Authentically digital - Microsoft Design Style Series Part 5

Brent Schooley / Monday, September 24, 2012

In the previous post in this series, we went through the second of five principles that guide successful Windows Store application design, be fast and fluid. Today I would like to talk about the third principle: Authentically digital.  This is by far the most controversial principles and it is the one that is most difficult for me to write and speak about since I'm not 100% sold on some of it's tenets.  That being said, it is a fundamental piece of gives Windows 8 design its "modern" look.  In this post, I'll briefly discuss the differences between Windows 8 design and the design of other mobile platforms and describe the key elements that set the Microsoft design style apart from these platforms stylistically.  

Microsoft Metro  Authentically Digital

What do you mean "authentically digital"?

Well, as we've done in the other principles where needed, let's start with some definitions.  I think the most applicable definition of 'authentic' from Merriam-Webster in this case is probably: true to one's own personality, spirit, or character.  Interestingly, when it comes to 'digital' we're not really concerned with the more technical definitions such as: of, relating to, or using calculation by numerical methods or by discrete units or being in the form of binary digits.  By 'digital', in this case we're actually looking for this definition: characterized by electronic and especially computerized technology.  So, using these definitions as a guide, "authentically digital" can be defined as: true to the personality, spirit, or character of computerized technology.  Anything that goes against this goal of being true to the spirit of computerized technology would not qualify as "authentically digital".  This brings us to the controversial aspect of this whole principle: skeuomorphism.

What the heck is "skeuomorphism"?

Skeuomorphism is loosely defined on Wikipedia as "an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material".  An example from the physical world is the leather grain texture applied to a lot of vinyl automobile interiors.  This concept can be applied to software design as well.  A prime example of skeuomorphism that is often cited by its opponents is the bookshelf in Apple's iBooks app for the iPad.  Notice how much meticulous design went into the creation of the wood grain shelves that the purely digital books are resting on.  This is skeuomorphism and it is the exact opposite of what we mean by "authentically digital".

Ibooks shelf

I recently wrote about "skeuomorphism" on  As you can tell from what I wrote there, I'm not an opponent of it.  It definitely has its place in design and I do not have a problem with designers using it to enhance my experience.  My colleague Ambrose Little has written about this subject a few times as well and I'd recommend reading his posts "Authentic Auschmentic" and "Skeuomorphic Design is Bad" for more angles on this hot topic.  A former iPhone UI designer was recently interviewed about this as well.  Obviously not everyone agrees that it's a good thing.  Read this article to get a look at the opposing viewpoint and check out for a collection of skeuomorphic design examples complete with comments berating them.

Whether you agree or disagree with the usage of skeuomorphic design elements, one thing should be made perfectly clear:  skeuomorphic design elements should not be used in Windows 8 apps.  If we are to be true to the digital nature of our devices and the apps that run on them, we need to leave the leather grain at the door and focus on clean and modern looking interfaces.  These interfaces focus on clean typography and the bold use of colors which I have mentioned in a previous post about the Microsoft design principles.  I won't rehash those here, but review that if you need to since this is a great application of those concepts.

What else can "authentically digital" apply to?

If we're talking about digital in the context of "the digital age" then we certainly have to acknowledge a few other aspects of "authentically digital".  In the digital age, people are constantly on the move.  I might start my day on my tablet, move to my phone or laptop as I sit on public transit heading into work, use my desktop once I get there, and then go in reverse through this list of devices as I head home.  It would be fantastic if my data could come along for the ride and be available from all of these devices.  This is where designing around the concept of "the cloud" becomes very important.   The very best apps will be able to roam from one device to the next seamlessly without the user ever having to think about it.  Part of doing this successfully is acknowledging that our apps will need to be used on a variety of devices and form factors.  In my example above, I have a phone, a tablet, a laptop, and a desktop.  These are most likely all different screen resolutions and densities and they have a wide variety of input types from touch to pen to keyboard and mouse.  We need to get the experience right for all of these different devices in order to pull off the seamless transition our users will come to expect over the next few years.  Concepts like "designing for touch" that I discussed in the previous post become really important building blocks of being "authentically digital".

Wrap-up and a look ahead

In this post I introduced the third of five Microsoft design principles.  I provided definitions for 'authentic' and 'digital' that are serviceable for creating a solid definition for "authentically digital".  I shed some light on why this principle might be regarded as controversial and offered viewpoints from both sides of the debate.  I also talked about how "being cloud connected" is another aspect of "authentically digital" that we should definitely take advantage of and plan for in our apps.  In the next post, I'll move on to the fourth principle: "Do more with less".

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to comment below, find me on Twitter @brentschooley, or contact me at