Understanding the Windows 8 user interfaces


Understanding the Windows 8 user interfaces

I bought Windows 8 without knowing much about it. I was surprised to find myself in some difficulty understanding how it was meant to work. Fortunately, I can tell you that the new Windows 8 interface is not hard to understand if you are clear on some key concepts and features. This article should help those of you in the same situation as I was and those of you who want more clarity about whether to use Windows 8 or not.


The problems

Difficulty adapting to touch gestures

Using a mouse and a keyboard I found that the touch-based gestures were not at all intuitive. They were difficult to discover by playing around as there were few visual cues. For example, there are usually no tooltips to move the mouse over. Plus the landing zone for many of the gestures is small and often secreted at the edge of the screen.

Confused by new terminology and concepts

Windows Help was also quite opaque because there are new concepts with new terminology. Even now, after the Windows 8 release, the terminology remains fuzzy. The worst example is what to call the old and new interfaces: the new interface can be called Metro, Modern UI or Windows 8; the old, legacy, desktop, Windows 7 interface also has many names.

To help you out I will introduce terminology throughout this article. Here are the main parts of Windows 8 interface that you will be learning to work with:

Windows 8 apps or Windows Store apps
'Windows 8 app' is the most popular name for programs written for the new interface in Windows 8. Microsoft prefers 'Windows Store app' followed by 'Windows 8 app' with 'Windows Runtime app' / 'WinRT app' in minor use.
Note that WinRT is easily confused with Windows RT which is the mobile version.
Some commentators prefer names that incorporate Microsoft's visual design scheme that was originally called 'Metro' and more lately 'Modern UI'. At present, Microsoft does not promote such names.

Windows 8 menus
Windows 8 has two main menus: Start and All Apps. Both use tiles to present menu selections.

The Mail tile from the Start Menu in Windows 8Tiles are Windows 8 icons that have very little space between them. They are used in the Windows 8 Start menu and All Apps menu.
Application tiles are extensions of the main application.
Live tiles can even display new information without the main application running.

Start menu
Start Menu for Windows 8The Home screen for Windows 8 which uses tiles to display menu options. The Start menu is also called the Start screen.

All Apps menu
A menu that displays all Windows 8 and desktop apps and many system features.

Desktop and Desktop applications
The Desktop is, quite literally, the old Windows 7 desktop running alongside the new Windows 8 interface. This is where the 'Desktop applications' (also called 'legacy applications') from Windows 7 run.
Note: In this article 'application' is generally reserved for Desktop applications and 'app' always refers to Windows 8 apps.

Having difficulty finding the help you need

It has always been the case that major changes to Windows involve some heartache. My resolve to use Windows 8 was nearly overwhelmed by the confusing combination of user interfaces. At a lower level, it is hard to see why some shortcuts and features work in one context but not in another. At a higher level, I couldn't find out how to do some simple tasks.

Today, the best help is increasingly found in video clips but that medium is time-consuming to view and difficult to search. Often, I found myself wanting a simple diagram to point me in the right direction.

Finding the new interface is slower with the mouse and keyboard

Finally, even if you know how to do something the new interface can be a lot slower to work with than older versions of Windows. Working with Windows 8 apps and menus, the mouse remains much more usable than the keyboard because some traditional methods of navigating Windows are gone. For example, there are no keyboard accelerators – where you could hold down the Alt key and type a single character to select a menu item, a control in a dialog box, or field in a form – although they still work for the Desktop applications.


The solutions

Here's some useful concepts and recommendations to help you to resolve those problems.

The new Windows 8 interfaces are designed for touch

Microsoft's developer guidelines say 'design for touch and get mouse and keyboard for free' so it makes sense to understand something about using touch even if you use the mouse or keyboard. I suggest that you try it out on a touch screen, maybe on a display computer at a physical store or even on a recent Windows phone.

The edges and the corners of the screen are where it is all happening, as the following diagram illustrates. Microsoft recommends that applications should have controls where it is easier for users to touch the screen. Holding a tablet in both hands the darker areas are easier to reach. Naturally, the whiter area is less likely to be obscured by hands so it is the best place to place information that people should be able to see and read.

Although the edges can seem a long way to move the mouse towards, I very quickly adapted to this arrangement and now work on it without thinking.

Windows 8 is designed as Windows without windows

You should understand that the new Windows 8 interface has no windows to minimize, maximize or restore. Windows 8 uses a full-screen interface that is based on what are called pages, with a limited capacity to work with two Windows 8 apps at the same time. Snap places one app in a sidebar while the main app takes up most of the screen.

