Windows 8 Explorer redesign: My analysis

Yesterday I stumbled across Improvements in Windows Explorer on the Building Windows 8 blog. I found this post interesting because while it is superficially impressive, I see some fundamental UX design mistakes that I suspect will result in the redesign falling short of expectations. Students of my UX Design Essentials course and readers of my blog should recognize them immediately.

For a fun UX design challenge, read the UX Design Essentials Curriculum and The Politics of Ribbons, then read their post and see how many problems you find.

OK, what did you find? Let’s proceed…

What I like

First, for the good part. Here’s what I like with the Windows Explorer redesign:

  • Data driven decisions. The use of data instead of personal opinion deserves praise. However, there are several traps with using data to make design decisions, and I think the Windows 8 team walked right into them. More below…
  • Improved Details pane. The redesign looks much better than the current design and makes more effective use of screen space.
  • Copy path. This is a frequently needed Windows Explorer command that deserves its promotion to a top-level command.
  • More visible advanced search UI. The current Windows Explorer advanced search features are almost invisible and difficult to use.

I’ll add to this list as I discover more things, but this is it so far.

When you are a ribbon, every problem is an undiscoverable command

Guess what? Windows Explorer is getting a ribbon. What a surprise! Didn’t see that one coming. To be a bit snarky, I think Improvements in Windows Explorer could be accurately retitled How we used data to justify a ribbon for a simple utility that probably doesn’t need one.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the ribbon and think it is a fantastic UI innovation. But from The Politics of Ribbons:

The ribbon has one significant strike against it: it is the heaviest commanding solution there is. A good UX design principle is to use the simplest, lightest weight solution that does the job well, so applying this principle suggests that—given its weight—a ribbon should be among last commanding choices, not the first.

In UX Design Essentials, I identify the classic UX design process mistakes. Here’s #3:

Falling in love with one (usually first) solution.

It’s a good bet that the ribbon was not only the first choice, but the only serious choice considered. Using a ribbon was likely a politically driven decision justified with data. Look at the data…we just had to use a ribbon!

A good design process is about making choices on behalf of target users to create a product that satisfies their goals. But you can’t make a good choice if you have only one option to choose from. Focusing on a single solution short-circuits the design process.

To convince me that this is a great design, I want to see an exploration of simpler, lighter weight alternatives and a demonstration that the ribbon approach is in fact better. And if you practice effective prototyping, you can’t argue that would take too much time and effort.

Utilities: we’re just not that into you

Windows Explorer is a utility, meaning that it is typically used to support tasks initiated in other programs. It’s what Alan Cooper describes as a transient application, not a sovereign one.

This is a significant detail because it affects how people use the program and how you should make design decisions. Here are some implications:

  • User goals are elsewhere. Window Explorer is used to manage files, but nobody really has the goal of managing files. Users’ goals lie elsewhere—they want to browse the web; view their photos; play their music; view, create, and share documents, and keep their information secure. Users prefer to do these tasks in their current context, so, for example, you open Office documents using the Open or Recent commands within the app. Note that the iPad and iPhone don’t even expose their file systems, so there’s no need to manage files on that platform.
  • Usage is infrequent and brief. As a utility, users don’t spend that much time with Windows Explorer and that time is usually to perform a task step (initiated elsewhere) as quickly as possible.
  • Most users have low motivation. Users aren’t motivated to spend much time in Windows Explorer. Isn’t not a destination worthy of investment. If advanced users are motivated to learn more about its features, it’s in order to spend even less time with it or to automate tasks.

Bottom line is that users want utilities to perform tasks as quickly and simply as possible, then move their attention elsewhere. A complex utility, with lots of stuff you really don’t need, undermines this goal.

Doesn’t this feel UI way too complex for what should be a simple utility? Do you really want to wade through all this stuff to find a command? Do all these commands need to be visible on the screen all the time? Don’t you think there must be a simpler alternative that does the job better?

With over 200 commands, Windows Explorer looks like it was designed by a feature hoarder. If your top 10 of 200+ commands are 82% of usage, time to start cutting back.

BTW: Here’s a useful ribbon guideline that I think is appropriate:

  • Don’t use the scalability of ribbons to justify adding unnecessary complexity. Continue to exercise restraint—don’t add commands to a ribbon just because you can. Keep the overall command experience simple.

Well put!

The highlighter test

The highlighter test is a simple, quick way to evaluate how effectively a UI is using screen space. Gather your top tasks, perform those tasks using your design, then highlight the UI elements that are potentially useful for those tasks. If almost everything is highlighted, you’ve done a great job. If not, you’ve got some work to do.

Here’s my highlighter test for the Windows Explorer ribbon:

Note that I highlighted only 3 of 19 visible ribbon commands. Crikey!  The reason is that I use shortcut keys, context menus, or direct manipulation (usually drag and drop) for all the other commands. Yes, the data shows that Paste, Properties, and Copy are top commands, but that data also shows that 85% of usage comes from context menus and shortcut keys. I don’t expect the ribbon to change that much.

One benefit of traditional menu bars that deserves some appreciation is that you can fill them with every command you’ve got and nobody is going to care much. Not true with a ribbon.

Power user value propositions and personas

The key to user-centered design is to identify your target users, understand them well, and make good decisions on their behalf. Improvements in Windows Explorer mentions power users quite often, but doesn’t mention typical users specifically. Looks like the Windows 8 team is targeting power users. Nothing wrong with that if it’s appropriate.

A value proposition states the reason your target users will want to buy and use your product—especially when compared to the alternatives. Their post suggests that power users are using after-market add-ons like TeraCopy, QTTabBar, DMEXBar, StExBar (which BTW the ribbon-based Windows Explorer won’t support anymore). Power users also use command line and Windows Power Shell.

