Don’t call it a u-turn. Don’t call it a failure. And definitely don’t call it a crisis.
Microsoft is furious at the Financial Times for running a story about its imminent Windows 8 update earlier this week that it claimed represented “the biggest admission of commercial failure for a major product launch since “new Coke” was withdrawn 30 years ago”.
According to the FT, despite selling 100 million licences “interest in Windows 8 has flagged” and a new update called Microsoft Blue will be rolled out shortly that it speculates could restore the Start button and provide a “boot-to-desktop” option to bypass the new “unloved” tile-based interactive Windows 8 interface altogether.
This has not gone down well with the Redmond-based software giant. And in an official statement, Microsoft said: “It is unfortunate that the Financial Times did not accurately represent the content or the context of our conversation about the good response to date on Windows 8 and the positive opportunities ahead on both Windows 8 and Windows Blue. Our perspective is accurately reflected in many other interviews on this topic as well as in a Q&A with Tami Reller posted on the Windows Blog.”
But a quick glance through the comments below the blogpost demonstrates that u-turn or not – and we are assured it is most definitely not – there are some very unhappy Windows 8 users.
“It’s beyond my comprehension how one could misinterpret the success of Apples iOS devices (because that’s what triggered the whole mess, isn't it?) in such a way as to make it mandatory(!) to use a touch gui on a PC desktop,” blasts one poster.
Another writes: “I would recommend that your company "start" listening to your customers. I realize what you're trying create the same experience across devices, but it's clearly not working for many users.”
Set up for a fall
So why the dissatisfaction at Windows 8?
“With Apple and Android leading the way in the touchscreen/tablet market, Microsoft was under serious pressure to produce a ‘game changer’ and in their drive to innovate, they made the mistake of putting technology first at the expense of the user,” suggests Tim Hill, development director at branding agency The Brand Union.
"Although Windows mobile has a smaller share of market when it comes to smartphones, it is widely acclaimed as an excellent interface so it is understandable that it may have served as a basis for the development of Windows 8 for PC,” says Mark Curtis, chief client officer at Fjord. “Microsoft set itself up for a fall after taking something specifically designed with mobile in mind and trying to make it work on PC. This is a classic example of needing to adapt the design of technology and content for different devices as what works on one platform doesn’t necessarily translate to another, especially if that translation is too literal."
John Waterworth of user experience experts Foolproof predicted back at the time of the Windows 8 launch that the big question was how long it would take for users to learn the new system. In a study by Foolproof of Windows users, testing it for the first time, the participants found the modern UI fresh and attractive - but the radical changes it introduced caused all of them significant problems. At the end of their session, none of the participants felt confident using the new interface, with particular confusion due to the omission of the brand’s famous ‘Start’ button, the absence of menus or toolbars, and challenges relating to switching between full-screen apps.
Waterworth concluded at the time: “The question is not whether Windows 8 is a better product than previous versions of Windows (we think it is). The real question is how the world is going to feel while it learns its way around.”
Robert Rutherford, managing director of specialist IT consultancy QuoStar Solutions, believes that Windows 8 was more a failure of timing, rather than design. “Microsoft has set itself up in 2013 as a source of creativity and innovation, the problem is that the new vibe doesn’t yet gel with what users know and expect from the brand,” he explains. “On this occasion Microsoft pushed the envelope too much, but the time for these innovations will come. It’s important that Microsoft keeps doing what it’s doing to provide a challenge to Apple’s creative dominance.”
Strike a balance
So what should Microsoft do to satisfy the unrest?
“Arguably, Windows 8 alienated Microsoft’s existing customer base and failed to introduce new ones because it was so far removed from their original offering. Hopefully, Windows Blue will include remnants of their old models so the brand’s identity is not entirely lost,” says Hill.
But Sarah Todd, CEO at G2 Joshua believes that even though the Start Bar has become symbolic of the problems consumers have found with Windows 8, she says that to return it as part of the update is a double-edged sword.
“Whilst there are many reasons consumers have struggled, there’s one gripe that seems to grab the headlines more than all of the others: the removal of the start bar. Its quick return however could merely confirm the ‘u-turn’ headlines that have dogged Windows 8. I’d suggest that Microsoft introduce features to clearly bridge the gap between the new and old products, whilst ensuring a strong emphasis on forward progression and positivity. What’s key is that Microsoft successfully strikes a balance.”
Daniel Todaro, MD at Gekko, adds: “Windows aren’t going to re-release the 7 OS; instead they’ll try to learn from their mistake and forge ahead. Blue is very specifically an update to what already exists (much like Windows 3.1 was once upon a time), not a regression. While it won’t be a full-blown u-turn from Microsoft, the urgency for a damage limitation exercise from Microsoft to prevent this from becoming a total catastrophe cannot be understated. The lesson that Microsoft has to learn (and quickly) is the basic art of change management. Microsoft tried to run before it could work, walk, likely scared into doing so by its late arrival to the established touch screen/tablet phenomenon. As a result, the rush to adapt its product to these trends saw Microsoft neglect the decades of brand equity they’d already built within the desktop space.
“The theory and ambition wasn’t by any means misplaced; risks need to be taken and change needs to be embraced in this sector. But people don’t like change! You have to manage the change process incredibly carefully, understanding every possible critique before it can be asked and preparing a readily available solution in anticipation. Windows 8 came along and consumers couldn’t understand how to use it, what the benefits were or even why they needed it. Unfortunately, they completely neglected to ease that transition, alienating millions in the process.”
But will Microsoft indeed learn from this? Steve Messenger, CEO at RedRoute International, is concerned that the current situation is all too familiar.
"Microsoft had the same problem when they launched Vista,” he notes. “They learned those lessons and launched Windows 7. Then promptly forgot them all again. The lesson is 'don't run before you can walk'. They overcame the issue last time by talking to customers and designing the system around what people wanted instead of what Microsoft wanted to sell them. The problem they have is an installed user-base that 'have grown up with Windows' and it’s difficult to move on. It's a bit like saying to HP sauce customers that "we know in the past it's always been brown. Well from now on it’s going to be red - so you can use the same product whenever you want brown or red sauce." That may suit Microsoft's needs but it is not what customers want. They recovered last time by making a virtue of saying they listened to customer feedback. They are going to find it difficult to pull that off a second time round."
Nonetheless, Rutherford believes the Windows 8 unrest will have little long-term impact on the software giant. “IT teams will be looking ahead to the raft of technologies that Microsoft has lined up for the remainder of 2013 with an interest undiminished by the failure of the Windows 8 interface.”
Overall, Waterworth believes that the whole situation provides a timely lesson to brands about good user experience design.
In a new blog post, he writes: “We live in a highly-connected world where the impact of even the tiniest product flaw risks being greatly magnified via social media. Perceived problems in a product can gain an unstoppable momentum of negative publicity, with a direct impact on the brand reputation, and share price, of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations. User experience should be elevated to a strategic level by all businesses as a way of managing this risk. User experience research is the way to identify and address potential flaws “behind closed doors”. It’s not just the sensible option for businesses who ‘care about their customers’, it’s an inextricable part of the design process and all businesses should be investing in it.”
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.