If you haven't used Windows 8 yet, you've probably heard all about the dramatic changes and not so popular user interface compared to Windows 7. Windows quickly released the next edition, 8.1, and we decided to take a closer look. After conducting a Usability Test to see how users reacted to some of the simplest tasks in 8.0, we've again run the same tests with the new version, 8.1, to see how it compares.

Overall, we saw a 16% decrease in the amount of time it took our users to complete our relatively simple tasks in Windows 8.1 vs. Windows 8.0.

When we say a test with simple tasks, we mean simple tasks. Things as easy as finding a file on the desktop, switching between open programs, changing the desktop image, even just turning off the computer were asked of our users.

Our studies showed in Windows 8.0 that on average it took users over 2 minutes just to find the Control panel; nearly 2.5 minutes to change the background on their desktop; and don't hold your breath if you need help because it will take you almost 2 minutes to find Help and Support. See the rest of the findings below for other common tasks tested. Windows 8.l faired a bit better on some tasks but just the fact that is takes 2.5 minutes to turn off the computer properly shows there is still a ways to go.

It was amazing to see how quickly people became frustrated. After watching user after user struggle with the same things, we have 6 pain points that we saw in Windows 8 and explain how they now measure up in Windows 8.1.

1 - Provide some indication to the user that there are "Hidden Trap Doors"

With Windows 8.0 it is scary to think that most all of the useful functions in Windows are hidden inside menus that can only be found by moving the mouse to a corner of the screen, described as "hidden trap doors" by users. There are absolutely no visual affordances to indicate they are there. Basic features such as Search and the ability to even turn off the computer are hidden here and, in many cases, there is no other way to do these things. If the goal is to make the screen look clean and slick by hiding this content, they need to at least indicate these options exist.

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft has added a convenient down arrow that easily allows the user to get to the apps menu that wasn't easy to find in the original version; we saw over an entire minute of time saved on average for this task! Unfortunately that's all they've done. There is still no indication that moving the mouse to the corners will pop up a side menu. In many cases, after a user does see a hidden menu pop up on the side they were confused as to how they even got it to appear - something Windows might want to think about for the next iteration. As an example we saw users struggle to find the sleep option for the computer which happens to live under the right side hidden menu. For Windows 8.0, over a minute of time was spent looking for it on average. Because of the new down arrow to help users find the apps menu and a new short cut key to the Start screen (which we'll talk more about below), users in Windows 8.1 actually took an entire minute longer to find the sleep function since they did not need the "hidden" menu to complete other tasks.

2 - Bring back the Escape key!

It's great that a user can easily jump on the internet thanks to the handy tile right on the Start screen. The frustration comes when the user is trying to figure out how to get out of it. After looking around and seeing no ‘X' in the corner of the screen, of course the next easy way out is the handy ‘ESC' key. Or not. We can't figure out what the benefit would be of losing that functionality but it wasn't brought back for Windows 8.1 so we saw the same thing happen with that round of testing.

In Windows 8.0 the only way to leave the internet "app" is to find the hidden menu on the left side of the screen that shows the users other open applications (which brings us right back to #1 above) or to hit the Windows key on the keyboard to return to the Start screen.

Windows 8.1 does have the "Start Screen" icon appear at the bottom of the screen which allowed an easier out and that's the route we saw taken the most. Though it was only a slight decrease from 39 seconds on average for Windows 8.0 to 36 seconds on average in Windows 8.1, there was improvement. Interestingly enough because of the new short cut the left hidden menu bar was never used at all really. People may never find the convenient way to switch between open applications they provide…

3 - Make the Start screen useful

How often do you play games, check your stocks, or access your Windows cloud drive? Probably about as often as the rest of us. In Windows 8.0 these are some of the main tiles on the front screen of Start menu. What is more bothersome is you are immediately sent to a new Microsoft application that can't be accessed without an online Microsoft account for the majority of these applications. But everyone already has an account of course, right?

In Windows 8.1 this has not changed. It seems to us that the start screen would be a heck of a lot more useful if the tiles provided presented the most common use cases for users and didn't require a user account to access them. For instance, it took users over 2 minutes in both versions to find the Control Panel, something most people tend to use so this feature might make sense to include on the Start screen.

4 - Reduce reliance on Iconography

It's common knowledge that an envelope visually represents e-mail. Sure, we'll accept that. Did you know a Trophy means Sports, or a Circle implies Share? Neither did the testers.

In Windows 8.0 and in Windows 8.1 the Start screen relies heavily on recognition of their Iconography as does the App menu (and at least now you can easily find it). Users may eventually get used to some of these icons but for someone making the switch from Windows 7 or OS X, good luck. It would be a heck of a lot easier if they reduced the dependency on these images.

5 - Create a more natural transition between Tile and Classic desktop views

With Windows 8.0, if you're lucky enough to find a way to navigate to the desktop, you'll see the classic desktop view we've all grown to know and love. It may be missing the "Start" button and menu but it's there! It's no surprise that as soon as the users found it during testing, almost everything we asked them to complete started by navigating back to the comforting desktop. What's surprising is how Microsoft created such a dramatically different Start screen but they've done nothing to make the transition back to the classic look more natural. It's jumping from night to day, 2009 to 2012, with just a click.

Windows 8.1 definitely made it much easier to move back and forth between desktop and Start screen and this helped reduce a lot of the users test time; actually it saved them nearly 30 seconds of their time on average. A step in the right direction! And regardless of the transition, we're grateful to have our old friend, the desktop, available!

6 - Make it easier to scroll horizontally with the mouse cursor

Remember those hidden menus that help clean up the screen? How about hiding the other side of the screen so it isn't cluttered? Great idea; the users can then just use the scroll bar to navigate left and right to see all the other tiles and applications. Now if users only realized things weren't shown, it would be a bit more helpful. In Windows 8.0 and Windows 8.1 tiles are so fully hidden users don't realize there is more to see on the screen. Not a problem; a scroll bar definitely indicates I should check out what's on the right and left. Brilliant until they throw the scroll bar at the very bottom of the screen, make it nearly transparent, and don't provide arrows on the end of the scroll to indicate it's not just a decorative mark on the screen. A simple right or left arrow icon in the middle of the screen could be a huge help and would still keep the screen sleek.

As with any new operating system, time heals most frustrations, but with a few more tweaks they could make the transition that much easier for the world of Microsoft users. Hopefully each new release gets us a little closer, even if it's another 16% closer.