Windows 8: Does Metro actually work?

Windows 8: Does Metro actually work?

Summary: Using Microsoft's Metro technology in Windows 8 is like going to a flashy restaurant where your plate is delivered with a tiny morsel of food in the middle, but the rest of the plate is unused, says one tester.


I'm taking a couple weeks off before the busiest part of Microsoft's 2012 kicks into full gear. But never fear: The Microsoft watching will go on while I'm gone. I've asked a few illustrious members of the worldwide Microsoft community to share their insights via guest posts on a variety of topics -- from Windows Phone, to Hyper-V. Today's entry is all about the Metro-ness of Windows 8 is authored by Matthew Baxter-Reynolds.

Introduced by Microsoft as a key element of Microsoft Windows Phone strategy, Metro is now being positioned as the aesthetic standard just shy of an absolute requirement for Windows Phone and tablet-optimized apps for Windows 8 and Windows RT.

What no one's asking, though, is this: "does Metro actually work?"

In my opinion: No.

I find Metro baffling. Granted, it looks beautiful -- and I accept that you put a Metroified device in front of most people they coo and burble excitedly. Plus it has the significant advantage that even the most design-challenged geek can make something look pretty decent just by mucking around with fonts and solid blocks of colors. But it's broken in two fundamental ways: information density and discoverability.

Information density I would wager the harder one to argue with. To that end I present two screenshots. The first one is Fliptoast, the nascent but fingers-crossed-it-will-become-awesome Metro-style Twitter client.

I've had some conversations with Shivani Khanna, Fliptoast's founder, about the design imperatives used in the application and what they're looking to do is follow Microsoft's design guidelines for Metro-style apps, and these guidelines include directives that developers must follow Metro's design aesthetic.

So I can get just three-and-a-half tweets on the screen in Fliptoast. I don't want to be critical at all of Fliptoast here =- this lack of information density is simply what Microsoft it telling them to do. A big aspect of Metro is having lots of white space, ergo everything gets spaced out.

Another strange thing about Metro is that because it's typographic rather then iconographic in nature, developers aren't instructed to use pictorial representations very sparingly (plus text needs to be included along with icons). Yet we've been using icons as a shortcut for text descriptions for many decades. And the only way to make a mostly textual interface not seem overbearing and cluttered is to -- you've guessed it -- add more white space.

Here's the official Twitter client. I can get eight-and-a-half.

Personally I don't think this is a trivial point. The only reason why any of us interact with digital devices is to access information. Deliberately designing software so that information is hard to come by is why I use the term "fundamentally broken" when I talk about Metro.

Metro's problem with information density leads directly into issues around discoverability.

Here's a screenshot of IE10 running in Metro-style mode. It's "chromeless" - all you get is the browser. (Not to confuse - "chrome" is the term given to the adornments around the page content, it doesn't refer to the Google Chrome browser.)

Here's the same page on the iPad.

When thinking about any user interface, we can notionally group different elements into primary, secondary, and tertiary functionality. Primary elements relate to the content that you're working with, in this case, the page. Secondary elements are the things you need in easy reach. On a browser this would be the address bar, back button, and tabs. Tertiary elements are this things that you use rarely, like history or settings.

Because Metro is based on this principle that the interface has to be "clean", secondary control elements are shoved away and hidden with tertiary elements and so in Metro you only get two levels of UI element - "the basic data" and "hidden away in some virtual drawer, a bunch of tools". Using Metro is like having to put your keyboard an mouse in a drawer every time you're not directly using the computer. It's constant "go and get this" and "go and get that".

To open a tab in Metro-style IE10, I have to swipe in from the top and click the "Add tab" button. It's only by swiping in can I see which tabs I have open, or change tabs - so there are two discoverability problems there: I can't easily see the tabs I have open, and I can't actually change the tab without undertaking faff.

On iPad --well, forget iPad, any browser from IE7 and up works like this -- I click on an easily accessible button that gives me a new tab. I also can actually see the tabs that I have open. Back in IE10/Metro land, it's gesture, push, followed by "oh good, there's my tabs ? now what was I doing?"

Again, I don't understand this. My children, the eldest of which is just four years-old, can drive user interfaces more complicated than this. Hiding stuff away seems, well, backwards at best. At worst, it's just plain patronizing.

