Should a proven UI be updated?

I was reading some articles concerning the up and coming release of Windows 8.1 and the much heralded return of the start menu button. It would appear that Microsoft has heard the complaints of it’s users and now wants to backtrack on the decision to remove the button, and push that functionality back in to the next release of Windows. This got me thinking, why did they remove the button in the first place? Why did they feel this was a good decision at all?

The line of thinking when they released Windows 8 was that you would work in the environment that you developed for, if you developed for Windows 8 mobile, and that by offering only one product across the board that it would allow for them to make a better product as they only had to test one instance. The biggest reason though was that users would be accustomed to everything Windows 8. If you used it on a desktop it would be the same on a tablet or on the phone. You only had to learn one UI and you were good to go across a multitude of devices.

Those reasons do make sense but where they fall a part is that a mouse/keyboard driven UI is inherently different from one that is driven by touch. By trying to accommodate both, you are going to limit that device that is rooted purely in only one input model, and that is the majority of the devices out there. I see very few tablet users using a mouse. They may hook up a keyboard, but that is usually only when they are writing an email, or taking a note. Most of the time they are in a purely touch driven environment. Conversely there are very few laptops and desktops out there that offer a touch screen as a standard offering.

An example of this difference in work flow would be launching an application in Windows 8 that you don’t have an icon for. You first have to move the mouse pointer to the upper right corner. Then you have to click on the all applications button. Then you have to search through the apps by scrolling sideways until you find the one you are looking for and then finally click on the correct icon. You could search for the app, but that is still a navigate to the upper right corner, click in the search box, switch to typing on the keyboard, and then click on the result. Also, while you are doing this, you don’t have a full view of your desktop, so you may lose sight of the information that prompted the application switch in the first place. However, this process works in the touch environment. Tap the upper right corner, tap a button, and then swipe through the list until the app is found and tap on it. It works for a touch screen, but for a mouse, a simple menu that you click on that presents a list of options is the better way to go as moving a mouse is more of an impediment than touching a screen. You want to limit the distance that a mouse pointer has to move, and also limit the context switches between keyboard and mouse.

So really it isn’t surprising that there was an outcry from the mouse/keyboard users about the disappearance of the start menu as it is a better workflow for them. Also, Windows 8 isn’t the only OS that has tried to update it’s UI to make it more touch friendly. Ubuntu has been releasing Unity for a couple of years now, and people are still having a hard time getting used to it. So much so that people revert to using gnome-shell, which is better but still not ideal, or they install something like Linux Mint which offers an underlying Ubuntu OS with the previous panel style of the UI. In the end it would seem that if you have a UI that works, that allows for a good work flow, you should tweak it, but not overhaul it, and then offer a separate interface for devices that have a different input model.

–Rodney