design

First thoughts on Windows 8 – the Developer standpoint

I’ve been to a few demos recently of the full Windows 8 experience so thought I’d put a few thoughts down about it.

For those who have not seen it, Windows 8 really is “revolution not evolution”. It throws away many of the concepts we have been familiar with since Windows 95 (start menu, task bar…) and even some of the core concepts of Windows such as … well… Windows. It is the first OS designed to work across desktops and tablets.

The core of the new system is the Metro interface which genuinely doesn’t have windows. All applications are run full screen for what (I have heard called many times during these demos) is a “fully immersive experience”.

Windows 8 will seamlessly integrate between desktop, tablet and mobile.

The standard means of navigating around and between programs have been largely removed. There are no more close and minify buttons or menu bars. Instead addition options for programs are found by swiping the appropriate part of the screen. The right hand side is for the “charm” screen which is a set of common options that apply to all programs (notably search and share), while top and bottom can be used for application options. Programs are closed by dragging them off the bottom, and minimised by dragging across and bringing another program on.

This leads onto another key change: when a program is inactive its processing is suspended. To a certain extent this can be developed around but by default Metro apps do not allow multi-tasking.

The Metro screen displays all apps as tiles; tiles and other notifications can be fed information from within your application or pushed from remote services via a cloud based distribution service. This leads to a dynamic desktop and gives developers the ability to entice users back into their application.

There are probably a lot of people thinking that this will mean the end of traditional windows based applications but worry not, there is also desktop mode. In desktop mode traditional Windows programs will run in the same format as they always did. Desktop apps can be launched via shortcuts from the Metro tile screen or from a separate menu within desktop mode.

As always with Microsoft products the support and facilities given to developers for the new platform is extensive and supports all the systems needed for creating innovative apps but that is a subject for a blog post of its own.

Verdict

So, what do I think of all this? Metro is clearly designed to be a tablet interface; indeed Microsoft have said that it is designed for touch first and everything else follows out of it. As a tablet interface it is very innovative. The sharing ability between programs is excellent and a big step forward over anything that has been seen before. The built in cloud support for multiple devices is also a great feature, allowing synchronisation across multiple devices straight out of the box.

I think it works less well in a desktop environment; I have been trying to think about what applications I would use in Metro mode. Twitter, email, IM, and web browser immediately spring to mind. However I spend most of my time in Visual Studio, SQL Server, Office or other such tools and usually have the other tools mentioned above open at the same time, usually on a separate monitor so I can watch over them while carrying on working. Ultimately, I have paid for a large screen and I don’t want a fully immersive experience; I want to control my level of immersion by setting windows to the size I want.

The other issue I have is that, despite how many times I hear or read about Microsoft people saying how beautiful the Metro interface is, I am not wowed by it. I have never loved the look and feel of Windows phone and Metro is essentially and evolution of that theme. The tiles are great in their ability to stream real-time information outside of the application, but I find the look too busy and I’m really not keen on the way things flip in and out. Basically, I look at the Metro interface, I look at my iPad, and I’m not wanting to throw out the iPad.

The Windows 8 logo

Building a standard system across all platforms is a bold move and only time will tell how well it will work out. It is fair to say that Windows 8 is a pretty good stab at it.

What I find interesting is that to me this is much more of a consumer than a business solution. I feel that many of the business users who, like me, spend all day in tools like Visual Studio or Office may share my concerns specified above. Consumer users though will probably love the concepts behind the Metro interface. In this market a tablet is a serious alternative to a laptop to achieve their aims (web, email, twitter, IM, Skype etc).

This raises an interesting question about whether the historical vision of Windows as a shared system between business and consumers is actually flawed and Microsoft should be looking at selling Metro only (with no desktop) as a consumer option and a full Windows 8 system with desktop support for business users. The consumer version could even be a free offering (like iOS) that is funded by the profits on app sales.

I started by saying that Windows 8 was “revolution not evolution” and am going to end by saying that it may be revolution beyond just UX, and go to the heart of Windows as a product.

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Mobile Web design & HTML5: Setting the standard

Tablet computers and mobile devices are becoming ingrained in society. Image credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

As the tablet and mobile market continues to grow, fuelled by the hotly anticipated release of new versions such as the (new) iPad (3) and Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), businesses are realising that the trend towards consumers buying online through an increasing number of devices (or m-commerce) is only going to grow with it. Recent studies have shown that conversion rates are much higher from mobile devices and tablets than on traditional platforms; a customer who visits a website or e-commerce application through such a device is already showing a certain level of increased engagement with the retailer. Customers using tablets spend more (up to 10 or 20 percent in some cases) than those using desktop computers, other studies have shown.

Retailers and other businesses dependent on their online systems for revenue must carefully consider these users, and make sure they are being properly catered for. A recent study published by Gomez, a division of Intechnica partner Compuware, showed that the top complaints of tablet users when viewing websites were slow load times, site crashes & errors, and problems with the format of the site. These bad experiences drive users away to competitor sites, and increase the risk of them never returning to your site.

The traditional building blocks for websites were simply not made to cope with screens than switch between portrait and landscape, relatively tiny or irregular screen resolutions, or touch screen actions. Performing tasks or even simple navigation of websites under these conditions can be a frustrating experience, where usability needs to be turned into an advantage. After all, shopping via mobile devices is often triggered by impulse, making for easy sales as long as the process is as simple as possible. In the past, shopping cart abandonment has been relatively high for these platforms, and part of this has to be down to the fact that many websites were not designed with these platforms in mind; nobody likes having to scroll across both axis and zooming in and out just to be able to touch the right button on a site. The solution lies in intelligently developing websites and applications to be compatible with these varying devices, platforms and screen sizes.

