Thoughts on Windows 8

Windows 8 Start screen

When Windows 8 was demoed in detail on BUILD conference, it soon became the topic of the day. All of a sudden, people start talking about how cool the “Metro style” UI is and how it could become a game changer for tablet market.

I spent a few hours watching all the keynotes and some talks about “Metro style” UI in the BUILD conference. Microsoft has done an incredible job to show the potential of both Metro UI and Windows. This certainly resolved some concerns about Microsoft’s tablet strategy. However, after I installed and played the Developer Preview in a virtual machine for some time, I found that Windows 8 raised even more doubt than answers.

(I don’t really know the reason why “Metro” is always followed by “style”. I guess this shows some reservation of Microsoft about Metro UI. Here I call it “Metro” just for the convenience of my discussion.)

Metro redesigned and improved touch UI

The live tiles of Metro works like nothing else. It’s direct. It’s informative and it’s beautiful. There are no piles of windows. There are no arrays of static icons (except for the legacy applications). There are no menus. Basically, Metro abandoned everything from the WIMP era.

On the other hand, designed from ground up, Metro incorporated many effective new techniques for touch-screen interfaces.

  • Pinching out for overview, which is similar to Zooming UI, would make high-level content arrangement more direct (without entering settings or editing mode).
  • Selecting, moving and removing are easier. All these operations would work just as what you would think by intuition. Tiles are like boxes, you could drag them around without explicitly push any button.
  • Holding a tile with one finger while panning around the start screen using another finger to move the tile is the most clever multi-touch interaction technique I’ve ever seen for a long time. This is the potential of multi-touch and I can’t imagine how many more we will get in the coming years.
  • Edges are claimed as important screen real estate, which brings back a important advantage of the desktop environment we all familiar with: Mouse cursor could position to targets on corners and edges quickly and accurately (by Fitts’s Law). Earlier touch interfaces didn’t make full use of screen edges until we gradually realized that swiping from screen edges could achieve a similar result. We’ve seen this gesture to activate features such as Android top-down menu, webOS cards view and BB Playbook App switcher. Windows 8 takes it one step further by reserving left and right edges for system features (go-back and Charms) and up and down edges for app features (show App Bar), which essentially makes it a new paradigm that others could follow.
Edges reveal off-screen UI
From Jensen Harris’s presentation: 8 traits of great Metro style apps

In summary, the Metro UI of Windows 8 is a huge expansion based on the original Metro UI of Windows Phone 7 and it’s built on top of the practice of many other existing touch interfaces. Windows 8 Metro introduced many new interaction techniques to remedy the weakness of iPhone, Android and other touch interfaces, which will help to establish a more complete set of interface paradigms for future touch-based systems.

Although some of the significant issues are still waiting for solutions, such as undo/redo and lack of discoverability, Microsoft did a pretty good job making great interfaces this time as a latecomer to the game. The user experience competition becomes more and more intense, which we, as customers, would surely love to see.

As a researcher interested in UX, I welcome Metro UI’s leap forward to better touch UI. However, considering Windows 8 as a whole, I should pointed out some of my concerns.

“No compromise” is a compromise in itself

People love features. People love cool ideas. People love Sci-Fi style devices that consolidate many amazing functions into one single magical box. But sadly they don’t always work well in the real world.

Moto Atrix is an awesome super phone that could be docked into a laptop, which sounds like a perfect combination. But it turns out a phone-transformed laptop is far from beating a cheaper netbook, which makes Atrix not that much different from any other Android phone.

Windows 8 for all PCs
Also from Jensen Harris’s presentation: 8 traits of great Metro style apps

The central issue is that, as I’ve mentioned a few times: technologies diverge, not converge. When you want to do multiple things well at the same time, you’ll always have to make trade-offs between them. This makes products and services generally more and more specialized. These basic understanding of how world works makes Microsoft’s “no-compromise” promise just an illusion.

I’m worrying that, Microsoft seems to be afraid of making commitment to tablets. “Windows reimagined” becomes a weird two-faced monster which is trying to support two instruction set architectures, both touch and pointing input, various screen resolution, as well as potentially thousands of hardware with different form factors range from small tablet to wall-sized flat display.

Is Windows 8 really capable of optimizing everything with its current design? Although I agree that Metro UI is highly elastic with its grid-based design (grid is one of most common element of modern design), I can’t imagine that tweaking around the processes and file systems within the desktop mode of a tablet would be a good idea.

Tablets and desktops are inherently different

The Metro principle is “touch first” while the desktop environment is designed for keyboard and mouse. You can’t just put them together to make a system that is good for both types of input. It can’t be as simple as that.

When people are using tablet or desktop computer, the contexts are different so users have very difference expectations. Tablet users usually need just a handful of simple features such as tweeting or checking emails. But the experience needs to be absolutely “fast and fluid”. Desktop users want to get things done. But their task is often complicated and requiring multitasking with several heavy-duty applications.

Desktop environment and touch don’t work well together. This is proved by our disappointment from “old-style” tablet PCs and touchscreen PCs with Windows 7 on them. People don’t want to be bothered by partitions and drive-letters or even folder names. Just think about how frustrated a tablet user would be when he has to open Task Manager to see what’s going on with the system.

