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User effort vs reward in Windows 8: An interview with Stardock

In the aftermath of Windows 8's revolutionised user interface, Michigan-based software company Stardock have launched Start8, a desktop utility that restores the familiar start menu from Windows 7. This week, I had the opportunity to speak to Stardock's VP of Business Development, Jamie McGuffie, about the product and get his thoughts around the Windows 8 user experience.

How did the idea for the product come about?

If you go back to earlier in the year when early versions of Windows 8 became available, we experienced the same thing everyone does when they move to Windows 8 from a previous version of Windows, which is that the Metro interface is all new, but you can swap over to what appears to be a more traditional desktop.

Not everyone was a heavy start button user: Some people that just got their PC would go right to opening up Office, maybe Excel, Word and a browser, and would spend most of their day there. These people may not miss the start button so much, but a lot of people do use the start button and it’s muscle memory as much as anything. It’s where you do some quick clicks and know how to navigate around to get to programs and other system functions without thinking about it.

The capabilities that were in the start menu, you now have to go looking around to find them.

It’s no secret with windows 8, a large part of the agenda was to provide an interface for touch sensitive tablet devices, competing more in Apple space for that type of solution. That’s going to be all new. You don’t have that many people that are using Windows on a touch sensitive tablet previously. For your typical business user though, you’re probably sitting at a desk doing the same [activities as before]. It’s perhaps not an immediate improvement for them. Over time they may get to liking things like live tiles, which are pushing information at them, without having to click through a website. Time will tell.

For people that basically just go into a certain number of applications and spend a lot of time there, that new interface probably doesn’t mean a lot to them. While the functions are still there, they’re just squirrelled around. There doesn’t appear to be a benefit to them to have to relearn where certain capabilities now reside.

Although it doesn’t usually entail more clicks to get to things, they’re just different clicks, and there are a few extra clicks in some cases. People don’t see a particular benefit in having to relearn that stuff. They’re basically looking at a desktop that looks remarkably similar to the one they’re familiar with, but now it doesn’t work the way they remember.

Does Start8 help people get used to Windows 8, or does it stick firmly to the Windows 7 paradigm?

The Start8 shell is quite robust and will continue to grow but, as you know, corporations tend not to adopt new Windows releases right out of the gate. They’ll wait sometimes years even before they move to a new release.

We have a lot of interest from computer resellers. As well as regional resellers, mid-size companies and large companies are already looking at Windows 8 to see what the implications are for rolling it out across organisations. What we're seeing it comes down to is companies doing the math: We get X number of users and X number of support calls as people say “My start button is missing” or “How do I do this now?”  They’ll click around then call support. Eventually they’ll get through and it’s not that big of a deal but it’ll be four hours of impacted time overall... or we can proactively prevent those calls. You could put them in training for an hour or two but that would take half a day of your time as well.

A lot of these companies are thinking “We’ll make this a non issue [with Start8]. It’s the way everyone is familiar with. We don’t have to train everybody. We don’t have anybody confused as to why it’s different.” Life goes on.

The new locations for some features are explained during the initial setup screens of Windows 8. My thoughts are that, if people are given a preconfigured machine, they’re not going necessarily going to see this screen, so they’re not introduced to the charms bar, or the visible way of getting back to the start screen, etc.

That’s a common case. If a company is doing a batch update to their old Windows installations. If they’re doing a hardware refresh too, these things will come in already loaded up.

You’ll see a number of start button replacements out there. A lot of them promote all kinds of extensive capabilities, far beyond what the start button ever could do. Our approach as always been with all our software is to look at the use cases. Users aren’t always looking for multiple times more capability what what the start button did, they’re just looking for exactly what it did. Products like Classic Shell come with all kinds of options and customisations you can do. Users don’t want to make that many decisions about the start menu. The more options and flexibility you put into it, and some of them are extremely extensive, there are more potential bugs and glitches and incompatibilities with the different system configurations that aren’t tested. Users want the start button back but they don’t want to have a tech support job come along with it. Microsoft could pull the rug out from under developers and stop some features from working.

