For months, Microsoft has been stepping up the pressure on users to upgrade to Windows 10. The company has multiple reasons for doing this — it wants to prevent a long tail of Windows 7 or 8.1 users from dragging out its support cycles (similar to what happened to Windows XP), it’s prominently pledged to hit one billion users on Windows 10, and it undoubtedly wants to push the market as a whole towards its new revenue model, which is much less focused on Windows 10 license sales, and more about advertising and in-OS content sales.
In keeping with this goal, Microsoft has steadily made it more difficult to opt out of Windows 10 upgrades. The company has reworked its installation messages to imply that consumers couldn’t opt out of upgrading, but clicking on the red “X” at the top right of those messages still canceled the process. According to reports streaming in from multiple sources online, Microsoft has changed this behavior. Clicking the X does nothing to stop the upgrade process now.
Last week, ZDNet hailed these changes as a positive step for Microsoft, since there’s now a “Click Here” link to cancel the upgrade as opposed to no clear method of doing so. The problem is, Microsoft just changed one of the core behaviors of the GWX.exe application without telling anyone it did so. PC World’s Brad Chacos wrote about how his wife was caught up in the upgrade, and reports have been coming in from Reddit as well.
Microsoft would undoubtedly argue that this change isn’t actually a change at all. There are many, many modern applications that don’t automatically exit when you click the “X” button — and Microsoft’s formal guidelines as far back as Windows 95 instructed developers that they should treat the X as a “Close” button, not an “Exit” button. The problem is, X generally is interpreted as exit, and there are plenty of Microsoft applications, including Office, Internet Explorer, and Edge, that still follow this behavior.
In other words: Microsoft has technically done nothing wrong with flip-flopping on treating the X as a “Close this dialog” option as opposed to a “Cancel this process” option. It can even argue that it’s now operating according to its own best practices, especially since GWX.exe runs in the background anyway unless you kill it via GWX Control Panel or Task Manager (and it restarts itself if all you use is Task Manager, so not much luck there.)
The problem is, humans who use Windows aren’t devoted consumers of Microsoft’s best practices as elucidated in UX development manuals, and clicking on the X to cancel the upgrade was the proper way to avoid the earlier Windows 10 upgrade notifications.
In this context, it’s very hard to call what Microsoft has done anything but disingenuous. The company has swapped one behavior for another, likely counting on the fact that people would wake up and find themselves running Windows 10 after they thought they’d disabled this from happening.
Yes, treating the X like an exit or cancel button is against Microsoft’s recommended UX practices, but so is dramatically overhauling the behavior of application buttons without informing the consumer that things have changed.
It’s time for Microsoft to step back and consider the long-term consequences of its actions. In the beginning, GWX.exe served a useful purpose — it told users that they were eligible for free Windows 10 notifications, and it communicated when PCs were ready to update. Over the past 10 months, GWX.exe has become an invasive application. It has adopted malware-like obfuscation tactics designed to trick people into choosing an upgrade they didn’t want, including changing the function of icons and hiding the option not to upgrade.
Making the opt-out button slightly more prominent while changing the function of X is no improvement at all. This is an example of a dark pattern — a pattern built into an application designed to trick you into making certain choices, similar to how adware will sometimes flip the “No” and “Yes” dialog boxes, or use registration choices that require you to check a box if you want to opt out of something as opposed to opting into it.
The people who wanted to upgrade to Windows 10 have already done so. The people now being captured by these dragnets are those who haven’t wanted to do so, and forcing them into scenarios where they mistakenly upgrade anyway will not create feelings of warmth and joy. What you’re actually building is a group of users who will either fight to hold on to Windows 7 / 8.1 with both hands or will shift to either OS X or Linux.
Forcing people into upgrades by tricking them is perhaps the worst way to build support for Windows 10 we can imagine. It’s time to knock this off and let people who choose not to upgrade go their own way.