The World is Flat Again! Thanks to Microsoft?

The mobile user interface has completed a fairly dramatic shift with the release of iOS7 On the desktop we aren’t quite there bit I imagine the changes aren’t going to be that far behind.

Possibly due to the blandness of character user interfaces (CHUIs) that came before them and the general lack of familiarity with computing, graphical user interfaces (GUIs) brought with them the possibility for lifelike objects to be shown and manipulated on a computer screen with the intent of making computing accessible to all.

The early generations of GUIs had comparatively low pixel density, restrictive colour palettes (256 colours was a real luxury) and very little in the way of graphics horsepower. The UI design world decided to harness this modest power predominantly by adding user interface clues such as pronounced bevels to objects so that they screamed ‘press me’, ‘grab me’ and ‘move me’. Icons were another area where some lifelike representation was attempted, so as to reference a real-life object and give the user a clue as to what function the application performed.

Over time, colour depth and graphics horsepower has increased at quite an astonishing rate whilst pixel density has increased more steadily. This extra pixel-pushing power and colour depth was initially harnessed by trying even harder to replicate the real world, representing user interface elements as stone, glass or water including shadows and transparency. Surfaces such as felt, leather and paper (torn paper that is) were also introduced to the mix. Media players were made to look like stereo systems, sound recorders were given sound pressure level needles and a whole host of other real-life metaphors made it to user interface, often artistically beautiful but functionally useless. This approach to user interface design is often referred to as skeuomorphism and made a lot sense as normal people took to computing in droves quite unlike ever before.

Today given that even a low powered budget mobile device has orders of magnitude more power than the a high powered personal computer from just a decade ago, both graphically and in terms of processing power. This combined with a touch interface which allows more natural interaction can now achieve the dream of making interaction with objects in computing even more ‘real’ resulting in the ultimate in accessibility for those that pick up a device.

Instead, an interesting trend has emerged. The big three building these UIs have decided that they shouldn’t actually look like the real world and instead ‘authentically digital’ as one of them describes it. The reasoning is that the demographic primarily interacting with these objects in the computing world are more familiar with doing so than they are manipulating the equivalent, and slowly becoming defunct, ‘real world’ objects. This generation doesn’t really understand why you’d tear a page off a calendar, what is so great about a yellow-paged notepad, how to read sound pressure level needles or why it is so important that board game pieces are made of marble.

‘Authentically digital’ means that there are now no bezels, stone, felt or water. These metaphors are replaced with lines of various weightings where necessary but in most cases just text and invisible lines implied by its typography. Motion effects are still in place to complement the gestures being made. Everything superfluous to achieving the task at hand is removed very much following a principle once stated by Antoine de Saint-Exupery who said “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. This leads to a flatter less cluttered user interface which is cleaner due to screen space not wasted by ‘eye candy’. I’m a huge fan.

The company to coin this ‘authentically digital’ expression, who in the past been ridiculed as having little or no design prowess, has been the leader in this transformation. It is quite obvious that this company has taken a very extreme approach to applying these principles but still achieved a very pleasing experience in doing so. This company is Microsoft. Google followed shortly behind with Apple, despite being held up as a purveyor of good design, being the laggard in the pack.

As I commented in my write-up of my wife’s Nokia Lumia 800, Windows Phone is heavily typography based with flat icons which in the case of built-in applications are two colours – whatever you choose as the accent colour and white. In fact if the display had a high enough pixel density (say 600ppi), you could probably get away with a 16 colour palette – 4 bit colour.

Apple’s approach is slightly different but still very pleasing. Not quite as extreme as Microsoft’s effort, a very small amount of what could arguably be described as skeuomorphism still exists in the UI, for the most part everything is typography and flat interactive elements with a small amount of transparency used to very good effect. Icons are generally very simple but most include a gradient so not something you could achieve with a colour depth of 4 bits. It’s a very good effort resulting in a much more pleasant and calmer feeling environment than iOS6. Apple should be applauded as the new ‘skin’ that they have put on what is essentially the same UI as iOS6 changes the operating system completely.

We are also starting to see the same principles being applied to desktop operating systems with Microsoft leading the way again with the somewhat polarizing Windows 8. I wonder whether we will see Apple change OS X.

It’s difficult to say whether Apple and Google followed Microsoft or came to the same conclusion a little later. I hope it’s the former because I like the irony of Microsoft leading a design charge.

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