A new Window to Windows?

“It is a risk to do something new, but its also a risk to sit where we are.”
Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft

Fast Company had an interesting article “Microsoft Wipes the Slate” and the UX team that developed the new metaphors for Window 8 in general and Windows Mobile in particular. With the introduction of the new Microsoft Tablet with the operating system and user experience has received a lot of press, much of it positive from communities that are not usually positive about anything Microsoft produces.

The company just redesigned its corporate identity to signal its transformation as something other than the historical engineering product based culture that brought such unmemorable products such as Zune, Microsoft Watch, Windows 7 and many other mediocre implementations. Microsoft’s long walk in the experience design desert and their recent stop at a more progressive XD/UX/UI oasis provides an interesting respite that either will point to greener pastures or simply be an anomoly to a company that has lost over half of its market value in ten years.

Windows 8 and the tip of the deployment spear of Windows Mobile has shown that genuinely re-imagining the experience design, user experience and corresponding user interface may leapfrog over Apple’s entrenched market perception as providing the best overall integrated digital ecosystem experience with Mountain Lion and iOS6. Windows 8 is built on what is called inside the company as “Metro” that espouses an “authentically digital” experience with a stripped down, flat user interface using tried and true user interface language of self-assured typography, color and screen compositions that support a focused user experience model to interact with digital content.
Sam Moreau, Director of User Experience for Microsoft called this effort “ . . .  the ultimate design challenge.” The use of tiles (or Skittles in Microsoft parlance) becomes a gateway to a diverse ecosystem of digital gateway content housed in a clean user interface. Moreau looked to the work of the Bauhaus, DeStijl, Swiss School and pre-WWII modernism to the most elemental forms and functions became their gateway to creating something very different than what Microsoft is associated with – mediocrity, function rich but experience poor products, services and content.

When the Microsoft Store opened to much fanfare where I live and was only 150 feet from the Apple Store, I was greeted by a self-assured space housing a cacophony of different OEM hardware that run Microsoft software. When I approached an HTC phone loaded with new windows mobile, the form factor of the phone with its large surface coupled with interacting with Metro was a pleasant experience. A Microsoft sales person approached and he informed me that Microsoft was providing integrated start-up experiences when users bought different OEM products. This included creating consistency in hardware form factors so certain buttons would always be in the same place regardless of manufacturer. He also discussed that the way products turn on and access functions would become more harmonized so users would associate the experience across the different OEM products.

Upon hearing this bit of news, I was both pleasantly surprised, and a bit glad that Microsoft was starting to understand the art of integrated merchandizing and product development (albeit 25 years later than it should have). Customers now expect integrated experiences that are packaged in a unified envelope. This is an extension of what is referred to as the Starbucks effect, where they transformed a simple product called a cup of coffee and created a larger narrative through unified environments, services, associations and expressions into a new experience that was priced at a premium. Microsoft, taking its cue from Apple and increased expectations of users in general stated that “[Microsoft} is placing an emphasis on design, because the dollars sit there. They're looking at Apple's market cap.

What is interesting is that Metro is questioning Apple’s current skeuomorphistic library of leather, glossy reflections, wood book shelves and drop shadows to imply three dimensional pages and as markers to past objects. Moreau calls these details ” . . . useless distraction . . .”. Metro has a unified syntactic symbology for all functions and is starting to migrate to other Microsoft products like XBox.

This points to a much larger trend of new technologies that are creating a much richer internet.  The world of gaming is impacting wider digital development of business systems through integration of game theory, multi-user environments, and social behaviors are driving new types of feature, functions and digital vessels to deliver these behaviors. The rise of data driven content, animation & responsive objects, sensors, mash-ups, haptics, gestures, and adaptable digital objects through augmented reality platforms. These trends have put stress on over ten years of user interface and user experience assumptions of the structure of what constitutes a web page, buttons, iconography, and navigation principles. The WIMP interface (windows, icons, mouse and pointer) that was developed at Xerox Parc and refined by Apple and other computer hardware and software manufacturers is becoming supplanted by new ways to search and interact with digital content.

Pattie Maes and the MIT Media Lab Fluid Interfaces Group is one example where they are exploring emerging technologies and behaviors to create new topologies, typologies and taxonomies for XD/UX/UI :

“Why do we still use a keyboard and mouse to interact with digital information? This mode of human-computer interaction, invented more than 40 years ago, severely constrains our ability to access and interact naturally with digital content. Computer systems lack the contextual knowledge to offer relevant information when and where we need it. Further, traditional screen-based interfaces divert our attention in mobile and social situations. They are designed for a single user, and not well suited to accommodate collaborative activities.”

New theoretical constructs are being proposed and pure research explorations into these concepts and technologies are producing new types of digital experiences where the collective memory of data interactions and actual user behavior modifies digital experiences on the fly creating user experiences that do not rely on static forms, lists of options, pointing, and pressing. It is still too soon to know how these explorations will impact mainstream implementations of digital platforms, but we are already seeing bits and pieces of changes and a clustering of trends around more common user interface elements.

Based on my experience in interacting with Microsoft personnel, design is still an optional add on that emphasizes downstream expressions, rather than the important upstream corporate ethos and values informed by design that drive behaviors and skills for great outcomes. But at least Microsoft is willing to consider the issue of design once again and not cling to outdated historical precedent. After many years of not embracing the internet, Microsoft through its release of Silverlight and Surface applications and platforms is providing the company with a second chance at user experience relevancy. The acceptance of Windows 8 and of their mobile platforms using Metro’s principles will be interesting evidence if the installed user base is willing to accept these principles.

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  1. An Update : I attended Chicago Ideas Week and Walt Mossberg discussed Microsoft’s imminent release of their new tablet and that he believes the company is embracing Apple’s model of controlling both software and hardware platforms for integrated experiences. He calls this the post-pc age of the internet becoming a utility that will slowly not be referred to with as much unique appeal and essentially turn into the equivalent of the power grid.

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