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The principles of Microsoft Metro UI decoded

The phrase “authentically digital” makes me want to barf rainbow pixels. This was a quote pulled from a Windows Phone 7 reviewer when he first got a hold of the said phone. At first you could arguably rail against the concept of what Authentically Digital means and simply lock it into the yet another marketing fluff to jazz a situation in an unnecessary way.

I did, until I sat back and thought about it more.

Issues Presented.

Metro in itself has its own design language attached, they cite a bunch of commandments that the overall experience is to respect and adhere that is to say, someone has actually sat down and thought the concept through (rare inside Microsoft UX). I like what the story is pitching and I agree in most parts with the laws of Metro that is to say, I am partially onboard but not completely.

I’m on board with what Metro could be, but am not excited about where it’s at right now. I state this as I think the future around software is going through what the fashion industry has done for generations – a cultural rebirth / reboot.

Looking back at Retro not metro.

Looking at the past, back in the late 90′s the world was filled with bold flat looking user interfaces that made use of a limited color palette given the said video capabilities back then wasn’t exactly the greatest on earth. EGA was all the rage and we were seeing hints of VGA whilst hating the idea that CGA was our first real cut at graphics.

EGA eventually faded out and we found ourselves in the VGA world (color TV vs. black n white if you will), life was grand and with 32bit color vs. 16bit color wars coming to a conclusion the worlds creative space moved forward leaps and bounds. Photoshop users found themselves creating some seriously wicked UI, stuff that made you at the time thank the UI gods for plug-ins like alien ware etc as they gave birth to what I now call the glow/bevel revolution in user interface design.

Chrome inside software started to take on an interesting approach, I actually think you could probably trace its origins of birth in terms of creative new waves back to products like Winamp & Windows Media player skins. The idea that you could take a few assets and feed them into mainstream products like this and in turn create this experience on the desktop that wasn’t a typical application was interesting (not to mention Macromedia Director’s influence here either).

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I think we all simply got on a user interface sugar induced high, we effectively went through our awkward 80′s fashion stage, where crazy weird looking outfits / music etc was pretty much served up to the world to gorge on. This feast of weird UI has probably started to wind down to thanks to the evolution of web applications, more importantly what they in turn taught us slowly.

Web taught the desktop how to design.

The first lesson we have learnt about design in user interface from the web is simple – less is more. Apple knocks this out of the park extremely well and I’d argue Apple wasn’t its creator, the Web 2.0 crowd as they use to be know was. The Web 2.0 crowd found ways to simply keep the UI basic to the point and yet visually engaging but with minimalist views in mind. It worked, and continues to work to this day – even on Apple.com

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Companies like Microsoft have seen this approach to designing user interface and came to a fairly swift rationale that if one were to create a platform for developers & designers to work in a fashion much like the web, well desktop applications themselves could take on an entirely new approach.

History lesson is over.

I now look at Metro thinking back on the past evolution and can’t but help think that we’re going back to a reboot of EGA world, in that we are looking for an alternative to design in order to attract / differentiate from the past. Innovation is a scarce commodity in today’s software business, so we in turn are looking at ways to re-energize our thinking around software design but in a way that doesn’t create a cognitive overload – be radical, be daring but don’t be disruptive to process/task.

Inside Microsoft what I can presume, the ECG group found a way to hijack existing patterns in terms of user recognition and make use of modern signage found inside bus station, railways, elevator marshal areas etc and declared this to be the way out of the excess UI scourge.

I like it, I like this source of inspiration but my first instinct was simple – I hope your main source of success isn’t the reliance on typography, especially in this 7second attention economy of today. Sure enough, there it is, the reliance in Windows phone 7. Large typography taking over areas of where chrome used to live in order to fix what chrome once did. The removal of color / boundary textures in order to create large empty space filled with 70px+ Typography with half-seen half-hidden typography is what Microsoft’s vision of tomorrow looks like.

Metro isn’t Wp7, Metro is Microsoft Future Vision.

My immediate reaction to seeing the phone (before the public did) back inside Microsoft was "are you guys high, this is not what we should be doing, we are close but keep at it, you’re nearly there! don’t rush this!". This reaction was the equivalent of me looking at a Category 5 Tornado, demanding it turn around and seek another town to smash to bits – brave, forward thinking but foolish.

This phone has to ship, its already had two code resets, get it done, fix it later is pretty much the realistic vision behind Windows Phone 7 – NOT – Metro.

Disbelief?

Take a look at what the Industry Innovation Group has produced via a company called Oh, Hello. In this vision of tomorrow’s software (2019 to be exact) you’ll see a strong reliance on the metro laws of design.

The Principles of Metro vs. Microsoft Future Vision.

