The problem with metro is it’s hard to differentiate

I want you all to pause a moment or two.

I want you all to sit in front of Windows 8, and explore it some more and get to be intimate with “metro” as a user interface style. Really, immerse yourself in it and just stare at it, explore every pixel it offers up.

I now want you to imagine that this is going to be your user interface for the next 5years.

Still onboard?

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I have been doing “metro” rinse/repeat designs for quite some time and it has long past bored me to the point where I wonder if I have metro-blindness now. That is I’ve stared at it for far to long that I really need a release valve, I crave something more interesting and has more depth.

This is the part where you respond with the usual metro rhetoric about content-first design, authentically digital blah blah the usual Microsoft Metro Zombie response that often the person at the other end of the conversation has no clue at what even it means, it just sounds smart to say and gives one a sense of authority over the conversation.

I am not saying the path that Microsoft has put the hordes of developers on is wrong but I’m not inclined to say it’s right either.

Who is the target audience?

Today, a 50 something non-techy came into my work pod to talk about the new iPad 3, we talked about what it has and doesn’t have but then I tried to get an unbiased non-technical opinion on Windows 8.

Me: “Have you seen the new Windows 8 yet?”

NonTechGuy: “Nope.. is it out?”

Me: “Not yet, it’s still in beta, but here have a look”

I then watched his facial expression; it looked like he wanted to go to the toilet but was holding back on saying so out of politeness.

Me: “Cool huh!”

NonTechGuy: “is that the whole thing?”

Bottom line was that he was not excited by it and we soon retreated to the iPad conversation. My thinking here is not that well this user speaks for billions of humans worldwide; it was just interesting to see a virgin reaction to basically metro.

This person uses Windows daily and has no issue with it, but when shown Windows 8 front-start screen it had this jarring effect on his senses, as if to say – “this is not what I expected”.

This is the part where someone now responds with “give them time”, “users over time will get used to it”, “I have xyz friends who see the opposite to this view” etc. etc.

I get it, I just disagree with it.

Windows 8 is targeted at us, the tech crowd, the more I think about its practicality the more I contemplate that maybe the reason why Apple is much more successful than Microsoft at this space as they target the baby-boomer style crowd. Microsoft and Google target us and in turn they fail more than they succeed simply because we are much harder to please than the Apple audience.

When Steve Jobs said that they only make products that they would want to use, I think we all in the tech-scene assumed he meant us. He didn’t, I think he meant to say “no, I mean guys my age and people who aren’t preoccupied with engadget/gizmodo style blogs.. I mean me, you people aren’t invited”

The thing that struck a chord today was the fact that iPad3 has failed in the eyes of most tech bloggers etc., yet 50-something non-tech guy walks into the IT cubicle and asks “Hey, you seen the new iPad!”..

Think about that a bit more. Firstly, he has already heard about it from mainstream radio stations and secondly he did not say iPad3 he said “new iPad” (interesting choice of words to parrot).

Metro will outdate itself.

Here is the problem I am starting to see with metro and I am arguably pushing it earlier than Microsoft is with a number of audiences. Metro fast out dates, that is to say initially people’s reaction to the design is positive and emotive. However over time the more and more it gets used, the more and more it will start to taper out, that is to say, you probably are already seeing this with Windows Phone 7.

There is no differentiation; there is no unique upgrade or themed approach to the way you react to data. There is just this metro-zombie existence where if you can slap together a few tiles, fluctuating typography case & size, few background pictures and then some minor rectangle decals here and there. Boom metro installed, payday occurs.

The design and experience over time becomes like chewing gum, the flavor disappears, and soon we are keen to discard and invite new flavor as soon as possible.

I see this as a problem going forward as Microsoft itself can’t control metro in a way that elevates and retains consistency in their emotive experience(s) and to be fair, metro wasn’t born from a scientific analysis, it was born from a group of guys inside Microsoft UX leadership who decided that they wanted to simplify the brand some more.

So what if Microsoft is wrong? What if Metro isn’t the correct way forward and what if it hurts our ecosystem much more than we realize?

Enter Metro-chaos.

Yesterday, out of pure design frustration I decided to do the opposite of what I know about Metro, that is, break the rules, and see what happens.

I came up with this design and then posted it online to see what people’s reactions would be.

MetroChaos4

I got wave after wave of “this isn’t metro” responses, I never got any reactions around how one could evolve this further. I was craving that and was really just curious to see what would happen if you assault this audience with the anti-metro design. I knew upfront what the audience would parrot back and sure enough I got lecture after lecture on what is or isn’t metro (some weren’t even accurate to the actual principles of metro itself).

I could care less whether people enjoyed the design I put forward as it was always just a throw-away composition and was more about me taking some time-out to just evolve a design.

It struck me simply that I worry now that metro-style as we see it from Microsoft will become tomorrow’s WinForm(s) that is to say we’ve replaced WinForm static UI with now a more monochrome blocky style UI. Developers rarely deviate from Microsoft’s theming (see Ribbon and Office theming as examples) and so from here it’s likely we’ll see the tired old look over and over and over.

I worry about this as I think this really could be the step backwards and not forwards in evolving our design energy.

With that, I leave you with just one question – What if Microsoft is wrong, how do we all collectively recover?

I don’t dislike metro, but I’m not excited about it as much as I should be. I want have more fun with it though, I want to see what others do with it out of the confines of the “rules”, as I think this could evolve further!

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Windows 8 Metroholm Syndrome kicked in late last night.

