When my partner (not a programmer) first saw the Windows 8 Start Screen, with all the big flashy icons, supposedly replacing the old Start Menu, her reaction was ‘wow cool!’ She was somewhat less amused 10 minutes later at the discovery that there was no convenient start button to click, and definitely irritated when she discovered how hard it had become to shut the computer down. She no longer uses Windows 8.
Of course Windows 8.1 is here, at least in the preview version, and not only is the start button restored, but we apparently have the option to login straight to the desktop, making the start screen function much more like a start menu.
So it is all well? Is the start screen worthy of being considered Start Menu (improved version)?
Let’s look at this logically. Why do you use the start menu? Well obviously you use it most commonly when you want to launch another program. Now the big difference between the start menu and the start screen is that the start screen takes over the entire desktop (that immersive apps thing) whereas the start menu just sits cutely in the corner like a little kid who’s a bit nervous about entering the headmaster’s office, trying to look as small and un-noticeable as possible.
Now here’s a question. Imagine you’ve just completed your morning’s round of looking for better paid jobs on the Internet and you are about to open Notepad or Visual Studio whatever and do some – gasp – work. So you bring up the start menu. Now while your attention is focused on the bottom left corner of the screen, and you are tapping cursor down to get to ‘Notepad’, is there any reason why you need to be looking at the rest of the screen? No, of course there isn’t. Most people can’t look at more than one thing at the same time and if you are busy peering at that list of applications in the start menu then you are probably not looking at that web page in the middle of the screen. So there’s no reason for that web page to be visible, is there. Moreover, if all your attention is on the start menu, why would you possibly want it to be pushed into a corner, forcing you scroll to see most of the apps you normally use? Surely it makes much more sense for the thing you’re focused on to occupy the screen so that you have a maximum space to see everything.
Not only that but the Start Screen makes better use of the space by sticking its icons in a grid instead of a single column, and you can freely arrange and resize them.
So the logic is clear. That’s why the start screen is better than the start menu. To say nothing of the fact that searching is of course quicker from the start screen and finding settings by searching is arguably easier as well.
But you’re not convinced are you. You’ve just read all the logic and understood it and something in your head is still telling you that the start screen is plain wrong.
What is it?
Actually replacing something in the corner of the screen with something that occupies a whole screen has a precedent. Do you remember what the File menu in Word or Excel used to look like 10 years ago? You clicked on it and you got a real drop-down menu. These days you click on the File menu in Word and it’s more like aliens have taken over your computer, as your screen is instantly submerged in a massive unwanted flash of – well – mostly goo. (What on earth is Options doing under the File menu, for goodness sake? But I digress). You see, the problem is, this big flash of goo taking over the screen is distracting. If you’re like me, most times you save a file it’s a quick ALT-F + S just to make sure the work you’ve done the last couple minutes safely on your hard drive, then you’re instantly back into the flow of what you’re writing. In fact you probably didn’t even consciously break the flow of concentration, the regular ALT-F + S is an instinct, a bit like breathing. And that means you definitely don’t want to be interrupted by anything other than your precious work covering the screen. Not even for a second. And it’s the same thing with the start screen. Admittedly with the start screen you’re probably opening a new app, which is making a bigger decision than just saving the file, but you’re probably still doing it while engrossed on a single task. Maybe you’re opening notepad to paste some text in so that you can edit it without formatting. Maybe you your code won’t connect to SQL Server so you want to quickly want to bring up the services panel to make sure SQL Server is actually running. The point is, your mind is engaged on a task and you don’t want your eyes to be distracted with this intruder taking over your desktop.
And that is what’s really wrong with the start screen. Yes, the reasons for having a Start Screen instead of a Start Menu make perfect logical sense if you think locally – about giving the user the best user interface to do the instantaneous task of opening a new app. But it makes no sense at all if you think about how the human brain works in the wider context that you are bringing up the Start Screen in the middle of some other task.
There’s lots of things to think about when you design a User Interface, and on the whole, Microsoft does a pretty good job at it. But you should never forget about the wider context of not distracting the user from what they really want to do.
Next week: The two types of collection