We can make more sense of what Microsoft is doing if we look at the four categories of program that will be visible to us as Windows 8 users. There are three types of full-screen software plus the windowed software, the legacy Desktop applications:

  • Full-screen Windows 8 menus
  • Full-screen Windows 8 apps
  • Full-screen Desktop
  • Windowed Desktop applications

In Windows 7, the parts that normally run only in full-screen are startup and shutdown, the screensaver and lock screens, and the desktop. That last part, the desktop, is the only part we can use while we are working with our applications. This led Microsoft to one important decision, only the full-screen Desktop is visible in the new Windows 8 user interface.

Windows 8 is a hybrid operating system

Microsoft promotes Windows 8 as a dramatic break from the old Win32 engine that powers earlier versions. In practice, Microsoft has limited ability to make a such a clean break. Users expect that we can continue to run our programs from Windows 7, Vista and even XP. So for several years, future versions of Windows will use both the new Windows Runtime and the old Win32.

Windows Runtime (WinRT)
WinRT is a collection of software libraries that underly the new interfaces.
Programmers write programs to uses the WinRT application programming interfaces (APIs). They can now use a wider selection of languages with the capability to create hybrid applications by using components from several languages.

Win32 was introduced in Windows 95 and has been partially replaced by WinRT but is also used by WinRT.

In the 1990s, the transition to Win32 took about 8 years and this current transition would be expected to be longer based on higher complexity and significant market inertia. However, my opinion is that the transition out of Win32 will be much faster. Pressure from the competitors, Google and Apple, will accelerate Windows releases and the attractiveness of the technology will increase the rate of adoption. But even if that doesn't happen most users will happily trade a little performance for the ability to use old applications.

Windows 8 has three modes of interface

The mixture of infrastructure within Windows is reflected in the interfaces that Windows 8 provides for us to use. To maintain compatibility with Windows 7, Windows has the dual-interface I mentioned above. But it will help you to know that there is a third mode that provides the glue between the other two.

A combination or hybrid of the other two interfaces is essential so that we can shuttle between Windows 8 apps and Desktop applications during the transition. Having several new features available on the Desktop gives users the opportunity to familiarize themselves with Windows 8 and benefit from the new interface as quickly as possible.

  1. Windows 8 – using Microsoft's Metro/Modern design style
  2. Desktop – largely Windows 7 which already had a partial face-lift with the adoption of Metro/Modern styles such as single colour icons in the system tray (normally visible at the bottom right of your desktop).
  3. Hybrid – Windows 8 features that are overlayed on the Desktop.

The three modes are most clearly seen in the application selectors which are listed below with their respective keyboard shortcuts. Notice that in this list I have changed the sequence so the hybrid feature is in the middle between the two extremes of Windows 8 and Desktop:

  1. App Selector – Windows 8 apps only [Windows+Tab]
  2. Application Selector – both Windows 8 apps and Desktop applications [Windows+Alt+Tab] or [Alt+Tab]
  3. Task Bar Selector – Desktop application only [Windows+T]

Use the Windows 8 keyboard shortcuts

The Windows 8 keyboard shortcuts will enhance your productivity whether you work with Windows 8 apps or Desktop applications, whether you use a touchscreen or a mouse, or whether you have used them in the past or not. Here're two lists from Microsoft:

To help you out I've included some keyboard shortcuts with the screenshots later in this article. You may also be wondering if you can use Windows 8 without touch or a mouse? Yes, you can just as in previous versions of Windows. A lot will depend upon your applications being optimized for the keyboard. If they aren't then you will find some features are not easily accessible, the application help is unhelpful, and at times you may have to enable the keyboard mouse feature.

Make the most of some very helpful resources

There are many reference summaries and design documents that you can refer to including the Tech Tips and How-to Guides at this site:

Consider using a second monitor or screen

Switching between the Desktop and Windows 8 makes dual monitors much more attractive:

  • The Desktop can run on one screen while Windows 8 apps run in the other.
  • Some Windows 8 apps will not do what you want when running in the background. For example, I snapped my browser so it would continue to play a music video while I worked in another app.