Right, and end users that don’t have to spend their time figuring our why something isn’t working.

We did enhance ours a little bit. There’s a search in the traditional start menu and, in the new Windows 8, there’s a search on the traditional desktop and there’s a search on the Metro side of the interface. The search on the Metro side only searches Metro apps and the search on the desktop side only searches that side. That is a case that we put in: The search on the start button searches both sides.

What made that a priority?

It was just annoying. Microsoft put two interfaces on one operating system and you’re logged in to both at the same time, swapping back and forth. They’re kind of forcing some apps to be Metro apps only, so they’re telling the user, “You’ve got to switch to Metro and then you can do your search”. Well I know what I’m going to do when I get there — I’m going to do a search — so why can’t I do a search now? If you know that’s what you’re going to do, you don’t need to go somewhere else first.

So we’ll search both and we’ll include Metro apps in the start menu. If there are some apps that you go to frequently on the traditional desktop, if you go to the start menu and click the Metro app, it’ll ping you right across to Metro. It’s really features that would blend the two interfaces. Remove the seams, where you’ve got to go to a different side and change your thinking. You want to think about the actions that you want to do to without having to think about an intermediate 'change of venue' before you can do it. It’s still Windows at the end of the day. It’s still an app you’re trying to run.

Those sorts of things, searching and pinning your apps are not new. Those are things that you could do with the traditional start menu. We just removed the barrier. Microsoft allows you to do similar things, just in different places in Windows 8. We just bring them back to the same place and remove the barrier and don’t just respond to the desktop that you’re currently under.

So that’s about the scope of what we were willing to do. We came with the prior experience and just adjusted it a little bit for the two desktop environments.

Was that the vision all along?

No, that evolved. If you go back to beta versions of Windows earlier in the year, we said ‘Let’s do the start button’, then and as we had more experience with Windows 8, we can across these other things that started to become more noticeable as kind of a nuisance. We also put Start8 out in beta and saw that people had the same idea as us.

We had thousands of people on the beta. The concept from the beginning was that the start button is something that is heavily used by a large percentage of users. The only reason we could see that Microsoft would remove it is to push people into working more with the Metro interface. It wasn’t really hurting things otherwise and people could handle a start button.

As people find a need to be on the Metro side and with Metro apps, they don’t want to get there and have a need to learn it. They need it more incremental, rather than being forced to learn it right out of the gate without seeing the benefit of learning it yet. They just want to to get back to the apps that they use.

Did you speak to any of the IT departments before you released the product or is this all feedback that’s come back to you after release?

It all came back afterwards actually. I guess our history, because of the type of products we do, we our sensitive to the user's interaction with the PC.

If you look at a lot of our products, they’re not must-haves, they’re more personal preference, and we sell quite a lot of them and it’s because we’re maybe more sensitive than others might be to how end users relate to the PC and how much of that is tied to the actual interface.

To many non-technical users, and even technical ones, the PC that they purchase for home, they can’t build a more personal relationship with it than the one they do at work. They bought it, they paid for it, they installed the software they’re interested in and it’s how they relate to their personal interests and it’s how they communicate with their friends. So the interface changes in a way that makes it unfamiliar to them and the benefit from Microsoft’s point of view is really training people to operate in a way that is conducive to the new Metro interface.

They’re trying to move their user base along to a new user interface model that is suitable more to touch devices. There’s nothing wrong with that – that’s probably a good thing, but in the intermediate term, there’s probably a lot of people that don’t have those devices and a lot of people who are just fine doing what they’re doing. We’re sensitive of that ourselves. When we’re sitting at our PCs all day long and we’re clicking around and we’re doing what muscle memory tells us to do to use functions and, all of a sudden, they’re not there. The benefit of them not being there is just to learn a different way to do it. As you move into future versions of Windows, you’ll have different habits. In future, it’s all great. In the short term though, we just want to carry on doing what we’re doing and, when we’re happy to flip over to Metro interface, of course, we’ll do things the way that interface requires, but we can also do them the way we used to do them for an almost inconsequential cost.