Not quite there, yet: Thoughts on the Windows 8.1 Start Button

Sad Start Button
Poor guy.
I hate to harp on the Start Button and former lack thereof. Microsoft has been sufficiently scolded for their Windows 8 mistakes, and Windows 8.1 has some really nice updates. I am just fascinated that the highly touted re-introduction of the Start Button in Windows 8.1 was likely the simplest of the significant changes to implement, and it has taken Microsoft over a year to respond to the resounding rejection of their bold button-ectomy.

I honestly admire Microsoft’s courage. That is, to reinvent a central feature that has been ingrained in our muscle memory since Windows 95, when the Start Button made it’s successful debut. Yep, that was nearly 20 years ago. It takes real guts to try undo something so core to the PC experience. It’s just too bad Microsoft couldn’t channel that fearlessness into more self-reflection and challenge their original assumptions.

The lack of a start button wasn’t the root problem with Windows 8, but it succinctly represented Windows’ stubborn insistence that we behave as if our desktops were small touchscreens.

The old Start Button in Windows facilitated something we in the UX biz’ call an “automatic” process because, through repetition, it required almost no brain power use. The elegance of the Start Button was reinforced by the name itself. Even a novice would feel invited and, most importantly, confident to click there first, making for a simple, short learning process. Just Start. The Start Menu that appeared after clicking the button used just enough space to show you your options, and disappeared as soon as your mouse cursor lost interest. The point is that you didn’t have to make a conscious decision to leave the menu. The Start button and menu were inseparable pieces of the same tool, serving the simple task of launching programs and then getting out of the way.

Novices and experts alike found themselves lost during their first minutes in Windows 8. After a few introductory, easy-to-forget tips popped on the screen, many found themselves stuck, staring blankly at the desktop wallpaper, wondering what to do next. Many who found the Start Screen couldn’t get out, wondering if their escape button was malfunctioning (today, thankfully, you can click escape to leave the Start Screen):

We can assume it was Microsoft’s expectation that, over time, we desktop users would embrace the display-hogging, wrist-killing, soul-trapping abomination they call the “Start Screen” of Windows 8. From my standpoint as a UX practitioner, some of the changes seemed so gratuitous and laborious that by the time I figured out how to use the Start Screen, I had grown to resent it. The sad thing is that I really wanted to like it, because lying within the befuddling workflows and protocols was some really pleasing UI.

Microsoft’s message was “Try it, you’ll like it.” To which, the collective desktop world said “No, really. We hate it.” To which, Microsoft essentially said “stop being so mean”:

“In this world where everyone is a publisher, there is a trend to the extreme — where those who want to stand out opt for sensationalism and hyperbole over nuanced analysis. In this world where page views are currency, heat is often more valued than light. Stark black-and-white caricatures are sometimes more valued than shades-of-gray reality.”

–Frank X. Shaw, corporate vice president of corporate communications at Microsoft

Never have I felt so stupid using a computer as I did when I couldn’t find my way out of the Windows 8 Start Screen. That’s saying something, since I’ve used Windows since version 3.0 in 1991. Learning to find the Start Screen without having a Start Button was annoying, but using the Start Screen was even more mystifying to newcomers; It required users to use gestures, hover over invisible areas at far corners of the screen to reveal important menus, all while the Start Screen and its apps dominated every last bit of pixel real estate on our multitask-oriented machines. The lack of a start button wasn’t the root problem with Windows 8, but it succinctly represented Windows’ stubborn insistence that we behave as if our desktops are small touchscreens.

And so today I upgraded to Windows 8.1, knowing I would be pleased by some of the enhancements, but ultimately wistful for what it could have been. Here we are, a year later, getting a start button that I almost don’t miss anymore, because I’ve learned to deal with it. And now that I see it, I almost feel sorry for the little guy, because when we said we wanted the Start Button back, we actually wanted the Start Menu.

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