Metro and keyboard/mouse won’t work well together either. Why would anyone want a “touch first” version of flight tracker if a full featured web app is already available in any browser you choose? You feel like to touch the interface, but you can’t. Then you want to make things work like what you normally do with your PC. But you won’t be able to open two Word documents for reviewing side by side. (But maybe you could “Snap” a 400px-wide Excel next to your PowerPoint window with touch-based big buttons that auto-hide it self to make the interface more “chromeless.”) Sure you’ll miss the old Windows desktop.

Snap mode of Metro style
Snap Mode

When the demonstrator taped on a small Excel tile, the Metro UI dissolved and desktop Excel pop out. At the moment, I was shocked and very confused. With the two completely different UI on the same device, user will constantly face dilemmatic problems like “am I going to buy an antivirus software for my tablet?” “should I use the Facebook app or the Facebook website?”(Which is the real Facebook?) or something even more puzzling like “how could I insert my Endnote bibliographies into a Metro style email client?”

Eventually you’ll either give up on Metro or you’ll never want to enter the desktop mode. You can’t live with a “schizophrenic” device for a very long time without becoming mad yourself.

It’s really awkward to watch a Microsoft designer killing a non-responding app inside the desktop UI while he is evangelizing their “Metro style Design Principles”, which including two bullet points saying “Do more with less” and “Win as one”. I wish he really believes what he was talking about (or maybe he shouldn’t).

Metro style Design Principles
From Samuel Moreau’s presentation: Designing Metro style: principles and personality

Metro style is too stylish as a framework

When I showed to one of my friends the Metro style Start screen with colorful moving tiles, his first comment is: “It looks like advertisements took over your computer.”

It was embarrassing, isn’t it?

It makes me wonder that: What pops up into your vision when thinking about “Metro style”? Colorful moving tiles? Horizontal scrolling? 120px left margin? Big 42pt Segoe headings? Huge full-screen background pictures?

What about iOS style? Rounded square icons, glowing buttons, left pane on iPad apps, or Helvetica Neue font? What about Android?

I believe Metro style is the most distinct one. No other OS design guideline is as specific as the Metro style. In fact, Metro style is so distinct that most Metro apps looks virtually the same. It will look rather bizarre if you want to show some personality in your app within the framework of Metro style. In other words: Metro style could be a big obstacle to the personalities of apps.

There was actually a session called “Designing Metro style: principles and personality” in the BUILD conference. But curiously, the word “personality” is never used throughout the talk except for the title and final slides.

This sounds like an overstatement. But I just did a bit comparative study to show that it’s not:

Apps on different platforms

To comply with the restrictions of Metro style, these apps have to compromise their own style of interface design. Frankly speaking, there’re two ways to prevent this: 1) Completely ignore Metro style. 2) Apply Metro style to all apps on other platforms.

The former one would be a great choice if you’ve developing a game such as Angry Birds. But for Windows 8, you’re still required to make a narrow version of your game in “Snaped” view, which could be quite challenging for a hardcore game like Need for Speed. But for regular apps, prepare to redesign your app with Metro style and struggle between it and your own style.

On the other hand, Metro style haven’t really proved its capability. When Apple demoed the iWork suite and iMovie on the iPad, everyone wowed. Whether people will actually work with an iPad is secondary. What matters is that these big apps showed the developers the potential of what you can do with tablet-sized touchscreen, they proved that there’s enough spaces in its interface platform for apps to shine, and they set the reference standard terribly high. Microsoft probably should do the same with Word, Excel and PowerPoint to show that they work well with Metro style UI, which I highly doubt.

Metro style is stylish. However, the sad truth about being too stylish is that style is not timeless. Styles emerge and decay, while the underlying principles remain and develop. That’s why “good design is as little design as possible”.

IKEA model room vs. Smart-ologic Corian® living
Left: IKEA model room, photo by anshu_si. Right: Smart-ologic Corian® living by DuPont.

A stylish and futuristic living room may looks much cooler with vibrant colors and kinetic lighting. Entirely new designs could make your everyday life exciting. But when we put your everyday routine in this context, we would find ourselves alienated by its style. We can’t find furniture which perfectly matches this style. It will become very strange for any ordinary object even to exist in this room, including ourselves when we’re bored with this design.

This could be applied to Metro style. It is futuristic but dictatorial. It is intuitive but unnatural. It could be a perfect system on its own. However, it’s so stylish that other styles are not welcomed or even not tolerable.

On the opposite, a good platform or framework should be simple and non-intrusive, like a well-designed living room. Even though we should still try to make the furniture and decorations match each other, it wouldn’t be inappropriate for anyone to place an extra chair in the room. It wouldn’t be weird for anyone to change the colors of curtains or sofas. Because the design is flexible and tolerant. It can adjust itself to the new changes and makes everything work together.

Similarly, the design of operating system should welcome changes and diversity. Consistency is important, just like our language. But every app that is running on the system should be given a chance to fully express themselves with their own ideas.

Only with diversified styles of software, we could explore more possibilities in the universe of interfaces. In this way, new design or technique could be invented and developed. The platform, in turn, could constantly renew itself and evolve.

In this way, the entire system could be truly alive.

For more on standard and diversity, please read:

Update: I just came across this video from IKEA, which perfectly illustrate how simple things could be more flexible and smarter.