Microsoft Metro isn’t ready to go Dylan electric.

As inflammatory as this sounds, and it will piss quite a few Microsoft fans out there, but let me just get this piece out of the way before you make some snap fang filled responses.

The current “metro-style” as Windows 8 team puts it, simply is at present a huge missed opportunity that seems to be constantly being bent out of shape and isn’t ready to go electric (i.e. Bob Dylan went electric and everyone trashed him for it, who’s trashing now!).

Feature Density is cancer to Metro-Style.

The minimalist approach to design has been pretty much on the web for quite some time now thanks to a lot of creative souls in the CSS movement of the past (A List Apart, CSS Zen Garden etc. have all hinted strongly around grid focused design etc.).

There is really nothing new that the current “metro-style” brought to the table in terms of principles of design, the Zune however did put a new face to the idea that the a website-like User Interface could exist on a Desktop application.

It’s from there that the Microsoft UX mercenaries within various orgs began feeding the fire around what if you combined web design skills with desktop development.

Circa 2005ish we saw the first traces of the idea about bridging the two worlds together, but WPF got bloated and crappy performance and eventually failed in delivering to meet expectations. Microsoft Expression Blend also failed as at the time we found that whilst there where quite a number of downloads via MSDN subscriptions it had no revenue stream coming in and developers tried and pushed it aside. Designers disliked the complexity that came with the product and we at the time burnt quite a large bridge with Adobe in making the two potentially integrate with one another smarter (Adobe vs Microsoft war killed the vision).

It wasn’t until the guys behind the Metro as we know it today decided to regroup and come up with a pitch to the world on how Microsoft branding overall should unite, and to be fair – it at the time was a welcomed strategy (I for one was keen to see its momentum get traction).

Taking a page out of the Zune design it simply grew into what we see today, the infamous “metro-style” UI whereby you have a fairly flat canvas, a lot of typography, some primitive shapes and maybe one or two complimentary colors – boom, here’s your Metro-style application you ordered!

Attractive bias aside, the UI’s do look good and I don’t mind sharing that I’ve made a tidy profit churning these designs out for various clients, as they are dead stupid simple. The problem though I’ve personally found over time and discussed with many other fellow metro-designers out there in the interwebs is around how to navigate the pitfalls of feature density.

What do I mean by feature density?

Feature density is when you have a team of feature hungry customer(s) all wanting and willing to pay large bounties to cram as many features into the one product as possible and despite your many educational rants around “less is more” it plays out in way that basically ends up being a really bad execution of “metro”.

Interestingly when you discuss such things with others they tend to climb on top of that horse and start preaching the gospel around controlling the client, usability studies, user experience principles and what not to the point where you simply roll your eyes, make a hand jerk motion and thank them for listening and walk away from them even more frustrated than you were before – YOU DON’T FUCKING GET IT raging through your mind.

I at first like most out there I guess would be free to say that maybe I don’t get it, maybe I’m the guy who seems to not find the right balance between feature density and design?

The cracks began to emerge.

That is until I started to pay a lot closer attention to the way Microsoft themselves have been churning out applications within their own kingdom of metro`ness. Ahh yes, I’m watching you bozos and I can see what you’re doing so stop trying to hide it.

What I see is this, Microsoft started out with some pretty basic applications that arguably can fit quite snugly on a smartphone or tablet device? As in the end these aren’t necessary hardware elements in the day to day cubicles? They are more at-a-glance, downtime, basic operational use only (some may use them for word processing or two but in general it’s not a work tool at present).

Once you get past what I call “Kiosk” applications you then run into the same problems I’ve had a couple of years ago, how the hell are we going to keep parity with feature(s) in existing software with the new and modernized metro theme?

There’s a number of strategies I’ve formulated to help navigate these waters, but overall it comes back to cutting features down as much as you can and start dividing the monolithic application into user-contextual driven experience (content first is bullshit, context first is righteous).

Microsoft however aren’t catching up to this thinking as fast as I had thought, as I figured they are the ones who created this problem so surely they have some internal best of breed minds on the said problem right?


Look at Visual Studio 11, forget the grey controversy, that’s not the point what is the point is how do you think the Visual Studio team are going to navigate the metro waters with success? They are going to have to make some large sacrifices in features or come up with some radical left brain thinking here to overcome the “less is more” design principles outlined in the Microsoft doctrine titled “Metro Design Language”

Lets look at Office vNext (not officially but you get the point), I mean the current latest version of Office I’m typing this post in now has pretty much the right conditions for a flat metro theme, It’s almost pretty much there except that Ribbon kind of becomes the metro-style anti-pattern (note I said metro-style, not metro-principles).

Ok, so the overall problem with metro is that it’s probably gone a little to far to the left in scaling things back to the point where the grid-design patterns of the web probably aren’t going to map snugly to the desktop development story as even in the right hands it’s a balancing act.

In the wrong hands metro can fall off a cliff fast, you know those designs, you’ve probably seen them, hell even Microsoft itself puts those ones on full display ( itself is an metro-abortion on full display).

There is way out thought.

I think today, Metro itself as we see it in its incarnation is broken, it’s created this ongoing bad habit where if you nuke some gradients, whip up a lot of typography and pander to the masses you in turn get an instant “wow dude, so metro, high-five” – meanwhile you’re just feeling a little cheap inside, as you know that at the end of the day this is not your best work and you are just feeding the metro-zombies what they want.

Its only when I sat down to really think about how I would re-design Visual Studio that a few things began to click in how both I could navigate the feature density problem but also how unready the audiences were for such moves.

The problem I immediately am noticing the most, isn’t just about color selection (which to be fair guys is such a subjective discussion) its more along the lines of change management.

