Shut Up About Beautiful, I Want Useful

Google says its ongoing redesign is aimed at producing a “simpler, more beautiful” Google. Microsoft proclaims that its Metro interface is “beautiful and immersive”. Apple constantly boasts of its design simplicity and the importance of being “beautiful” and “magical”. You know what? I’m sick of hearing it. I don’t care how the damn product looks as long as it’s useful.

Picture by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

I wasn’t thrilled at some of Google’s Plus-driven design changes last year, and I’m well and truly over seeing that “simpler, more beautiful” phrase in its announcements. Most of what I look at in Google is text. Endlessly messing with its rendering doesn’t improve things much for me. Sure, I’d rather have my current screen than an old mono screen PC with fixed-width fonts. But that doesn’t mean I never got anything done on such a green-screened beast.

I’ve really been thinking about this after spending more and more time playing with Metro, the new interface that is sprouting on Windows 8 after a subdued debut of sorts on Windows Phone 7. Microsoft is so enamoured of Metro that it is also going to embed it in the mainstream Windows interface, not just the new class of Metro apps. It’s a look we’re seeing everywhere: big blocks of solid colour and white space galore, icons everywhere (with explanatory text invisible or relegated), customisation options reduced, and chrome (the edges of windows) removed. It’s a stark minimal look I’d quite like in my lounge room, but I don’t have the same expectations of my furniture as of my computer.

On Windows in particular, I find this shift troubling for three reasons. Firstly, it means that even though we’re now on the second big public testing round for Windows 8 in the form of the Release Preview, that revamped interface still hasn’t been made public. That makes the odds of a buggy Windows 8 release — think Vista rather than Windows 7 — a little higher. (And that’s without considering the counter-reaction we’re bound to see from less savvy existing users with locked-in habits, but that is an issue that comes up every time anything changes computer-wise.)

Secondly, it’s delusional thinking to presume we’ve arrived at some objective standard of beauty that will last. Microsoft might describe Aero as “cheesy and dated” now, but when it was introduced, I knew plenty of people who were stressing because their machines weren’t powerful enough to display the full interface with its transparent views and general fanciness. It was seen as stunning-looking at the time, and anyone in Microsoft who called it “cheesey” would have been reprimanded soundly.

Tastes change, and they will inevitably change again. In a decade, Metro will be deemed dated and ugly. That’s the nature of operating systems, and of consumer goods generally.

The important difference with Metro (and the reason I’m unhappy about it about from the boring repetition of the word “beautiful”) is that the aesthetic changes mess with the product in a rather more fundamental way. Aero changed the appearance of dialog boxes and menus, but it didn’t get rid of them. Metro, in many cases, does. Despite Microsoft’s protestations, virtually every change in Metro is designed to make Windows more functional with touch screens. Mouse comes a poor second, and the keyboard comes a very distant third. Even obviously useful functions like search have been buried with very little justification.

Those changes might increase Windows’ tablet share, but they won’t make life better at the keyboard. That’s where I spend most of my time, and I’d much rather see better keyboard shortcuts embedded than all this effort poured into designing animated tiles on a Metro start screen I’ll largely be avoiding. On current indications, I’ll have to rely on lots of third-party software to make that happen, and Microsoft apparently doesn’t want to make life easy for that to be created.

Of course, no design decision is perfect for everyone. One aspect of Metro (and of the newer approach to Mac apps) I do like is the emphasis on full-screen apps, since I’ve always worked maximised. But that’s not going to so easily grab people who like multiple monitors, or who litter their single large screen with multiple apps. It’s very hard to please everyone, but it’s dangerously easy to please no-one.

Simplicity isn’t everything

On reflection, a big part of my objection to the current aesthetic approach for me is the underlying assumption: that a simpler product is automatically a better product. There’s no doubt that a simpler piece of software can be easier to learn. But it can also easily lead to a dangerous attitude: that if it’s too tough to do, we shouldn’t bother trying it. That’s no way to run your life, and it’s not a good philosophy for designing software.

Some tasks are complicated. Some jobs are hard. And some pieces of software require effort to learn. That’s reality. A world in which we assume that anything difficult is to be avoided is not a world that’s ever going to advance.

Annoyance doesn’t equal abandonment. I use Google constantly. I use Apple products occasionally (including iTunes, unarguably Cupertino’s ugliest production both aesthetically and functionally). I’ll inevitably end up using Windows 8, even if I avoid Metro and stick with older desktop apps which perform functions I actually do find useful. The emphasis on simplistic design won’t change that. But I won’t be able to stop wondering what innovations we’ve missed out on because the focus was so narrow.

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