User Experience

With the advent of graphical user interfaces, creating the perfect experience for computer users has been more important than ever. Well designed applications should allow the user to complete their task with as little effort as possible.

Windows 8.1 – Ultrawide Multitasking

When I recently decided to set up a new workstation at home, I had a look at the available monitors. Without really thinking about it I assumed I’d just get a standard 16:9 monitor, but then I stumbled upon an article about an LG all in one PC with a crazy wide 21:9 screen. This really sparked my interest. Not in the PC itself – but how these ultra wide screens work with Windows 8.1.

Being a fan of Dell monitors, I decided to invest in a 29 inch Dell Ultrawide – so far it has done everything I’ve wanted, and I’ve been very happy with it.

Dell Ultrawide

Windows 8.1′s snap feature allows you to use up to four different applications at the same time with one of these Ultrawide screens. This extra horizontal space has drastically changed how I use Windows at home.

All of these screenshots are real examples of how I use Windows, and were taken over a few weeks of actual use. Basic tasks like email and note taking aren’t included, as I didn’t want to have to censor the content.


Writing a Blog Post

Writing a Blog Post

  1. Xbox Music
  2. Internet Explorer
  3. Internet Explorer

Arranging Tasks & Calendar Appointments

Arranging Tasks & Calendar Appointments

  1. Mail
  2. Calendar
  3. OneNote
  4. Xbox Music

Finding New Music

Finding New Music

  1. Internet Explorer
  2. Xbox Music

Looking for a Computer New Bag

Looking for Computer Bag Ideas

  1. Flipboard
  2. OneNote

Watching Windows Weekly

Watching Windows Weekly

  1. Twitter
  2. Twit.tv

ultrawide-10

Exploring the World

  1. Bing Maps
  2. Star Chart

Metro vs. Your Own Design Language

Facebook Banner

There was a little stir about the Facebook Beta for Windows Phone when it came out. Check out the comments on the official post. A few news sites covered the release, which ended in similar comments. This got me thinking about my view on the situation…

Why has the Metro design gone? Where is the uniqueness of Windows Phone?

Yes, as immediately noticed by those who care – the app doesn’t use the Metro hub pattern that the previous app used, but in my opinion it doesn’t matter because Facebook have their own design language.

Facebook News Feed

In March Facebook announced an update to the News Feed that will bring a lot of design elements from their mobile applications into their main web application, here they clearly state that they’re after a consistent user experience across all of their platforms. While there’s no doubt that the design borrows heavily from Android and iOS apps, but – more importantly to me – it also is very similar to the mobile web experience, which was my primary way of accessing Facebook throughout the day.

Original, Web and New Facebook Experiences for Windows Phone

But the principles are forward looking and similar to Metro, Facebook are focussing on stories and imagery, removing clutter and keeping their distinctive look with the typography and colour choices that users are familiar with. See below an example of how the same information is displayed on both the old and new versions of the Facebook app for Windows Phone. Which one looks more like Facebook?

Old and New Facebook App

By focussing on Facebook design language rather than Windows Phone design language, they’re actually following one of the most important UI principles for Windows Phone – content over chrome. Where the Facebook experience is the content, and the previous Metro UI treatments – like larger fonts and the main panorama – were essentially just chrome.

Does this mean the end of the Metro design language? Obviously not.

My personal view is that the built in templates that come with Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 are to be used as starting points. You get a lot of good design for free that way, but if your application has its own way of doing things then the Microsoft development tools will allow you to craft them. Real designers make the best decisions from the options that are available to them. In this case, the consistent Facebook experience makes the most sense.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

When I had my first Windows PC, I spent a large amount of my time in the DOS environment, playing with scripts and trying to optimize memory. When I went into Windows I had access to cool applications like Solitaire… but most of the things I had ran in DOS.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

Windows 8 is like that today, most of the applications I need to complete tasks – be that for work or for personal endeavours – are well established on the Desktop UI paradigm. I tend to use laptops mainly, but when I’m working I plug the laptop into a monitor and a keyboard to get stuff done.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

I use a lot of utilities in the desktop for various development tasks, including F#, Python, Ruby, Vim, Filezilla, WinMerge, Fl.ux, KatMouse – all of which are portable applications which do not require installation. I keep these inside my Scripts folder and usually access them via PowerShell commands.

