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Designing Windows 95's user interface
By Thom Holwerda on 2018-02-10 00:11:34

Three years ago I came across an interesting paper written up by a Microsoft employee, Kent Sullivan, on the process and findings of designing the new user interface for Windows 95. The web page has since been taken down - one reason why I’m a bit of a digital hoarder.

It specified some of the common issues experienced from Windows 3.1's Program Manager shell and looked at the potential of developing a separate shell for 'beginners'. Admittedly my inclination was that this was possibly inspired by Apple's At Ease program that was reasonably popular during the System 7 days. I remember At Ease well during my primary school years, so kids couldn’t mess with the hard disk in Finder.

So here's what Kent had to say verbatim in his paper titled "The Windows 95 User Interface: A Case Study in Usability Engineering" so it’s not lost altogether.

However you feel about Windows 95, there's no denying that its user interface is probably one of the most iconic and well-known user interfaces ever designed and developed. Literally everyone knows it and has used it, and it singlehandedly defined what a personal computer's UI should work like. It's incredibly fascinating to read about the thought processes behind its development.

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come on now
By woegjiub on 2018-02-10 01:14:04
"Literally everyone knows it and has used it"

That's not even remotely true.
Even if you stretch the meaning so that all windows versions count (people born in 2000 are 18 now, it's entirely possible adults that can legally vote and drink were first using Windows at windows 7).

Consider Africa, where a lot of people have used phones and smartphones as their first and only computing devices.


That aside, this is still fascinating
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UI Desgin triumph
By Bill Shooter of Bul on 2018-02-10 06:44:51
I remember years ago an article that tried to make the case that it was the attention to UI design and the iterative UX testing that Microsoft did that allowed it to triumph over OS/2 Warp.

I think that's a bunch of ux nerd talk, personally. The examples they gave were pretty obscure. If people actually had a chance to compare and use them side by side, I think a lot of people would have been won over by the OS/2 stability and ability to work with lesser hardware. I had friends who's families had saved up for a new computer and purchased a machine loaded with win 3, that was incompatible with the new windows 95 that was released less than a year later. But these machines worked fine with OS/2. Not sure how common that was. But the bad UX of win 3.1 was a big mover in people wanting to upgrade, the stability problems of win 95 didn't seem to deter people.
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RE: UI Design triumph
By malxau on 2018-02-10 07:40:44
> ...I think that's a bunch of ux nerd talk, personally. The examples they gave were pretty obscure.

I don't know. OS/2 pioneered a lot of UI concepts, but a lot of it wasn't refined. The templates system provided great extensibility, for example, but it was a lot less clean to use than Win95's right click, new menu. Starting applications by minimizing existing applications, then navigating through folders on the desktop, didn't seem efficient. And the minimized window viewer was the exact opposite of the taskbar, hiding opened applications more thoroughly than Win3.1.

> But these machines worked fine with OS/2. Not sure how common that was.

I remember Win95 on a 386SX with 4Mb of RAM. The base OS worked fine - it just didn't have enough RAM for applications. OS/2 wasn't really any better; I used it on 4Mb & 8Mb 386's too. The difference was Win95 had applications and OS/2 didn't, so Win95 benefited from hardware that the OS/2 ecosystem couldn't fully exploit. That's not a statement about the operating system though.
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And to think that all that good work
By shotsman on 2018-02-10 07:56:26
went the way of the Dodo with Windows 8 onwards.
The introduction of Metro/Modern/Tiles (call it what you will) was the beginning of the end for MS in my eyes.
Then the [redacted] Ribbon.
After 20+ years of developing software primarily (40+ in total) for the Windows platform I threw in the towel and retired.
Just my worthless $0.02 worth so can be ignored.
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RE: UI Desgin triumph
By Vanders on 2018-02-10 09:58:47
I think software developers tend to massively underestimate how important UX is to the average user.
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Re:
By kurkosdr on 2018-02-10 12:42:32
I think the reasons Windows 95's UI was so well received are:

1) Simple language: "Network neighborhood" instead of "network topology map". "My Computer" instead of "File System explorer".

