Thursday, April 26, 2012

Metro and the future of mobile UI

Having grown up with computers for most of my life and witnessing the growing evolution of desktops and then mobile devices, I notice that there is an overemphasis on the details. I don't mean little details like functionality and design language, but on aesthetic of icons and applications. People seem to genuinely believe that a better looking icon meant that their gadgets were quicker and better. Thing is, a detailed icon does not make Photoshop better, nor does it make a browser render quicker. Similarly, having a flip animation doesn't make a book better either.

It is a problem that other industry has eventually grown out of, but the reverse trend is only currently making head ways in the consumer electronics industry. Apple knew that, which was why their iPods were so popular. The black and white text based UI was simple to use and navigate. Competitors like Creative and Archos countered by creating devices featuring colourful but complicated UI, and failed for good reasons. With the iPhone, Apple ditched that core UI philosophy but they got away with it, because their competitors at Nokia, Microsoft and Google did things far worst. While iOS was revolutionary in 2007, it is starting to look extremely dated now.

Someone actually thought this was a good idea
There is a reason why the London Underground roundel is so universally recognisable by almost anyone in Britain. The logo eschews unnecessary detail for text and a simple visual to illustrate the underground. It was adopted during the height of modernism movement and is still relevant today as it was back then. There were no fancy fake 3D visuals within the design, nor were the use of gradients. It was a simple two-tone colour logo (three if you count the white text and background).

We have also seen such movements within architecture. The Bauhaus movement in the 1920s championed usability, space and simplicity. When many of their proponents moved to the US in the 1930s during the second World War, we see an explosion of stunning modern skyscrapers like Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building in New York, a fine example of International Style promoting functionality aesthetics. While post-modernism architecture has somewhat seen the return to unnecessary detail, we are now seeing a partial revival via neomoderism architecture.
IKEA Billy Bookcase, anyone?
This article on Pocketnow titled 'Do We Still Need Skeuomorphs?' and OSNew's 'Skeuomorphism: bringing Microsoft Bob back from the Dead' sums up exactly why I am so fond of Microsoft's new direction and their profound wisdom with modern OS design principles. The embrace of Metro UI, a Swiss Style-inspired design, which works so well with the less is more philosophy, arguably something that is much needed in a mobile device with a much small screen compared to a desktop.

Despite having been using a Windows Phone as my main everyday device for six months now, I still find the UI and UX refreshing, beautiful and yet more alive and enticing than any current competing smartphone OS could ever hope to show for. Where you could trace other OS's design philosophy, with superfluous and detailed analog references, back to the PalmOS and Apple Newton days, the typography focused Metro UI simply looks like it belongs in the 21st century digital age. With Metro UI jumping over to Windows 8, it is the closest we will get to a real world working Star Trek LCARS system, for now.
Packard Bell Navigator: notice the similarities?
The Holo theme introduced with Android ICS is improving on this aspect but this isn't enough. And even then you have manufacturers like HTC who crush the whole concept by including their own launcher. The OS as a whole is a mere quick fix to unify their Honeycomb development with the more mainstream smartphone OS. And as far as design is concerned, it is still far behind Microsoft (I will concede WP7.5 Mango fails when it comes to offering certain features in comparison to ICS, but that's not on discussion here). I believe (or actually hope) we will see a complete paradigm shift in design philosophy with Android 5.0.

I am by no means calling for the complete abandonment of skeuomorphism. It has its place, even on Windows Phone. Where large texts can't be shown, for example on the homescreen, subtle references to their analog counterparts must be used to signify what these apps represent. In Windows Phone, these are used sparsely and Microsoft encourages simple stylistic icons over 'realistic' ones, even going as far as getting rid of the traditional grids of icons. However, if overused, like on the iOS's Game Center - which was designed to evoke a casino feel to the app, and they, well, just look tacky and downright ugly.
Microsoft Bob: serial skeuomorphism offender
In fact, Apple's inconsistent design philosophy has always confused me. Their hardware designs has always stood out as a mantra of minimalism without any unneeded design elements like you would find on a truly hideous looking Alienware laptop, but iOS on the other hand is filled with unnecessary and ugly graphical elements like the aforementioned casino table and the faux leather look within the Calendar app. It won't ever happen, but if there ever was an Apple-designed Windows Phone device, I think I will die happy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nail on head on the last paragraph!

I think you've pretty much had your wishes granted with iOS 7, and it's something I too have been clamouring for Apple to do since the huge acceleration in skeuomorphism in the UI since iOS 4.

looking forward to seeing Jony Ive's new UI design at WWDC, seems very likely the UI will match his hardware nicely...