Microsoft UI Paradigm Comes Full Circle

July 30, 2007

Vista busy cursor After Aero Glass, indexed search is the feature most oftened cited as iconic of how big an advance Vista is over XP. That’s the search box at the foot of the Start menu and on every Explorer window. You just start to type the name of some program or Windows function and all the options that match appear instantly in a list.

This is actually very useful, and it can be quicker to find things than in XP if you happen to know what you’re looking for by name.

It did get me thinking, though. Advance? I thought the use of icons and mouse-clicks, as distinct from the text-based command line, was what characterised the big advance from DOS to Windows back in the 1990s. Back then, the introduction of the graphic UI was a massive paradigm-shift. Typing in the name of the program you wanted became so passé. Graphics had moved on to the point where the interface could switch from fundamentally textual to fundamentally visual.

So how come Vista’s text-based search, as the quick way to find the application you want, is any sort of “advance” to shout about? Is it a sign that the visual paradigm has failed and we’re having to retreat lamely back to text?

To some degree, the answer to that question is “yes”. With the advent of Windows (and yes I know Microsoft copied from Apple) we were supposed to be able to control the OS using the mouse, only resorting to the keyboard when entering data in forms or when word-processing documents. The appearance of indexed search in Vista is, though, a recognition that the visual paradigm is no longer working well enough, and was already a problem in XP.

There is just too much “stuff” on our computers. Too many files. Too many applications. Too many OS options and functions. It is too hard to find things or it takes too many mouse clicks to navigate to the option you want, even if you can remember where to find it. The visual UI concept was indeed a big step forward from the old DOS command line, but it only works up to a point. When there is too much on our computers, the paradigm starts to break down.

Despite the title of this post, things have not come exactly full circle. Vista’s search is nothing like a return to DOS. You don’t have to learn or remember a whole set of text commands and their quirky parameters, or the long paths to the files you need to reference. You just need to know that keying “ADO…” in the search box will bring up your favourite image editing program, etc.

microsoft windows vista search box

Similarly, if you want to invoke the Windows device manager you just enter “DEV…”. Much quicker than drilling down through a load of dialog boxes. Mind you, if you were new to Windows and had never found Device Manager the “hard way” with the mouse, how would you even know it existed? What use then, this wonderful search box?

And that’s the fatal flaw. Navigation with the mouse is now too unwieldy, but the search facility is only any use if you know the name of what you’re looking for.

Maybe we need a whole new paradigm. No icons, no mouse, no search box. Instead, a computer that can take simple questions in English and work out exactly what you need it to do. This is where Microsoft’s Help systems for say Office have been trying to get to, but there’s an awfully long way to go.

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