Windows 8 Metro UI: Flat isn’t bad

Windows 8 Metro UI

On Wednesday Microsoft announced the Consumer Preview release of Windows 8, and the flat Metro UI has caught people’s attention.  Gone are the shading and reflections that contribute to a feeling of 3-dimensionality in many current interfaces.  The Metro UI instead embraces a ludic simplicity in the form of basic geometric shapes and solid fields of color.  While there has been a lot of positive buzz about the interface, it has its nay-sayers as well.  Some have decried the interface as a regression which sacrifices the findability of 3D icons in favor of a colorful, trendy design.  And to be honest, doesn’t it look a tiny bit like this?

Clearly, the new display has less visual information than previous versions (in the sense that more detail literally requires more bits).  Knowing this, it can be difficult to avoid the knee-jerk worry that the Windows 8 designers have thrown out something we might need (which is the same reason I never seem to be able to throw out old MIDI cables — you just never know).  Some designers have even expressed concerns that flat elements may not pop out as well as elements with more apparent depth.  But in fact, depth has relatively little to do with the psychological phenomenon of “pop-out.”  Pop-out refers to search involving those features of objects that can be apprehended pre-attentively — that is, almost instantly.  To illustrate, try finding the red T in the illustration below.

Red T among blue Ts

Not terribly difficult, is it?  And this would be true regardless of how many blue Ts appear on the screen.  A red T will always pop out from among a field of blue Ts.

Now try finding the L in the next illustration.

L among Ts

This is considerably harder (and it will continue to get harder and harder still as the number of distractor Ts increases).  The reason why the second task is more difficult than the first is that L shapes do not pop out from T shapes.

Although the word “pop-out” suggests three-dimensionality, depth is actually not a pre-requisite for the phenomenon (and indeed, in the early days of visual search studies, technological limitations would have made it difficult to study scenes with any extensive dimensionality at all).  Prototypical pop-out features tend to be simple, such as color, size, motion, and orientation.

Depth can nevertheless produce pop-out.  This was demonstrated by Dorothy Kleffner and Vilayanur Ramachandran (1992) in a study using computer-generated gradients to simulate concave and convex objects, as shown below.

As in the case of red and blue Ts, the one bump in the field of dents is pretty easy to find.  For the past several years, interface designers have been taking advantage of depth cues like these to enhance the sense of separation between elements (a matter which I’ve studied extensively) and to create easily scannable scenes.  But the failure to include obvious depth cues in much of the Metro UI does not mean that users will be slowed and stymied by unfindable objects.  There are plenty of other ways to accomplish these goals.

Windows 8 Metro UI

Examining the Metro UI again, it’s clear that it incorporates several of these.  Colors are clear and distinct, making it easy to seek out each button from the rest of the tiles.  Although shape is not a reliable pop-out feature, the icon set size of the Metro interface is small (that is, there are not many icons in each grouping), and icons are uniquely and memorably shaped, which should increase the speed of search (although without reading the label I’m not sure what the cotton boll in the lower right hand corner is intended to represent).  Slight luminance differences also help tiles stand out from one another without creating a sense of physical protrusion.  I am curious as to why the designers decided on particular tile sizes (is weather more important than Internet Explorer, for instance?), but overall the visual layout appears to satisfy the basic requirements for a comfortable user experience.  Of course, it remains to be seen whether the functionality and information architecture will satisfy users’ needs as Windows 8 is really put through its paces.

Note: This post was written prior to my employment at Microsoft.  No changes to the content have been made since that time, except to update links and post tags.


Kleffner, D. A., & Ramachandran, V. S. (1992). On the perception of shape from shading. Perception and Psychophysics, 52(1), 18-36.

Researching our communities: Who’s coming to design events (and why)

Several months ago designer Vitorio Miliano asked me to do some statistical analysis for a project he was undertaking profiling the Austin design community.  Vitorio had distributed a survey across various design-related groups in Austin in one of the first community-wide attempts to see who these people are, what they want from their community, and whether those needs are being met.  It culminated in an essay about local design communities that was published in the first issue of Distance.  (We also developed a 2012 version of the survey and event response cards to help others in tracking their own local communities — if you’d like to implement these, please contact us.)

We gained a lot of insights from analyzing the survey, such as the fact that junior practitioners (the people who would seemingly get the most from local events) are more likely to miss events simply because they don’t keep track of what’s going on (whereas senior practitioners are more likely to know what’s happening, but not have time to attend).  But there were several other trends that didn’t quite fit in Vitorio’s essay, such as the statistics of event draw.  Austin’s design organizations have hosted a wide array of events, including presentations, many happy hours, tables for eight, panels, lunches, and workshops.  Each appeals to different types of people who want to accomplish different things at these meetings, and professionally.

Much of this will be most relevant to group organizers, where decisions like venue and event type can literally mean the difference between 5 attendees and 50.  But this information also has value for attendees.  If your primary interest is comparing notes with company founders, lunches may be your best bet.  But if you just want to get away from work and socialize with other professionals, skip lunch and go to a happy hour.

Over the coming week, we’ll be examining the insights we gained about various types of events.  We begin with an overview of the community at large, and then highlight unique characteristics among individuals interested in particular types of events.

Before proceeding, however, do read the caveats below.  This work is highly exploratory and should not be regarded as definitive.  But consider it a first step toward user-centered design for our professional community events.


Several caveats are in order.

1. The current analysis is largely exploratory, meaning that our goal is to extract interesting trends that we can investigate further in future studies.  For the statisticians out there, I have not controlled familywise error in these analyses (it was, however, controlled in the analyses reported in Vitorio’s essay).  This means that some of the trends reported here are likely due to chance.

2. We are primarily examining differences across groups.  We’re just looking to see if people in certain groups are more likely than average to display certain traits or interests.

3. This survey represents only the small subset of the web and design community in Austin who could be reached via the mailing lists of local organizations.  This means that people who are not on one of these mailing lists are most likely excluded from the sample.  For many group organizers, the holy grail is reaching those people who aren’t on any mailing list, and these survey results may not apply to them.

4. There may also be systematic variation within the survey respondents themselves.  For instance, members of the Austin UPA may respond differently from members of the WordPress Meetup, which might influence other observations.

5.  Self-report does not necessarily predict actual behavior.  While these results are probably reasonably good representations of people’s wishes and interests, there is no guarantee that respondents’ reports are accurate.  In 2012, we hope to record actual attendance at various types of meetings around Austin in order to better predict true behavior.

Continue to Part 2: Overall community profile

Perceived affordances: Bridging innovation and usability

Can you describe the function of the object pictured below?

Internally lit orb with ramp

From A Plunge Into Space by Robert Cromie (1890)

While viewers may differ on the specifics, they tend to arrive at roughly the same conclusion: it’s a structure that houses humans.

Now what about this one?

Large flat machine

From Tom Corbett Space Cadet: The Space Pioneers by Carey Rockwell (1953)

Giant scale? Portable stage? Simultaneous-play DDR dance pad for a 30-person troupe? It’s much more difficult to tell what this object is actually meant to do.

Both of these images depict highly fantastic, imagined objects conceived for science fiction literature over fifty years ago. Neither strongly resembles anything we use today. So why is it that one object (the older one, no less) communicates a clear function to viewers, whereas the other remains ambiguous? The answer tells us a lot about how to create designs that are both innovative yet usable.


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