Because these applications sit inside my Scripts directory I get a number of benefits:

  1. I can sync the tools between computers (manually or via the cloud)
  2. I don’t need to sit through loads of installs on new machines (and remove the icons from the start screen!)
  3. I can be sure I always have a rich development environment for when I need to build software

On top of my scripts, I also run a number of proper desktop applications that require installing. Chrome, Office, Visual Studio, SQL Server, the Windows SDK and a few more.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

Once I have all these applications installed, Windows 8 gives me everything I need to get tasks done. I have Email, Word Processing, Spreadsheets, and an extremely rich development and scripting environment thanks to Visual Studio and PowerShell.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

My Desktop doesn’t include a number of things – apps don’t want to see there. No instant messenger, news readers or weather apps. That kind of information is made visible directly through the start screen and its use of Live Tiles. Clicking on the tile takes you to a full screen application that brings your focus to the task at hand.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

The full desktop is just one click away. If I want to check if a Visual Studio build has completed I can just flick back to check. This combination of the new and old interfaces seems to work perfectly for me. Taking all the distractions out of the desktop, and moving them into their own space. If I want to play a game of Solitaire – it takes over the full screen, giving me a rich experience. One click in the top left hand corner and I’m back in the desktop with all my windows exactly as they were.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

Am I going to continue using the desktop to access applications and consoles? Yup. Windows 8 has more than this though. The new applications we have today are pretty good. The Bing app has turned out to be extremely useful, for example. But where the new apps currently lag is in the more complex tasks like photo manipulation or music creation.

These kinds of experiences would be better in the full screen UI, and I’m very interested in finding out what the likes of Adobe and Propellerhead Software come up with in the future. But at the moment their products like Photoshop and Reason will have to be accessed via the multi-tasking desktop interface.

Many windows features are still only available in the desktop interface. Most notably File Explorer. There’s no way of casually browsing your file system through the new user interface. Sure you can select files to open inside of other applications – but if you fancy just browsing around – you are out of luck.

Through my use, I can say that Windows 8 has surpassed Windows 7 for its ability to get stuff done with a mouse and keyboard. The new start screen is also going to provide a rich user experience for touch input, and the new applications will really shine in these finger friendly scenarios.

While Using Windows 7 now feels like going back in time, I still think there is work to be done with Windows 8. It’ll be interesting to see if Windows Blue brings any changes to the desktop interface.

The ‘Metro Inspired’ Interface

We recently saw the release of the Office 2013 Preview which has been received by many as one of the best looking and best executed reboots by Microsoft. The preview is very consumer focused (which is where Microsoft is lagging) and includes some very interesting cloud integration features – like saving to SkyDrive by default.

The thing I want to talk about now is a trend that has been coming at Microsoft for a while now – everything is moving over the Metro look and feel, but there is a distinction between an application that is ‘Metro style‘ and ‘Metro inspired’ the first is built for the new Windows 8 user experience, and the second is just an existing Windows application which has been built with the Metro Design philosophy in mind. (Yes I’m going to keep calling it Metro, for now)

Part of the confusion on the Metro name is due to this shift, and we actually have two things:

  • New Windows 8 Applications (Metro style)
  • Any app designed with the Metro philosophy (Metro inspired)

Now ‘Metro style’ applications are going to be known as Windows Store Applications. But we’ve had no word on what the Metro inspired applications are going to be called yet.

Below are a few of these ‘Metro inspired’ apps we have today…

The first of these applications pre-dates Windows 8 itself and was really the birth of the Metro design philosophy on Windows. The Zune desktop software has always had many of the original design features which we now know as Metro design – big on typography and whitespace.

I spend a massive amount of time in OneNote, and the 2013 version is so Metro it’s almost invisible. If you go into the full-screen mode.

Now applications from the Office Division are merging their ‘fluent’ ribbon interface with the Metro design that the Windows team has embraced. The combination is very interesting.

The Developer Division has also taken note, and Visual Studio 2012 has a really amazing (and controversial) look.

Personally, I really love this Metro look. I just wish Microsoft would decide exactly what we should be calling it. Until then – it’s Metro.

Photosynthesise

I’ve had two themes for this site since I started it in December 2010, and even the second one was only a small refinement of the first. Back then I figured that getting the site up and running was more important than the look itself, so I never really gave that much attention to the theme – until now.

Before the design of my new theme even started, I had to give the project a name. I decided to call it Photosynthesise, as I wanted to give the feeling of energy and growth. (Oh and also the signature colour is green!)

