand and collapse folders looking for the right app, making the experience even less efficient. Some have noted that this limitation is a design regression from the Windows XP Start menu. While technically that is true, we are fundamentally working with a menu, and as such, it is a single column with hierarchy that requires significant dexterity to navigate. The feedback around the scale of the old Windows XP design was resoundingly negative over time and led to the redesign for Vista and Windows 7.
Microsoft say here that for IT Pros with larger screens there will be more apps available in the main view on the single screen, 80 on a full HD monitor as opposed to just 20 in the All Programs list of the Windows 7 Start menu.
They go on to say how they have now also modified the Apps search screen however based on user feedback. People were saying it was difficult to find the app they needed when some sub-apps for their main software sometimes had obscure names and were difficult to find in an alphabetical list. In the screenshot below, Microsoft show that in current builds, Apps are displayed by folder more in keeping with the current method in the Start Menu.
Spatial Recognition and Muscle Memory
The blog goes on to explain how Windows 8 takes advantage of Human psychology where icons are concerned.
The grouping of tiles in the Start screen was designed with these principles in mind. We know that sizes of groups will naturally vary based on the kinds of items that you’re throwing together. Not only does this flexibility help with organization, but it also helps by creating a heterogeneous layout where shapes and sizes vary from group to group. This makes it easier to find a tile when you know it’s in a small group with an uneven edge on its right side or in a large group that looks like a full rectangle.
Start Screen Customisation
Microsoft say that better customisation options for the Start Screen are coming in the beta.
The personalization of the Start screen is one of the features that we want to make great, and we’re still iterating on it and to make it better. In the Windows Developer Preview, you can already try flexible group sizes, unpinning tiles, and resizing wide tiles to square tiles. And in the Beta, you’ll also be able to use other improvements based on this dialog, in addition to creating, naming, and rearranging groups.
Jumplists and the Start Screen
One of the most interesting aspects of the blog is how it addresses Jumplists. They do this by quoting a tweet from a user of the Developer Preview.
“Implement Jump Lists to the Live Tiles at the Start screen. Swiping up on a tile or right click could bring up a Jump List.”
Having a way to quickly access content within an app is a great feature and we’re happy to see the enthusiasm and increasing usage for jump lists in Windows 7. We have developed something new for Metro style apps that builds on the jump list concept. We think it will be even more powerful for end-users and an even richer opportunity for app developers. But first, some background on jump list usage in Windows today.
Mouse Distance and Mouse Clicks
One very common complaint so far regards the Windows 8 Developer Preview is with the distance people have to move their mouse on large screens. Microsoft had an interesting response to this.
We took a look at desktop monitors, and by controlling for constants a and b because we’re on the same device, and varying D and W based on the targets in the Start menu and Start screen, we calculated the speed of acquiring an app link. We then applied a heat map to show the results and see the following comparisons:
If you count the number of items that show up as green (delineated with the white line,) it is considerably larger on the Start screen (about 17 square tiles) than on the Start menu (2 apps). So there are many more items that you can reach more quickly on the Start screen.
This is just a taster of the full blog post, it’s very detailed and interesting. You can read the full article here.