Five Windows 8 design principles developers should make their own

Shane Schick

Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) chief experience evangelist would probably never want to be caught sounding like someone from Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), but in a recent talk about the way the company approached the design of Windows 8 and mobility, Chris Bernard's story could best be summed up in two words: Think different. Speaking at the recent MoDevTablet conference in Arlington, Va, Bernard said the shift towards smartphones and apps meant that the world's biggest software company had to go back to the drawing board with the upcoming revamp of its flagship operating system. The exercise lead to what he described as a new philosophy around design at Microsoft and a set of core principles that all engineers and developers involved in Windows 8 have come to embrace. As I heard these rules, it occurred to me that they might be worth embracing by app developers as a whole.

Although some old posters with the heading "We Are Metro" (Microsoft has since distanced itself from the Metro name) were once seen posted around Redmond, Wash., the tenets that follow are like any other best practices. They are completely common sense, except that people can easily forget them unless they're somehow codified. The rules are as follows:

Do more with less: Microsoft knows all about software getting too complicated. Bernard showed various iterations of Microsoft Word from its earliest days onward, where popular functions got buried underneath drop-down menus until the company came up with the love-it-or-hate-it "ribbon" style of navigation bar. With Windows 8, there was even less room to work with on mobile devices, a fact Bernard said Microsoft decided to turn into an advantage.

Fast and Fluid: Windows 8 is about offering a platform on which apps will be continually responsive to user imput and more adaptive to their needs, Bernard said. This hasn't always happened in the past because apps were synchronous--they had to wait until one thing stopped until they could do something else. Mobile users want their apps and OS to operate in the same multi-tasked manner as they do themselves.

Pride in craftsmanship: This is not to suggest previous versions of Windows aren't well made, but Bernard said the emphasis is now on taking time and effort around small details that will be noticed by the world at large, and to offer a "complete, more polished experience" for customers, Bernard said. Too many apps look like works in progress, waiting for their next update.

Authentically digital: You can try to represent real-world interactions in software by creating an animation that mimics a finger turning a page, or you can try to create a user experience that really works with the medium the consumer is using. Touch technology has really broadened the possibilities here, and developers could do be more creative with it, Bernard suggested.

Win as one: Recognize that this is a community of developers, not Microsoft vs. the world or one developer trying to win above all others. Focus on integration with other apps and other devices to simplify the user experience.

We won't really know until Oct. 26, when Windows 8 is released, whether Microsoft fully lives up to these design principles. However, that doesn't mean developers can't demonstrate some leadership by adopting these as their own, even if they aren't developing for Windows.

Consider how might developers build upon these principles and offer their own additions to the list. This is the kind of conversation the industry needs to have. It's not about creating rules all developers follow but identifying values all developers can share-- values they have learned, of course, by listening to and respecting their customers.--Shane