Perhaps that's unfair. It's not intentional patronization. What we're seeing here is plain ol' "over-thinking", an imposition of a good idea onto a domain that already knows how to do something perfectly well already. I'm not sure I - or any of us - need a small collection of graphic designers and marketeers pushing against 30-40 years of experience and telling us that we're doing it wrong. But at the heart of it, that's what Metro is - it's an initiative that's telling us that we as developers don't understand how to present information and its attendant tools.

Metro is like going to a flashy restaurant where your plate is delivered with a tiny morsel of food in the middle, but the rest of the plate is unused. A delicious treat, for sure, and I for one like a nice treat in a nice restaurant. Food done in that way is part aesthetic and part nutritious - but guess what I need to eat every day and actually the aesthetic angle to it is very much the less important secondary part of that deal. I need food to live, regardless of whether it looks like and tastes like dog food, or whether it's a Michelin-starred-chef's best work.

Were Microsoft looking for Metro's aesthetic to be a private thing for them to use, I wouldn't bat an eyelid over this. But by making it a key element of how ISVs are building apps for both Windows Phone and Windows 8/Windows RT tablets this stuff comes close to my heart. Individuals  brave enough to drift over from iOS and Android to the Microsoft camp need to stay. If Metro makes software look great but be hard to use, the experience for those souls will be like a dalliance with an individual who looks beautiful but without the keen mind needed to make a lifelong partnership.

We can only hope that ISVs learn to evolve Metro appropriately. The clean presentation and reductionist approach to graphic design is great. It's the story about information density and discovery that needs much improved. Do that and the end result will be a force to be reckoned with.

Matthew Baxter-Reynolds is an independent software development consultant, speaker, author, and trainer. He also is an occasional contributor to Guardian Technology and is owner of WinRT People. His book "Programming Windows 8 Apps with C#" will be published by O'Reilly in November 2012.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Metro is a toy

    There was some brief talk about deploying Windows 8 here at work... followed by howls of laughter. Metro is a great UI for toys, but it's just terrible for people who want to do anything serious. Too much wasted screen space, too many things too many clicks/swipes/whatevers away. And that's not even going into the idiocy that is full screen everything.

    I don't think that Apple or Google have a whole lot to fear.
    • even when...?

      you can still use the classic windows taskbar interface with just the click of a button? Windows 8 isn't THAT different in it's usability. It simply has a work and a play mode. I don't get why this baffles people.
      • work and play

        The problem with as you call it work and play mode, it always reverts back to play mode.
      • I don't want to go through the play mode....

        Each and every time I load my PC, I want to go directly to work. Reminds me of when every website had those annoying Flash load screens that became annoying real quick, I just wanted to get directly to the content, not go through this load screen yet again.
      • Not so in WindowsRT...

        in windowsRT.. only desktop apps are Office... everything else must run in Metro.. and I say everything with a little chuckle since there is only a tiny number of metro apps written for WinRT tablet or laptops..
      • as they say it takes MS three swings at the bat to get anything right...

        first they squish a slighly dumbed down Windows, complete with "Start Button" onto a tiny phone/PDA screen.. then they put a full blown keyboard and mouse optimized OS and put it on a touch device... now they take a touch screen, finger driven optimized OS and make it the centre piece for mouse and keyboard driven devices.. eventually they will figure out that one size does not always fit all...

        I think this is MS trying to copy Apple, but completely misreading what Apple is doing.. sure the underlying OS/kernel of iOS for phone and tablet and OS X are the same.. but the GUI's are all optimized for each type of devices.. Apple is going towards feature/application parity on all platforms but the paradigm used for touch and desktop/laptop remain different.. the desktop paradim in OS X is not merging with iOS as some claim and I think MS wrongly assumed too.. as I said, iOS and OS X still maintain GUI paradigm optimized for the device size and input methods.. it's just the features and apps that are achieving parity.. not the way you interact with those features.. those are still optimized for the device.. iOS's touch interface for tablets and phones and the desktop paradigm for OS X..

