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Monday, December 10, 2012

Windows 8\'s Clarity Problem

A modest suggestion to Microsoft: Next time, more verbs.

Last week I was lent a Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, a high-end ultrabook running Windows 8. In many ways, it is an impressive machine, with a clear screen, a fast Intel processor and a great keyboard.

The touch screen is clever, with both responsive glass and software that uses motion from different sides of the screen in different ways: swipe down from the top to open Web pages, from the right to get to the Start page or do a search, from below to enter an address, and from the left to go to a preceding screen. The product costs over $1,000 and weighs too much, so I wouldn't get it, but I'm not the target customer anyway.

This is not a product review, however. It's an observation about how Microsoft presents itself to the consumer, which may say a lot about how Microsoft still sees itself.

I wanted to write an article with the Lenovo, using an online document program. After three tries I was unable to download a Chrome browser (a pretty serious problem in its own right, considering how much trouble Microsoft had over hampering access to Netscape), so I wasn't able to get at Google Drive in a form that would allow offline composition. Fortunately I found enough places with Wi-Fi that I could stay connected and do the work.

That evening I was at dinner with Satya Nadella, the head of Microsoft's server and tools business. “You should have just used our online service through Skydrive,” he said, referring to Microsoft's online storage service.

I pointed out that this was not intuitively clear from the Windows 8 look: Instead of saying “write” or “store,” the icon says “Skydrive.” Instead of offering activities, Microsoft is assuming that buyers are up on all of its products, and clear on how to begin using them.

It is leading with its brand names, thinking along the lines of corporate functions, rather than thinking about what people want to do. Similarly, instead of an icon saying “browse the Web,” there is one labeled “Internet Explorer,” admittedly a better known product. Other icons, like “mail” and “maps,” are clearer, though they do favor Microsoft versions of these products.

Google has recently made a similarly confusing move, changing the name of “Docs” in Gmail to the more branded, and vague, “Drive.” It may be in the interests of these tech companies to think of storage as a generalized online activity to which many applications apply, but there is no need to mystify the consumer.

Microsoft did not have to follow Google's bad lead here, and repeat the longtime flaw in Silicon Valley of building things for other engineers, instead of building them for regular people.

It used to be a nagging problem, when personal computers came with cumbersome manuals. As we move to an online computing world of consumer-driven services, however, it's better to think in terms of actions and outcomes, not arcane product names.