Don Norman: Microsoft has a real opportunity with Windows 8

March 23, 2012

The Nielsen Norman Group is a highly respected consulting firm in the area of user experience and usability. Norman, who’s resume includes stints as a VP at Apple and executive at HP, says his work is focused on helping technology companies structure their product lines and business with an emphasis on design strategy.

At the University of California, San Diego he was founder and chair of the department of Cognitive Science. He was also a professor of Computer Science and Design at Northwestern University. His latest book is titled Living with Complexity.

TabTimes: You’ve seen a lot of computers and devices come ago. Clearly Microsoft has a lot riding on the new Metro interface in Windows 8. What are your impressions?

Don Norman: First by way of background, let me say that I think Microsoft got complacent. They were out early with tablets but they were horrible. They tried squeezing a desktop into a tablet but it wasn’t done right. The same thing happened with cellphones.

It just isn’t the same form factor…

It’s not just form factor, it’s the way you interact. When there’s no mouse and you’re using your fingers or a stylus you can’t think of the device the old way, like it’s still a desktop. Microsoft got hammered, they lost out on cell phones and tablets and Apple took over.

So what’s going to be different this time around? Microsoft has to compete with both Android and Apple…

Apple revolutionized the phone, but there’s nothing really new there. Everything has been in labs for 20 years including work I did at Apple that resulted in patents. But none of it was affordable. Microsoft was out first with a multitouch interface with Surface, but that costs $20,000. Apple found a small startup that helped it produce affordable multitouch screens.

Now you look at Android and the iPhone and it’s really the same thing.

Steve Jobs said in his biography that Android was a big ripoff…

A ripoff, yes, but people do that all the time. The real problem is that it shows a lack of creativity….

So you have almost everyone following Apple. But when Microsoft decided the Wii was a great idea, they didn’t bring out their own version of it, they developed something far superior, Kinect. It’s the same thing with Windows 8 where they’ve decided to redo everything.

Are you impressed?

I’m impressed that Microsoft said ‘let’s look at how one works with gestures and not copy Apple’. That’s what’s so brilliant. The same principles will work on the Windows 8 desktop with a mouse or touch or a stylus. I think people will end using all three.


There are advantages for precision with the stylus, the finger for ease of use and fun and the keyboard and mouse for text and getting real work done. You notice that you can’t do real productivity on a tablet.

Do you use a tablet?

My machine of choice is the Macbook Air which is closer to an iPad with a keyboard. My opinion is that Apple is moving that way and the next OS will have more tablet stuff in it. I bet the next Air will be more like an iPad. You'll fold it over and use it like an iPad.

What other innovation do you see coming?

Jakob [Nielsen] and I have criticized the gesture interfaces on Android and Apple devices because it can be confusing. You don’t always know whether to swipe left or right, up or down, or to double or triple tap. Android at least has menus. I don’t think Apple believes in menus anymore.

Microsoft has done a much better job with Metro. One of the powers of modern computers is discoverability, you can explore, but with gesture systems it’s a pain. It’s amazing how many things people don’t know about the computers they use and there’s no way to find out.  

My analysis is that Microsoft has gone a long way to solving that problem with Metro. If you are going to swipe, it shows a little bit of what will be up there so you have hints of what direction to move.

So you like the Live Tiles interface?

Tiles are brilliant the way they have previews so you don’t even always have to open them. You can see in a weather tile what the weather is or in a financial tile what the stock price is.

It’s clear from the demos I’ve seen that Microsoft has thought a lot about workflow and how people go back and forth between activities. I don’t see that understanding in Android and Apple; each of those company’s software assumes you are only going to want to do one thing at a time.

So you see a real opportunity for Microsoft, particular with business customers?

Yes. I don’t think Apple plays well in the business arena and I don’t think they need to, they’re a great consumer, entertainment company. And Apple wants complete control of what it does.

Which leaves an opening for Google and Microsoft?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft in a few years is seen as the friendly company. They always have been to developers, but when they got really big they became the ‘evil’ Microsoft. But they’re not a dominant player now and there’ve been a lot of personnel changes. There are a lot of things I think they’ll do differently now that they’re in catch up mode.


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