        Metro on Windows 8 desktops makes no sense.. it has no reason for existing...
      • Yes. Even when I

        can click a button to get out of metro. Because it's a PITA to have to do every time, is visually jarring, and has a high tap dance on my nerves factor.
      • Metro is not optional

        You can only partially use desktop mode. But you start and end in Metro. Installing apps requires initial access in Metro. Half the control panels are in Metro. Searching is in Metro. Power options are in Metro.

        You can't stay in desktop mode the whole time and the switching between environments is both jarring and unnecessary.
      • It is a bold step in the right direction

        I am looking forward to it, it may need minor changes but overall it is a winner. It not a long learning curve, and once you get it all other UI feel so damn outdated.

        A glance and a flick is what required to see whats happening in your world, Emails, Calendars, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Photos, Friends. The productivity is absolutely unbeatable in all the routene tasks we are required to do. Most folks have not tried it enough, or are Microsoft haters or troll .. IMHO
      • Did you read the article. It's discussing METRO!

        Not the desktop. The article is discussing the usability of the metro interface and Microsoft guidelines.

        Just goes to show that being top rated doesn't actually count for anything other than large groups of people don't bother to actually read the article in question.

        I despair sometimes.
      • Really?

        These comments are hysterical. It appears that the very folks complaining about Win8/Metro were probably the same people complaining about moving from DOS to Windows. I mean, the arguments are almost identical. Let's see?

        "There is nothing more JARRING than moving from DOS to Windows."
        "And with DOS, you don't have to use the stupid mouse, everything can be done from the keyboard and it's faster..."
        "DOS is for serious work, Windows is for play."
        "My users won't learn Windows when they are already trained in DOS."
        "Each and every time I load my PC, I want to go directly to DOS."

        Remember all of those funny comments 25 years ago? Here we go again.

        I am always amazed but never surprised by the how much people hate change. Win8/Metro is AWESOME, just wait, you will see.
      • Cliched knee-jerk nonsense


        You're mistaken. Apart from the Start menu (which can actually be avoided almost entirely if you want to), you can use Windows 8 without ever having to run into Metro elements if you so choose. This is how I currently use Windows 8 on my laptop. I occasionally use the Start screen to launch seldom-needed applications, but I usually do this by tapping Win+[type]. The rest of the time I am just in a slightly improved Windows 7.

        I'm getting a little sick of people who don't use Windows 8 proclaiming it to be something it's not.

        Installing apps does not require Metro (unless you're talking about installing Metro apps, and if you're complaining that you need to use Metro to install Metro apps there is no hope for you, I'm afraid).

        Control panel is all accessible from the classic desktop. There are a handful of overlays (e.g. network popup) that are Metro styled, but there is no valid complaint against them - they are simply a refined, clearer version of what is in Windows 7.
      • I find it funny

        That thefunkdoctorspoc chuckles at the "tiny number of apps" written for a beta OS. Way to show your intelligence.
      • So?

        Why would I want to have to click out of play mode to get into work mode, when I'm at work? Why would I want the expense of upgrading machines for something that we can't possibly derive any value out of?

        Windows 8 is deader then Vista in the Enterprise.
      • No, you can't without start button

        Who ever architected the 'glamour' design of metro should be fired.
      • so you're whole argument is that it isn't completely unusable?

        OC just said Windows 8 adds nothing for them and puts a bunch of clicks and swipes in the way of getting to work. You're reply: "Well it's just a few click and swipes and then you can get to work." Brilliant.
      • Developers Developers Developers...

        are being encouraged to develop for the 'play mode' and throw away everything they learned about the 'work mode'. Actually, in the case of Windows RT, it's not 'encouraged'. It's 'forced'.

        This is a problem.
    • agree with you

      in the end...Microsoft is cooking another Vista
      • Cooking? It's done and on the rack cooling

        Metro is unworkable, bizarre on desktop. As is touch on desktop (too large, too far away, fingerprints).

        I've been happy wait and see how it pans out, but the chorus is already shouting it down.

        A few voices continue to support the new direction, then a few here say Vista wasn't a failure;-)
        Richard Flude
      • And the MS glee club is growing stale

        [i]A few voices continue to support the new direction, then a few here say Vista wasn't a failure;-)[/i]

        That's what extreme fanboydom does to some people. Their corporate temple of an OS can do no wrong. The same kind of nonsense they accuse the Apple people of doing. Hypocrites.