Whenever Microsoft needs to make a radical change in the way they do things, they bring in a hip Asian guy. That’s why they’ve got me shaking things up on Microsoft Canada’s Tech Evangelism Team, and it’s also why Albert Shum is redefining the way Microsoft does mobile phones in his role as the Director of Microsoft’s Mobile Experience Design Team. True to my earlier statement that Canadian techies have been punching well above their weight class since Alexander Graham Bell, Albert studied engineering and architecture at the University of Waterloo.
Here’s a video featuring Albert talking about the design philosophies behind the completely reworked from-the-ground-up Windows Phone 7. It’s featured in the Microsoft News Centre article Windows Phone Designer Seeks the Right Balance.
I like what he says at the end of the video:
What will our users see first? I think hopefully they’ll see themselves in the phone. I think that’s a really key part of how we designed it. It’s really focused on making this phone your phone. We took the idea of making it personal, so that when you look at the start experience, it’s about your content. It’s about your people, it’s your pictures, it’s your music, it’s presented way up there.
My phone is going to be different than your phone, and I think that’s a really key part: that personalized way of navigating the thing that you care about, the things that you want to share, the things you want to listen to, and those are the key moments where we first present that it’s your phone.
If you’re thinking up ideas for applications to write for Windows Phone, keep what Albert says in mind: it’s not about feature lists; it’s all about the user and the user experience.
Ever since joining The Empire, I’ve been saying that Windows Mobile needs to go back to the drawing board. While there was good technology lying in its innards – mobile versions of the .NET framework, SQL Server and Office – treating the mobile form factor as “the desktop, but much, much smaller”, was the wrong approach. In the meantime, the Esteemed Competition were doing the right thing: designing their phones’ OS features and interface from the ground up rather than attempting to force-fit the desktop UI into a pocket UI.
There are three mandatory hardware buttons, which are context-sensitive:
Windows (the “Start” button)
The screen is a capacitive touch-screen, capable of supporting multi-touch
The Start menu is built up of tiles: little block representing the information and features that you care most about
You can add your own custom tiles; Joe shows a “me” tile linked to his Facebook profile
A browser with:
Support for multitouch actions such as pinch zoom, double-tap to zoom and finger drag
Very readable text, that to sub-pixel positioning in HTML
Phone number recognition in HTML documents; touch them to dial them
Street address recognition in HTML documents; touch them to get a map
The “People Hub”
Aggregates Exchange, Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and other mail contacts
Provides a live feed of your contacts
Press the “Search” button while in the People Hub, and you search your people list
Press the “Search” button while in the Start menu, and it runs a web search
Based on your query, it knows whether to give you a web search result or a local search result
In the demo, Joe does a search for pizza and gets a map and results for pizzerias near him, and a quick pan over to adjacent pages yield directions and reviews
A tap on “nearby” yield the locations of useful things like parking, ATMs and so on near the selected pizzeria
In another demo search, Joe does a search for “Avatar” and it returns a list of nearby theatres and times for the movie Avatar; a quick pan to an adjacent page yields the results for local business and places with “Avatar” in the name
Easy pivoting between unread, flagged and urgent emails
A caching system prevents you from seeing the dreaded “loading” screen
Press “Search” within email and you perform a search of your email messages, by subject, text and so on
Rotation: you can operate the phone in “portrait” or “landscape” mode
Support for both work and personal calendars
ActiveSync works in the background and keeps the phone synced with email, contacts and calendar
User-customizable UI colour schemes
The “Pictures Hub”
Gallery: Lets you browse all the pictures on your phone
Mosaic: Recent and favourite pictures
What’s New: New photos from your social networks
Camera roll: A folder for photos taken with your phone
Support for photo albums from Facebook and Windows Live, which you browse as if they lived right on your phone
Music and Video
History: Most recently played music and videos
New: New music and videos added since the last sync
Zune HD-style marketplace searching and support for Zune subscriptions with unlimited music plays
The “Me” tile
Lets you update your status on places like Facebook
Nice little typing features like auto-spelling-correction and a special soft keyboard for emoticons
The UI concept: Windows Phone is task-centric, not app-centric, with a hub associated with each: people, photos, media
There’s also a games hub, which ties into Xbox Live
Third-party applications and games? Wait…
Wait a Minute…What About Third-Party Apps and Games?
Can you wait a month?
Here’s the deal: the announcement at Mobile World Congress was about showing what Windows Phone can do. As for what’s possible on the developer front, it’ll all be announced at the MIX10 Conference, which takes place from March 15th through 17th in Las Vegas.
It’s different. The face of Windows Phone 7 is not a rectangular grid of thumbnail-sized glossy-looking icons, arranged in a pattern of 4×4 or so, like basically every other phone. No, instead, an oversized set of bright, superflat squares fill the screen. The pop of the primary colors and exaggerated flatness produces a kind of cutting-edge crispness that feels both incredibly modern and playful. Text is big, and beautiful. The result is a feat no phone has performed before: Making the iPhone’s interface feel staid.
If you want to know what it feels like, the Zune HD provides a taste: Interface elements that run off the screen; beautiful, oversized text and graphics; flipping, panning, scrolling, zooming from screen to screen; broken hearts. Some people might think it’s gratuitous, but I think it feels natural and just…fun. There’s an incredible sense of joie de vivre that’s just not in any other phone. It makes you wish that this was aesthetic direction all of Microsoft was going in.
The design and layout of 7 Series’ UI (internally called Metro) is really quite original, utilizing what one of the designers (Albert Shum, formerly of Nike) calls an "authentically digital" and "chromeless" experience. What does that mean? Well we can tell you what it doesn’t mean — no shaded icons, no faux 3D or drop shadows, no busy backgrounds (no backgrounds at all), and very little visual flair besides clean typography and transition animations. The whole look is strangely reminiscent of a terminal display (maybe Microsoft is recalling its DOS roots here) — almost Tron-like in its primary color simplicity. To us, it’s rather exciting. This OS looks nothing like anything else on the market, and we think that’s to its advantage. Admittedly, we could stand for a little more information available within single views, and we have yet to see how the phone will handle things like notifications, but the design of the interface is definitely in a class of its own.