Metro UI: Initial Thoughts

I’ve been digesting all the new information around Windows 8 and Metro over the past week. I’ve watched the BUILD Conference Channel 9 Videos, read the articles and docs on the Windows Dev Center and the Building Windows 8 blog. The best resource for your time on learning what Metro is all about from a design perspective is 8 traits of great Metro style apps.

The Metro Style interface is a totally new and original approach to UI. Microsoft put a lot of thought into the design of it, and they demonstrated this by providing background during the BUILD sessions on how they studied how users held and used slate devices, what areas of the screen where reachable by their thumbs, etc.

The concept of dedicating all the available screen space to content with no chrome makes perfect sense. It doesn’t makes sense for all applications, especially those rich in functionality. For example, Microsoft showed Photoshop and it’s many tool palettes and menus, and it was clear that you wouldn’t make a Metro Style Photoshop app. Metro makes sense for “consumery” type apps like casual games, productivity apps, and rich media apps; the same things you see on an iPad or Android tablet. This is one of the reasons that they need to support “classic” windows app, and they can’t make a clean break to the Metro Style UI.

One potential problem with the immersive content, and no chrome approach is the lack of discoverability to take actions on the content. Metro relies heavily on gestures that take place at the edges of the screen. For example to display the charm bar, you place your finger off to the right of the screen where there isn’t any content and touch isn’t recognized then swipe in towards the center of the screen. Another example is the application bar at the bottom where you have to swipe up to summon it. Is a user gonna know to do this? Will devices come with an in-your-face tutorial on these things when you first boot it up? There have been many studies that have proven if it’s out of site then users won’t discover it. For touch, there are only two gestures you should assume your users know, and that’s tap and swipe to scroll; everything else is power user territory.

There’s another issue around using a mouse in Metro. Microsoft made the statement that Metro is a natural fit for a mouse in addition to touch. I’ve been using the Developer Preview running in VMware, and using a mouse with Metro is very tedious. The level of indirection you have between the mouse and what happens on the screen makes the things that work well with touch feel like a large amount of effort. I actually resorted to using the windows 8 keyboard shortcuts. to activate the standard toolbars and menus because it was so painful. If the apps interaction is limited to clicks and/or keyboard input with no application bar, then the mouse could work, but that’s only gonna be a handful of apps.

The tiles interface for the home screen was very visually appealing in all the BUILD demos with nice typography, rich pictures, and pastel colors. This is great and demos well when Microsoft controls all the apps, but what happens when you have a whole community of app developers who have their own opinions on design and style building Metro apps. The app that doesn’t use a pastel color for their tile background, shows a poorly shot overexposed photo that the user took on their phone, uses an ugly icon, etc. There’s nothing from keeping people from doing this. Microsoft is aware of this and they emphasized many times in the BUILD sessions to use the templates they provide in Visual Studio 11. This is a problem on any platform, and it happens on iOS and Android, but the reason it’s a bigger issue for Metro is that it’s critical to have in place for the immersive experience. All you have is content. You don’t have standard chrome title bars and toolbars with a standard look and feel to make your app fit in. Content is everything, and if it’s poor, then it’ll stick out like a sore thumb.

It’s still early. Microsoft always previews things and gets them out early to users, so I’m sure there’ll be some tweaks. This is a big change for them, and the most recent thing as big as this has been there move into the game console space with XBox. Time will tell.