8 Ways to Reduce User Training Costs for Windows 8
Develop | Posted September 07, 2012

Windows 8 sports an entirely new interface. While Microsoft emphasizes its advantages, the new UI will inevitably cause serious problems for administrators who want to get users up and running quickly. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome many of the problems.

No matter what you call it — Metro, Start screen, or Windows 8 — the new interface in Windows 8 is going to cause some serious problems for system administrators and devops. Windows 8 uses an interface that will mystify existing users. You think they didn’t have a clue now? As usual, it doesn’t matter whether or not you personally approve of the new interface; you’re stuck supporting it.

You may have heard a lot of confusing information about the Windows 8 interface (as I call it throughout this article), but you can view it most easily as a tablet interface on a desktop operating system. When they first start Windows 8, users are going to see a confusing array of boxes that don’t make any sense at all. Unless you want the phone ringing off the hook and your inbox filled to the brim, you should use these eight tips to reduce the interface shock for your users.

Use a Local Account

Businesses should create local accounts to ensure that users can actually perform useful work. By default, Windows 8 creates a Windows Live account for any user you add, including the initial user you create when installing the operating system. At least, that’s the case when you create the accounts using the Windows 8 app (accessible by clicking Add a User on the PC Settings screen). Using the Windows Live account causes all sorts of security issues when working at the Desktop interface. You’ll find that tasks that were quite easy to perform in the past are now impossible. That’s because Microsoft also locks these accounts down.

In order to bypass this problem, click the Sign In Without a Microsoft Account link near the bottom of the screen (as shown in Figure 1).

Windows 8 sign-in without a Microsoft account

The Add a User screen that comes next does everything it can to convince you that creating a local account is troublesome and limits your ability to use Windows 8 features. Ignore this screen and click Local Account (as shown in Figure 2).

Create a local account in Windows 8

The account you create will have the same access as the account the user relied on in Windows 7. It won’t have access to some new Windows 8 features, such as the Store, but you probably don’t want the user installing apps from the Store anyway.

To make things even simpler, go to the Control Panel, then Administrative Tools, then open the Computer Management console. Right click the Local Users and GroupsUsers folder and choose New User from the context menu. Create a new local user using the same techniques you always have in Windows, without the hide-and-seek required to avoid a Windows Live account.

Make the Desktop App Obvious

Microsoft has made it impossible to bypass the Windows 8 interface. According to several articles, such as one in ComputerWorld, the .scf hack that many administrators were planning to use to take users directly to the Desktop interface has been completely disabled in the RTM version of Windows 8.

What this means is that you need to find some other way to get the user from the Windows 8 interface that looks and feels completely unfamiliar into the desktop interface that’s at least recognizable.

The best way to achieve your goal is to reduce the number of options on the Start screen by right clicking any apps, such as Store, that you don’t want the user to use anyway, and choose either Unpin from Start or Uninstall from the App bar that appears at the bottom of the screen. Even if you simply unpin the app, the user won’t see it when the operating system starts. That’s one less icon the user might click by accident.

The user likely does need to interact with at least a few of the apps. To reduce the impact of apps that the user won’t use often, right click the app’s icon and choose Smaller from the App bar; the app’s icon shrinks. (When an app uses a large icon, it attracts the user’s attention more than an app that uses a small icon.) Make sure that the Desktop icon is one of the larger icons on the Start screen so the user can see it easily.

Most users scan icons from top to bottom and from right to left. You can move icons around on the Start screen as needed. To give the Desktop icon more emphasis, place it in the upper left corner of the Start screen.

Create a Cheat Sheet

Expect your users to require some sort of instructions to get started. Creating a cheat sheet is the best way to accomplish this requirement. The first instruction on that sheet should say click the Desktop icon to go to your Desktop. For those who are keyboard-oriented, tell the user to press Win+D.

Unfortunately, most of your users have no clue as to what the Windows key looks like; they likely never used it. So, the one item of training that you really do need to perform is to show everyone the location of the Windows (Win) key.

Interestingly enough, it’s actually easier to move around in Windows 8 using the keyboard. For example, even though the graphical interface has changed considerably, old keyboard shortcuts still work just fine. For example, you can still press Alt+Tab to move to the next open application in the list.

Here are some other useful keyboard shortcuts you should put on that cheat sheet.

  • Win+D: Display the Desktop interface.
  • Win+E: Open a copy of Windows Explorer.
  • Win+F: Open the Search pane to the file search option. (You can also search for applications and system settings by selecting the correct option from the list.)
  • Win+L: Lock the computer.
  • Win+M: Minimize all the applications on the Desktop.
  • Win+Q: Open the Search pane to the application search option.
  • Win+R: Open the Run dialog box to execute commands.
  • Win+U: Open the Ease of Access Center.
  • Win+W: Open the Search pane to setting search option.
  • Win+X: Display the Start menu. This is a context menu type display that appears in the lower left corner of the Desktop interface and contains options for performing tasks such as opening a command prompt.
  • Win+Tab: Select the next application in the list of running applications, including Windows 8 apps. The Alt+Tab key combination only cycles through Desktop interface applications.
  • Win+Shift+Tab: Select the previous application in the list of running applications, including Windows 8 apps.

Get a Start Menu Substitute

The loss of the Start menu is going to be a big deal for nearly every user. Microsoft seems to think that no one uses the Start menu, but apparently it hasn’t talked to the rest of us who do.