This time I thought I’d share my ideas behind the design process…

Goals

There were three things I really wanted to have for my Photosynthesise project:

  • A design built to fit inside a typographic grid
  • A design which evolves the current identity
  • A design that is great for all existing content

Thinking about space

While researching Swiss Style, I discovered that things look better in grids. I think this is a concept that everyone already knows, but really focusing on the grid when laying out a user interface gives it much more balance. The users may never be aware of the work you have done, but unconsciously – they’ll appreciate the eye for detail.

Switch on the grid to see how it looks.

Thinking about identity

My old site was green, and I decided to keep it. This time the new logo at the top was designed to be a lot smaller, allowing the title of the website to come outside of the coloured box. Designed in a 16×16 grid, the new logo will easily scale down to the microscopic resolutions of favicons, as well as scale nicely when zoomed up to higher definition.

Joining the signature green, the previous theme’s hyperlink colours have also been used throughout the new look. It will be no surprise to designers that this almost-RGB colour pallet is influenced by digital displays. Finally, three shades of grey and white make up all of the colours used throughout the design. The darkest of the greys is used in place of black to ensure the other colours are never overpowered.

The old site was based on Twenty Ten, which had a shape that was very similar to other WordPress blogs. I’m happy to continue to use this layout as it is familiar and user friendly. The overall size of typographical elements in the design is fairly large, something which has also continued over from the previous theme. This keeps the overall look of the site mostly the same as it was before, even though everything has been refined.

When it comes to the typography, I decided to go for Segoe UI for the body font. I had also greatly considered using either Calibri and Cambria, but I ultimately decided that I liked Segoe UI the most. The reason I picked Windows fonts is not by accident – as a Windows developer they feel very familiar to me, and I like writing in them.

Thinking about content

The content is the really tricky bit. Due to the fact I have previously used 600px wide images throughout the blog, I’ve decided to keep the content at that width. Consequently, images like the one above still have a big impact on the body text. Oh and I don’t have to resize everything.

“I feel like a pig shat in my head.” – Withnail

I’ve greatly improved the spacing of the text and other elements to make the whole content area flow with the 100+ posts I already have. I’ve also improved the ability to post quotes, code samples and console commands, handy when you spend as much time in PowerShell as I do.

Windows PowerShell
Copyright (C) 2009 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

PS>


To enable new discovery of content, I’ve improved the visibility of the categories and tags. Large blue links to the right of the content enable switching between categories, and now a new section at the bottom of each post makes the relevant tags much more visible.

I plan to keep tweaking the code over the next few days, but if you have any feedback or you’ve noticed any bugs please let me know in the comments!

Think Visibility March 2012

Last weekend saw the 7th Think Visibility conference at the Alea Casino in Leeds. Not only do Think Visibility conferences have great speakers, they also have butties for breakfast, plenty of food for lunch, pick and mix and a well stocked bar.

SEO for eCommerce

Though I’ve never been the lead developer or architect of an eCommerce site, I’ve worked on quite a few before. Barry Adams gave some very interesting advice for people looking to optimise the experience. Thinking about things like ‘basket countdowns’ is really fascinating – for example, people are going to spend more if they think they’re going to get free shipping.

Link Building Lessons from Swiss Toni

Jon Quinton from SEOgadget gave a talk about how he does link building. The most important take away from this for me is that lots of different tools are required to capture, scrape and analyse possible links – a problem that I’m actually trying to solve with the various SEO tools I’ve built.

So, I’m #1 in Google, Now What?

Kean Richmond gave a super interesting talk about design, which is something really different for the usual crowd of an SEO conference, and he gave an insight into how best to design stuff to make things easier for the user. He’s also published an interesting post about the Think Visibility experience (and his slides) which I suggest you check out.

25 Useful Things you can do with WordPress

Dan Harrison of WordPress Doctors gave us all a rundown of 25 tips for WordPress administrators. A few of these I’ve already implemented on a couple of my sites. You can find an ebook of WordPress tips on his website.

Saying Stuff is Dead… is Dead

James Carson gave a very entertaining talk about why people say that stuff is ‘dead’. My favourite part was his introduction to something he calls The Inbound Model, which is a great read.

Understanding Google Crawling & Indexing

The last talk of the conference was a high level explanation of how Google will crawl and index pages by Pierre Far of Google. I found this super interesting, though I guess it’s all stuff I kinda knew anyway. Pierre didn’t comment on ranking factors though, instead just referring to it as ‘magic’ – hmm.

For me this was the best Think Visibility I have attended, and I’ve had so many ideas since. Thanks to Dom Hodgson for arranging everything, and my buddies from Branded3 for keeping me company.

