Windows 8 interface's design heritage

Windows 8 interface's design heritage

Summary: Microsoft's new Windows 8 interface, formerly known as Metro, is a clear break from the ageing desktop metaphor. Is it the industry's way forward, or just confusing brand differentiation? Either way, it's got design-history cred.

TOPICS: Windows, Microsoft

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    Microsoft's new interface for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, formerly known as Metro, is based on squares and rectangles of flat colour arranged on a seamless panoramic canvas; a complete break from the traditional desktop metaphor.

    The new interface is a stylistic development of the look developed for Windows Phone 7, something that caused confusion when it was announced in 2010.

    "When I first saw the Windows Phone UI ... I was genuinely surprised. The flatness of it, an awful lot of white space ... I mean, it was clearly a shift in direction from what we've been seeing on the other platforms," said Shane Morris, formerly a Microsoft user interface evangelist, but now a user experience designer with Automatic Studio.

    "I literally thought that Microsoft was being very clever and not revealing the final user interface. Instead, it put in place these square, coloured placeholders where the user interface would be revealed," Morris told ZDNet.

    But the interface was real, and the abandonment of the familiar desktop metaphor was also real. Microsoft believes that it's appropriate in the era of digital natives.

    "We're at a point where our users are sufficiently confident with using information technology that they don't need the reassurance of those references to real-world objects. That would be Microsoft's argument," Morris said.

    "That's why the new user interface has what a lot of this what we call chrome [borders, shading, textures, and the like on user interface elements] stripped out, the argument being we can just focus on the actual information now," he said.

    "You manipulate the content itself. You drag it, you drop it, you poke it. As an old-school usability guy, I found that quite confronting. Traditionally, my job was to provide enough signals onscreen to communicate to users what you're supposed to do."

    In his presentation at Microsoft TechEd 2012 this week, Morris showed how the Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 interfaces have evolved from Microsoft's previous content-focused interfaces for Media Center and Zune.

    "Those applications similarly don't have a lot of chrome, the focus on the content, there's a lot of animation, a lot of use of text," he said.

    The inspiration for Microsoft's new visual style can be traced back to design schools from the middle of the 20th century, including the International Style or Swiss School, the Bauhaus movement, and motion graphics such as the cinematic title designs of Saul Bass, as well as the wayfinding signage used in airports and urban transit systems.

    Stilgherrian attended Tech.Ed Australia 2012 as a guest of Microsoft.

  • (Credit: DigiBarn)

    The desktop metaphor, with folders of files and overlapping windows, is now more than three decades old. Developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), it made its first commercial apearance in the Xerox Star (pictured) in 1981, before its evolution through the Apple Lisa, Apple Macintosh, and Microsoft Windows to the many variations we see today.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • I like articles like this

    I'd like to point out too that this UI is just a first step, and eventually we WILL see Office 2019 looks very similar to the videos. What comes next is more direct manipulation of content and the level of flexibility and control over content that the Courier videos portray will be possible very soon.
    • Agreed.

      This marks the first step in working with data in new ways.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • I agree

      I like this viewpoint. This new style is definitely a bit of a culture shock. But once you use it, it makes sense. In fact, it makes so much sense that it almost doesn't feel like using a computer anymore. It's frightening and exciting at the same time!
      • Well put

        I have to agree you have to open your arms to Windows 8 and learn it before you critique it. This is only the first iteration of the new start screen. Things will evolve and I'll be there every step of the way. This is going to be an exciting year for Microsoft and Windows.
      • Once you use it

        you realize what a huge mistake it is.
        • Back to XP/Win7 mode

          If you don;t like win8 metro stye interface, u can always revert to back to xp/win7 mode by using software such as ThinServer XP
    • I do not like any of these on my desktop

      “Morris showed how the Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 interfaces have evolved from Microsoft's previous content-focused interfaces for Media Center and Zune.”

      So Microsoft is telling us to use a “content consumption” oriented user interface on our desktop to replace our productivity oriented interface because they think we should.
      I think you are all quite confused on what content consumption means and what the desktop is supposed to do.

      I personally do not want to work on a billboard oriented desktop. In the productivity space, Metro is more than useless it is counterproductive and extremely annoying.

      There is nothing to get used about the new UI, I can use it as well as any other UI, but by using it I am less productive because it does have some serious flaws. So I will have to wait like so many other people, for this madness to pass, it is just another marketing wave Microsoft has unleashed trying to become more relevant to the masses that have no use for a productivity oriented desktop OSes.
      • "Content Consumption"? Where?

