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Trevor explores Microsoft virtual training

Designs, UI and information overload?

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I've spent quite a bit of time recently exploring Microsoft Virtual Academy (MVA). Putting aside the site's content, I think that the website design itself is worth a discussion.

MVA runs on a clean, elegant website. What you need to find is easily found; what you need to do is easily apparent. In an era where information density issues have rendered many prominent websites cluttered, innavigable messes, the usability of the MVA website is a pleasant surprise.

As is fairly standard with any modern Microsoft interactive property, Silverlight is required to make use of its various features. The lack of Silverlight for mobile platforms means having to dig up your grandpa computer in order to use the site.

This shouldn’t be considered a real burden. Each track can take hours to peruse. The volume of content – and the time commitment required to consume it – don’t lend themselves well to mobile devices. (I certainly don't have much luck holding a tablet for 8 hours to watch training videos.)

When using the site from Windows, it works identically on all 5 major browsers and gave me no troubles in Safari on a Mac. I haven't had a chance to test it under Moonlight on Linux, but I wouldn't expect anything in the Silverlight I saw to be "too new." We have here a website that "just works" wherever Silverlight can be found.

Of particular interest to me is the actual design aesthetic behind the website. Like other Microsoft web properties, MVA has gone Metro. Squares and boxes abound. Everything is grouped into tiles and uses some very metro design philosophies about how to convey information "at a glance."

Usually I’m not a fan of metro, but then there's the MVA website. Here, I am not a content creator. I am not a systems administrator trying to fix a myriad of common problems. Here, I am a content consumer . I need to navigate a carefully considered collection of content. In this context, MVA's Metro-like styling works brilliantly.

There's a box for a module. Forty per cent of the bar is coloured differently, representing 40 per cent completion. "Track" tiles tell you which tracks are in progress, which are completed, and which you have yet to take. Simple things. But these are exactly the "simple things" that when combined actually provide a helpful and usable experience.

Compare this to Google's latest web property morph. The once assiduously clean and compact search engine is now cluttered with all manner of widgets and links that distract from the content I actually want to see. It's starting to spread to all their other properties as well.

So here we have two competing design philosophies from two different companies. Both companies are powerhouses of cloud computing. They have wildly popular and diverse web properties. Both are struggling to present relevant, contextual information without causing information overload, and I must say that I think Microsoft's approach is better.

For content creation, I am not yet sold on Metro, but when it comes to content consumption, my feelings on Metro-like UIs have softened. Whether your content consumption is a book, a movie or online training, MVA's simple but elegant website has convinced me that Metro is going to be the UI to beat.

The Register is a media partner of Microsoft Virtual Academy.

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