Is the same experience on all devices what we want?

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This week saw the UK launch of the Nokia Lumia 2520 tablet – Nokia’s first foray into a tablet since they switched allegiances to Windows a couple of years ago. Similarly, it’s only been a couple of months since the launch of Windows 8.1 – the latest version of Microsoft’s operating system cash cow.

A couple of weeks ago we also saw the UK launch of the Xbox One – Microsoft’s latest home console and one that, if you looked at the menu interface, would seem very familiar to the Lumia tablet and a Windows 8.1 PC.

And just the other day Microsoft’s “Threshold” project was leaked – revealing plans by the company to further create one experience between different types of devices. Redmond are being unambiguous about what they want: they want the same experience, on every device. But I want to ask… is that really a good idea?

Microsoft’s plan is to have the same “Metro” style boxed interface on everything from phones, to tablets, to laptops and desktop computers – and to Xbox games consoles. And this makes some sense – having a common design and interface means that – at least in theory – if you can use one device, you can use another. If you know how the grid interface works on your phone, as soon as you switch on your Xbox is going to work.

In fact – our brains are wired for this. Without realising it, we’re constantly developing heuristics – mental shortcuts that help us cope with everyday life. These can be pretty simple – once we’ve seen someone drink something, we can be confident that it won’t poison us if we drink it, as we know our bodies are wired the same way – and if we see a picture of a hand on an unfamiliar door, we can be reasonably sure you have to push it rather than pull. So having some design consistency is a good thing.

Microsoft aren’t the only ones doing it – notice how increasingly Apple’s desktop Mac OS operating system is taking its design cues from the portable iOS for the same reasons – heuristic consistency.

However – it seems that Microsoft could be taking it too far. As far as I can see there’s a bit of a problem in wanting all devices to be the same: all devices are different.

Consider different input devices. On the phone and tablet, the finger is king – so you want big fat buttons with gesture controls. You don’t want too much clutter on a relatively small screen. On a desktop computer meanwhile, precision is key – you’ve not only got a mouse or touchpad which you can be precise down to the pixel with, but you’ve also got a bank of 50-odd keys in front of you, which can be programmed to do a multitude of different tasks, which might take a lot of effort when you’ve just got a finger. You’ve also got more screen real estate – so you can pack more detail on.

The Xbox is different too – not only is it primarily controlled with a controller, one block at a time, but it can also react to voice and motion commands, the latter of which is never going to be practical on the bus.

So given these disparities – is the big boxed Metro interface the best one for it? Anyone who has suffered the misfortune of using Windows 8 will be able to describe the bewilderment of having these gigantic full-screen boxes appear over the normal windows interface unexpectedly. Not only is it an unpleasant experience compared to trusty old Windows 7, but it’s clearly been designed for touchscreen desktop computers – which have resolutely not happened yet (and even if they do – what about legacy computers upgrading… and isn’t keyboard and mouse less effort than lifting your arms up anyway?).

Apple’s approach appears to make a lot more sense: Though MacOS borrows many icons and naming conventions from iOS, apps are still designed with the medium in mind. Renaming Mac OS’s “Chat” to “Messages” to harmonise with iOS made a lot of sense – but having the settings function take over the whole screen would clearly not make any sense at all… so mercifully this hasn’t been done (unlike Windows 8).

So perhaps it’s time for Microsoft to rethink, and consider how we actually interact with technology and about how sometimes we don’t always want the same thing. Commonalities make sense… but making them at the extent of user experience defeats the whole point of “user experience”.

James O’Malley