May 2013

Volume 28 Number 05

Don't Get Me Started - Do As I Say, Not As I Do

By David Platt | May 2013

David PlattI’d really hoped that I wouldn’t have to write this particular column. Last November (“Here We Go Again,” I expressed hope that the Microsoft Windows 8 UI guidelines would prevent geeks from throwing distracting random animations at users simply because they think it’s cool. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and the biggest offender is another part of Microsoft.

One of the biggest changes to the Windows 8 UI is the live tile. This allows a program to show its current state in its home screen tile even if the program isn’t currently running. When used properly, this can be a great idea. For example, a messenger program could show the number of messages awaiting the user’s attention, or an app for rabid boaters could show the current state of the ocean tide.

Unfortunately, when I installed Windows 8 on my ThinkPad, I saw no fewer than six live tiles clamoring for my attention: News, Finance, Sports, People, Bing and Travel. Between them they change about once per second, and each change features an animation specifically directed to grab my eye. The content itself doesn’t change that often—for example, the News tile rotates the same three headlines for an hour or so. It’s like a hyperactive golden retriever slobbering in my face: “You didn’t want me 15 seconds ago? How about now? Pick me, pretty, pretty please!” Microsoft’s own design guidelines for live tile updates ( say not to do this. Here’s the relevant portion, my emphasis added:

  • For personalized content, such as message counts or whose turn it is in a game, we recommend that you update the tile as the information becomes available, particularly if the user would notice that the tile content was lagging, incorrect, or missing.
  • For nonpersonalized content, such as weather updates, we recommend that the tile be updated no more than once every 30 minutes. This allows your tile to feel up-to-date without overwhelming your user.

So, what do you think app developers are going to do—dig down deep into the specs and do what Microsoft’s words say to do, or imitate what they see Microsoft’s programs are doing in front of their noses all day, every day? Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf School movement, says, “There are only three ways to educate a child: The first is by example. The second is by example. And the third is by example.” Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Actions speak louder than words.” And Mark Twain added, “But not nearly as often.” In the case of live tile updates, Twain was wrong.

I can turn off updates for a live tile, but then I get no content at all. There’s no setting for a polite, respectful update once in a while; it’s the fire hose or nothing. A better design would be to show the latest content when I return to the homepage, as a Web browser does. Better still would be for the news program to automatically track my preferences and select new articles for me based on the ones I click. That would’ve been fabulous. But, no—we’ve got animations in the toolkit, we have to employ them, whether they help our user or not. “Look and feel,” the designers say. “Isn’t it cool?” No, it isn’t. It’s distracting. It’s counterproductive. It’s juvenile. Follow your own guidelines, the ones written by grownups. The world will be a better place.

Will Microsoft now modify its Windows 8 apps to conform to its own rules? Or will Microsoft fall back on the argument-ending pronouncement used by every parent: “Because I’m the daddy, that’s why”?

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at