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Comparing Microsoft and Apple Websites’ Usability

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In the article entitled Apple vs. Microsoft – A Website Usability Study, Dmitry Fadeyev, co-founder of Pixelshell, compares Apple’s and Microsoft’s web sites from a usability perspective, and Apple is the winner. Scott Barnes, PM at Microsoft, agrees with him and suggests the problem is because various site sub-domains have different management.

Fadeyev uses 7 criteria to compare the web sites of the two major players in software industry, Apple and Microsoft:

  1. Homepage
    Fadeyev remarks that Apple has remained consistent in their approach for many years and uses the home page as an “advertising board”. The “main ad at the top is huge” while the rest of the page has just a few items and lacks any content “making the decision of where to go next easier”.

    He continues by mentioning Microsoft’s homepage, which also has 3 ads but only one is showing, while two are hidden, at least at the time when the study was made. This helps by focusing reader’s attention, but the 2 extra ads need reader’s interaction to be made visible. Further, he considers the content below the ads as “fairly boring and overwhelming, with a lot of information packed into a very small space, without any try to make it scannable”:

    Sure, it’s broken down into bullet points, but the font is small and there are hardly any images to differentiate between the items. As it stands, there is little to attract me to make me want to read through this content because it’s just, well… boring.

  2. Flow
    Fadeyev has nice words for Apple’s site again:
    After you’ve read the headline you can proceed to read the marketing blurb below, which leads nicely into a call to action signup button for the free trial. If you’re not interested in the trial, there are more features below to persuade you, each one ending with a “Learn more” link to a more detailed feature page. This leaves no dead ends and keeps the user browsing.
    Fadeyev studied Share Point’s web site and remarked the top area which grabs reader’s attention, but considers the large amount of content information as a drawback.
  3. Navigation
    Apple uses one navigation bar that remains the same throughout all sub-sites, and the bar contains Apple’s logo for better brand identification and a Search box.

    Microsoft has a navigation bar too, but it does not remain the same across sub-sites. “Actually, all of the sub-pages tend to use their own navigation bar, in style and in content. The homepage navigation thus acts as a site map to the rest of the Microsoft website sections,” says Fadeyev. Microsoft also uses large drop-down menus which are considered helpful by Jakob Nielsen, a usability expert. Fadeyev considers the drop-down menus as good but they cover the content below if activated accidentally with the mouse and the reader needs to move the mouse off the area to close them. Also they contain lots of items and, sometimes, duplicate items.
  4. Readability
    Fadeyev considers Apple’s website as  very readable, using larger fonts for titles and lots of white space to separate content. Some pages contain text that is too small.
    Microsoft’s website uses the same approach, but:
    Too much variety causes visual chaos on the page, with each different colored or bold item competing for your attention. In this case, the page really needs to be simplified to make it easier for the viewer to process.
  5. Search
    Apple’s search uses Ajax to show results in a box while typing the query. The user can choose one of the answers from the box, or can hit Enter to see all the result grouped in categories on a page and further drill down.

    Microsoft’s search feature always prints results in a page, there are lots of results, which Fadeyev considers proper for their web site. He sees the search feature as “functional, but the look and feel is different to the other pages, which makes it look like you’re browsing a different website.”
  6. Aesthetics
    For the Apple site’s aesthetics, Fadeyev remarks that:
    Apple’s website aesthetics closely mirrors that of its product line. The navigation bar looks like it’s crafted out of aluminum and features gentle gradients and indented text.

    There are also plenty of reflections and minimalist design elements. Apple has always worked on unifying the look and feel of its interface across its entire product line, from the hardware to software, and their website is no exception.
    Fadeyev considers Microsoft’s site “pretty good, but pretty good just isn’t enough. There are plenty of inconsistencies and a lack of polish, which puts Apple ahead in this area.”
  7. Consistency
    Apple’s web site “looks and feels the same throughout and the global navigation bar at the top is always there, on every page. This means that the entire experience is very unified and coherent — you know you’re on the same website wherever you go.”

    For Microsoft, Fadeyev gives Azure’s web site as example:
    Could you tell that this is a Microsoft page if you took away their logo? Custom graphics, styles and color palettes across all the Microsoft sections help little to maintain a coherent brand image on the web. …

    It’s really an ecosystem of websites hosted under the same domain and therefore it doesn’t get the benefit of consistency that Apple has. The brand image is also terribly fragmented making it impossible to define what a Microsoft site looks like.

Overall, Fadeyev considers Apple’s web site as a winner, while Microsoft suffers mostly because of lack of consistency.

Scott Barnes, Product Manager for the Rich Client Platform team at Microsoft, agrees with Fadeyev on “the majority of the points and have arrived in many ways at similar conclusions to the author.” He recently took ownership of the Silverlight’s web site and wants to change it.

The current version of the site is not one we as a team are content or happy with. We can do better, and we will, but its posts like this that help me navigate the best approach with regards to user experience and information architecture. …

Keep it Simple, Don’t make me think – are the mantra for my next version of the site and it was blog posts like the one mentioned that simply help.

Barnes considers that Microsoft’s sub-websites lack consistency because they are managed by different teams:

A centralized approach for outward site would be optimal, as then the team(s) in question have clear definitive guidelines and also we as a company are able to do a more uniform qualitative analysis on end user behavior.

However, given the political environment within the company and no one division really owns the entire site(s), I honestly don't see a realistic reform.

Tim Anderson also comments on Fadeyev’s study and makes some observations regarding Microsoft’s website:

  • It’s hard to get past the marketing blather to clear information
  • Too many links lead to menu pages with further links – sometimes it feels like an endless loop
  • I found lots of information in the future tense, clearly prepared before launch and not updated
  • Regionalisation is poor. You can start on the UK site but end up with pricing and availability information applicable only to the US
  • There’s a Technet site as well as a general site and the differentiation is not clear. I suppose the general site is meant to be more business/marketing focused, but there’s plenty of overlap
  • In general pages are too busy with each one offering a splurge of choices
  • Some things are just inherently confusing – like the CAL policy, which has four different types of CAL (user and device in combination with standard and premium) that can be mixed and matched: you can use standard CALs with SBS Premium if they are not used with “Premium features”. Whoever dreamt that up has never worked in a small business.

While Apple’s site is an example to follow, Microsoft’s website clearly needs improvement. Perhaps the best way to do it is to start having the entire site under one control, designing a common look and feel for all sub-sites, or at least placing them under different domains like Silverlight does.

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  • Very Nice Article

    by Nad e Ali Zaidi,

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    thanks for sharing it's very nice article.

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