Return of Swiss Typography – Metro

It's been a month already (where has my month gone?) since  I attended a workshop for Windows Phone Design Clinic on Thursday 10 May at Soho, London, organised by Microsoft and Nokia.

Can't believe it's Microsoft

I was 10 mins late coming in and as I walked in, I was greeted by a presentation showing classic Swiss Typography. This the kind of stuff I learned about at art school and the kind of stuff I've got a quite a few books about at home. Examples include beautiful urban transport signs from around the world and the famous grid system.

Here are some posters by Josef Müller-Brockmann - typical Swiss Typography.

The audience was about half developers and half designers, so I'm not sure how the developer folks took to this presentation, but my honest first opinion was: this is a lovely design - can't believe it's Microsoft. (Sorry!)

I have seen their Metro design templates prior to the workshop, so I knew it was pretty ambitious. But hearing from Dave Crawford first-hand how it came about and what it was all about, it really hit home. This was really happening and it was very well thought through.

When iPhone changed the smart phone market, it was revolutionary. But its iOS design relied heavily on real life metaphors of buttoned machines. I suppose this was to  provide some clues to how a crazy device with no buttons works.

That's a while ago. These days, users are happily swiping and pinching their devices away - they know how these button-less things work now. It is the perfect time to rethink interfaces for touch devices.

It was surprising that it came from Microsoft.

Let's face it, they were not really known for good graphic design (Some old fun: Microsoft repackage iPod video). Their brand was more of 'you can do anything as long as you know what you're doing' and it's about performance, not the look'.  Whereas Apple was more about 'user experience' and 'our way is the right way'.

Lately, I think there is a shift in this positioning. Apple is still criticised for not making iOS open enough etc, but as long as their user experience is concerned, it's anything goes. They are not doing much about their slipping standards of user experience and slick graphics, that they were once famous for.

Android provides an alternative to iOS, but it is an alternative. The interaction models aren't very different. It basically has a few more physical buttons than the iPhone. Having said that, it is a jolly good alternative with lots more freedom for developers.

And now with Metro, Microsoft is providing a new approach, rethinking the interaction model for touch screen devices.

Two points stand out for me.

1. Panorama interaction: the edge of screen isn't the edge of screen.

The screen they call 'panorama' is a wide page with a few columns. You have to swipe to see it all, but it's pretty intuitive to use. It really brings the horizontal direction into play, not just vertical.

2. Back means back.

Metro doesn't encourage apps to have a 'home' button. Sometimes it's unavoidable, but if you can get away with it, it's better for it not to be there. Having this principle really challenges you to think about interaction and user experience, and not to default on the standard website model that you see a lot on iOS.

Respect your device

In one of Dave's slides, he told us to respect a few rules. "Respect your device" was the most memorable one.

There were a few comments from the audience about some clients asking for the apps across mobile devices to be identical because they want consistency. Between iOS and Android, their similarity allows these apps to seem pretty identical, but not in Metro.

I thought the question for this situation will be "what 'consistency' means in this context?" It is unlikely that someone is holding two devices side by side, using the apps and saying "oh, they're not the same". It's more likely the user feels they are the same. If your back button didn't go back as you expected it to do, you feel it's wrong, even if that's what happens with other devices. Consistency can only come from how well the app operates on the particular device you're using.

Having worked on an app for iOS and Android, for both to have the same feel, I know that they can't be identical either. There are subtle differences due to the existence of the back and menu buttons, forcing architecture to be different. However their visual styles could be very similar, giving the illusion that they are identical.

Okay, I admit that recreating an iOS app for Metro requires a much harder rethink than doing the same for Android. Several speakers at the workshop recommended going back to the drawing board rather than trying to translate. And actually, your app could work much better in Metro than in iOS as a result of it by digging deep into the concept of the app and the brand.

So would I use it?

Yes is the simple answer.

I am a long-term iPhone user but I really wanted to try this out. It's great having someone challenging the way we interact with devices. It's a beautiful system to use and look at. I've asked for my company phone to be a Windows Phone 7.

I am also looking forward to doing some work on Metro. Although it's really well thought through, it is not an easy task to design for one. You still need a good design to make it work. But it's really exciting to see where it's heading UX-wise. Now, what I'm not so sure about, is what it's like for devs…?

For further reading about designing for Metro:

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