Oh Settings, Where Art Thou

The removal of the headphone jack was a failure. We all know it. There is no one in the world who says “I’m so glad we got rid of the headphone jack so this phone could be .1mm thinner.” There are a lot of people who say, “I don’t want to spend $100+ on headphones that will be unrepairable in a few years,” or “I can’t charge my phone and listen to music at the same time.” Apologists say, “just buy a $x adapter, you can leave it in all the time,” but I’d rather not pay extra money to make a new phone have the basic functionality that my previous phone had.

To the same note: It’s been 7 years since Windows 8 released. We’re still dealing with the UI decisions and the fragmentation it caused in the Windows user experience. We know it was bad, and we continue to suffer with it.

Rewind to 2012. Exciting things are happening. Computers are getting touch screens, we’re looking at Intel processors in phones. It’s seriously looking like there might be a complete convergence of technologies—a momentary dream: run the same software across all ecosystems. Oh how naive we were.

Big UI Theory

Windows Phone OS (see ‘pour one out for’) looked an awful lot like Windows 8, and Windows 8 looked a lot like Windows Phone OS. The most recognizable element from these two bygone OSs was tiles, oh, glorious tiles.

So long Start Menu, hello tiles. Tiles work really well on a small screen. They’re very large and their purpose and function is very clear. “Touch me and I’ll do the thing written on me.” Where they worked less well was with a keyboard and mouse, because keyboard and mouse are designed for precise navigation—it’s easy to click on small things and harder to click on big things when there’s big things in the way. The enormous tiles got in your way and were a terrible use of screen real estate.

Paper Land

You can fit maybe 10 bullet points on an index card—trying to fit more would make it hard to read, the note card wouldn’t serve its purpose well. You can fit a lot more than 10 bullets on a sheet of A4 paper, putting just 10 would be a huge waste of space, whether you scale the size or not. This was the fundamental flaw with tiles. You had ten large bullets on the index card, and ten large bullets on the A4 paper. Perhaps we were blinded by our desire to converge our ecosystems, perhaps tiles were just so shiny.

The motivation behind these UI decisions is unclear. I think an element of the decision was based on the excitement of welcoming touch screens back to laptops. We had had terrible touch screens on Windows laptops in the past, but they were resistive and low resolution (in layman’s terms: they worked real bad).

Touch screen technology was fairly ubiquitous in 2012 and the technology was good. We had very precise capacative touch screens that looked nice and worked well. In the excitement of their integration with laptops, I think we didn’t stop to think about how they would affect user experience and what design changes would have to be made to make them effective and useful on a desktop OS. Microsoft designed Windows 8 like a mobile OS.

Back to The Future

Back to tiles. Tiles work great on small touch screens because they’re big and easy to use. They work pretty well on big touch screens too—the problem was no one (and by no one I mean me) used laptop touch screens as the designers intended. Convertible laptops were a joke. The idea of a lot of processing power in a tablet is interesting, but misguided in this implementation. 1. Programs that need high processing power were not (are not) optimized for use on a touch screen (I dare you to try editing video or playing a PC game on a touch screen), and 2. No one wants a four pound tablet.

The mouse didn’t die as some designer somewhere probably had hoped. What a shock that software designed for small screens doesn’t scale.

So we had a system that didn’t work well and that no one wanted to use (and by no one I mean me). A lot of people who were so vocal about how bad the UI was that Windows 8.1: Return of the Start Menu was released.

Big Fragmentation Blues

Now Windows 10, which has a much improved user experience. There remains, however, scars in the Windows user experience. Tiles on the start menu, fine. They’re not obtrusive and screen encompassing like the tiles of Windows 8 were. Where the Windows 8 touch screen dream haunts us is in the bulky, nightmarish but oh-so-touch-friendly Settings menu.

The settings menu is bad enough for usability (it’s so much harder to find settings and the menus themselves are so much more difficult to use), but the fragmentation makes fine-tuning Windows so much more difficult than it used to be. Anytime I want to configure Windows it’s a guessing game of “is this going to be in Control Panel or Settings?” and “is there any way possible at all that I can just do this in Control Panel please oh pretty please God-Over-Windows?” The settings menu feels like it was designed for touch screens. The UI elements are huge and clunky. It’s harder to find things because things are so big.

I’m coining the term Windows Uncertainty Principle where UI decisions make it impossible to tell where a setting is and where it is going/how fast it is going there.


This was a long winded rant fundamentally about how I don’t like the Settings menu, headphone jack-less phones, and Windows 8. The moral of this story is—I don’t know, don’t take away features for an untested user experience dream? Believe in yourself, unless your belief in yourself takes headphone jacks out of phones?

An Addendum

Since I first wrote this, Apple announced they’re switching to ARM architecture in their PCs. As a byproduct, their apps will now work natively on desktop. This should be an interesting study in how things designed for one device don’t work well on other devices. I’ll go be grouchy somewhere else, now.

My name’s Ben Ehrlich and I work for SummerTech Inc. SummerTech computer camps is awesome! They don’t endorse what I just wrote, but you should check them out if you’re a youth looking for a sick STEM camp or a parent of a youth looking for a sick STEM camp. We’re in Weston MA and Purchase/Harrison NY. https://summertech.net

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