2) A button called "Start". The problem most people had back then when it comes to using a computer was that they didn't know where to start from. Having a button called "Start" helps in that regard.

3) Each drive has its own root. I know this will annoy linuxeros and Unix people, but the concept of your main harddrive being the "root" and other harddrives becoming a subfolder in your main harddrive is a bewildering concept to the average user. You are exploring the directories of your main harddrive, you enter that special directory in your main harddrive, and suddenly you are browsing the files in your USB drive. So, am I still in the main harddrive? Did my USB drive files got copied to my main harddrive automatically? That behaviour should either not be the default behaviour or not be visible to the user and abstracted away in the UI level.

4) And last but certainly not least: The Windows 95 UI experience was complete. By that I mean that all tasks could be accomplished from the UI. Even complex tasks like device driver installation and installation of the OS itself could be done exclusively from the UI, using various wizards that guide the user (wizards implement the "UI actions must lead to closure" design rule), with buttons in visible places that drive the user to the wizard. In that regard, Desktop Linux is still behind Windows 95. For example, I tried to install some proprietary WiFi drivers in my Acer Aspire One on Ubuntu. The UI driver tool didn't work and had to drop back to the terminal in order to dpkg manually. For most users absence of a UI button to do a task, or a button that doesn't work, leads to the impression that the task cannot be done.

Which brings me to Metro: The Metro UI experience is not complete for laptops and desktops. You constantly have to drop back to the traditional desktop. Despite Metro acting like a cancer on traditional desktop, aka slowly devouring parts of it, Metro is not a complete experience which makes for a schizo OS that constantly changes UI styles. Still better than having to dpkg manually for the average user though, because the user doesn't even know something like dpkg exists in that DOSbox looking thingie called a terminal.

Edited 2018-02-10 13:00 UTC
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RE: UI Desgin triumph
By BlueofRainbow on 2018-02-10 13:41:23
As a side story here, a side-by-side comparison was performed at the place I worked in the era there was a multitude of operating systems on the market. Up to that time, there was a bit of a mixture of mostly DOS, Win 3.11 WFW, and VMS (VAX).

The systems compared were AmigaOS, Windows 95, and OS/2 Warp 3.0. For this, a small network environment was set-up for each and a group of selected users explored each one and performed their daily tasks.

I don't remember much of the details. The executive sponsoring the evaluation program was using an Amiga for non-work related tasks. Since AmigaOS was not X86 based at the time, it faced a huge hurdle in the evaluation. Nevertheless, it allowed the executive to ask the right questions.

Coming from that evaluation, Windows 95 became the "corporate standard". And the rest was history in my work place.
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RE: Re: (Reasons Windows 95 was well received)
By BlueofRainbow on 2018-02-10 13:47:56
I think your last point, that the Windows 95 user experience was complete, was a major one. Many users at that time "hated" DOS because of the requirement to use batch files and typed-in commands for many tasks.

The fact that the Linux distributions still require the use of the command line interface for many basic system configuration tasks is likely a stumbling block for many.
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RE[2]: Re: (Reasons Windows 95 was well received)
By General_Edmund_Duke on 2018-02-10 14:40:06
> The fact that the Linux distributions still require the use of the command line interface for many basic system configuration tasks is likely a stumbling block for many.
Oh come on, stop spreading this FUD. Unless you`re doing something unusual, you don`t have to use cli at all. And that`s real state since at least a few years at Ubuntu (even non-free drivers you can install by click). You can use cli only if you want to, just like on Windows.
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RE[3]: Re: (Reasons Windows 95 was well received)
By kurkosdr on 2018-02-10 15:44:59
As I previously stated, I had to use the Terminal to install proprietary WiFi drivers in my Acer Aspire One.

Edited 2018-02-10 15:46 UTC
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