        There are a few apps that disagree with that. Evernote, Mail, Fresh Paint, and OneNote especially. Also, the new Start Screen and Multi-mon features of the desktop make me more productive on Windows 8, than any other previous version of Windows before it.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
        • don't conflate the UI with hardware features

          The Metro UI isn't a necessary precondition for better multiple monitor support. Better multiple monitor support could have been provided with a pure Windows 7 UI. Similarly, going from 65K rows in Excel 2003 to 1 million rows in Excel 2007 didn't require the Ribbon. MSFT has a history of bundling radical new UIs with long-requested features.

          So, yes, if you want the great new feature which is actually independent of whichever UI had been used, you have to accept the new UI as well because MSFT only offers a prix fixe menu. No a la carte.
          • But

            How is a Windows 7 UI going to provide for future use? The market has rejected it on new devices. Not to mention, the old Start Menu didn't play well with the multi-mon features.
            The one and only, Cylon Centurion
          • still missing the point

            The old Start menu didn't play well . . .

            And that couldn't have been addressed in a purely Windows 7 UI? The settings changes for the taskbar in Windows 8 couldn't have been made without the new Start screen? It was impossible to MSFT to allow users configurability of the Start menu?


            MSFT chose not to, just as it chose not to expand Excel with the former toolbar UI past 65K rows and 256 columns. And just as there were competing spreadsheets with more columns/rows but old style UIs, it's clear you never tried any alternative shells for Windows. There are a great many ways to do things differently on the Windows desktop.
        • Think first...

          Evernote? Fresh Paint? You call these productivity oriented applications? I think you forgot to add Twitter,Facebook and Angry Birds. Productivity applications are those who make you productive in your work not productive in wasting your time, here are a few productivity oriented applications Word, Excel, Power Point, Visual Studio etc.

          Obviously when you grow up and you have to work for a living you will understand in the meantime I will agree with you it is more fun to tweet on Windows 8, but I have no use for it.

          P.S. You really don’t know that previous versions of Windows offer multi-monitor support?
          • Where?

            On Windows Vista and Windows 7, my secondary monitor is nothing but my desktop wallpaper. Where are the multi-mon features with that?
            The one and only, Cylon Centurion
          • Nope

            You really argue for Windows 8 because you haven't actually used your second monitor in Windows 7 for anything else than for wallpaper? No wonder you don't have a clue.

            Heck, Windows 8 doesn't even yet have working window manager, it is as terrible in multi-monitor environment like Windows 7 was.
          • Erm....

            Every version of Windows since at least Windows 98 (yes, as in 1998) have had multi monitor support. You can extend your desktop to span 2 or more monitors, but can also clone the display. ON an extended desktop you are increasing your work area and can display additional applications in the extra space. I'm not sure what you are getting at?
        • Nope

          You call those as "content creation" tools?

          Gee.... no wonder Windows users can not get anything content actually done because they use evernote, fresh paint, onenote and mail kind apps...

          And suddenly, content isn't created using Metro GUI, it is created using totally different kind GUI's.
      • Please enlighten us...

        What are the "serious flaws" that you mention?... Why do you say that it is counterproductive?

        I've been using Windows 8 as my only OS for a few months now and I find it to be much more productive than any other version of Windows (since 3.1).
        Bill Reilly
        • Or maybe…

          You should do your own homework and read a few more reviews, but here is a summary anyway: “The Metro paradigm is good for tablets, rubbish on the desktop”.

          Unless you are using your desktop as a tablet, which is rather difficult in my case since each of my monitors is 30” wide.

          I have been trying Windows 8 since it came out as beta/preview you name it. Still I find no point in running this OS on anything other than a tablet. Unless of course you bought the wrong type of computer and what you really needed (and only capable of using) is a tablet, in that case Win8 is the perfect OS for your desktop.

          Just make sure that you memorize all 1M shortcuts you need and avoid eating when sitting in front of your PC.
          • You didn't actually name any flaws...

            What are the flaws that makes you think it is rubbish on the desktop.
          • Here is one of many…

            Since you obviously either working for Microsoft or you simply never bothered reading other peoples opinion on the net apart from Microsoft’s.

            Working happily on my desktop apps (e.g. Visual Studio), I want to select an application or a setting, I press the Window button and I switch to a 30” sea of rectangles. Context lost, eyes have to readjust, totally distracting from the work flow. An application goes full screen on a desktop if the user asks for that behaviour (or the form factor, i.e. tablet, needs it), otherwise it is idiotic and kills productivity.

            Unless of course you believe Mr. Sinofsky’s telemetry data chosen and optimized to prove the marketing departments position, instead of trusting your own experience.

            Oh I hear you say “you should pin what you want on the desktop so you can avoid the context switch”. If I have to do something to avoid it why are these stupid rectangles there in the first place?