I think I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a while. A few days ago, Facebook announced the release of a new Windows Phone app (Beta). The app does not use the typical out-of-the-box controls i.e. Panorama, Pivot or Page that have “traditionally” given Windows Phone it’s particular flavor and perhaps even differentiation from iOS and Android design languages. The release of the Beta sparked a range of comments, some in support, some against the design aspects of this app. To be clear, the ones that support the app (me included) are not saying that this is the best ever possible app of all times… We are simply celebrating the fact that a major industry player like Facebook is pushing what I’ll call Metro, to the next generation. This celebration is independent of whether it is Microsoft itself or Facebook who actually authored this app. There are questions about whether Microsoft is actually behind the development and design or if Facebook is doing in house and/or with the help of a 3rd party agency. All of this is meaningless. The app is an official Facebook app and that’s what matters.
For 3 years now we have seen 100K plus Windows Phone apps hit the market. Many of them are games and the rest rely on mainly two design patterns: Panoramas and Pivots. I’m sick and tired of this. It’s not that Panorama and Pivot are wrong, no, they are reliable, flexible, powerful controls that give you a lot of options to create great apps. My problem (one that is shared by many in the community and inside of Microsoft) is that we have made these two patterns dictate our 100K Windows Phone experiences. This is wrong. Design patterns like Pivots or Panoramas are just that, patterns. A mature, design savvy, sophisticated designer knows that that story and experience comes first, much before “design patterns”, those are just tools. By slaving ourselves to these couple patterns we’ve tried to solve 100K experiences… It’s almost laughable when you think about it. If you think this is just a recent problem, no, it’s actually been there from the beginning. I talked to numerous Microsofties of all levels and most agreed “all Windows Phone apps look the same” – don’t you agree? But hey, isn’t that a good thing? The way higher level execs would pitch it is by saying they wanted to offer a unified experience in the phone. Nah, among other business reasons it has more to do with enabling an ecosystem with zero apps to get quickly to a 100K apps. UPDATE: As many people have pointed, growing the Store from 0 to 100K is certainly not the only reason. It is certainly a natural thing for a new product/platform to kick off the ecosystem with a defined set of design patterns and then seeing it grow from there. The interesting thing here is reaching the point where the community can push Metro to the next level on their own which is what seems to be happening here with Facebook.
There couldn’t be better news for Windows Phone about seeing the Beta for the new Facebook app. Finally after 100K apps, a sign of maturity in the ecosystem. A big player betting for something new. When developers and designers “feel part of” an ecosystem they push it to the next level. That’s what’s happening here and it must be celebrated by everyone who cares about the ecosystem.
Now, what is it that matters most to me when I buy a Windows Phone? My Windows Phone experience or my Facebook experience, my Twitter experience, my Spotify or WhatsApp experiences?
The truth is once you are in the phone, what you care about are the apps. The Windows Phone team has done a lot of work (and a really good one) on creating what I’d argue is the best out-of-the-box experience of any phone. Look, take out all the 3rd party apps from Windows Phone and you still have search, local scout, maps, phone, music & videos, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn integration etc etc… There’s tons of value in Windows Phone on its own and a lot of it comes from the out-of-box services. More than in other platforms. But you know? People sometimes still prefer to use the Facebook app instead of the Windows Phone People Hub thingie. Why? Simple. As a user I’m interested in living the “Facebook experience” in blue color, familiar icons and UI metaphors as well as have access to as many features in Facebook as possible. The Facebook app will always be more feature rich than the native out-of-the-box Windows Phone service. Translate that to all other 100K experiences and its the same, people want to experience the Spotify, ESPN, IMDB, Netflix, XBOX experiences, not just the Windows Phone experience per se.
So think of it this way, what is really Windows Phone, iPhone or a Galaxy phone? They are simply portals to other experiences that bring value to users. These portals are the apps. A metaphor is that phones and their out of box services are the Las Vegas strip. The structural solution. And then all the hotels along that axis, along that structure are apps. So you get apps of all sorts of types because each is looking to provide you with a different “experience” although you always feel “inside Las Vegas”. Phones are the same. They are worthless without apps, and the more spectacular, usable, beautiful, valuable apps the more valuable the ecosystem becomes. When you buy a phone today, you are not buying a phone you are buying yourself a way into an ecosystem. Whoever has the warmest, coziest, most fun ecosystem will win.