In order to start a conversation around Metro in the near future, one has to identify with the level of thinking associated with its creation. Below is the principles of metro – more to the point, these are the design objectives and creative brief if you will on what one should approach metro with.

Clean, Light, Open, Fast

  • Feels Fast and Responsive
  • Focus on Primary Tasks
  • Do a Lot with Very Little
  • Fierce Reduction of Unnecessary Elements
  • Delightful Use of Whitespace
  • Full Bleed Canvas

You could essentially distill these points down to one word – minimalist. Take a minimalist approach to your user interface and the rewards are simple – sense of responsiveness in user interface, reliance on less information (which in turn increases decision response in the end user) and a reduction in creative noise (distracting elements that add no value other than it was cool at the time).

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In Figure 1, we I’d strongly argue you could adhere to these principles. This image is from the Microsoft Sustainability video, but inside it you’ve got a situation which respects the concept of Metro as after all given the wide open brief here under one principle you could argue either side of this.

Personally, I find the UI in question approachable. It makes use of a minimalist approach, provides the end user with a central point of focus. Chrome is in place, but its not intrusive and isn’t over bearing. Reliance on typography is there, but at the same time it approaches in a manner that befits the task at hand.

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Microsoft’s vision of this principle comes out via the phone user interface above (Figure 2). I’m not convinced here that this I the right approach to minimalism. I state this, as the iconography within the UI is inconsistent – some are contained others are just glyphs indicating state?. The containment within the actual message isn’t as clear in terms of spacing – it feels as if the user interface is willing to sacrifice content in order to project who the message is from (Frank Miller). The subject itself has a lower visual priority along with the attachment within – more to the point, the attachment has no apparent containment line in place to highlight the message has an attachment?

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Microsoft’s original vision of device’s future has a different look to where Windows Phone 7 today. Yet I’d state that the original vision is more in line with the principles than actual Windows Phone 7. It initially has struck a balance between the objectives provided.

The iconography is consistent and contained, typography is balanced and invites the users attention on important specifics – What happened, where and oh by the way more below… and lastly it makes use of visuals such as the photo of the said person. The UI also leverages the power of peripheral vision to give the user a sense of spatial awareness in that, its subtle but takes on the look and feel of an “airport” scenario.

Is this the best UI for a device today? No, but it’s approach is more in tune with the first principle then arguably the current Windows Phone 7’s approach which is reliance of fierce amounts of whitespace, reduction in iconography to the point where they clearly have a secondary reliance and lastly emphasis on parts of the UI which I’d argue as having the lowest importance (i.e. the screen before would of indicated who the message is from, now I’m more focused on what the message is about!).

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Celebrate Typography

  • Type is Beautiful, Not Just Legible
  • Clear, Straightforward Information Design
  • Uncompromising Sensitivity to Weight, Balance and Scale

I love a good font as the next designer. I hoard these like my icons, in fact It’s a disease and if you’re a font lover a must see video is Helvetica. That being said, there is a balance between text and imagery, this balance is one struck often daily in a variety of mediums – mainly advertising.

Imagery will grab your attention first as it taps into a primitive component within your brain, the part that works without your realizing its working. The reason being is your brain often is in auto-pilot, constantly scanning for patterns in your every day environment. It’s programmed to identify with three primative checks, fear, food and sex. Imagery can tap into these striaght away, as if you have an image of an attractive person looking down at a beverage you can’t but help first think “that’ person’s cute (attractive bias) and what are they looking at? oh its food!…” All this happens despite there being text on the said image prior to your brain actually taking time to analyse the said image. To put it bluntly, we do judge a book by its cover with extrem amount of prejudice. We are shallow, we do prefer to view attractive people over ugly unless we are conveying a fear focused point “If you smoke, your teeth will turn into this guys – eewwww” (Notice why anti-cigarette companies don’t use attractive people?)

Back to the point at hand, celebrating typography. The flaw in this beast despite my passion for fonts, is that given we are living in a 7 second attention economy (we scan faster than we have before) reliance on typography can be a slippery slope.

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In Figure 6, a typical futuristic newspaper that has multi-touch (oh but I dream), you’ll notice the various levels of usage of typography (no secret to news papers today). The headings on purpose approach the user with both different font types, font weight, uppercase vs lowercase and for those of you out there really paying attention, at times different kerning / spacing.

The point being, the objective is that typography is in actuality processed first via your brain as a glyph, a pattern to decode. You’ve all seen that link online somewhere where the wrod is jumbled in a way that you first are able to read but then straight away identify the spelling / order of the siad words. The fact I just did it then along with poor grammar / spelling within this blog, indicates you agree to that point. You are forgiving majority of the time towards this as given you’ve established a base understanding of the english language and combine that with your attention span being so fast paced – you are more focused on absorbing the information than picking apart how it got to you.

