Windows 8: Does Metro actually work?

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.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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