Check the capabilities of your screen and video graphics card

Whatever you decide to do, you should consider the resolution of your computer screen or TV. The lower the screen resolution then the greater your disadvantage. The most important limit is the minimum resolution for a Windows 8 app which is 1,024 by 768:

  • 1,024 by 600 will run the desktop only
  • 1,024 by 768 will run Windows 8 apps in a 4:3 ratio
  • 1,366 by 768 will allow you to snap Windows 8 apps. The 16:9 wide screen ratio accommodates a Windows 8 app plus a snapped app.
  • 1,280 by 960 is the wallpaper size and the native resolution of Kinect for Windows. It is a 4:3 ratio so it can be scaled up from the app resolution of 1,024 by 768.

Common problems include:

  • If the height is less than 960 then you will likely get the warning that
    'Your resolution is lower than 1280 by 960 - some items might not fit on your screen'.
  • If you use higher resolutions with a graphics card that shares system memory then ensure that you have enough memory installed to prevent 'thrashing' which occurs when you don't have enough memory. Windows then starts loading and unloading video data between memory and disk.


The three interfaces in Windows 8

Finally, here is a short overview of the terminology of the Windows 8 interface features. There may be other articles to help you with specific tasks and there are many other sites that can provide you with much more detailed descriptions and images.

The Windows 8 App interface

The following example uses the Windows 8 Start Menu to display examples of Windows 8 features that can be activated by touch or mouse on the Start Menu, a Windows 8 app, the Desktop and a Desktop app. I have shrunk the Start Menu image to fit but each of the other features is approximately to scale for a 1366x768 screen.

Previous App
[Windows+Tab]Previous application at the top left hand corner of the screen


App Selector
[Windows+Tab]Application selection bar on the left hand side of the screen

Start Menu
[Windows key]

Each arrow in this example starts where you would touch the screen and points towards the example of each feature.

Windows 8 features accessible from the menus and apps


Start (or Previous App)
Start menu (or next app if at the start menu already) at the bottom left corner of the screen




App Bar at the bottom edge


Charm Bar
Charms bar at the right of the screen

(Semantic) Zoom at the bottom right corner of the screen


App Bar for menus and apps at the bottom of the screen

Previous App
The app or the desktop that was last viewed before the current screen.

App Selector
Displays the running apps, including the desktop, at the left edge of the screen.

App Bar
Where an app presents its main features and viewing options. It is like the main menu for Desktop applications.

Charm Bar

Buttons that are like charms on a charm bracelet.
The Charm Bar displays the five charms on the right hand edge of the screen: Search, Share, Start, Devices, Settings.
The Charm Bar also presents a live tile displaying the current date and time, battery life, network connection, the number of unread messages and the time of the next appointment.

Zoom is related to a touch feature called semantic zoom which zooms in and out of large collections of content. For example, on the Start and All Apps menus, Zoom will shrink the tiles so that you can work with groups of tiles that would normally spread across more than one screen.

Windows 8 Internet Explorer 10 being snapped to the right hand of the screenSnap

I've used the mouse here to show how a Windows 8 app can be grabbed and 'snapped' to either side of the screen. In this example, an Internet Explorer page is being dragged to the snap area which is indicated by the vertical line. Remember that keyboard shortcuts will work much faster.

Snap allows two Windows 8 applications to be used on one screen. The snapped app uses one third of the screen and the remaining screen space can be used for another app or menu .

Windows 8 Snap is kind of like Windows 7 Stretch which can be used on the Desktop. Stretch makes the desktop application fill half the screen by stretching the top and bottom edges of the window to the edges of the screen.

The Desktop interface

Compared with Windows 7, the Desktop interface loses the Windows 7 Start Menu button in the bottom left corner. In other respects it is virtually the same except for some keyboard shortcuts being appropriated for the new interface.

The 'Hybrid' interface

Windows 8 features shared with the Desktop

As the Desktop is treated as a Windows 8 app, it also gains access to many of the Windows 8 interface features but not an App Bar, Zoom or Share. Although Share is displayed on the Charm Bar it does nothing. Windows 8 features visible on the Desktop are:

  • Start Menu - mouse to the bottom left corner
  • Previous App and App Selector - mouse to the top left corner
  • Charms - top and bottom right corners

Table 1 provides more detail on the features from the Windows 8 interface that are shared with the Desktop apps:

Table 1 — Windows 8 features available on the Desktop
Feature Available to
Windows 8
Menu / App
Available to
Desktop / Application
Previous App Y Y
App Selector Y
apps & Desktop
apps & Desktop
Charm Bar Y Y
Search Y
current app
all apps
all apps
Share Y
apps sharing
nothing to share
Start Y Y
Devices Y
output devices
second screen only
Settings Y
PC settings
app settings
PC settings
system settings
App Bar Y N
Zoom Y N


Windows 8 features limited to working in the Desktop

The Application Selector allows both Windows 8 apps and Desktop applications to be selected to run. It can be accessed from any interface but will automatically move to the Desktop.

