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TechEd Australia The interface formerly known as Metro (TIFKAM) makes the information applications present their user interface, and developers need to realise that and stop polluting software with the kind of buttons and icons elements they've grown up with.

That's the opinion voiced by Shane Morris of Automatic Studio, now a user interface consultant but once a Microsoft user interface evangelist, at Microsoft Australia's TechEd conference today.

Morris' talk was titled “How to be authentically digital”, a term used by Microsoft to describe its new ethic of letting pixels be pixels instead of imbuing UI elements with shading so they resemble real-world objects. Morris gleefully described this practice as “designer wank”. He also described the initial TIFKAM screen as the “Asian supermarket screen, because everything is yelling at you and you don't know where to look.”

Which is not to say Morris dislikes TIFKAM, as he explained it uses proven design techniques and philosophies drawn from “Wayfinding” (signage in airports, train stations and other public places), typography (The Swiss School) and moving type (The opening titles to Hitchcock's North by Northwest are apparently seminal so we've popped them in below).

Those influences mean TIFKAM doesn't use the interactive vocabulary of the desktop GUI. Instead, Morris says, “We focus on content and the information people need to consume.”

Developers must therefore strive to “present the information well enough it can form the user interface.” Which is not to say that users are to be left without things to click on, but Microsoft has hidden them in TIFKAM's Apps Bar and Charm bar, decoupling UI elements from apps.

“A consistent UI and place for people to look for search, share and settings means users don't have to need to learn a new UI for each app,” Morris explained, adding that it's not sensible to assume that users have discovered the Charm or Apps bars. Most users do so quickly, he said. Others take up to five minutes to do so.

Morris said Developers need to understand these new elements, and also assess whether they are right for their apps. Business apps, he said may not work in this context, with more familiar icon-driven UI elements still available for apps that just won't fit into TIFKAM's design paradigm.

That split, he said, is not new, arguing that Microsoft has been making content-centric interfaces since the days of Expedia Encarta CD-ROMs and has continue to do so with products like Media Centre and Zune.

Mainstream developers will therefore need to come to terms with content-centric interfaces and the elements they offer, one of which is animation. Moving images, he said, even offer the chance to tap into users' primal instincts as we are attuned to interpreting fast-moving objects in peripheral vision as worthy of attention (if only to avoid being eaten by an approaching predator). Using animation to show users something is worthy of their attention is a new interface tactic he feels will be useful.

The bad news, Morris added, is that using animation “doesn't come naturally to me”. He's not sure it will come naturally to any developer, given that most are used to working in rather different ways.

But developers don't need to get too hung up on their animation skills, he added, as good design for Windows 8 apps, or any other, starts with decisions about what an application is intended to achieve, rather than just how it will look and behave. ®

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The author travelled to TechEd, ate and slept as a guest of Microsoft.

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