While old internet architecture was not built with such devices in mind, the latest set of standards, HTML5, is designed precisely for that reason. Rather than rebuilding a whole website, or building a separate site for each device (after all, each device will have different resolutions to contend with and a “mobile” version does not ensure compatibility on all devices), designers and developers can rewrite portions of a site in HMTL5, CSS3 and Javascript. While no browser currently supports every feature of the still developing HTML5 standard, it allows one single website to adapt across devices automatically via responsive design, making it much more “mobile friendly”. For example, sidebar content is automatically shifted to the bottom of the page, allowing the main article to span across the screen. This is a clever solution where “screen real estate” is reduced on smaller devices. HTML5 is also designed to be “touchscreen friendly”.

m-commerce is growing as more people take up the technology. Image credit: Per Olof Forsberg

HTML advancements aside, there are still many considerations to make when “mobifying” or “tabletising” a website or application. Even with a responsive design, where content shifts itself around to compensate for the screen resolution without compromising readability, in many cases there is simply not enough room on the screen to feasibly show everything. This is where careful consideration needs to be made on what is necessary to be shown on the site, and in some cases, where it would actually be more appropriate to shrink the content down and encourage zooming and scrolling. You could also try to think outside of the box; a wide table of data might need to be scrolled in portrait mode, but users could be able to view it more easily if flipped into landscape mode. It is even possible to show data in completely different ways depending on the size of the screen (see some clever examples here and here).

The considerations are different for each individual website or application, but as the new web standards develop, more and more opportunities to innovate are opening up. In the end, it’s all about ensuring quality and high performance for the end user, regardless of where they are or what they are using.

Performance in the spotlight: Why performance is so important to the bottom line

Recently, major websites like Mashable have drawn attention to the public impression on website performance. I thought it would be interesting to look into the impact this has on the businesses running these websites. For anyone who has ever struggled to navigate around a website being hampered with performance issues, especially at peak times, the experience is like wading through treacle; it’s slow, unpleasant and you probably want to be somewhere else as soon as possible. So it will probably come as little surprise when I say that various reports show that people are becoming less and less tolerant of poor website performance, to the point of quite quickly abandoning the offending site for a competitor. Here’s some stats about what the people of the world (wide web) think of badly performing websites…

Loading... still loading... wait, where are you going?!

  • A 1 second page load delay causes, on average, a 16% decrease in customer satisfaction (1).
  • 1 in 4 people abandon pages that take more than 3 seconds to load, with more than half citing quick page loads as being an important factor in their loyalty to a site (2).
  • At peak times, more than 75% of customers will leave to go to a competitor’s site rather than suffer delays, and 88% of online consumers are less likely to return to a site after a bad experience  (3).

While visitors and customers increasingly can’t bear sluggish or unresponsive websites and applications, the people who own the websites themselves should loathe them even more. Here’s a quick overview of some facts and figures to show just how concerned they ought to be…

Performance affects discovery and reputation

  • Google’s search ranking algorithms measure site speed, and use this to rank faster websites higher in search results (4).
  • More than a third of online consumers will tell others about their disappointing website experience (3).
  • Visitors perceive load times to be 15% longer than they actually are, and when recalling later to others, this raises to 35% (5).

This is bad news for slow, low performance websites, but it becomes much clearer and even attention-grabbing when you look at the impact on costs and sales…

Performance affects the bottom line

  • Every 100 milliseconds in page load delay costs Amazon.com  1% of sales (6). This means that, taking into account Amazon’s $67 million in sales each day, a 1 second page delay could potentially lose $2.4 billion of sales each year.
  • By speeding the page load times up by 5 seconds, Shopzilla.com  increased their conversion rate by 7-12%, doubled the number of referrals from search engines and cut the number of servers required in half (7).

On top of that, statistics collected by AOL have shown that faster page loads lead to more page views per visitor, and a less than half a second in page load speed improvement to Yahoo.com increased traffic by 9%. And as the above statistic from Amazon shows, optimising performance represents a significant impact on business. Don’t you think $2.4 billion every year is significant? While your business probably isn’t the size of Amazon, better performance still has a positive correlation with happier customers, more visits, higher conversion rates and increased revenue.

Next time you’re trying to get on a website that just doesn’t want to load properly, think about how much of an effect this is having on what you think of said website, and it will be easy to see for yourself why performance really matters.

Sources

  1. Aberdeen Group
  2. Forrester
  3. Gomez
  4. Google
  5. Stoyan Stefanov, Psychology of Performance
  6. Amazon
  7. Shopzilla

Webinar: Designing Applications for the Cloud

This webinar, from 6th March 2012, was hosted by Intechnica‘s Technical Director, Andy Still. Andy talked about the key principles of designing and migrating applications to the cloud. This includes scaling out, taking new and imaginative approaches to data storage, making full use of the wide range of products and services on offer from cloud providers (beyond hosting), and exploring the many flavours of hybrid solution which can mean all types of business can leverage the benefits of the cloud.

Andy has architected and built a number of cloud-based applications, specialising in highly scalable, high-performance, business critical applications.

If you’re planning or considering moving to the cloud in 2012 then this webinar is essential viewing.

More Intechnica webinars