An exercise in poor user experience design: the new Windows Phone

If someone were to ask me:

Jason, how do I do as poor of a job as possible designing a user interface?

I would do no more than point you to Windows Phone. Pictured below, the new Windows Phone teaches us the principles of user experience design through what not to do.

One can only hope that this is a snarky joke from Redmond. User interface design isn’t really that complicated, and with their resources, one would expect something at least average. Instead, what we get is almost a control sample, a base case — something reminiscent of a prototype, or a “build a smartphone OS in 5 minutes of LISP” YouTube video.

Let’s have a look at the device:

The new Windows Phone by Nokia

The most obvious difference from the classic approach is the “Tile” interface on the home screen. Oh good — just what I wanted! Icons that consume more space and yet provide NO extra information value! So I get to have access to far less tools, with no benefit whatsoever! Phenomenal.

Rule #1 of user interface design: balance form and function.

I get that they’re trying to be nouveau and different and rebrand themselves so they survive. But you can’t do that at the expense of functionality — it’s a great balancing act. When I look at that screen, I get scarcely more information than Blackberry v1.0.

When designing interfaces, there’s always a temptation to add eye candy for eye candy’s sake. Fancy jQuery plugins and formatting tricks are the Sirens of web design, and have been the downfall of many a promising interface. Need more proof? Check this out:

Windows Phone

Cool! Text that’s comically too large, how Web 2.0! Again, Microsoft’s branding messages are more important than my experience as a user.

Which brings me to my next point. To design a pleasant user experience, it’s important to think from the perspective of the user. They want the shortest path possible between them and accomplishing whatever task they want. Extra scrolls, button clicks, menu selections and so forth are irritating — especially when unnecessary.

Rule #2 of user interface design: users want to provide minimal input.

Users don’t want tired fingers. Make it easy on them — less button clicks and screen changes, more information and satisfaction! It’s not a complicated thing.

Of course, Windows Phone falls flat on its face.

Pop quiz: how would you design an interface for presenting documents? Perhaps some sort of interface that shows each document with a little preview? Perhaps an extract from each document? Or to get fancy, a statistical algorithm to extract a key sentence from the document?

This is what Redmond came up with:

Excellent. A screen with the name of the document and a Windows 3.1 style icon.

Literally, that exact capability was in Windows 3.1, released at a time when I still believed the Tooth Fairy was real.

Cleverly, these documents are on a so-called “SkyDrive” — the Microsoft terminology for “Dropbox clone.” They even had the audacity to substitute “sky” for “cloud” — the only thing more nauseating than blatant imitation is blatant imitation masquerading as actual innovation. Yikes.

Rule #3: be original.

Now, set aside the fact that, in your fantasy interface, you would want to assure all document formats receive first-class support. If you had a little document preview pane in your document viewer, you would want to be sure that an document is equally well rendered as a PDF as an MS Office document as a PNG file.

Obviously, Microsoft doesn’t get that one, either. The software stack they describe on the phone is 100% The Windows Stack. Internet Explorer, Outlook, Office — literally an orgy of incompatibility for anyone who bucks the Redmond rulebook.

Which brings me to my final, and capstone, argument:

Rule #4: it’s not about you, it’s about the user.

Microsoft — next release, think more about me and what I want than yourselves and what you want.



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