If nothing else, expect your users to want access to the Start menu to shut down their systems (or put them in hibernate mode) at the end of the day. To shut down a system using the Windows 8 interface, you must display the Charms bar, select the Settings charm, and then click the Power icon on the Settings screen. The process for using the Windows 8 interface is nothing like the steps that users are used to using in older Windows versions.

A Start menu substitute such as Lee-Soft’s ViStart, Stardock’s Start8, Classic Shell, or Power8 can greatly reduce the shock of using Windows 8. Each of these alternatives works somewhat differently. You can only use one of them (I attempted to combine two, just to see what would happen, and it was a mess). None provide an interface precisely like the Start menu found in older versions of Windows, but they are better than not having a Start menu at all. You need to decide which alternative will keep your users happiest through testing.

Make the Desktop Icons Visible

The default Desktop interface is a bland affair—completely devoid of anything except the Taskbar at the bottom. It has all of the appeal of the Sahara to someone dying of thirst. Users are notorious for not looking any further than the end of their noses, so you need to provide something better than a blank screen.

The first task for the sysadmin or devop should be to restore the Desktop icons. To perform this task, right click the Desktop and choose Personalize from the context menu. When you see the Personalization window, click the Change Desktop Icons link. You see a Desktop Icon Settings dialog box in which you can choose the icons to display.

As a minimum, I recommend displaying the User’s Files and Recycle Bin icons so that users can access their data and undelete files they really meant to keep. My personal preference is to display all of the icons, including the Control Panel, because they simply aren’t available through the Start menu (considering it’s gone). With all of the icons on the Desktop, I can perform just about every task needed on my system without ever leaving the Desktop interface.

Just how many icons you present to users depends on what you expect them to do. When a user has to interact with the computer at all, for example, you need to provide the Computer icon or face the consequences of sending the user to the Windows 8 interface to perform the task.

Place Commonly Used Applications on the Taskbar

More than ever, users need commonly used applications easily accessible. Going back and forth between the Windows 8 interface and the Desktop interface is enough to make anyone dizzy.

The Taskbar is barren in Windows 8, except for the ever-present Internet Explorer icon. To place an application on the Taskbar, press Win+Z to display the App bar at the Start screen, click All Apps, right click the application to add to the Taskbar in the All Apps screen (you’ll see the App bar shown in Figure 3), and choose Pin to Taskbar from the App bar. The application now appears on the Taskbar, even if you don’t have access to a Start menu.

Windows 8 apps bar


Users need to become familiar with the Jump Lists feature to make the Taskbar additions truly useful. To see a Jump List, right click the icon on the Taskbar; all the documents that you recently used appear in the list. Click a document to open it. You can pin oft-used documents to the Jump List for a particular application so that it doesn’t cycle off the list when you open other documents.

Unlike Windows 7 (which limits you to 10 items on a Jump List), in Windows 8 you can adjust the size of Jump Lists. Right click the Taskbar and choose Properties from the context menu. In the Taskbar Properties dialog box, select the Jump Lists tab, which displays dialog box that includes a field for adjusting the number of Jump List items.

One caveat: Limit the Taskbar to commonly used applications. The Taskbar can become a jumbled mess. It takes more time to locate an application than to begrudgingly use the Start screen to access it. The number of applications you can place on the Taskbar depends on the size of your screen and your ability to squint at the application icons.

Use Batch Files to Replace Missing Functionality

Yes, batch files are so last decade, but they still work. While I was working on my most recent book, Windows 8 Quick Reference for Dummies, several of my beta readers wrote to ask how to shut down their systems. No, it’s not very obvious. You need to display the Charms bar, select the Settings charm, and then click on the Power charm.

The only problem is that the Charms bar is invisible until you ask for it. So, a typical user is going to look for some way to power the system down, and the user may not find it. (The user may, however, find new ways to express ill will toward the IT department, such as simply unplugging the computer to turn it off.)

I fixed the problem by creating a batch file with the Shutdown command in it. For example, to shutdown the system in 30 seconds, the batch file would contain: Shutdown /s /t 30. You can place a shortcut to this file on the Desktop and label it “Shutdown the System.” Your user won’t have to look any further than the Desktop.

Of course, there are batch file commands to perform any task a user would need. Place shortcuts to the batch files you create on the Desktop as needed. It’s an archaic solution that more administrators have been using anyway because working with the GUI has proven time consuming (and sometimes awkward).

Use Folders to Make Data Accessible

The use of the shared folders features in Windows 8 does make life easier, but it may not be enough for your organization’s workgroups. In some cases, a particular group of people needs to share a specific folder on the network.

To make this data easier to access, consider placing a folder shortcut directly on the Desktop. A user can see the specific project name and open the folder to see the data associated with that particular project. It’s an older technique that you may need to revive due to the loss of functionality on the Windows 8 Desktop. Figure 4 shows a Desktop that I configured for myself that includes the standard icons, a shortcut to the Command Prompt, and shortcuts to a couple of projects.

Windows 8 desktop icons

Bottom Line

Windows 8 does have a lot to offer, among them faster boot times, better security, and greater reliability. The main deal breaker for most users (and their administrators) is that the Windows 8 interface is a pain to use, especially when you aren’t working with a touch device. By carefully configuring a system, you can make Windows 8 a lot easier for users to work with and significantly reduce your training costs and support efforts as well. All it takes is a little extra planning to make things work.

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