What would happen if all the hotels along the Vegas strip looked and felt the same? People would get bored too quickly and easily. It all feels the same. That’s how the Windows Phone ecosystem feels to me because 100K + (minus games) experiences have been built with then same two and only two types of design patterns available: Pivot and Panorama. As I mentioned earlier, developers and designers should not have to force their stories, their experiences to these two design patterns. If they work for your experience go ahead, use them but don’t just use them because Visual Studio has a Create New Panorama Project or Create a New Pivot Project. Who is the star of the show? Windows Phone? Or the experiences that apps provide? I’ll say for sure that it is the apps, the Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, Twitter, Netflix experiences that matter so by all means let those big players use whatever design patterns they like so that they can successfully “deliver the Facebook experience” within Windows Phone. Also, by all means please, you, the developer and designer of apps, allow yourself to tell your story, to create the experience you need to give value to your users. Define if you can leverage Panorama and a Pivot but do not hesitate for a second if you realize those design patterns don’t work for you.
Am I proposing anarchy? Chaos?, no – there is a set of Design Principles (with capital letters) that drive all experiences in Windows Phone. Skeuomorphism for example is not one of them. Adorning apps with stitches, leather, wood and other fake ornaments are a last resource – notice I say last resource, as in giving it a possibility to exist in Windows Phone, because as we said before, story and experience comes first and if you need metaphors like leather, wood or rusty metal to convey that experience then so be it… Yes, even in Windows Phone. But I bet you it would be very hard to justify iBooks wooden look and feel under these, our Principles.
Am I saying everything should be “flat”? Oh jeez I hate that term. If you ever hire a designer, developer or read an article with the words Flat Design in their title, just runaway, run to the mountains, because that person doesn’t understand that this isn’t about being flat, it’s a not a style… Styles come and go, like fashion styles… They are hot now, they are dead in two years. The thing Microsoft and now Apple (thank you Ive), and a huge number of UX and UI design agencies are trying to do is to apply the design principles of Modernism. Modernism, you know? The philosophical, fine arts, architecture, cinamatographic movement that started in the early 20th century. Bauhaus, Swiss design, International style, Helvetica and geniuses like Massimo Vignelli, Walter Gropius, Mies Van der Rohe, Richard Meier, Dieter Rams, Luis Barragan, Stanley Kubrick and even Jonathan Ive from Apple are just some of the lighthouses and masterminds that spent a century exploring the same things that today’s designers are exploring. How to convey stories, and enable user experiences. We simply happen to have a different medium, it’s not oil or acrylic, nor brick and mortar, but pixels. Those tiny little sparks of light that we as designers carefully arrange and order. That’s our medium, plus the input mechanisms which these days we have plenty. So when someone says ‘flat’ then the conversation automatically degrades to talking about styles or fashions instead of a timeless movement like Modernism. Read more about the guys I mentioned above, read more about Modernism, the movement, not the style.
And all of this doesn’t apply only to the Windows Phone ecosystem. iOS and Android are the same. They have design guidelines… Guidelines, not laws, about how to design for those platforms. Think about it, the most breakthrough apps from iOS have come precisely from startups that broke apart from the out of box design elements in iOS. Look at Clear, Paper, Flipboard… all award winning apps, all leveraging their own design language, not Apple’s out-of-the-box.
Remember design guidelines are guidelines, not laws. And Microsoft will NOT reject your app for design/UX reasons (not for Windows Phone, not for Windows 8). You are FREE to whatever you think it’s best for you app.
I’ll close with something that my two good friends August de los Reyes, Sr. Director for XBOX design studios and Sean Wolcott, also a Sr. Designer with XBOX said to me a few weeks ago: “… don’t call it flat, don’t call it Metro, don’t call it modern, just call it Good Design.”