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Windows 8 Not a Magic Bullet for App Design

Billy Hollis regaled the audience with his trademark wit and passion during his talk on app design at the Visual Studio Live! Conference in Las Vegas last week. While the audience enjoyed a good laugh, Hollis' underlying message was dead serious: Microsoft line-of-business developers need to challenge themselves to master design concepts -- and they need to do it soon.

Hollis said that sleek consumer apps in smartphones and iPads are conditioning users -- both inside and outside corporate walls -- to value thoughtful design in app interfaces. Dense and haphazard Windows Forms UIs that pack dozens of controls on a screen are simply not acceptable anymore.

Projecting a mockup of a nightmare Windows Form UI on the screen, Hollis challenged attendees to take bad design personally, telling them to "be unsatisfied" when they see poorly designed apps.

"You need to feel emotionally unsatisfied if you end up with a kludged-up adaptation," he said during an interview the day after the presentation.

'Microsoft Understands the Danger'
There was urgency in Hollis' voice as he talked about missed opportunities in the Microsoft ecosystem to improve the state of application design.

"When XAML started up we really went heavily into that space and I just immersed myself in design," said Hollis, who at the time expected the developer community to take advantage of XAML to create unique new interfaces. It didn't happen.

"It's a huge missed opportunity. And not only a missed opportunity -- it's a pretty big risk associated with it," Hollis said. "I remember when IBM went from dominating the entire IT industry to irrelevant, in 10 years. In 1985 they ruled everything. In 1995 they were irrelevant."

IBM was upended by its inability to respond to the PC revolution, Hollis said, adding that Microsoft faces no less a threat from the visual revolution that is redefining users' relationship with their computers and devices. If Microsoft developers fail to meet the increasingly sophisticated expectations of users, then developers in other ecosystems will.

"Microsoft understands the danger," he said.

Getting into a Design State of Mind
Microsoft has taken urgent action to close the design gap between its various platforms and those produced by Apple. Touch-savvy Windows Phone and Windows Store apps, with their minimalist UIs and explicit community design guidelines, reflect Microsoft's commitment to meeting user expectations.

But Hollis said that Microsoft faces a challenge as it works to build design expertise.

"Acquiring that discipline is a three- to four-year process. How long has Microsoft been working on it? Two years," Hollis said. "It's inevitable that they will get better at it. But they need to get better quickly."

How can developers improve their ability to design visually compelling and coherent app interfaces? Hollis' first piece of advice is to get emotional.

"Design is about emotion, intuition and other right-brain things," he said. "I tell [developers] to go out and learn to sketch, go to a museum, take pictures of things in the real world that reflect good and bad design."

Hollis said developers need to press users' buttons with their application designs. Characteristics like size, color, shape and relative position can guide user attention. He further advises developers to find ways to cast important information in a way that makes the most sense for users, and not for the computers serving them. A pediatrician's app, for instance, might prominently display the age of the patient, rather than his or her date of birth.

"Humans are programmed with responses," he explained. "If you take advantage of that you can help people make better and faster decisions."

Posted by Michael Desmond on 04/01/2013