New OS makes good use of “Mobile-first” interaction design
As people I work with will tell you, I’ve always made it a point to use PCs over Macs to do design work (yes, Adobe software works on Windows) so you’d think I would have had a Windows phone for a while now. Unfortunately, like most Information Architects, I’m also a perfectionist, so it has taken me forever to find a non-Apple phone I like. But given that my previous phone still had something called a “physical keyboard,” I finally made the plunge with Windows 8 Mobile. Apparently I'm not alone, since sales have been surging. So let my procrastination be your good fortune as I provide to you some thoughts on why I like it thus far.
I opted for the Windows Phone 8x made by “Quietly Brilliant” HTC, which runs on 4G LTE (available on the three largest carriers at oddly varying prices – BestBuy was giving them away in-store for $1 on Black Friday if you have AT&T, which, I do not). The 8X is speedy with a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, has an HD Gorilla Glass display with 1280x720-pixel res, and front and back cameras (2 megapixel front, 8 back). At just 4.6oz, I liked the weight and form-factor better than the Nokia Lumia 920 (although it may seem “heavy” if you use a 4oz iPhone 5). It has 16GB of internal storage, and 7GB of free Microsoft Skydrive storage. Ok you get the idea.
Windows 8 Usability Has Already Recieved Some Bad Press
A notable feature of Windows 8 is that mobile, tablet and desktop share the same "common core" software, theoretically standardizing the user experience across platforms. Last week Jacob Nielsen came out with a critique of Windows 8 UX, calling it “weak on tablets, terrible for PCs.” Actually, he called it “a monster that terrorizes poor office workers and strangles their productivity,” but he is prone to understatement. (As a side note, it looks like while W8 sales are down but way too early to know why). I haven’t used 8 extensively enough on either of those platforms to have an opinion as to its monstrosity, but most of the issues cited – flat style that lacks discoverability, low information density, swipe ambiguity— do appear to be less apparent on mobile.
Mobile UI Seems to Avoid Most Pitfalls
As you know if you were an early adopter of the Windows 7 phone (which you weren’t), the Windows 8 mobile OS takes its core functions from the old Metro UI (apparently Microsoft is now saying the 7.8 update is coming to WP7.5 devices early 2013). Some of the key features are the Live Tiles (the iconic “grid” look) on the Start screen that you can customize, invitation-only Rooms for sharing info, Photo integration with SkyDrive, and Games with Xbox. Overall, I have found that the interface is intuitive. Some early reactions:
- Live Tiles emphasize Content-First principles. A recent movement in experience design has been the push to lead with content over navigation. As opposed to app icons in iOS, Microsoft’s Live Tiles surface the latest content under each application. This doesn’t work consistently yet, but the overall idea is right. Nielsen may have a point about desktop information density, but for mobile it seems appropriate.
- Customizable (but not too customizable) look and feel. Microsoft does a good job of allowing users to customize the interface, but within reasonable design boundaries that preserve the brand. For example, I liked that you can change the Smart Tile color to one of 20 or so in a pre-determined pallet. Also most Live Tiles can be re-sized to one of three pre-set dimensions.
- Touch precision. As mentioned, I had gotten somewhat spoiled by having a physical keyboard on my previous phone, so I was worried about this, but the touch precision on the keyboard is quite strong, and Windows incorporates a powerful auto-fill feature.
- Accessibility. Options will vary by device, but the OS supports functionality for large text size, screen magnification, and high contrast. There are also some cool “Attentive Phone” features.
Can Mobile Design be Too “Clean?”
There were some key features found on most phones that have been stripped out of the Windows 8 UI that seem to be sorely missed by users. A good way to gauge this is to check out which early custom apps are most popular. For example, the Connectivity Shortcuts app is at the top of the list with Twitter in terms of popularity, and all it does is allow users to see if their Wifi is on (along with Bluetooth and Data Plan). What’s more, the design is pretty bad (the icon on the free version doesn’t even match the grid dimensions of the Start screen). Other popular apps are ones that display the battery level (which ironically, one reviewer points out, drains the battery) and, get this, a clock. Some of these things are visible at the top of the screen in the native OS, but you have to swipe down to find them, and they disappear when you leave the Start screen.
Microsoft Really Wants You to Use Bing
As a previous Android user, it is interesting to note that the physical buttons on the phone have switched from four to three – removing the “Menu” button. If I were to remove one, I’m not sure this would have been my first choice, since it now requires more swiping to bring up an advanced features menu on any given screen. The Search button seems less critical by comparison, but obviously if Android has a Google search button, then Microsoft needs a button for Bing. You will use Bing whether you want to use Bing or not.
Wait for Windows 9?
Nielsen’s take on Windows 8 for tablet and PC is that it’s the next Vista – i.e. we should wait for the next Windows 7, which presumably will be Windows 9. Whether you think that should also extend to mobile or not, Windows 8 is a good case study for larger questions about Universal Design – is it actually best to start with Mobile First and build up from there? Or do you risk losing the benefits of larger mediums through oversimplification? These are options we’re used to weighing as designers when it comes to building a Responsive website or mobile app, but things get substantially less clear cut for an entire operating system.
As for me, I’m glad I finally got around to being an early adopter.