When you think about simple and elegantly designed technology, a particular “fruit” company
may come to mind. Simple and elegant are not adjectives normally associated with Microsoft. But that is changing.
"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler" — Albert Einstein
A few years ago, the chaps at Redmond got serious about design. It started with the development of the Windows 7 operating system, it is now a part of the Xbox, and it is quickly becoming the most talked about feature in the upcoming release of Microsoft’s flagship product, Windows 8.
"It" is Metro.
But Metro is more than the name given to the user interface design that will soon permeate all Microsoft’s
platforms. It is a new way of doing things. With a lineage that can be traced back to the Zune digital music player, Microsoft's Encarta, and Windows Media Center interface, Metro has brought clarity to the way Microsoft approaches all of its consumer offerings. While there’s no whiteboard somewhere with the original Metro design, the philosophy began to take shape when Microsoft published a style guide
in 2010 for Windows Phone 7 that would set the foundation for the new Metro ethos.
The significance of Metro cannot be understated. These new design principles didn’t originate from a CEO dictate, but from a grass roots level. Creating an environment that allowed Metro to be developed in this manner from within an organization the size of Microsoft is impressive to say the least.
Metro Design Principles
There a few core concepts or guiding principles of the Metro design language that contribute to the look and feel of the whole system, as well as the layout and frequency of elements used within the interface.
Metro takes its design cues from way-finding graphics used in transportation signs found in the Seattle area where Microsoft is headquartered. Metro is based on the design principles of classic Swiss graphic design that places emphasis on good typography with large text that catches the eye. The goal is to get people to tasks quickly and to present content as plainly as possible. Clarity and readability are crucial to the new interface, a single design language defined by reductionism, typography, and unadorned shapes and colors.
Type is beautiful. Not only is it attractive to the eye, but it can also be functional. The right balance of weight and positioning can create a visual hierarchy that leads to a more intuitive user experience. Typography is the new iconography.
Motion is what brings the interface to life. Transitions are just as important as graphical design. By developing a consistent set of motions or animations, a system is created that provides context for usability, extra dimension, and depth and improves the perceived performance of the whole interface.
Content not Chrome
Content not “chrome” is one of the more unique principles of Metro. By removing all notions of extra chrome (borders and decoration) in the UI, the content becomes the main focus. For Microsoft’s designers, chrome is a barrier between the user and the data they are looking for. Instead of tapping a button to access a weather app, the Windows 8 Metro UI provides a flat square that actually displays the current weather — especially relevant with smaller screens and gesture-based interactions.
Honesty refers to the use of digital skeuomorphs
in which computer interfaces resemble objects that exist in the real world like pictures of buttons that appear to move up and down, files and folders that look like actual files. What Microsoft refers to as “authentically digital”. Additionally, you won’t see icons or other objects in Metro with glassy reflections and drop shadows.
Collaboration and Adoption
This new Metro ethos is reflected not only in the tangible, but the intangible — things that maybe aren’t readily apparent when present, but noticeable when absent. Intense collaboration exists at Microsoft not just within design groups, but with engineers and developers — an organically-grown movement across different divisions of the company with the realization that they wanted to be better. They are sweating the details that matter to consumers today.
The challenge for Microsoft going forward will be bridging the operating system divide between touch devices
and traditional computers. The simple and intuitive navigation system that works so well with mobile and tablet devices so far has not been received well with reviewers of the Windows 8 beta and consumer preview versions. While many feel Metro provides a better experience, users may choose to skip this iteration and revert to Windows 7 as many did with Windows Vista.
It's clear to many observers that Microsoft has upped its game with Metro and they have Apple and Google squarely in their crosshairs. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently said that, "Microsoft is betting the farm on Windows 8 . . . it is the biggest thing since Windows 95 . . . and the most important."
If Ballmer is right, Metro may be the defining experience across e-readers, phones, tablets, computers, and televisions.