Leaving aside the fact we’re not supposed to call it ‘Metro’ anymore, the radical user interface shift in Windows 8 has been praised and censured in equal measure. In a presentation at TechEd 2012 on the Windows 8 design language, designer Shane Morris offered up some reasons why you might want to give it a second chance.
It’s no secret that I’m not a massive fan of everything in the Windows 8 UI, and it still seems evident that it treats everything that’s not a touch-screen as a second-class citizen. However, Morris — a former Microsoft staffer and now a UI design professional at Automatic Studio — did a solid job of highlighting some of its benefits, as well as describing its roots in the Bauhaus school of design and noting how it reflects changes that begun in projects such as Encarta and Windows Media Center. Here are five potential benefits he picked out.
1. Words are easier to understand than pictures
Metro requires text for actions rather than icons. “There is not an icon for everything,” Morris said. “They say a picture tells a thousand words, but you’ll notice we don’t communicate with pictures.”
I’m on board with this. As we’ve noted before, icons are arbitrary. If the links you click on are text, it’s much easier to explain what their function is. (The one challenge? People need to learn to spell, but I’m in favour of that too.)
2. People already tap on everything
The touch-centric interface can seem weird if you’re in mouse/keyboard mode, but for a generation raised on touchscreen phones, tapping and swiping is what everyone does. “Today’s users are much more confident to just tap stuff,” Morris said. “Digital natives don’t need a metaphor — people will tap. We don’t have to spend so much time pre-communicating how to do this thing. Today’s users will just drag stuff and try stuff out.”
3. You don’t need to learn a new interface every time
To interact with Windows apps, you’ll often use the App Bar and Charms (side and top of the screen), rather than elements in the app itself. In consistency terms, that’s a good idea. “By having a consistent user interface and a persistent place for people to look for those standard features, our users don’t have to learn a new user interface for every application,” Morris noted. There’s a penalty: “The price we pay of course is discoverability.” But to be fair, most interfaces require learning arbitrary sequences for many tasks. There’s something mildly intuitive about pinching to zoom, but any touch gesture involving multiple fingers or tapping a particular unmarked area of the screen is something you will have to learn, whatever the OS.
4. The interface isn’t all-encompassing
OK, that’s not entirely true; on tablets running Windows RT, Windows 8 interface apps are the only choice. But on computers (which is still the main Windows market), we’ll keep running desktop apps — and in many cases, the newer versions of those apps will be better off sticking to their existing approach than changing. “The desktop UI and the ribbon and all those elements are not dead,” Morris said. “It’s really about finding the level between content consumption and content creation.”
5. Developers aren’t designers
Windows 8 demands that apps, for the most part, look similar; the easiest way to differentiate yourself is with large and glossy photographs. Morris suggested that this was a “deliberately rational and limited” approach which reflects the fact that development skills and design smarts don’t always go hand-in hand. “[Microsoft has] got a strong ecosystem of developers, not as strong an ecosystem of designers.” A fixed set of guidelines might make it hard to stand out, but it also means you won’t waste time on the world’s ugliest app.
Again, there’s a potential trade-off. “The price you pay for such a minimalist design language is that any one element you place on the page gets attention,” Morris said. “It will be easier for people to detect when something is a little bit off.” But there’s a solid logic in saying that an interface with fixed elements everyone uses makes sense: that’s the way graphical interfaces have worked for a long time. Changing the elements used doesn’t change the usefulness of the rule.
That’s Morris’ take, and I cans see some good logic there. What do you think?
Visit Lifehacker’s TechEd 2012 Newsroom for all the news from the show.
Disclosure: Angus Kidman is attending TechEd 2012 as a guest of Microsoft.