How I Use A Mouse

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that I tend to use mice slightly differently to everyone else I have worked with. I’m sure other people use mice in the same way, I’ve just not met any of them yet. I’ll try to explain how it works…

Most people tend to use their mice to the right of the keyboard. This is the way that the ‘instructions’ that come with computers suggest, and this is the layout that advertising material tends to show. Totally normal.

This makes sense because normally, when the user moves the mouse up on the desk, the cursor moves up on the screen. Obvious really.

I actually hold my mouse at a -90 degree angle to the way it is normally held. When I move the mouse to the left on the desk (though still up form the mouse’s point of view) the cursor moves up on the screen.

As you can see here, having the mouse in front of the keyboard means I can move my hand there faster than if I moved it to the right of the keyboard, by pivoting on my elbow.

When I’m not typing, I can actually have my arms folded while using the mouse. I find this very comfortable. I’m not sure when I started doing it, but I remember doing it around 2005, and I’ve always done it since.

Does anyone else do this?

Microsoft Future Vision

Every so often Microsoft make ‘Future Vision’ videos, and while both of the ones I have posted here were produced some time ago, I stumbled across them again recently so I thought I’d share them for anyone who hasn’t spotted them yet.

The basic concept is for the Office division to imagine where productivity will be in the next 5-10 years, without having to actually create the products today. Both of these videos have a similar feel (I actually prefer the 2011 video) and the technology in them is smart and subtle. Some of the technology is even starting to become real.

It’s this smart yet subtle concept that really connects me to the modern Microsoft design language, including Metro on Windows Phone and Windows 8.

2009

My favourites from the 2009 video have to be the smart school room, and the flexible newspaper display. Fantastic ideas.

2011

There are so many parts of the 2011 video I like, but most of all I like the way the devices work together. The taxi windows and hotel room computers become personal once hooked up to the smaller devices. A very powerful concept.

You can watch a few of the Microsoft Future Vision videos on the Office YouTube page, but I don’t think we’ll see a new one until next year.

Why the HP G62 is Horrible

My work laptop is powerful enough for what I’d like to do, but there are a couple of things that really annoy me about the design when compared to my less powerful personal laptop – a MacBook*.

The Pad

First of all, the track pad is pretty terrible. There’s no way to know when you’re at the edge and I sometimes just end up with my finger moving off the pad, and I’m confused as to why the cursor is not moving. It also has a pretty horrible button at the bottom. For some reason my thumb gravitates towards the middle – and clicking there means very little happens.

Apple laptops have these very large and very smooth pads which tend to work really well. But why can’t other PC makers come up with something that’s even close to it? (I know Samsung may have with their Series 9 – I’d like to try it)

The Keys

The second issue – and my biggest issue by far – is additon of the “Quick Launch” keys on the left hand side of the keyboard. Why the heck would anyone want these keys to be on the keyboard in the first place – never mind being right next to important keys like tab shift and control. Every single time I type on the laptop keyboard I hit that print key when I’m trying to press shift. And – as far as I know – there is no way to turn all of them off.

HP aren’t the only PC manufacturers doing this though, even Apple has a strip of specialized function keys at the top – but with Apple the whole experience is much nicer, and I have never pressed any of those keys when my muscle memory tells me I’m doing something else.

* My MacBook runs Windows.

Windows 8 must have a .NET story for the new UI

On one side, I’m excited about the prospects of HTML5-based applications coming to the new Windows 8 user interface which was revealed yesterday. But this has to be only part of the story. Would Microsoft alienate all their existing developers just to go for the next big thing?

The issue comes to play when you think about the current platforms. Many Microsoft developers have spent a long time learning in the WPF and Silverlight user interface frameworks. On this side of the fence things look rather bleak if, especially if you’re currently investing time and money on Windows Phone 7 application development.

But what’s the actual deal? Why are people so worried?

Julie Larson-Green: Today, we also talked a bit about how developers will build apps for the new system. Windows 8 apps use the power of HTML5, tapping into the native capabilities of Windows using standard JavaScript and HTML to deliver new kinds of experiences.

This sounds like it’s the only option for making apps for the new system. Yes I know this is a limited snippet, but there doesn’t seem more information than what is provided here.

We’ll find out for sure at the BUILD conference in September… but from my view they must have a .NET story for the new UI – they’ve invested far too much into the whole .NET ecosystem to not have it running on future tablets.