“Wow!” Microsoft has learned nothing about usability in twelve years

Ironically, this is the second time I’m writing this entry. The first attempt to write it involved using IE7 on my new Vista laptop. IE7 helpfully crashed on me losing everything I had written, so here goes attempt numero deux, this time using FireFox on Vista. (I also just downloaded Picasa using FireFox, since it was clicking the Picasa download link that crashed IE, and I wanted to give FireFox its fair chance to crash.)

Back in 1995 I was working as a “Usability Architect” and one of the things I would do was try to minimize keystrokes and clicks for users performing common tasks. Also around this time, Microsoft started pushing Windows (95 or 3.x, can’t remember) with an ad showing someone typing a copy command into DOS while announcing that now, with Windows, an operation that previously took dozens of keystrokes could be accomplished with a single click.

So, I counted the number of clicks required to perform this operation (using the “a double-click = 1.5 clicks” metric) and it turned out to be 47. More, in fact, than the number of keystrokes required to perform this same operation.

The reason I am reminded of this is the recent remarks made by some Microsoft apologists (although, surprisingly, not Paul Thurrott) arguing that Apple’s ad making fun of Vista’s permissions dialogs is unfair, since Mac OS X requires the user to type his/her password in the same situation.

Now let me just make this perfectly clear. I am using Vista for the first time today on a brand new Dell Latitude D620 (nice piece of hardware, by the way; no I didn’t pay for it so don’t tell me what I should have bought 😉 ), and Apple’s ads if anything understate just how dumb, annoying, and ineffectual Vista’s permissions dialogs are.

1) Unlike in the ad, the question isn’t always phrased the same way, and it’s not clear what the unsafe choice is. The ad’s annoying security guy is actually more usable and consistent than Vista’s permissions dialogs. E.g. sometimes you’re asked if you want to allow an action (e.g. when running a program), and sometimes you’re asked what to do (e.g. when downloading a file).

2) Unlike in the ad, sometimes you get asked to allow or deny something that isn’t clearly an action. E.g. when I was installing a piece of open source software (SciTE) which doesn’t have an installer, I got asked to confirm the actions of creating, naming, and selecting a folder in the “Program Files” directory.

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of what happens when I create, rename, and then delete a folder (errrr directory) in “Program Files” under Vista:

I go into “Program Files” (which used to be harder to do!) and then right-click and pick “New | Folder”.
1) I am told that this action is denied. Would I like to “Continue” “Skip” or “Cancel”? I continue.
2) Windows needs my permission to continue (system modal!). “Continue” or “Cancel”. I continue.

I rename the folder “test”.
3) Denied. “Continue” “Skip” or “Cancel”. I continue.
4) Permission! “Continue” or “Cancel”. I continue.

And then to be tidy I select the folder and press DELETE.
5) Am I sure? “Yes” or “No”? Yes.
6) Denied. “Continue” “Skip” or “Cancel”. I continue.
7) Permission! “Continue” or “Cancel”. I continue.

So, to create and name a folder in “Program Files” I need to click through four confirmation dialogs.

And might I add that every single one of these dialogs still has the major usability issue that has plagued Windows since version … 1(?). When you create a dialog box to confirm an action — “delete” say — instead of asking “Yes” or “No” you should say “Delete” or “Keep File” (say) so that the user doesn’t have to read the dialog text every freaking time.

Might I add that I have absolutely no idea what happens if I continue and then cancel or skip. (Edit: actually I tried all the permutations and essentially “skip” and “cancel” have the same effect … so why have skip at all? Indeed, why have two dialogs to ask the same question … it’s like each dialog is produced by a different team somewhere in Microsoft. It’s exactly like that. Funny how a bunch of open source developers can provide a better integrated (and more secure) OS than Windows.)

I’ll probably go into more detail on just how badly Vista sucks usability-wise later, but here are some little chesnuts to keep you amused:

1) It appears that IE either won’t resolve web addresses unless you’ve typed in the full “http://…” or takes a random (long) time to do so.

2) A lot of dialogs make Windows modal before they appear. E.g. if you save a picture from IE the “Save” dialog (sheet?) doesn’t appear immediately, but the window immediately becomes non-responsive (without visually indicating anything). Lovely.

(Again, inobviously locked up windows, especially file browsers (“explorer” windows), have been a blight on Windows since Windows 95 when “multitasking” was introduced. Indeed Mac OS 7 through 9’s “inferior” cooperative multitasking Finder never had this problem.)

3) Microsoft still hasn’t learned to “ask before the long operation”. E.g. when I tried to run a Unity demo (requiring a custom ActiveX control) I get the yellow warning bar in IE, when I ask to install it there’s a long pause, then it asks me to “Continue or Cancel”, then another long pause and it asks if I want to install the plugin. Putting aside the fact that two of these questions didn’t need to be asked, they could all have been asked before downloading the file. The most egregious example of this, of course, is when you install Windows — but thankfully I didn’t have to install Vista on this laptop.

Anyway, a more “realistic” ad might go something like this:

The Mac guy talks, does stuff, and isn’t interrupted, but when he tries to throw his cell phone away he’s asked whether he’s sure and if he is, to provide a password.

The PC guy talks, does stuff, but before each action he is asked a series of differently phrased questions such as “Permission to say bad things about Vista is denied? Continue, Skip, or Cancel.” “Continue.” The lights go off, a spotlight shines in his face. “Saying bad things about Vista is dangerous. Continue or Cancel?” “Continue”. Next, he tries to perform a common operation (e.g. breathe) and is asked “You are attempting to breathe. Run or cancel. If you don’t want to have to confirm breathing in future, uncheck this box.” Nearly blue in the face, PC unchecks the box, and then is immediately asked “You are attempting to breathe. Run or cancel. If you don’t want to have to confirm breathing in future, uncheck this box.”

That’s right, unchecking that box doesn’t work.

“You are coming to a sad realization. Abort, Retry, or Fail.”


Let me just quickly say some nice things about Windows Vista.

1) Sleep mode actually appears to work. That’s right, I can close my laptop and it goes to sleep, and open it and it wakes up (into a PRESS CONTROL + ALT + DELETE to log in screen — why why why? Talk about dumb things that have been in Windows forever. It’s like wiring your house so that to turn on your lights you have to stick a fork in a power socket. At least it’s not “Start | Shut Down” any more, because the “Start” menu is the “shiny fake Aqua Windows button” now).

2) When you make changes to a directory they appear to more-or-less update automatically semi-instantly.

3) I like the way gadgets get a slab of the desktop to live in (versus the way Apple hides all your widgets in their own private Idaho).

4) Windows now has an Exposé rip-off! Sure, it’s ugly, less interactive, and less useful, but it’s there. Ugly because the “pseudo 3d overlapping fanned deck” layout isn’t very well done. Less interactive because when you point at a window it doesn’t tell you what app it belongs to. And less useful because it doesn’t appear to support drag and drop (but then drag and drop has always been barely half-assed in Windows). Once again Microsoft shows that when you rip off someone else’s ideas, it really helps to understand them.

Yes, these are back-handed compliments. What did you expect?