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Microsoft wins design battle, loses war

The Microsoft Zune

In 2006, Microsoft introduced the Zune, its ill-fated portable music player. But the Zune legacy lived on with a fresh approach on interface design that led to the launch of Metro, the interface now prevalent in everything Microsoft does, from its mobile efforts, to its flagship Windows operating system, to the Xbox, and even to the visual identity of the company.

At its core, this visual identity is based on the Swiss graphic style, which emphasizes typographic elements and clean, sparse graphic treatments, with an emphasis on reading. Their guidelines explain that the focus should not be on the interface (also known as the Chrome) but on the content or experience. But when they originally announced they would take this approach, some of the biggest supporters of the iPhone approach scoffed. John Gruber, at daring fireball, said:

Just about any new UI would be better than the existing Windows Mobile UI. But basing the new Windows Phone 7 UI on the Zune raises the question of why they think it’s going to fare any better than, well, the Zune.

Mike Elgan, in Computer World, saw the UI as dated:

So comparing the Zune UI to the iPod Touch UI isn’t like comparing AM radio to FM radio. It’s like comparing radio to television.

But somewhere along the way, something major happened. Microsoft’s view of a flater color palate, along with a higher emphasis on typography and a move away from showcasing one’s interface started gaining followers. The Metro UI, once reviled, started appearing more appealing to some people. In 2013, flat design, originally considered an over-simplification when Microsoft pursued it with its devices, started trending up, as renewed interest in typography and new approaches to presenting information on mobile devices had developers revisiting some older ideas.

Google Now Cards

And then, all of a sudden, Microsoft’s ideas on design were everywhere: Google, in its new products, started to adopt the spare typographic-centric approach, more recently with Google Now (The redesign of Gmail on tablets and mobile devices followed the same route and eventually); Other companies started removing interface elements and increasing whitespace, with an increased emphasis on the content; Color palettes went more neutral.

And pretty quickly, the outlandish ideas that Microsoft had pushed forward were not so outlandish anymore. When Android Jelly Bean was introduced in spring 2012, the UI went flatter, and Google’s guidelines for the OS’ iconography asked developers to develop a visual language that was “Neutral, flat, and simple.” When Blackberry released its new OS, its design was flat and heavy on typographic queues.

But there was one lone hold-out.

iOS7 Music interface

As one of the thought leaders in the mobile space, Apple could afford to do anything it wanted. Its legions of fans would generally follow the company in whatever direction it takes them, buying incremental guys as radical reinvention. But this week, at the WWDC, Apple showed a facet of itself that had not been seen in a long time: that of a company refining its offerings to match what the competition already had on the market.

And then, there was the interface, leading blogger Om Malik to quip on Twitter:

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Kind of.

    The part that Microsoft got right those years ago was the fact that text conveys complex concepts to people better than pictograms or icons. There’s a limit to how much information a simplified stick-figure can convey. Inevitably, when people become accustomed to an arrangement of icons, it’s because they fall into the habit of recalling the text that these icons represent, and then infer the meaning from the text, rather than the icons. It explains why folks looking for the ladies’ room look for the figure with the triangle that represents the wide skirt (or the wide something, I dare not say) when women don’t wear wide skirts any more.

    What’s crazy is that Microsoft can’t explain why it got this right. This could be because the people who led the design team for Zune and the earlier incarnation of the “Metro” design aesthetic, Windows Media Center (note: not Windows Media Player), are no longer with the company. Windows 8 and Windows Phone 7/8 are clear indications that Microsoft is certain something was right about the Zune design concept, but they’re too proud to go and ask the people who’ve left the company just what that is.

    I’ve gone so far as to quiz Microsoft folks as to whether they can corroborate my point of view that Media Center was the best designed Windows app Microsoft ever made. They literally don’t know, and watching them fumble for the excuse is hilarious. “Well, as you can see, everything’s right there, and it’s so simple. And it’s a unified, uniform, uni-… all-in-one experience. And it says everything. And a uniform experience is what people want to experience that gives them a better experience.”

    They really don’t know. It’s the thing that makes the Zune design so right and the Windows 8 Start Screen design so wrong: In Zune and WMC, category and function have their own axes. Category is up and down, function is left and right. Both are one-dimensional concepts, and both dimensions fit together nicely.

    In Windows 8, functions are square, meaning they have two axes which are indistinguishable from one another. Something you want to do can be to the left of where you are or down from where you are. And which one that is not only has no meaning, but could change when you install something new, so it has no purpose either.

    This is the design flaw in Windows 8. That’s it. Had Microsoft not implemented it this way, whether Microsoft won the design war would not be a debate but an axiom.

    SF “Thinks He’s Been Called an Axiom By Someone, But It Could Have Just Sounded Like That” 3

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