Windows 8 is an attempt to solve some real business problems, but the user problems are not as obvious

24 Aug

by brendan-nelson 24.08.12

Successful products emerge at the intersection between business and user problems. Will Windows 8, Microsoft’s new and ambitious OS, be one of them?


This piece of anti-Windows 8 polemic has been getting a lot of attention in the last couple of days:

Windows 8 is the worst computing experience I’ve ever had… It’s annoying, frustrating, irritating, and baffling to use. I’ve tried to explain exactly why it’s so awful, and most of the time, smoke starts pouring out of my ears…

Not long ago the Surface tablet demo was generating excitement about the new Microsoft OS, but the mood is changing. If Windows 8 proves to be a failure, will it be because of bad UI design, or a failure to connect user problems with business problems?

Successful products and services emerge at the intersection between these two types of problem. They solve problems for customers while taking the organisation that created them in a direction it wants to go.

Think about the recent diversification of Starbucks: it started selling coffee beans, mugs, cafetieres and music, it but drew the line at, say, batteries, chewing gum or mobile phone chargers. These products might have solved customer problems, but selling them would have turned Starbucks into a type of business it doesn’t want to be. Everything it sells plays a carefully calibrated role in influencing how its brand is perceived, thereby solving a business problem that’s just as real as profit.

So, back to Microsoft, and the business problem that seems most relevant here: it needs to recover its relevance in mobile. They took a shot at this problem with Windows Phone 7, itself a non-trivial effort, but failed, meaning that the problem has become a major threat to them.

To solve it, Microsoft needs to identify a corresponding user problem. Here are the two user problems they seem to be betting on:

  • That Windows users need to have a tablet-style UI on their desktops (in other words, that the Windows audience is crying out to move on from Windows 7) 
  • That iPad users want to migrate from iOS to another platform (in other words, that a non-Windows audience is standing ready to move on to their platform)

Windows 8 represents a proposed solution to these problems. It’s a major departure from Windows 7, and it is Microsoft’s first play into the tablet market since Apple transformed it with the iPad.

Will it be successful though? While Windows users may have had lots of complaints over the years, “I wish my Calculator app ran in full-screen” has rarely been one of them. And iPad owners hardly seem disgruntled. So are these actually problems that real people have? If the answer is no, Windows 8 could indeed be a flop. 

Despite the criticism often leveled at Microsoft, it is capable of finding these sorts of problems. The Xbox connected with customers in a crowded gaming market, and its Kinect interface solves a business problem by positioning Microsoft as a technological innovator, while also solving a user problem by making games fun to play. 

Windows 8 needs to do something similar if Microsoft is to remain relevant in the mobile age: a business problem that’s only too real. The risk facing Steve Ballmer is that the user problems his firm wants to solve simply don’t exist.

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Tags: design strategy microsoft windows 8

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