Do more with less - Microsoft Design Style Series Part 6

Brent Schooley / Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In the previous post in this series, we went through the third of five principles that guide successful Windows Store application design, authentically digital.  Today I would like to talk about the fourth principle: Do more with less.  This principle is all about focus.  Traditional application design has often led us to lose sight of what is important in our applications.  We've gotten into the habit of making the unimportant things such as buttons and tabs look perfect.  We focus the bulk of our attention on the things that surround our content.  The problem with this, of course, is that the design of our actual content has definitely suffered.  It's time to focus less on the chrome that surrounds our content and more on celebrating that content and making it the best it can be.  This focus on content before chrome is the driving force behind the principle of doing more with less.  There are three major focuses in the "Do more with less" principle that I would like to introduce.  These are:

  • Be great at something
  • Content before chrome
  • Inspire confidence

Microsoft Metro  Do More with Less

Be great at something

Your application for Windows 8 needs to be great at helping your users accomplish something very specific.  I know this might sound obvious, but too often we let our applications drift away from being really good at something to being very mediocre or even poor at a variety of things.  When we get to the part of the series where I begin to apply these principles to the actual application design process I'll have some concrete steps you can take to help prevent this from happening.  For now, it is most important for you to understand why it's important.

If your application isn't focused on helping a user accomplish a specific goal, it becomes very easy to begin to add all sorts of related but arguably unnecessary features.  Pretty soon there are buttons and links and tabs everywhere.  Now that there are extraneous features all over the app there is no clear and coherent vision of how the task should be accomplished most efficiently and effectively.  The whole application suffers as a result of this.  Not only is there great potential for the user to get lost in the sea of features, but now the developer needs to spend extra time implementing and maintaining all of these things as well.  Picking one thing to focus on should not be seen as a limiting force, but rather a focusing force.  It is what will allow your application to stand out from the crowd.

An added bonus for you as a designer is that you won't have to spend extra time designing extra features.  Since the application will be well-defined from the beginning, you can focus on making that focus an achievable goal.  You can focus on helping the user accomplish the main goal of the application without being burdened by designing unnecessary things.  You won't need to figure out how to show or hide the extra features that get in the average user's way because they simply won't be there.

Content before chrome

When you look at a Windows 8 application, the first thing you might notice is a lack of menus and toolbars and even buttons.  This is a stark contrast to the applications we've grown accustomed to on the Windows desktop.  It's also done on purpose.  As I mentioned before, a major focus of Microsoft style design is on "content before chrome".  Almost the entire screen of a Window 8 app is dedicated to the content of the application.  Compare the traditional RSS reader with the Windows 8 Bing News app that follows it (click the thumbnail for a larger view):

Quite rss

Content before chrome tn

In both the traditional and Windows 8 applications, the main goal of the app is to present articles to the user for reading.  The differences in approach are massive though.  In the traditional application, there is a menu, a toolbar, a list of feeds, a list of articles, and finally a reading pane.  After adding all of the other stuff, there is only roughly 25% of the application screen that is dedicated to actually reading the article.  Add to that the fact that the list of articles does absolutely nothing to entice you to read the article and you don't end up with a very engaging app experience.  Contrast that with the Bing News application which uses photography and typography to lay out the content in a way that makes the content shine.  What about the "feeds" you ask?  Well, notice the "Business" and "Entertainment" headers above the article grid.  These are fully interactive and navigate to a section that shows only articles from those "feeds".  However, they do so in a much more integrated way than the traditional list or tree.  They become a part of the content.

You might be wondering where the rest of the functionality goes if it doesn't go on the main screen.  I will address this in much more detail in a few posts, but here are some basics.  Windows 8 provides a lot of structure for where to place common actions.  Commands, such as "add feed" or "update all", go in the App Bar at the bottom or top of the screen and are accessible by either swiping up or down from the screen edge on a touchscreen or right-clicking the screen with a mouse.  Search, settings, and sharing functionality have their own charms in the Charms Bar that is off to the right of the screen and made available by an edge swipe in from the right on a touchscreen, mousing to a right-hand corner, or pressing Win-C on the keyboard.  This charms approach provides a consistent experience across all Windows 8 applications for common functionality.  I discuss these more in the next principle, Win as one.  

Removing a lot of this "chrome" and focusing more on the application content will make your app much better at accomplishing its goals.  You can focus on making the content shine instead of designing the next awesome glass button.  Your users will thank you since they will be more successful.

Inspire confidence

Speaking of users, a confident user is a happy user.  We often lose sight of this fact, but a big chunk of our users are not comfortable with software or even computers in general.  A lot of the concepts we take for granted are simply foreign to these users.  Anything we can do to lessen the mental burden on the user will go a long way towards making them confident users of our applications.  Since Windows 8 provides a lot of learnable functionality for common tasks, we should take advantage of it so that our users will benefit.  If all of our apps play by the same rules - the design guidelines - our users will only have to learn key pieces of the Windows 8 puzzle once.  The platform will teach the users what to expect and it is our job as designers to make sure we align with those expectations.  If users are more confident than ever when using Windows 8 they will be more likely to try new applications without worrying about whether or not they'll be able to learn how to use them.  All of this adds up to more purchases and downloads of your application.  Play by the rules and we all benefit.

Wrap-up and a look ahead

In this post I introduced the fourth of five Microsoft design principles.  I introduced the concept of being great at something and explained how a laser focus on doing one thing great is an essential part of successful Windows 8 app design.  I then showed the impact focusing on content instead of chrome can have on your application design.  Finally, I briefly touched on how adhering to the Windows 8 design guidelines will help users be confident with the software they find in the Windows Store.  In the next post, I'll move on to the fifth and final principle: "Win as one".

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