Windows 8 Thoughts and Tools

Over the past few months, I had the opportunity to work with American Airlines to create a native app for the new, yet-to-be-released, Windows 8 OS–specifically for the new Samsung tablet. We (Blockdot) were successful in creating an application that met all of the required standards from Microsoft and was the featured travel app on the opening day for their app site/store.

If you haven’t seen it, it is called “The Tower.” The premise of the app, which was scaled back due to timeframe constraints, was giving the user–aka you–an inside look at flight tracking from AA’s main hubs as if you were in the flight tower… hence the name.

You can view it in the MS store here.

All that being said, the process of creating an app that not only utilizes, but highlights OS UI that is still in development was a challenge, to say the least. We had weekly phone calls with Reps and UI Guru’s from Microsoft who all seemed to have varying opinions on what was ok and what wasn’t. They had very little actual documentation for correct UI practices and patterns. Since utilizing their UI was paramount to the app being featured in the app store, it was a bit of a shock to have to really dig and scrounge for any sort of concrete information and answers.

We had to do a redesign at a very late point, nearly from the ground-up. However, that was due to gaining access to one of the UI specialists at Microsoft that had those yes or no answers we were all craving. He set us on the right path and we made a mad dash for the finish line. The final app was not and is not what I had intended and quite a bit of functionality was cut in the name of deadlines and timeframes. However, the overall look, feel, and animation remains intact to the original vision.

I think that there are some very smart folks at Microsoft and just like a lot of other large organizations, communication is a problem. I think that there are a lot of really great ideas and philosophy behind Windows 8, but I think it is such a dramatic shift in user experience in what PC-users expect, that it will have a very steep uphill climb. Some of the best UI features of Windows 8 can be seen (and done better) in the new iOS that will be released later this summer (iOS6).

Windows 8  UI Highlights

Windows 8 will feature a predominantly mobile-style OS that is carried across all platforms (desktop, tablet, and phone). All actions that can be performed with a gesture will be replicated with mouse gestures. The desktop will be a series of live and static tiles, very similar to app icons in iOS desktops. With the live icons, information and content will bubble up into these to display the content without having to open the app. They have an app view called “snapped view” which will allow the user to view and use two apps at one time. With one app taking up 2/3 of the screen and the other taking up 1/3. Each would retain full functionality with slightly limited visual space. This UI highlights content over chrome and strong typography (even if we’re limited to segoe ui).

Windows 8 UI Pitfalls

A few months have passed since this app was released, so I cannot confirm if this first part is still true, but there was no documentation similar to—or anywhere close to-Apple’s HIG. This made for an extremely challenging project. The difference between content curation, games, and utilities was vague at best. With each of those qualifications came a set of rules (or rules that could be broken), but those were only general UI philosophy. There was nothing concrete. Utilizing their “contracts” which are OS-wide functionality such as search, social sharing, and a select few others, was ideal, but there was no shared documentation on how they worked or if and when you did not have to use them. We wanted to utilize search in a specific way and weren’t sure if their system-wide search would perform properly. Finally, the visual component of this update is so drastic, that a large group of PC-users will be completely alienated, IMHO.

Additionally, they encourage people to move into development at a very fast speed. I had strong concerns about that and felt focusing on the person/user first, making sure we have enough mapped out, and having a concrete picture of where we were all going would be sacrificed by moving into development too fast.
Windows 8 at its best is in its philosophy of content over chrome and top-notch type. At its worst, it is a OS derived from Flipbook with all of the branding stripped and replaced with Microsoft-ridden look and feel, and with content pushed forward.

All that being said, I would still like to create apps for a variety of systems and hardware including Windows 8 apps. I have gained a wealth of knowledge about their product UI and would hate for it be wasted. So, for any of you out there who are undertaking a Windows 8 app, I’ve created a set of wireframe templates that can be used for sketching. Don’t jump into development or design too fast or early. Be loose and focus on basic layout, a hub and spoke model UI and architecture.

I’d love to hear any new opinions or experiences regarding app creation and development for Windows 8.

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