Former Windows Phone designer defends Windows 10's big, controversial changes

Windows 10 for phones outlook mail
Credit: Mark Hachman

It’s no coincidence that Windows 10 on smartphones will bear a greater resemblance to Android and iOS, according to a former Windows Phone designer.

The designer, who helped create the new version of Office for Windows Phone before leaving Microsoft last year, took to Reddit to explain the upcoming changes in Windows 10. It turns out that many design elements beloved by Windows Phone fans—including swipe-based menus and an emphasis on the bottom of the screen for interaction—never clicked with mainstream users.

As such, Microsoft is stripping away many of those elements in Windows 10, and has gravitated toward concepts from Android and iOS that have proven popular. For instance, several apps in the latest preview build use a “hamburger menu” (so-named for its icon, whose three horizontal lines look vaguely sandwich-like) in the top-left corner for navigation, replacing the swipe-based carousel model. They also have more buttons near the top of the screen, rather than the bottom.

Why this matters: The new app designs in Windows 10 have drawn the ire of hardcore Windows Phone fans, who feel the operating system is losing its unique qualities. The designer’s comments suggest that this individuality came at a cost: For the average user, Windows Phone was just too hard to grasp, and unique benefits like easy one-handed use weren’t worth the trade-off as Microsoft experimented with alternatives.

Carousels and bottom buttons begone

The designer’s argument against the old Windows Phone design starts with the “carousel” or “pivot” menu, in which users had to swipe through several screens to navigate an app. The designer referred to this as “mystery meat navigation” for the way it required multiple swipes to find things. Test data showed it to be unpopular.

As an alternative, the Windows Phone Office team started experimenting with a title bar at the top of the screen, along with a back button to return to the document list. Some “hero actions” made their way to this title bar as well, but the designers soon discovered they had far too many actions to place on that top bar. They didn’t want to hide these actions in the ribbon menu on the bottom of the screen, so they settled on a hamburger menu as a way to find less common commands like “print.”

windows 10 for phones 2 Mark Hachman

Why not put the hamburger menu on the bottom of the screen for one-handed access? Don’t forget, the document title is also on the same line. To preserve one-handed use without losing this title, the designers would either have to create a second bar on the bottom of the screen, or cram everything at the bottom, “putting it at odds with every mobile OS on the planet,” the designer said.

And in the end, research showed that users are okay with two-handed use for less common actions. “Frequently used things have to be reachable, even one-handed,” the designer wrote. “But hamburgers are not frequently used, and one-handed use is not ironclad.”

It’s a compelling argument, but the existing Windows 10 preview build still seems to go too far in throwing out actions on the bottom of the screen. In the Project Spartan browser, for instance, the URL and tab buttons are now on the top of the screen, despite being the most common elements that users will reach for. The designer’s comments make clear that Microsoft isn’t going back to its old design, but there must be a way for Windows 10 to strike a better balance.

This story, "Former Windows Phone designer defends Windows 10's big, controversial changes" was originally published by PCWorld.

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