LEVI/FIGUEIRA

Is Microsoft Metro Undesigned?

I recently tweeted a couple of thoughts from my experience with Windows 8. Though I’ve been a Mac fan since the early 90s–particularly when I started working with music/production software (e.g. Pro Tools)–I only bought my first Mac in 2008. Before then, and since I started playing with computers in 1991-92, I always lived in a Microsoft world (first MS-DOS and then Windows) with quite a few incursions into the Linux world since 1998. I was involved professionally in Windows/Linux sysadmin for quite a few years and, As such, I understand and know a LOT about the Microsoft ecosystem. For those reasons, I simply take labels of “fanboyism” regarding my love for Apple products as your typical Internet “trolling”.

Windows 8

I’m not going to get into a full review of Windows 8. There are plenty of those online and you can test it for yourself. What I’m writing about is the Metro experience that Microsoft is bringing to the desktop now. When I first saw the Metro UI a few months ago, my first reaction was: “WOW! Huge improvement and unexpected coming from Redmond!”. My second thoughts were mostly concerning “flat colored boxes”, “no depth” and “lack of contrast”. Those thoughts were based on screenshots, videos and brief contact at computers stores. I believed Microsoft was breaking with the old and that was a good thing but upon further reading, I found that, while the architecture is changing, it wasn’t as dramatically as I had initially hoped. Fast forward to a few days ago, I installed Windows 8 Consumer Preview on my Macbook Pro (MBP4,1), via Bootcamp. I had Windows 7 installed on it but it was giving me some weird issues/crashes with the Java VM which was keeping me from “working” on my hobby. I then proceeded to spend a few hours learning and using the system and interface, and my initial (first and second) thoughts have been confirmed: Metro is not UI design, it’s lack thereof.

Undesign

Design is about making choices and Metro makes none. Of course excessive skeuomorphism is bad but it is design because it makes a statement and presents no choice. What Microsoft shows in “balls” to make changes it’s lacking in making choices. The lack of depth and uniqueness of the Metro interface reminds me of design work when empty of inspiration and avoiding a carbon copy from another design: flat geometric objects with simple colors. You may criticise Apple’s, at times excessive, skeuomorphism or even Google’s “engineered look”, but those are choices. With Metro, Microsoft is undesigning the UI because they’re seemingly out of ideas and refusing to make choices. They’re trying so hard to emulate Apple’s success that they’re forgetting that it comes not from Apple’s famed minimalism (skeuomorphism is almost the exact opposite) but from Apple’s passion for simplicity! That simplicity comes from the ability to make hard choices, breaking with the old and–key factor–communicating it well. Microsoft is missing the point and trying to emulate everything else about Apple. Simplicity is about choosing carefully what to leave out and making what’s left in as clear and defined as possible. Apple simplifies features but enriches the interface. Microsoft is enriching the features and simplifying the interface. The resulting product of Microsoft’s approach is one with a definitely clean interface (huuuge improvement) but one that fails to strike any emotional connection, is hard to navigate and lacks any sort of clear visual distinction between features/applications.

Good luck

I really hope Microsoft pulls through. They don’t need better designers, but I somehow feel none of them have any decision power. A designer with no decision power is not only a frustrated designer but also a fundamentally worthless one. Microsoft needs designers with the ability and power to make hard decisions and create emotional experiences, not just functional ones. They have to change a lot about their corporate culture. I can only wish them (and, ultimately all of us) good luck!

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