Windows 8 Explorer Ribbon

While it seems safe to say that the images of Windows 8 Explorer’s new ribbon toolbar are not the final version, and there will no doubt be a lot of prettification yet to come, I think what has been said about it shows a lot about the thought process of Microsoft, and why we can never expect Microsoft to be like Apple.

The explorer ribbon is justified by the following statements

  • This is all based in statistics – 80% of clicks are on just 10 features
  • We’ve kept all 200-odd features, and made them available in the ribbon
  • We’ve made it easy to find things we think you want

None of these are particularly bad goals, but together they manage to be contradictory:

  • If 80% of clicks are on 10 features, do people really care if all 200 remain around?
  • If very few clicks are on some of the features we think you want, are we right in thinking you want them?
  • If we want to make it easy to find the good hidden secrets of explorer, should we really be keeping all 200 features as buttons?

The answer to all three questions, in my view, is probably no. The reason why the questions remain is that the way decisions seem to have been made in designing the new explorer UI is not one of coming up with the best tool, but rather coming up with the tool that it is easiest to justify to senior management, or to big customers. So they end up thinking:

“We can’t remove any features, because one of our big customers will depend on the feature we choose to remove, and go off and sulk if its missing. Anything we do change, we have to be able to justify – and number make it easy to justify things.”

At Apple they do the opposite – when they came to revamp Final Cut, they changed it – and there were howls of indignation. But Apple knew what they wanted and they stuck with it. Because Apple’s argument was “We have a guy who knows what he likes, and we’re going to make this so that it looks and feels nicer to him”

This isn’t to say that Apple are right, and Microsoft are wrong – just that Apple look to make each device as lovely as they can, while Microsoft care more about making each device work with the myriad other devices they have sold, and making sure that their customers have no excuse but to keep buying them. So with apple you get lust and technojoy, and with Microsoft you get better the devil we know.

You might think was going to say that Apple’s decisions are those of an artist, and Microsofts are those of engineers, but that would be wrong. How microsoft approached this looks, at first glance, like engineering – lots of statistics and justifications – but if they are engineering anyone, they are engineering management and customers. Because their statistics don’t hold out:

If 80% of operations are on 10 buttons, then why are there other buttons on the front page? What is their justification for being there? The answer we are given is that these are hidden features which MS engineers think users would like to know about. Its a reasonable sounding answer. But they stats don’t hold up. Because of the 10 buttons used 80% of the time, we are told in existing UIs only 2 appear in the toolbar. Customers know about the other buttons they use – why are we so sure they haven’t simply found these features not particularly attractive? Once the stats break down, you know its just an exercise in convincing people you’re right, not an exercise is design.

The Apple approach to engineering managers is simple – its to find the decision maker – the person who has to love the software, and to show him the software and ensure he loves it. Meanwhile the engineering is the process of making sure those features work as well – and as transparently as possible.

Microsoft have had a change to throw away explorer with the introduction of Metro. Maybe they will – maybe for everything we use in Metro we won’t have to interact with a filer at all… but knowing the insides of MS operating systems, that seems unlikely to me. So why couldn’t we have had a Metro file manager which tries to make file management different, simple, clean and easy, without the need for anything like explorer? Can’t we try to deprecate the existing desktop features of windows as much as possible, and just leave them for power users and people who can’t cope with change?

What we actually have is not a conflict between engineers and artists, but a conflict between two political systems – Apple are more like a monarchy, and all the while they have a Good King, they will be making Good Things. Microsoft is a democracy, and not the good sort of democracy we all imagine, Microsoft is the just about functional democracy we all live in where spin and satisfying special interest groups wins over making the best choices every time. The strangeness of this is, I would bet on Microsoft’s style lasting longer, because Good Kings eventually go away, and the world hasn’t been short of Bad Kings.

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