Typography can work in favor of this, but it comes at a price between balancing imagery / glyphs with words.

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The above image (Figure 7) is an example of Metro in the wild. Typography here is in not to bad of a shape, except for a few things. The first being the “Pictures” text is making use of a large amount of the canvas, to the point where the background image and heading are probably duking it out for your attention. The second part of this is the part that irritates me the most, in that the size of the secondary heading with the list items is quite close in terms of scale. Aside from the font weight being a little bolder, there is no real sense of separation here compared to what it should or could be if one was to respect the principle of celebrating typography.

Is Segoe UI the vision of the only font allowed? I hope not. Is the font weight “light” and “regular” the only two weights attached to the UI? what relevance does the background hold to the area – pictures? ok, flimsy at best contextual relevance but in comparison to the Figure 3 above a subtle usage of watermarks etc. to tap into your peripheral vision would provide you more basis to grapple onto – pattern wise that is. Take these opinions and combine the reality that there is no sense of containment and I’m just not convinced this is in tune with the principle. It’s like the designers of metro on windows phone 7 took 5% of the objectives and just ran with it.

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Comparisons between Figure7 and Figure8, the contrast in usage of typography is different but yet both using the same one and only font – Segoe UI. The introduction of color helps you separate the elements within the user interface, the difference in scale is obvious along with weight and transforms (uppercase / lowercase). Almost 80% of this User Interface is typography driven yet the difference in both is what I hope to be obvious.

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Don’t despair, it’s not all dark and gloom for the Windows Phone 7 future. Figure 9 (Above) is probably one of the strongest hints of “yes!” moment for the siad phone I could find. Typography is used but add visual elements and approach the design of typography slightly differently and you may just have a stake in this principle. The downside is the choice of color, orange and light gray on white is ok for situations that have increased scale, but on a device where lighting can be hit/miss, probably need to approach this with more bolder colors. The picture in the background also creeps into your field of view over the text, especially in the far right panel.

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Alive in motion

  • Feels Responsive and Alive
  • Creates a System
  • Gives Context to Improve Usability
  • Transition Between UI is as Important as the Design of the UI
  • Adds Dimension and Depth

I can’t really talk to these principles via  text on a blog, but what I would say is that the Windows Phone attacks this relatively ok. I still think the FlipToBack transition is to tacky and the reality between how the screens transition in and out at times isn’t as attractive as for example the iPhone (ie I really dig how the iphone zooms the UI back and to the front?). The usage of kinetic scrolling is also one that gives you the sense of control, like there are some really well oiled ball bearings under the UI’s plane that if you flick it up, down, right or left the sense of velocity and friction is there.

If you zoom in and out of the UI, the sense that the UI will expand and contract in a fluid nature also gives you the element of discovery  (Progressive disclosure) but can also give you a sense of less work attached.

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Taking Figure 11 & Figure 12 (start and end) one could imagine a lot of possibilities here in terms of the transition were to work. The reality that Reptile Node expands out to give way to types of reptiles is hopefully obvious whilst at the same time the focus is on reptile is also in place (via a simple gradient / drop shadow to illustrate depth). Everything could snap together in under a second or maybe two but it’s something you approach with a degree of purpose driven direction. The direction is “keep your eye on what I’m about to change, but make note of these other areas I’m now introducing” – you have to move with the right speed, right transition effect and at the same time don’t distract to heavily in areas that aren’t important.

Content, Not Chrome

  • Delight through Content Instead of Decoration
  • Reduce Visuals that are Not Content
  • Content is the UI
  • Direct interaction with the Content

Chrome is important as content. I dare anyone to provide any hint of scientific data to highlight the negative effects of grouping in user interface design. Chrome can be over used, but at the same time it can be a life saver especially when the content becomes over bearing (most line of business applications today suffer from this).

Having chrome serves a purpose, that is to provide the end user a boundary of content within a larger canvas. An example is below

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I could list more examples but because I’m taking advantage of Microsoft Sustainability video, I figure this would be sufficient examples of how chrome is able to breakup the user interface into contextual relevance. Chrome provides a boundary, the areas of control if you will in order to separate content into piles of semantic action(s). Specifically in Figure 15, the brown chrome is much like your dashboard on the car ie you’re main focus is the road ahead, that’s your content of focus but at the same time having access to other pieces of information can be vital to your successful outcome. Chrome also provides you access to actions in which you can carry out other principles of human interaction – e.g., adjustment of window placement and separation from within other areas offers the end user a chance of tucking the UI into an area for later resurrection (perspective memory).