You can see this in action when you use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Alt + Tab to bring up the Application Selector. It shows both Windows 8 apps (which include the Desktop) and the Desktop applications. If you start it in the Windows 8 interface then it will appear and the background will switch from Windows 8 to the desktop. If you then press Esc to exit the application selector, you will be returned to the original interface, either Windows 8 or the desktop.


Please rate this article: 

Your rating: None
Average: 4.6 (11 votes)


Good article on a terrible interface...

MS's idea of innovation = "change for the sake of it".

Seriously. How difficult would it have been to simply gather a cross-sample of about thirty regular users, sit them down at the desk, and give them a list of ten things to do that most people know how to accomplish? See what happened. See the total confusion. Go back to drawing board.

MS instead decided to release it anyway, against the feedback given by a majority of its (desktop) test user base-- because that's how a monopoly works. You get, "tough- figure it out". The fact that there are soooooo many walk-throughs, articles, & videos out there to explain even the simplest of things proves it. I'm still gob-smacked at how difficult MS has made it to boot into safe mode?

Maybe that's the problem: the people creating and releasing cannot understand that the majority of it's users are not geeks. They cannot remember a time when they, themselves, didn't understand it all. Empathy required, not found? You can Google the term for humans who do not possess empathy. Then, think of all of the times MS has been hauled into court because of it's practices...it'll make sense now.

I'm speaking for the hundreds of regular users I've serviced thus far. They were able to use 7. Now, they still can, thanks to 3rd party "shells" which put things back in a logical order. 8 is still a train-wreck.

Imho :)

I largely agree with you. Microsoft could have eased the transition and ameliorated almost every issue that has been raised by users. Yes, the phrase "tough- figure it out" sums up the lack of useful assistance for new and upgrading users. That was a real bad stance to take. But I don't see any of these issues as directly related to monopoly. If they were then Microsoft would force obsolescence like Apple does. It doesn't do that. Instead, Microsoft lets XP support continue for over a decade and works hard to ensure that my old applications run under Windows 8, which they do. Unfortunately, all this means that it just gets harder when you do have to upgrade. Nor can I see any relationship to past court action for monopolistic behavior. The Windows 8 interface issues are much more like a lot of the changes made in Linux applications and distributions. Bad strategic and development decisions don't make it monopolistic. For me, the change to Windows 8 has been beneficial because it motivated me to use the keyboard for the start menu instead of wasting time mousing around. I also learnt more keyboard shortcuts which also help tremendously. Even without that there is no way I'd want to go back to Windows 7. I use both 7 and 8 everyday running the same desktop applications so I see the benefits of Windows 8 all the time.

Their monopoly allows any behaviour on their part. Their dismissive attitude comes with that. The XP extension was due to backlash- as the new systems would have crippled businesses. Businesses have $$$ clout- MS curtsied to it. It's always about $$$, nothing more. The non-business end-users reaped benefits that never-ever would have happened had it not been for the businesses/gov't's pressure. Kind of like non-union members reaping the benefits of a pay rise due to strike.

Apple never had the influence MS has. Personally, I believe that the MS monopoly has actually stymied our computer evolution, not helped it. I'm not the only one to think so.

RE: Linux OS:

1) Linux doesn't charge you anything at all to use the majority of their systems- and provide good, friendly support features for free.

2) The Linux systems I've tried are more XP/7-like in their appearance & use than is 8.

RE: keyboard shortcuts.

That's what you used before the modern GUI, circa 1995. A step back in time & only useful IF you know the name/term of what it is you seek. Where are my program folders? How do I do a system restore? How do I boot to safe mode if my system won't start? Too bad for you if you don't know the new MS term?

I think MS is a big behemoth that simply does what it wants & cajoles the buying public with sound-bytes & lack of options. They could make it different & user-friendly & choose not to. End of.

MS 8 Proponents almost sound like Stockholm-Syndrome sufferers.

The article is logical and detailed enough, thank you for the good review! It can be suraly of great help for the Windows 8 users.