The “when compared to the alternatives” part of the value proposition is a killer here. While their post makes a strong case that the redesigned Windows Explorer has many features power users will like, they didn’t make the case that power users are going to care. Will a Windows Power Shell user switch to Windows Explorer because of the ribbon and a few new commands? I doubt it. And if not, are power users really the right target?

Good value proposition work would have revealed this all-important problem.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s start to create a persona for power users with a few key characteristics:

  • Wants to work as efficiently as possible.
  • Motivated to learn and memorize program features and commands to work efficiently.
  • Greatly prefers keyboard over mouse.

BTW: I wouldn’t expect “Desire to respect Explorer’s heritage” to make this list. Your design priorities should clearly align with your target user.

Now assume that you are a power user and want to copy the file you just selected. Which approach are you more likely to take:

  1. Type Ctrl+C.
  2. Move mouse to ribbon, click the Home tab, click the Copy command, move mouse back down to where you were working.

For this power user persona, I just don’t see #2 happening here. I know that the Windows team no longer uses personas. Perhaps they should.

What I would do instead, part 1: Scenario-based design

At this point, you might be thinking: OK then, what would you do instead? Glad you asked!

Note how the Windows 8 team is  focused on data, features, and feature discoverability. I mentioned in the introduction that using data is a much better way to make decisions than personal opinion. But there are several traps using data, the most important being that using data is often used as a substitute for thinking.

Data tells you “how much.” Knowing “how much” is important, but knowing “why” is far more important still. Raw data doesn’t tell you the users’ goals or what they are trying to do. It only tells you what they did and how often.

For example, the Windows data shows that Properties is the second most frequently used command. Why? Why do suppose users want properties so often? Is looking at properties a common task or goal? When you see a file, do you immediately think “I really want to see its properties”? No! The Properties command is a means to an end, but never an end it itself. The user is trying to perform some other task and checking Properties appears to be required in order to do it.

While a good design (that mindlessly follows data) would make the Properties command more prominent, a great design (that leads with data) would strive to eliminate the need for the command in the first place!

How do you do that? With scenarios! A scenario describes a specific target user trying to achieve a specific goal or task in a specific environment. Their post mentions Windows Explorer supports many different scenarios like viewing photos, playing videos, and playing music—then completely ignores that fact when justifying design decisions.

Remember: Windows Explorer is a utility that helps users manage files—a goal that most users rarely have!

A better approach is to design for the goals that users really do have. Design the best possible experience for viewing photos! The best experience for playing videos…for playing music…for protecting users data…for finding stuff. Supporting these scenarios should drive the design decisions, not raw data. So, for example, if you view a folder of photos, the top-level commands should be focused on the top photo tasks—and nothing else! And if done properly, excise tasks like displaying Properties go away because they are no longer needed.

Unlike task-based design, scenario-based design considers the user’s context—a great way to eliminate unnecessary complexity. In any given context, the user isn’t likely to need 200+ commands, but more like 5.

If you watch the video at the end of their post, Alex Simons show some tasks that look like scenarios. But those feel fake to me. Why? Remember that Windows Explorer is a utility and scenarios are tasks done in a specific environment. Real Windows Explorer scenarios should rarely start or end in program itself.  These aren’t “end-to-end” scenarios but rather what I call “technology vignettes”—scenarios fragments artificially limited to the component you are working on, but not tasks that users really do. Designs that hold up well with “technology vignettes” routinely fall down when evaluated with real scenarios—especially for utilities. They aren’t “end to end” but “middle to middle.”

What I would do instead, part 2: Nail the basics!

I really want things to work properly. I’ve found several basic features in Windows Explorer that just aren’t quite right yet, but in the interest of time I’ll limit myself to four:

  • Better performance and responsiveness. I don’t like waiting, especially unnecessarily. I don’t want to wait for Windows Explorer to load; to display thumbnails, previews, properties; to enable commands or drop context menus; to copy, delete, or rename files, etc.  Given a choice between a responsive app and just about any collection of new features you could name, I’ll chose the responsive app.
  • Better search. Google has set the bar for search user experience and Windows search falls well short. Too slow, too hard to use. I would happily trade a ribbon for better search any day.
  • Better presentation and previews. Windows Explorer currently has 8 view modes (!), many of which aren’t that useful. It also has a knack for choosing the wrong one by default so I constantly have to change it. And is it really that hard to choose appropriate column widths in Details view so important data isn’t cropped unnecessarily? Any why are file previews so often broken and don’t work in zip files?
  • Smarter error handling. Regarding scenarios, bulk file handing scenarios are important. Bulk rename (example: photo files) doesn’t work well.  Bulk file copies often fail because of some easily ignorable problem. Windows Explorer should just report the problem and move on instead of dropping dead in its tracks. (Sometimes these problems display a dialog with a Skip button, but I’ve discovered that Skip usually Cancels instead.)

These details weren’t mentioned in their post. Hopefully the Windows 8 team is addressing them, but I fear that focusing on the ribbon will distract from nailing the basics. I’ve seen that happen before.

If you do only one thing… When evaluating a design, take a step back and ask yourself what is driving your decisions. Technology? Features? Politics? Schedules, deadlines, and budgets? Data? While practical realities, these shouldn’t be the driver. Instead your design should be driven by providing value, satisfying user goals and tasks, delighting users by doing a few things exceptionally well. If you are using data, don’t let it become a substitute for thinking. Take the time to understand what the data is really telling you.


Want to learn more? Be sure to check out the UX Design Edge training courses. Every technique I’ve mentioned here is presented in UX Design Essentials.

Disagree? Leave a comment!

The comments are closed.

For more information, please contact

All Content Copyright © UX Design Edge