BUILT: Post-Conference Thoughts on the Win8 UX

Today we continue the series of MSDN Magazine blog posts offering attendee takes on the recently concluded Microsoft BUILD Conference. In this installment I ask Stephen Chapman, whose Microsoft Kitchen blog focuses on user interface and experience, for his thoughts on the event.

Michael Desmond: Given your background in user experience (UX), what are your impressions of what Microsoft has delivered with the Metro-style user interface(UI)? What are the most compelling aspects of the UI and what elements might be cause for concern?

Stephen Chapman: I love Metro for tablets and phone, but I'm not quite sold on its implementation for desktop and enterprise. For what I like about it, it's very fluid, simple and clean. Making the Metro UI accessible to devs will create a solid, consistent experience for end-users.

Since these are pre-beta bits, my complaints so far should be taken with a grain of salt, but as for elements that might be cause for concern, I just don't yet see someone picking up a Windows 8 tablet in a store and enjoying the experience without first being shown how to navigate the OS properly and how to compensate for all the changes existing thanks to a total overhaul to the Start menu. Certain things feel counterintuitive, such as hiding the Edge UI Start menu. To get it to appear, you simply swipe it in. To hide it, do you simply swipe it out? No. You have to touch the screen somewhere for it to go away.

It's little things like that, that add up in my book. But these are the reasons Microsoft gives early bits to developers and the general populous; they want feedback! Overall, I feel there will be a learning curve to this OS -- even (especially) for seasoned Windows users.

Desmond: What are your thoughts on the Windows Runtime infrastructure and how it enables multiple points of access to Metro-style app development?

Chapman: I love the idea of WinRT. This sort of unification of developers to enrich the Windows app ecosystem is an ambitious goal that I hope plays out well. Only being a hobbyist developer, I don't have much in the way of criticism for the platform. Personally, the specific facet I'm interested in is the notion that a Web developer can now hop over to Windows 8 and create a full-blown Windows application without having to use much of anything they aren't already familiar with code-wise. How cool is that?

Desmond: I'm personally wondering about the user experience impact when users switch between Metro and traditional desktop style apps. Does Microsoft face a challenge in helping users manage the visual and interface context switch between these species of apps? Am I overstating the concern here?

Chapman: I agree with your concern one hundred percent, though primarily in relation to touch. It's almost jarring to go from a Metro app to a traditional app right now if you're using touch. I mean, just take a second and marinate on the current app ecosystem in Windows. Think of all the apps out there that don't have touch in mind, or even UI/UX for that matter. Sure, Microsoft demonstrated the relative ease with which one can add touch functionality into an app, but there will need to be more than that to make a traditional app function properly in a touch/Metro world.

Overall, I expect Windows 8 to spend at least a good year or so seeing its app ecosystem update itself. It just feels too jarring to have to go back to the desktop now and use a traditional app. Using a keyboard and mouse setup, though, seems a bit easier to manage where the Metro/traditional differences are concerned.

Desmond: What was the biggest surprise of the show? And what was the biggest disappointment?

Chapman: Personally, the biggest surprise of the show for me was going from completely disliking Windows 8 when I tried it prior to the first day's keynote, to really wanting to get my hands back on it after seeing the keynote. The OS just felt wonky and I had trouble figuring out how to do some of the most basic, core functions to troubleshoot issues and even just use the OS with confidence. I was frustrated with it. Then, I watched Sinofsky and team go at it on stage and I was able to see how best to utilize Metro and the necessary leftovers of the traditional desktop.

The biggest disappointment to me was how poorly-managed the sessions were. Since they kept them locked down until the first day of the event, I (and plenty of others) found myself unable to attend a number of sessions in-person, since they were filled up by the time I got to them. It's great that they recorded all the sessions so that we could watch them after the fact, but that kind of defeats the purpose of actually attending the event in the first place, you know? If they choose to take the same tight-lipped approach for the next big event, I hope they at least have the foresight to provision larger spaces for sessions people are obviously going to want to attend in droves.

Desmond: In the Day 2 keynote, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made it very clear that this is a Windows world, and we all just live in it. Any thoughts on Microsoft's Windows-first strategy and how it will resonate with developers?

Chapman: Developers, developers, developers! Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Personally, I think a wide margin of developers already consider [themselves] living in a "Windows world." Thus, I think Microsoft's Windows-first strategy simply puts a label on a process already taking place, but perhaps with more focus now.

What will be interesting to see is how people take to Windows 8. A pre-Windows 8 "Windows-first" strategy is one thing, but a Windows 8 "Windows-first" strategy is another. I'm not quite sure how quickly developers are going to want to jump on-board and invest into this completely new OS, WinRT, etc. We'll just have to wait and see how it all plays out with developers and end-users alike.

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