Thinking About the Fluent Design System

Posted on May 12, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Windows 10 with 50 Comments

With its Fluent Design System, Microsoft is finally moving past the flat world of Metro and embracing a model that works with many more devices and input types. But are they just making the same mistakes all over again?

During a conversation that Microsoft officials had with the press and bloggers at Build 2017 this week, the firm explained that Fluent is “not a revolution” but is instead a “journey to a new point.” But put in the context of Microsoft’s sweeping strategy shift with Windows 10 and its embrace of a heterogeneous world of devices, most of which it does not control, I feel that Microsoft is undercutting the importance of this new design.

But then it’s also exaggerating where it’s at, too. At this point in time, Fluent is incomplete and it has no hard release date or milestones. Instead, Microsoft seems to be sort of making it up as it goes along, and implementing Fluent design elements in a rather haphazard way. For example, there are a handful of Fluent design touches in some Windows 10 apps in the Creators Update. And Fluent will not be fully realized, or completed from a design perspective, by the time the Fall Creators Update ships in September.

I wasn’t initially bothered by any of that. Mostly because Microsoft is doing a much better job of explaining its goals with Fluent than it did with Metro, its previous design language, back in 2010. At that time, Microsoft’s overly-pedantic designers beat us to death with overly-detailed and flowery explanations for why this design style—modeled after classic Swiss graphic design and transportation iconography—was so superior.

Microsoft never saw any real success with Metro, let alone in explaining it to the public. But this flat design style was later stolen by both Google (Material Design) and Apple (starting in iOS 7), and neither of those companies ever bothered to thank Microsoft for leading the way.

Where Microsoft is stumbling, however, is in repeating some serious mistakes from the past. You may recall that Microsoft excitedly described a Longhorn future that would never happen at PDC 2003, and that the firm’s supposedly live code shown on stage was later revealed to be mocked-up demos that never evolved into an actual product.

Well, they’ve done it again. The Fluent designs that Microsoft showed off this week at PDC 2013, almost exactly ten years later, were clearly fake, and not running code. And it’s not clear that Windows or the other products that will utilize Fluent will ever look as good as those demos.

This is disheartening, and it makes my earlier points—that Microsoft is making this up as they go and has no clear schedule milestones—more troubling.

I’m not going to judge Fluent or Microsoft’s design intentions prematurely. But I do want to raise these issues now because the community is once again excited by a direction that may never be realized. And because the products that influenced Fluent—like HoloLens—will never be mainstream, leading me to wonder why the flat, 2D interfaces we actually do, and will, use should be changed unnecessarily.

Consider the following: Back in the 1990s, Microsoft changed the toolbars in the key Office applications—Word, Excel, PowerPoint—to be as identical as possible so that users could transition from one application to the others more easily. This is the type of thing that makes sense to virtually everybody because it sounds logical enough. But what Microsoft later admitted is that this design change was done without any research at all—it just sounded right to them as well—and that when they later did do that research, they discovered a contrary truth: Human beings are pretty malleable, actually, and they have no problem using different user interfaces in different applications.

We probably lost decades of productivity to this mistake, and while it’s impossible to know how or if Word, Excel, PowerPoint or other productivity applications might have been made more efficient years ago, we can at least apply this learning to the present. And with Fluent, specifically, it’s unclear to me why a PC, phone, or tablet UI needs to be made consistent with a HoloLens or Mixed Reality headset UI.

Consider the live tiles that everyone seems to love so much. This kind of interface, which provides “at a glance” live information on rectangular surfaces on a home screen makes tons of sense on a smartphone or even a small tablet. But it makes zero sense on a PC, especially when that interface is hidden in a Start menu you need to manually toggle. Live tiles are a great example of a UI not scaling between different form factors.

Now consider the flipside. As you must know, one of the central successes of Windows 10 is that some of the current UIs actually do scale very nicely between different devices types: Just resize a UWP app like Groove or News into a phone-shaped portrait rectangle on your PC screen to see what I mean. So Microsoft may, in fact, be onto something, at least in some areas.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any answers here, I’m just raising the question. We’ll have to see how Fluent evolves over time, and how broadly Microsoft introduces these design elements into its various software products. For now, I’m a bit nervous that they are just making the same mistakes all over again, but I’m likewise happy that they are at least trying, and seem interested in feedback. If they can approach Fluent with the same customer focus that they use with the Windows 10 Insider Preview, this may all work out just fine.


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