Saturday, November 01, 2008

Windows 7 - user interface is king

An early look at Windows 7 ...

... "Based on what experimentation I have done, though, the Windows team has spent a lot of time thinking about ways to really streamline the user interface. Windows 7 is clearly a lot snappier than any installation of Vista I’ve used thus far. A number of bloggers claimed, based on previously leaked screen shots, that Windows 7 was just rewarmed Vista, but I think that if Microsoft inaugurated some dramatically different new interface convention, it would be proof that they have learned absolutely nothing from their experience of Vista.

As Samuel Moreau, Principal Design Manager for Windows, said in a session on Wednesday, small things matters from a user interface standpoint. Those small details are the things that can turn into annoyances with frequent use. Simple things like changing the color of the “tasks” bar and fonts used in the photo gallery make a huge difference. Vista’s color scheme promotes the frame to the detriment of the photos in the gallery (as well as leaves less space for the photos), while the new frame does a better job of making the gallery simple and intuitive…and leaves more room for content. Another small change involves a more refined toolbar interface that removes some of the “action” cues (such as mini-buttons atop taskbar buttons whose intent was to indicate the presence of additional menus, but served to make the menu look “busy”), replacing them by interface elements that expect you will understand that right clicks bring up the new “jump list.”

Granted, those are incredibly minor changes, and there are bigger adjustments that I will discuss later (I picked the previous points because they were examples used by Moreau to describe how small changes have big usability effects). The distinguishing factors of a well-designed, intuitive application may be hard to define on paper, but are obvious when viewed comparatively. It’s simply true, as Moreau stated, that applications often do the visual equivalent of shouting at users in order to grab their attention, which can become a real cacophony when all applications do it. Windows as an OS was guilty of this as much as standalone applications. Windows 7 tries to turn the volume down (example: notifications are now collected in a single, unobtrusive collector in the status tray, a region that itself has been cleaned up, at least on the Microsoft side), and extends those lessons to the applications included as part of Windows (and, hopefully, to other applications made by Microsoft).

The clearest sign of a shift in the mindset surrounding the Windows development team, however, is the fact that an interface designer presented at a Professional Developers Conference in the first place. It was a lunch sessions, so the room wasn’t packed, and a few attendees did leave in the first 10 minutes once they realized that it was about squishy design principles and philosophies and not subjects normally of relevance to hardcore computer geeks. Microsoft, however, needs to lead by example. COM, a thoroughly geek-oriented technology, took over the Windows world because Microsoft used it extensively in their own products. A Microsoft that ranks designers alongside its framework engineers will result in products that influence the development strategies used by third party ISVs. At the next PDC, I expect more will attend the design sessions.

Anyway, I’ll go into more depth on Windows 7 as I have more time to play with the operating system.

Windows 7’s release (it betas in Q1 next year, with release intended for some time in 2009), however, will be a timeframe within which we will see a lot more WPF applications. Standard inclusions such as Paint, Wordpad and the Calculator have gotten the WPF treatment [CORRECTION: Paint, Wordpad and the Calculator do NOT use WPF; see additional details at the end of this post] (and all use the “Ribbon” interface introduced with Office 2007, support for which was released this week to .NET developers as part of a set of new WPF controls). As noted in the keynote, AutoCAD by Autodesk has made the move to WPF. Of greater importance, however, is the fact that Visual Studio 2010 will have an interface completely written in WPF.

This creates new levels of UI customizability. Scott Guthrie, during Tuesday morning’s keynote, threw together a plugin that customized the look of the “comments” tags used to annotate classes and methods in the code editor window of Visual Studio 2010. WPF, clearly, enables levels of customizability that would have been very difficult, if not impossible, in older native interfaces."    (Continued via ZDNet.com, John Carroll)    [Usability Resources]

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