Decoding Windows 8 UX Principles– Let Context breathe instead of the UI!

Last night I was sitting in a child psychologist office watching my son undergo a whole heap of cognitive testing (given he has a rare condition called Trisomy 8 Mosaicism) and in that moment I had what others would call a “flash” or “epiphany” (i.e. theory is we get ideas based on a network of ideas that pre-existed).

The flash came about from watching my son do a few Perceptional Reasoning Index tests. The idea in these tests is to have a group of imagery (grid form) and they have to basically assign semantic similarities between the images (ball, bat, fridge, dog, plane would translate to ball and bat being the semantic similarities).

This for me was one of those ahah! Moments. You see, for me when I first saw the Windows 8 opening screen of boxes / tiles being shown with a mixed message around letting the User Interface “breathe” combined with ensuring a uniform grid / golden ratio style rant … I just didn’t like it.

There was something about this approach that for me I just instantly took a dislike. Was it because I was jaded? Was it because I wanted more? ..there was something I didn’t get about it.


Over the past few days I’ve thought more about what I don’t like about it and the most obvious reaction I had was around the fact that we’re going to rely on imagery to process which apps to load and not load. Think about that, you are now going to have images some static whilst others animated to help you guage which one of these elements you need to touch/mouse click in order to load?

re-imagining or re-engineering the problem?

This isn’t re-imagining the problem, its simply taken a broken concept form Apple and made it bigger so instead of Icons we now have bigger imagery to process.

Just like my son, your now being attacked at Perceptional Reasoning level on which of these “items are the same or similar” and given we also have full control over how these boxes are to be clustered, we in turn will put our own internal taxonomy into play here as well…. Arrghh…

Now I’m starting to formulate an opinion that the grid box layout approach is not only not solving the problem but its actually probably a usability issue lurking (more testing needs to be had and proven here I think).

Ok, I’ve arrived at a conscious opinion on why I don’t like the front screen, now what? The more I thought about it the more I kept coming back to the question – “Why do we have apps and why do we cluster them on screens like this”

The answer isn’t just a Perspective Memory rationale, the answer really lies in the context in which we as humans lean on software for our daily activities. Context is the thread we need to explore on this screen, not “Look I can move apps around and dock them” that’s part of the equation but in reality all you are doing is mucking around with grouping information or data once you’ve isolated the context to an area of comfort – that or you’re still hunting / exploring for the said data and aren’t quite ready to release (in short, you’re accessing information in working memory and processing the results real-time).

As the idea is beginning to brew, I think about to sources of inspiration – the user interfaces I have loved and continue to love that get my design mojo happening. User interfaces such as the one that I think captures the concept of Metro better than what Microsoft has produced today – the Microsoft Health / Productivity Video(s).


Back to the Fantasy UI for Inspiration

If you analyze the attractive elements within these videos what do you notice the most? For me it’s a number of things.


I notice the fact that the UI is simple and in a sense “metro –paint-by-numbers” which despite their basic composition is actually quite well done.


I notice the User Interface is never just one composition that the UI appears to react to the context of usage for the person and not the other way around. Each User Interface has a role or approach that carries out a very simplistic approach to a problem but done so in a way that feels a lot more organic.

In short, I notice context over and over.

I then think back to a User Interface design I saw years ago at Adobe MAX. It’s one of my favorites, in this UI Adobe were showing off what they think could be the future of entertainment UI, in that they simply have a search box on screen up top. The default user interface is somewhat blank providing a passive “forcing function” on the end user to provide some clues as to what they want.

The user types the word “spid” as their intent is Spiderman. The User Interface reacts to this word and its entire screen changes to the theme of Spiderman whilst spitting out movies, books, games etc – basically you are overwhelmed with context.

Crazy huh?

I look at Zune, I type the word “the Fray” and hit search, again, contextual relevance plays a role and the user interface is now reacting to my clues.


I look back now at the Microsoft Health videos and then back to the Windows 8 Screens. The videos are one in the same with Windows 8 in a lot of ways but the huge difference is one doesn’t have context it has apps.

The reality is, most of the Apps you have has semantic data behind (except games?) so in short why are we fishing around for “apps” or “hubs” when we should all be reimagineering the concept of how an operating system of tomorrow like Windows 8 accommodates a personal level of both taxonomy and contextual driven usage that also respects each of our own cognitive processing capabilities?

Now I know why I dislike Windows 8 User Interface, as the more I explore this thread the more I look past the design elements and “WoW” effects and the more I start coming to the realization that in short, this isn’t a work of innovation, it simply a case of taking existing broken models on the market today and declaring victory on them because it’s now either bigger or easier to approach from a NUI perspective.

There isn’t much reimagination going on here, it’s more reengineering instead. There is a lot of potential here for smarter, more innovative and relevant improvements on the way in which we interact with software of tomorrow.

