Microsoft’s designers act a little like city planners for a user interface revamp that the company hopes goes the distance.
Windows 10 is an ambitious operating system, and for inspiration on how to translate its many capabilities to useful, visually engaging features for users on a multitude of device types, the company turned to the layout of urban areas.
“Our design approach is evolving from our rich history in transportation graphics and the International Typographic Style,” Albert Shum, design lead at Microsoft’s Operating Systems group, wrote in a lengthy blog post exploring Windows 10’s attention to detail. “Today we’re moving toward an approach that is somewhat like designing a city.”
A top priority is to create a consistent look and feel and a navigable environment that still allows for the occasional flashes of creativity, hallmarks of many cities. “We’re creating a foundation, or a common grid, that maintains the order and standards that make a city work, yet also has flexibility that enables expression and a distinct sense of place,” said Shum.
Windows 10 will run on a wide range of devices, from smartphones to an 84-inch wall-mounted teleconferencing and whiteboard system. To maintain those attributes across a variety of screen sizes, Shum’s team is using adaptive user experience (UX) techniques that are more welcoming to users coming from other platforms. “With our universal apps and adaptive UX, we have an approach to design that lets developers build one app, but still tailor the UX to each device when it makes sense,” Shum wrote.
“We can use a hamburger [Menu] icon without pivots on a PC version of the app for better keyboard and mouse navigation and then customize the same app to have pivots with swipe control for better one-hand use on mobile,” he continued. “We’re making it possible for an app to have both hamburger and pivot controls—but to display the right control at the right time on the right device.”
For the new Microsoft Edge (formerly Project Spartan) browser, the company is debuting a design “that’s more contemporary and simple, and is better integrated with the overall Windows 10 experience,” Shum said.
The browser will also behave as expected across devices. This entails “both a common visual style for the app across the Windows 10 device family, and consistent top edge placement of the address bar as the most prominent element of the browser.” In contrast, the touch-friendly Internet Explorer modern app for Windows 8.1 displays the address bar on the bottom of the screen while the desktop version maintains its traditional spot near the top of the browser window.
Some features, like task switching, are still up in the air, Shum said.
“Lots of people have noticed that our task switching on the phone seems to be backwards (i.e., the reading order is going from left-to-right instead of right-to-left the way it was in the past,” he said. Microsoft is still gathering the feedback and weighing whether to implement a single user experience to build “muscle memory” across devices. “We want to have a good understanding of how tough it is for phone users to relearn before we make a final call.”