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Microsoft Immediately Stumbles in Quest for Well-Designed Phone Apps

The newly released app-design guide reveals a lot more about Microsoft than they probably intended.

Windows Phone 7

With the recent release of Windows Phone 7, Microsoft appears to be getting serious about design. They’ve overhauled the mobile OS completely, in favor of a minimalist aesthetic and an efficient no-nonsense UI. And they’re hoping to improve the most glaring failure of their previous phone OS’s: Hideous 3rd-party apps. But how?

The first step in that change has been creating a 69-page how-to document for app developers, the UI Design and Interaction Guide. Clearly modeled on Apple’s own iPhone Human Interface Guidelines, the hope is that developers will create apps that share a visual language and ease of use–which is precisely what’s been lacking in previous Windows-mobile apps.

Tech blogger Caleb Elston heralded the news, as big, big, big:

Why does this matter? Because people want polished thoughtful apps.
Aside from one hit wonder apps like iFart, the majority of the
longstanding top selling iPhone apps are impeccably designed and
executed…Microsoft signaling to designers that they care enough to author a
document outlining the specifics of the platform at launch is big. It
means they are serious about world class apps being developed, not just
knock offs and shoddy ports. The question is, will designers and
developers deliver?

Sadly for Microsoft, when you start digging into the actual documents, you immediately realize: Microsoft might suddenly care about design in a new way. But it doesn’t mean that they’ve actually changed as a company.

Where the Apple doc is a veritable seminar on human-centered design, the Microsoft doc is bundle of technical details.

For example, here’s the first meaty section in the Apple doc. Titled “Human Interface Principles: Creating a Great User
Interface,” it begins:

A great user interface follows human interface design principles that
are based on the way people–users–think and work, not on the
capabilities of the device…When possible, model your application’s objects and actions on objects and actions in the real world. This technique especially helps novice
users quickly grasp how your application works.

By contrast, here’s the first section of the Microsoft document, titled “Designing for Touch”:

The Windows Phone 7 Series CTP user interface is designed for touch interaction, offering full navigation using a combination of finger-gesture movements. Usability and intuitive design should be a primary goal in your application with an emphasis on well-placed and properly-sized touch-based controls.

These sound like roughly similar sentiments. But pause and think here. Where the Apple doc starts off with basically a definition of what “intuitive design” consists of–that is, metaphors in the real world–the Microsoft doc takes “intuitive design” as a given…and then starts droning on about “well-placed and properly-sized” buttons.

The difference, quite simply, is like sitting in a seminar led by Jonathan Ive, versus getting lectured about your office computer by your IT guy.

This section isn’t a quirk. It goes on like this, over almost 70 pages in each version. One particularly interesting section in the Apple doc includes “Designing an iPhone Application: From Product Definition to Branding.” The Microsoft doc’s sections range from “On-screen keyboard” to “radio button.” Where the Microsoft document might create a visually standardized suite of apps–provided that developers study the whole thing for weeks–it never quite gives you a reason “why,” or any sense of a greater design philosophy.

For example, compare the two sections covering text lists. Apple:

Table views are extremely useful in iPhone applications because they
provide attractive ways to organize both large and small amounts of
information. Table views are most useful in productivity applications
that tend to handle lots of user items… An immersive application would probably not use a table view…


List controls provide developers a way to present data contents in an organized fashion. A list view item is a rectangular based visual element that appears in a list.

The first offers a lesson about different types of UI design. The later offers a gratuitous, mumbo-jumbo definition of something you’re already familiar with.

Now, to be fair, the Microsoft document is a first-release. The Apple doc has developed over the years. I have no doubt that the Microsoft developers guide is going to get better.

But what should be troubling to Microsoft is that their developers guide ever took the shape it did. When tasked with trying to get developers to design better apps, that’s the document that made sense to everyone at Microsoft. The organization’s first intuition wasn’t towards UI-design philosophy–it was to margin padding and button placement.

And that, in turn, speaks to a cultural issue that’s deeper than the documents themselves. Here, we’re talking about thousands of people who’ve been steeped in two different ideas about what app development consists of–and the very role of design in that process. You can change a lot of things. You can rewrite documents. But can you ever change the culture that surrounds your products, which has been building over 30 years?

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.



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