I gave a talk similar to this at local Seattle Design User Group once. Here’s the slides but I still think it holds water today especially in a Windows 8 futures discussion.

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  • Davide

    Microsoft is modelling a touch interface with swiping, sliding, and dragging actions.

    I don’t like keyboard typing on my iPad and would never consider using a key driven search as my main launch pad, thats for finding stuff.

    I tend to leave all my web browser windows open to common pages I refer to and just switch to them, typing in urls and such is a pain.

    Interesting to see Apple driving the new UI, again…

  • Keith

    It’s nice to see you blogging again. I really enjoy your stuff, and this has me really thinking! Keep it up please!

  • Jose

    You have nailed it. For me the Microsoft Health video feels magic or at the edge of it whereas Win 8 just feels nice. All the “apps” in the video don’t feel like applications but as a seamless continuum of functionality that adapts to the user and the context. Interestingly, and ignoring the hardware for a moment, all the Microsoft Health software is possible today, it is sometimes even simplistic. I guess that, now that full screen is sanctioned (and that is important in Enterprise settings) we will be able to replicate the Microsoft Health or the Zune UIs.

  • John

    I am usually very skeptical about your position on what Microsoft does but with this article I agree 200%. Exactly! You are right absolutely! What MS did with Metro is horrible. They basically killed the idea of active content and replaced it by old plain big icons.
    Hopefully we will be able to replace it as we are able to replace current default desktop.

  • Demigrog

    The kind of semantic search you’re talking about is actually available in the UI (the search charm), though it is not the primary interface of the start menu. Having played with my Win8 tablet for a few days, I think I’m happier with the tiles than I expected to be. I like having a predictable, customizable place to go start up my common tasks, and the ability to pin a specific app view or webpage as a tile makes it reasonably powerful.

    On the other hand, using the metro start menu from my laptop as a replacement for the old start menu is a royal pain. When I think about why I miss the old start menu, it is pretty clear: the metro start menu simply has less on it, and if you tried to put everything on it that the old start menu had you would have a mess. The tiles are less useful on a desktop–why would I want a cut-off, one line tweet@rama tile when I could just have twitter open in a window? On the other hand, the Search charm rocks: it organizes my apps and documents in a way that blows away the Win7 start menu, not even including the custom search providers. In fact, I wish that the Start on the desktop opened the metro Search charm instead of the start menu!

  • I think this is exactly what Microsoft is pushing toward. I’ve been watching the BUILD sessions and they are pushing the idea that is Context and Content that drive windows 8. The charms are driven by context and the tiles/apps are driven by content. Remember this is just a preview OS 🙂

  • Fantastic article Scott! You are indeed correct. But I don’t think Microsoft / Apple / Google can solve this one. There’s too much riding on their existing platforms and apps drive these platforms. In order for this model to change, we’ll need something completely new. I dunno we’ll ever see something like that in the next 5-10 years. Maybe Apple will go on to invent that someday.

    I felt like WP7 reached for it in some ways. They tried to break out. There’s a little more context in the phone compared to the iphones… Maybe baby steps is what it will take.

    Unfortunately MS’s trend is to come late to the party, try to one up the competition by aggregating their features and doing a generally good job with integrations.

    I agree, no innovation — just re-engineering. Nice article.

  • Ruben

    Why do you look at the tiles and see apps instead of tasks? Certainly the transition is incomplete, but at the moment they migrate from an icon (or whatever) to an animated/informational tile they are in my mind trying to abstract the app concept and concentrate on the task. Every time you are in front a tablet/computer you are there with some purpose, which can be reactive, like addressing the feeds forwarded to you (email, tweets, RSS, weather, stock prices, and so on), or active (write a text, send an email, share some pics, navigate the internet, and so on). They have done a very poor job on the active UI. The tile with internet explorer is a great example: explorer bar should be accessible from start screen, period, and your preferred pages (i had totally abandoned bookmarking since google until apple invented the iPad! the damn tablet is absurdly keyboard unfriendly…) should be accessible on a start screen or from a tile in the start screen. But on the reactive side they have done a reasonable job. When you see a tile with an incoming e-mail and click on it you wont be thinking, oh let me open outlook to check my emails, but something like, oh, whats more is hidden in this tile… not full context, but, damn, they are hoping to sell over a billion copy of this system, they cannot simply departure with prevailing practices. Universal charms is already some very good evolution.

  • Thomas

    Do you have any pointers to the Adobe MAX entertainment UI you mentioned?

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  • Lingho

    Wow this is an amazing software Windows 8 is fantastic.

    I haven’t been this excited about an operating system .

    the start screen has really grown on me. I have to admit that my initial reaction almost a year back was a bit “meh”

    but now can be  wonderful and As much as I like it on the desktop, I can’t wait to use it on a tablet, as I know it’ll be even better there.

    so can everyone not hate this amazing software and work harder to understand and love a new things!

    no forget this time 1. mark as answer  2. thank for feedback 3.log uri