Windows 8 Pain and the Goodness of Print Design

Here is a design related post for a change. Windows 8, with it’s “Modern” (“Metro”) user interface is being hotly discussed. Fault is being found in causing pain and frustration to users who have to relearn basic interactions. Such fault-finding is dismissed by others as “old thinking”. At the same time, a relevant 2011 piece by Mike Kruzeniski, who had a hand in the creation of the Windows 8 UX, is circulated.

Here are some thoughts on the topic.

These thoughts are incomplete for sure, as they are short and don’t address:

  • the non-modern/metro-gripes voiced against win8,
  • the roots of new canonical UI language elements found in win8,
  • topics around user expectation management and context setting that must be part of UI discussion today.

…and so on, but here goes.

 

The current Windows 8 debate, in the design community and its surroundings, highlights the frustration that users experience when forced to use a new UI. This frustration leads some to judge that Windows 8 is bad. This is justifiable from a perspective of pain minimization. However, there also is a perspective that the abandoning of old desktop conventions that still permeate the other available platforms, is valuable.

Is it valuable enough to justify the price of user frustration  ?

Similar frustrations happen on other platforms too – they are not exclusive to Windows 8, although they get more attention here since Microsoft has always stood for backwards compatibility and continuity. Examples on other platforms are the problems that casual users experience around understanding cloud syncing, backup status, app store purchase confirmation -portrayed as simple, while complex in nature -, the various zoom toys in OSX, the incarnations of never-discovered menu buttons in Android, and the sea of cute, illegible icons in iOS that blend core functionality and peripheral one-trick ponies into a big, sparkly-but-murky soup. In other words, the leading, paradigm-setting OS user experiences, pre-Windows 8, already chafe at many ends.

None of this friction happens to expert users – the designer living her life in OSX knows her way around in her sleep, as does the architect living his life in Windows 8 since the early release previews.

But non-expert users struggle: our parents, and non-“computer people” of any age, with various levels of digital literacy, anywhere… including the majority of non-expert users coming online in the developing world, as we speak. The traditional usability battle is for these users’ hearts and minds: provide an environment that allows a successful experience, even in light of various levels of absence of an understanding of the underlying systems and concepts. A basic usability solution approach is familiarity: present UIs that use familiar mechanisms and conventions, in familiar layouts. The familiarity here can draw upon a digital canon of expressions, such as raised appearance for clickable elements, and a cut-out appearance for editable fields. Skeumorphism is another source of warm, welcoming familiarity, when employed for this purpose.

Familiarity, employed through the ages, brings us to an absurd situation: tablets, mobile devices, and really any kind of modern computation form factor, relying on ancient, “paper form on a wooden desktop in a 1950 office”-based conventions. Those conventions do a great deal of proven good, providing the mental crutches that make the difference between task completion and –failure for many non-expert users.

But they also fall short. Today’s experiences rely on constructs like network connections and account privileges pointing into forever evolving collections of stuff, pushed around through many similar but different communication and access methods. In other words, on abstract, complex concepts. The role of the UI has thus silently shifted, to providing anchors – identifiable “things” that users can shape their thoughts around – for abstractions of non-reducible complexity. The old approach fails: “it’s simple: it’s just yet another mix of familiar elements” – because it’s not. Hiding complexity, if it is non-reducible, is not a solution.

The tension is essentially between old words, in the designers’ toolbox, that can’t explain new things. Yet, design still promises to make things easy or even delightful. Design’s audience, the user (and also the paying client), has a matching expectation: if you make me use this, it better be delightful, or at least easy.

But the tremendous pool of possibilities and power that are unlocked through user experiences today require a new understanding: as designers, we need to look for ways to provide the needed anchors that make invisible stuff visible. Users will welcome a UI evolution that provides them with meaningful insights into powerful functionality. Users will feel relieved to not have to look between the UI elements to figure out how things actually work. Too get back to Windows 8, the break with familiarity is still frustrating, but this frustration will be overcome once users inevitably figure out how the system works.

Could more help be provided, to make this an easier transition ? Could some familiar elements have been preserved from the existing canon ? Possibly yes and yes. On the other side of the transition is an experience that offers design opportunities for new solutions that are not tied down in no-longer-relevant, no-longer-accurate ancient metaphors. It is up to the design community to make use of these opportunities.

Here, the 2011 Mike Kruzeniski piece comes in. The content-centricity that he emphasizes is a common trait of user experiences today, and I agree that print design’s craft, with grids, whitespace and typography, has a strong place in replacing the “old UI furniture” canon with a more appropriate contemporary canon.

I would argue though that content centricity, where print-use shines most, is the easy part to solve. Finding a new normal, where complex, invisible interdependencies and connections are readily understood, is the harder challenge. Here, the print design toolbox again should get more play then it traditionally does, but is also inadequate on its own. Just simplifying UIs, replacing chrome-heavy buttons with simple typography, replacing barriers and levels with whitespace and sizing, is beautiful, but may not help the struggling user to fulfill a task. The UI must still provide differentiation, and provide the proper anchors for the abstract. The way to approach this challenge, I think, is with the design toolbox in hand, including print design, but to consider content and functionality as different problem domains that share space on the screen – so, instead of making everything look more content-y, or generally giving content more emphasis, we can find new ways to differentiate. Abandoning some familiar elements, at the well-understood known price of this action, is part of that.

 

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