May 2013

Volume 28 Number 05

Editor's Note - Design Matters

By Michael Desmond | May 2013

Michael DesmondDavid Platt, in this month’s Don’t Get Me Started column, returns to a rant he’s made before in the pages of this magazine: that the compelling new visual capabilities of Windows 8 may inspire as much bad design in new applications as they do compelling design. Now Platt turns his ire on live tiles, noting that Microsoft’s own developers are guilty of breaking the published Microsoft design guidance about how often live tiles should update on the screen.

As a guy steeped in the practice of UI design, Platt saw this coming from a mile away. “Every time a new graphical environment arrives, users pay the price while designers relearn the basic principles that should be branded on their hearts: Users don’t care about your app for itself—they only care about their own problems and their own pleasures,” Platt presciently wrote in his November 2012 column (“Here We Go Again,”

This new graphical environment is different, however. When XAML was introduced back in 2006, it opened design opportunities for Microsoft developers writing Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) or Silverlight applications. But as Billy Hollis, a consultant at Next Version Systems and a design expert in the Microsoft development space, told me during an interview at the Visual Studio Live! conference in Las Vegas recently, the XAML design revolution never really took off.

“We thought a lot of people would [pursue design] in the XAML era, and almost no one did. You look at most XAML apps and they’re just kind of Windows Forms designs with pretty colors,” Hollis said. “I call them decorated apps. They’re not designed, they’re decorated.”

But the new Microsoft design language introduced with Windows 8 and Windows Runtime represents a far more strategic shift. Microsoft, Hollis said, is in a race with other developer ecosystems to get its community fully vested in the practice of design. It’s a race that Microsoft is late entering, but serious about winning. The problem, explained Hollis, is that changing developer priorities takes time.

“First of all, there’s a foundation you have to learn,” Hollis said. “You have to know certain principles. And then there’s a process shift you have to understand. It’s a discipline. And most developers are not going to do that. They got into this business to write code and that’s what they’re going to do.”

We’re seeing symptoms of this challenge as Microsoft aggressively pursues its new UX strategy. As Hollis noted, individuals and organizations can’t flip a switch and emerge with a mature appreciation of application design—it takes three or four years to master the discipline. In that regard, issues like overly helpful live tiles are an unsurprising outgrowth of an ecosystem in transition.

So how can Microsoft and its developers best move forward? Hollis urged devs to take note of the revolution they see unfolding on their phones and tablets, and to apply those lessons to their own practice. But most of all, he wants them to be bold.

“The biggest thing I’m trying to help them to understand is that they have to make a break with the past. That’s the hardest thing to accomplish,” he said.

Hollis said developers need to do two things to kick off the transition. One is to gain an appreciation for the importance of design, or at the very least to be willing to work with those who do. The second is to get emotional about the way their—and others’—software looks and acts.

“They need to feel emotionally unsatisfied if they end up with a modern app on Windows 8 that’s a kluged-up adaptation of what they had before,” Hollis said. “They need to feel some emotional rejection of that. That will fuel the rest of the process.”

Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.