A reaction to the proposed Windows Explorer UI improvements

The telemetry data here shows that 54.5% of commands are invoked using a right-click context menu, and another 32.2% are invoked using keyboard shortcuts (“Hotkey” above) while only 10.9% come from the Command bar, the most visible UI element in Explorer in Windows 7 and Vista. With greater than 85% of command usage being invoked using a method other than the primary UI, there was clearly an opportunity to improve the Explorer user experience to make it more effective—more visible and uniformly accessible.

— From Improvements in Windows Explorer

Talk about learning the wrong lesson from your data. There’s a huge logical leap being made here, and it’s not even mentioned. That leap comes in the form of an assumption about why only 10.9% of users are clicking stuff in the command bar: the problem is the bar itself, it’s not “visible and uniformly accessible”.

No mention of the fact that users have obviously trained themselves to use the context menu (and hot keys). An affordance that while not immediately obvious is incredibly efficient in its economy of motion, and accurate in that the thing you’re affecting is right under the mouse (no mental math of “Oh this button I am going to press all the way over here affects those highlighted rows”). If it wasn’t, I bet some of that 55% would have found another way to do things.

Also conspicuously absent is the user research which shows users having a real problem. The article references community feedback about wanting things like a “customizable command surface” and the “up button” from Windows XP. Not a damn thing about how this stuff is creating real problems managing files. My guess is that if you asked most people they’d tell you that they give a crap about managing files. They just don’t want to lose them, and they want to be able to share/print/make-stuff-out-of them quickly and easily. 

In fact, my biggest use of Explorer is to find my stuff and open it. It’s very hard to tell from the data if the “Open” command also includes double-clicking on something. I have a hunch that it doesn’t, or they would have said, right? Assuming I’m right, that means that for the most common use of explorer I have ever seen, users are going to have to contend with a bunch of addition visual complexity that helps them not one bit.

In the quote that opens the article, Steven says,

Windows desktop and has undergone several design changes over the years, but has not seen a substantial change in quite some time. Windows 8 is about reimagining Windows, so we took on the challenge to improve the most widely used desktop tool (except maybe for Solitaire) in Windows.

And herein lies the problem. This change, at its core, is motivated by the technology, not the users. “It’s old and hasn’t been updated in a while” isn’t a problem I really care about. The result is an extension of that motivation. The new UI is all about improving ways users do stuff to files, as if file management is some inherently interesting task, instead of enabling users to more easily do stuff with files. If I were reimagining Windows, I’d be much concerned with the latter.