Like 1million of you out there, yesterday I downloaded and installed Windows 8 onto get this – my 27” iMac – yes, I’m that guy.

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Here are my love/hate notes and a YouTube video to match.

What I like

  • Color Choice. I like the vibrant colors, I was skeptical from the initial //BUILD preview we saw that this would work as that iteration of Win8 came off very flat and really shallow baked. This iteration I am noticing some subtle differences and I am growing to accept its existence.
  • Start Menu replacement. I am surprised at how much I do actually like the Start Menu vs. the traditional one; I am always a fan of enabling users to break out of their chrome and into a more contextually driven experience for at times when specific tasks need to occur. I like this approach, it’s still a bit hard to break a lot of habitual usage and muscle memory, but it’s something I can see the Operating System will chisel away at over time.
  • AppStore. I like the AppStore, I think this is long overdue and am looking forward to seeing more about how this can increase the size of my own wallet (or decrement it). I still am skeptical of a try vs. buy approach to selling your apps, to me try kind of pushes prices further down then they need to be (AppStore anti-pattern).

    I like the almost seamless integration between apps, and how you can pin/unpin them to suite your hearts’ content.

What I dislike.

  • Tile Balance. The balance between typography and glyphs irritated me immediately. I found myself ignoring the glyphs and instead searching the text, but found that the text size itself is excessively small. The reason I think this is occurring is the shapes (glyphs) aren’t familiar outlines of entities I’m used to seeing, so my brain flips the concept around, ignores them given they are foreign and instead retreats back to typography for the answer. I think these needs more balancing between proportion and closer to home shape design(s).
  • Grouping. The grouping seemed did not seem to follow a consistent pattern (prolong usage may alter this opinion). That is to say, how it allocates proportional sizes when you start moving tiles around does not immediately offer up a sense of consistency as I found myself at times wanting a particular tile to be bigger than the rest.
  • Whitespace is amazingly wasted. I’m assuming the main driver for this UI is tablet / slate PC’s so I’m willing to cave a little on this opinion. That being said, if it is to go desktop then the reality around monitor sizes (I know Microsoft has this usage data, I’ve seen it myself) is quite alarmingly large. I mean sure I’m using 27” iMac monitor to view Windows 8 so my whitespace is going to be significantly high, but the thing is Microsoft needs to factor this into their designs (whether it by a pyramid of layout states etc.).

    For instance, when you install an application you pretty much have the upper left locked as being the only elements of UI? To me the far right is a huge wasted opportunity as you can still utilise the AppStore upsell here by feeding in one or two apps that are similar to the one you are installing, give the user the opportunity to read reviews of the application and so on. Point is you can still uphold minimalism but do so in a much smarter contextually driven manner.

  • Internet Explorer is terrible experience. I found the address bar being down the bottom to be frustrating at times, furthermore it often would get in the way of websites like Facebook who use the “Confirm/Cancel” buttons in the bottom right. I found when that occurred the address bar got in the way and left I playing a game of hide/seek until I could get to the said button(s). I am not sure what the science is behind moving it from a traditional top placement now to a bottom placement. I think they went a little too far on the “re-imagined” in this case.
  • Movement without touchscreen. Its clear this OS release is primarily optimized for iPad compete, but again if it’s a desktop release then having smarter keyboard control over how you interact with the OS needs optimizing.

    For instance, I found myself wanting to use START + LEFT/RIGHT Arrow to pan the screen left and right vs having to use the mouse and a scrollbar down the bottom (hit zone that alone was frustrating – fits law anyone?)

Summary.

Look, this OS is a consumer release that much is clear and it is also clear that this isn’t a desktop driven focused experience but instead the anti-iPad release. I can see a having legs on tablet devices, and can see the direction they appear to be heading down that path and can get on board with that.

If this however is to reside as being the replacement for our desktop computers accessing Windows etc., then they really need to think beyond the tablet devices here specifically around how not just consumers but workplaces etc. are going to handle this release?

The design was done an ok at reducing clutter and their marketing “content-first” thinking rather comes of still as being somewhat lazy. I think they can still increase more feature density here whilst retaining a minimalist design (web apps etc. do it daily so it is not really a pioneering effort).

I can’t see pre-existing Windows users who aren’t part of the 6million .NET Horde racing out to their local PC dealer to buy Windows 8 and use it, I think the whole operating system has moved a lot of things around, specifically the removal of the Start Bar Icon itself is going to irritate initially.

This Operating system will require a lot of users having to re-learn there way around the operating system and things they have built up over 15+ years of habitual usage has now been removed – that alone is going to send a polarizing shockwave.

I’m keen to see what the next release will look like and how they plan to market this operating system to the world without tablet device as its primary delivery platform. I think that will be the challenge for them in terms of separating the tablet focused way in which computers are to be used from traditional dell driven workplace(s) / at home laptops and pc’s.

Windows 8 is the primary flagship for Microsoft, its got billions of dollars riding on its success and fail so I personally don’t think this company can afford another Windows Vista moment.

I still think Steve Sinofsky has probably cut to much out in order to make the shipping dates when he probably should have pushed the dates back (screw the shareholders) a little more to give this OS more time in the creative oven.

I am however growing to like it more and more, I can see potential in how I could make a buck or two with it (despite the developer SDK story being a hodge podge of PR “how not to succeed” strategies).

Going forward I bleed metro; its really thin blood and made up of two primary colors and the blood cells are grid aligned…

I also came into work today inspired, that rarely happens after using something new from Microsoft! 🙂

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