Vista explorer, how I hate thee

May 14th, 2009

Why is it that I really, really hate Windows Vista Explorer? The question has been niggling away at me since I started using Vista at work recently. I’ve noticed numerous little problems, those famous ‘thousand cuts’ to usability that kill websites, but today I think I’ve understood the big picture.

First, what’s changed?

Most obviously, there’s no ‘up’ button to get to the parent directory. I’ve been using it for 6 weeks now and I still find myself hovering over the toolbar, looking for that friendly brown manila with the green arrow. Appallingly you can’t even ‘customize’ (sic.) the toolbar to show it, and although there are third party apps that address this, I don’t think I’ll be going down that route on my property-of-HM-Gov’t machine.

Instead there’s a new file path device where the address bar used to be. Actually it’s a hybrid of the two, but you only find this out if you click on it. The trail tells you where you are in the directory structure and each node is clickable, allowing you to jump to whatever parent level you want.

In principle this sounds okay: instead of clicking the up button 4 times (presumably an unacceptably onerous chore to the Microsoft engineers) you can make a single click on the parent node you want to visit. Big. Deal. I suspect the new method presents significantly more cognitive load than simply clicking ‘up’ anyway: For starters, you have to actually read the path, which means using your brain’s text parser. Then you have to know what your target directory is called, which means employing recall. Then, since we typically read from left to right, we read from root to target node. This means the deeper your target is in the structure the longer it takes to pick it out. Surely to go up a single level is the most common task, but this takes the longest time in the new file path device, and so it is simply not optimised.

Of course, to go up a level you could just say to yourself “look for the node second from the right”, and perhaps this is how people actually behave. But this node varies its spatial position on-screen depending on how deep in the structure you are. It does not occupy a fixed position on-screen like the ‘up’ button, so you’re still stuck with most of the cognitive load I’ve talked about. And we all know the very first lesson of usability 101: Don’t Make Me Think.

Incidentally, the whole thing breaks down totally if you’re deep enough in the structure for the file path device to fill up completely. It doesn’t wrap onto two lines (a mediocre solution that websites usually employ), rather it dumps completely the root node (and whatever other oldest-ancestor nodes it needs to) and shifts everything else left. Even if you had, as a user, learned parent nodes spatially, which is how humans work (close your eyes: where is the back button on your browser?), this method capriciously moves them again. It fundamentally prevents learning by associating a spatial location with a task.

So why have they done this? I think I understand.

Explorer’s change from XP to Vista represents a fundamental shift from displaying files from a hierarchical viewpoint to a breadcrumb viewpoint. Breadcrumb, by the way, is a slightly misused Hansel and Gretel metaphor which I don’t think I need to explain.

The hierarchical viewpoint requires the user hold a reasonably accurate model of the computer’s directory structure overall. The breadcrumb viewpoint only requires the user to understand what they have just done; the path they’ve followed to get to this point.

The former assumes a lot of knowledge which new users simply don’t have. The latter, it is reasonable to assume, is better for new users: they don’t have a mental model of the file structure, and they don’t need one (nor are they likely to acquire one using Vista explorer). Anyone who’s ever had to explain the directory structure to a new windows user will attest to this. So that’s it: the new system is optimised for newbs, and if you don’t like it, tough.

As an aside, just who is their target market anyway? What fraction of people these days are computer novices? Perhaps the very large majority, if I strip away my developed-world prejudices for a moment.

Anyway, I certainly hope the problems Vista explorer supposedly solves are real for some users, since at least I could then think of my pain as a sacrifice for the greater good. But I can’t help thinking they’ve thought about it too much, a Microsoft problem which I’ve talked about before.

I won’t go into the other usability problems I’ve encountered. I won’t want to stop if I get started on the pointless filter controls (that are incomprehensible and easy to confuse with the handles when you want to widen a column); or the toolbar icons that change depending on what is selected (consistency anyone?); or the ‘favourite links’ area, which points I know not where (some contents seem to follow my login, others don’t). Gah!

They’ve come up with an overly clever solution to a problem which certainly doesn’t exist for me. And in the process they’ve introduced a hat full of usability problems. What a shame I have to fish around for alternatives to something so fundamental to using Windows when the old model was so satisfactory.

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