We are willing to accept small incremental changes or even twitter-like kiosk applications that sit on the Windows 8 mutated start bar or Windows Phone 7 install pile – they don’t really affect us as much as we think they do.

You touch my Visual Studio and Office whilst coming up short on whatever habits I’ve established today, expect a severe beating!!

On one hand the current execution of metro simply says “sorry, we’re going to have to make some radical changes here people” on the other hand it will require you the audience to be open to such change.

Its clear right now, in my view, the earlier can be done but the later, nope, that ones filled with a lot of forum focused anger “you suck Microsoft” style rants.

Sorry, Metro isn’t ready in the sense the current users aren’t ready for its minimalist focused design principles as we’re about to break the one known issue with most user experience today – Audiences dislike less is more, instead they are silently ok with the idea of having a 1000 features at their disposal even though the data says they probably use 20% of those features..

Metro isn’t ready for the mainstream.

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  • Oguz Mazlum

    Oh boy it’s war time 🙂

  • js

    Sorry to say this but the gifs make reading this post a chore 🙂

  • Orion Adrian

    I would disagree about Metro being ready for mainstream. I think it’s ready, but I also think it’s suffering from being the New Shiny. Frankly I think Office vNext should have been a starting point for it, or at a minimum Office 2010. The problem isn’t that Metro isn’t well-defined (even though it really isn’t), but that they really haven’t done the work to marry the Ribbon interface paradigm with a styling that works well in a otherwise Metro world. I think the Office team seems to be doing an alright job and I’d like to see more, but honestly, I’ve been crying for a Ribbon-ification of Visual Studio since Office 2007 showed off all the Ribbon had to offer for cleaning up dense UIs. Honestly Visual Studio has had all the problems of Office, but usually all at once. Though I have some thoughts on that.

    Frankly it’s like they gave up on categorizing features and perhaps that’s actually where we’re at now. Frankly even the Ribbon isn’t sufficient to handle the number of features in Visual Studio. So they moved to a search metaphor. Unfortunately that’s not a great UI for certain actions, especially ones that are modes (e.g. debugging/not debugging, release/debug) or very often repeated actions (e.g. step into, step out of).

    So what I’d like to see is a Ribbon + search interface for Visual Studio. I think it makes a powerful metaphor and allows your ribbons to not contain every single command. The navigation panes from Office even work well. It really would be a great marriage.

  • Orion Adrian

    I concur. Though I wonder if that was the point — even if I don’t get it.

  • Nobody said that good design is easy. Cramming a lot of features on a limited space and making them look good is an exceptionally hard thing. If you think that a simple set of good design practices (like Metro) are going to save you the thinking and pain – you are wrong.

  • @twitter-13575732:disqus  Nobody is saying its the “look mah no hands” version of designing. It does however add an extra layer of complexity compared to traditional pre-metro designs, that is to say you used to be able to get away with a lot more when using different grouping techniques but once you head down the path of metro you are primarily focused on increasing whitespace vs various techniques to hide grouping / organisation of features.

  • @js i over-reached on that one lol.. …no-gif policy updated from hence forth 😉

  • Rmdamiao

    Come on, office has so much legacy behind it that it is almost childish to expect it to deliver next level of ui. The ribbon was sufficient to driven hundreds of millions people crazzy. Now do you expect a brand new design from scratch? The best microsoft can try to do is to change a color here a framw there in order not to offer such a gigantic disparity with metro design. But on core ui functionality it has zero degrees of freedom. Not only people happines but global economic productivity depends on very smooth transitions from version to version. This time developers will have to get their way by themselves and stop trying to copy microsft standards.

  • Childish how so? Its fair to say that Microsoft are trying to bring uniformity to their brand around the idea that metro is the familiar face in the new crowd. That is to say, upgrading UI of office to a metro look and feel is almost expected if not required as until they can unite Windows and Office under the one UI brand it will continue to be this case of hit/n/miss.

    This is about regaining consumer confidence around a united vision of the future, its why Metro is in place. Whether or not its the right thing to do is yes, questionable but that aside, the way forward for them is to unpick the feature density problem and return a result..

    Thats the point, not whether or not office UI should or shouldn’t adopt, its what if they do adopt how does metro retrofit itself to the feature density within the product.

  • Rmdamiao

    There is no diacussion about the fact the metro will only be an acceptable general ui language when the problematics of feature density is properly addressed. Until then it is nothings but an empty canvas. My only point is that this cannot be addressed through office, or more precisely not through word or excel. It is not a mattet of what should be done. It simply cant be done: dozens, if not hundreds, of millions of people peoductivity depends on doing the same things as they have ever done until they csn get comfortable doing otherwise. Microsoft is not arrogant enough to think tha office belongs to them: office is some kind of public good yhat happens to be offered by the company.
    Nonetheless the quest for metro continues. In my opinion metro is not born as a design language. It is born as a recognition that the desktop environment has been doing thingd the wrong way just because everyone is exvessively conservative. Does your computer offer you access to content the right way? Does it compile your messaging properly? Does it offer the proper paradigm for higher level congiguration with never ending pop ups.? Does it deal with your contcts, calendar, to do stuff the proper way? Microsoft has recognized with a bold no, not at all… so lets do it from scratch. What they call metro is not the solution, it is just some generic guidines picked at will. Now they have to deliver the whole, just dont expect them to deliver it once for all. They will do the simpler things first. Is it consistent with the demands of a full feature design language? This is the bet the company is taking. No one knows before the veredict of the high demanding user. So, they take the risk, but they cant risk the entire company on that. If thet get office really wrong the company as we know it is over for ever. This is a risk that steve jobs could take, basically no one else.

  • Alex Hoffman

    +1  For the first time ever, I “Ad-Blocked” out the GIFS individually because I couldn’t read the content with them present. Fortunately, the blog post with them removed proved to be worth the read.