Windows Phone 7 for example prefers to levearge the power of Typography and background imagery as its “chrome” of choice. I’m in stern disagreement with this as the phone itself projects what I can only describe as uncontained vast piles of emptiness and less on actual content. The biggest culprit of all for me is the actual Outlook client within the said phone.

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The Outlook UI for me is like this itch I have to scratch, I want the messages to have subtle separation and lastly I want the typography to have a balance between “chrome” and “whitespace”.

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Chrome can also not just be about the outer regions of a window/UI, it has to do with the internal components of the user interface – especially in the input areas. The above (Figure 17) is an example of Windows Phone 7 / Metro keyboard(s). At first glance they are simple, clean and open, but the part that captures my attention the most is the lack of chrome or more to the point separation. I say lack, as the purpose of chrome here would be to simulate tactile touch without actually giving you tactile touch. The keyboard to the right has ok height, but the width feels cramped and when I type on the said device It feels like I’m going to accidently hit the other keys (so I’m now more cautious as a result).

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The above (Figure 18) offers the same concept but now with “chrome” if you will. Nice even spacing, solid use of principles of the Typography and clear defined separation in terms of actions below.

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iPhone has found a way to also strike a balance between chrome and the previous stated principles. The thing that struck me the most about the two keyboards is not which is better, but more how the same problem was thought about differently.  Firstly as you type an enlarged character shows – indicating you hit that character (reward), secondly the actual keys have a similar scale in terms of height/width proportions yet the key itself having a drop shadow (indicates depth) to me is more inviting to touch then a flat – (its like which do you prefer? a holographic keyboard or one with tactile touch, physical embodiment?). If you were to also combine both sound and vibration as the user types it can also help trick the end users sense into a comfortable input.

I digress from Chrome, but the point I’m making is chrome serves a purpose and don’t be quick to declare the principles of Metro as being the “yes!” moment as I’d argue the jury is still not able to formulate a definitive answer either way.

Authentically Digital

  • Design for the Form Factor
  • Don’t Try to be What It’s NOT
  • Be Direct

I can’t talk to this to much other than to say this isn’t a principle its more marketing fluff (the only one with a tenuous at best attachment to design principles would be “design for the form factor” meaning don’t try and scale down a desktop user interface into a device. Make the user interface react to the device not the other way around.

Summary

Metro is a concept, Microsoft has had a number of goes at this concept and I for one am not on board with its current incarnation inside the Windows Phone 7 device. I think the team have lost sight of the principles they themselves have put forward and given the Industry Innovation Group have painted the above picture as to what’s possible, it’s not like the company itself hasn’t a clue. There is a balance to be struck here between what Metro could be and is today. There are parts of Windows Phone 7 that are attractive and then there are parts where I feel it’s either been rushed or engineering overtook design in terms of reasons for what is going on the way it is (maybe the design team couldn’t be bothered arguing to have more time/money spent on propping up areas where it falls short).

People around the world will have mixed opinions about what metro is or isn’t and lastly what makes a good design vs what doesn’t. We each pass our own judgement on what is attractive and what isn’t that’s nothing new to you. What is new to you is the rationale that software design is taking a step back into the past in order to propel itself into the future. That is, the industry is rebooting itself again but this time the focus is on simplicity and by approaching metro with the Microsoft Future’s vision vs the Windows Phone 7 today, I have high hopes for this proposed design language.

If the future is taking Zune Desktop + Windows Phone 7 today and simply rinse / repeating, then all this will become is a design fad, one that really doesn’t offer much depth other than limited respite from the typical desktop / device UI we’ve become used to. If this is enough, then in reality all it takes is a newer design methodology to hit our computer screens and we’re off chasing the next evolution without consistency in our approach (we simply are just chasing shiny objects).

I’ve got a limited time on this earth and I’d like to live in a world where the future is about breaking down large amounts of unreadable / unattractive information into parts that propel our race forward and not stifle it into bureaucratic filled celebrations of mediocrity.

Apple as a company has kick started a design evolution, and say what you will about the brand but the iphone has dared everyone to simply approach things differently. Windows Phone team were paralyzed at times with a sense of “not good enough” when it came to releasing the vnext phone, it went through a number of UI and code resets to get it to the point it’s at now. It had everything to do with the iPhone, it had to dominate its market share again and it had to attract consumers in a more direct fashion. It may not have the entire world locked to the device, but it’s made a strong amount of interruption into what’s possible. It did not do this via the Metro design language, they simply made up their own internally (who knows what that really looks like under the covers).

Microsoft has responded and declared metro design as its alternative to the Apple culture, the question really now is can the company maintain the right amount of discipline required in order to respect the proposed principles.

I’d argue so far, they haven’t but I am hopeful of Windows 8.

Lead with design, engineer second.