Windows Vista and the Measurement of Happiness

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the User Experience 2006 conference in Seattle, Washington. We spent several days covering the fundamentals and latest trends in developing usable products, such as usability testing and developing personas. With most members of the audience usability professionals, one would expect, to some degree, a consensus on the best ways to design and build truly user-friendly software.

Thursday night found us at a presentation by Microsoft’s Tjeerd Hoek, Director of User Experience Design for Windows. Now, Tjeerd is an extremely smart guy, and given the short time period of the presentation, managed to show off some impressive development efforts going into Vista.

On reflection, though, I noticed a worrying trend with what he was demoing. Slide after slide seemed to focus on measuring the happiness impact of new features. An entire series of raw user test footage was devoted to testimonials — in part, a girl squealing with pleasure — when first shown the new 3D Windows Flip replacement for Alt-Tab. Is impressing your user a good thing? Absolutely. Apple does it with every single release. But underneath that is an impressive track record for putting an impressive face on a usable feature. At Apple, the eye-pleasing effects also give strong visual cues about the state of the user’s environment. My concern is: what if Microsoft is just measuring the visual impact? Is Vista’s UI just a collection of effects meant to increase user happiness?

Perhaps the reason I cued into the Windows Flip 3D effect so keenly is that I’m a furious Alt-Tabber. Since I’m left handed, yet mouse with my right hand, Alt-Tab is an effortless flip through a list of active programs. If there’s even a millisecond of lag, I’m less efficient. How does rotating the open windows benefit me, the power user? It probably doesn’t. But how does it benefit the average user?

Microsoft claims that Flip 3D “make[s] it easier to quickly identify the window you want”, but if you look at the screenshot, it would appear that, because of the chosen angle, it’s actually more difficult to determine what application you’re selecting.

It’s similar to the taskbar grouping feature introduced in XP. It looks decent, but it obfuscates your current program list, and turns a single click into “click, scan, click”. It’s the first thing I turn off in a fresh install of Windows, and watching people try to navigate with it is very frustrating for me. I want to leap over their shoulder and Alt-Tab for them. But maybe that’s just me.

Flip 3D was just a glaring example of this UI testing that was apparent in the presentation. Slide after slide showed internal reporting tools that tagged that bugs and features with either a “smiley” or a “frowney” face. In their effort to out-glitz Apple, did Microsoft forget about building an efficient, usable product?