Original: June-2004, Last update: 15-June-2004, Author: Rob Chandler (Help MVP)
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This document takes a look at what's happening in the world of Windows User Interface (UI) & User Assistance (UA) design as we move toward a Windows Longhorn future. What trends are emerging and what can we leverage today?
At Microsoft, "User Experience" now has a prominent voice in UI design. The User, not the System, is once again at the centre of UI design. As a result, we are seeing new UI design guidelines emerge, as well as better designed software. Windows Longhorn, even with its new technologies put aside for the moment, is looking very promising.
Longhorn UI and UA boundaries are blurring. The voice of User Experience is saying "Give me one task to do at a time. Make the UI more intuitive. If required, write UA directly into the UI. If I do need help, make it brief and to the point so I can get back to work quickly. And don't leave me at a UA dead-end".
Caveat: At the time of writing, Longhorn Beta 1 is not available. Information and links in this article may change without warning.
A year ago the Help MVPs and ISVs were shown an early preview of the new user assistance help for Windows Longhorn. I was disappointed. We had been expecting a new and improved Help window, more powerful and flexible than all the Help windows of the past. Instead we got this little side Help pane and the much loved expanding TOC was gone. We had been providing the Help Team with feedback from the online communities and our customers for several years and this just didn't make sense.
Well it took me awhile to "get it", but Longhorn is much more than just leveraging new technologies and redressing Windows.
Microsoft's Help Team were asked to create the best "User Assistance" for Longhorn and its applications, not a new container for reference documentation. The new Longhorn "User Assistance" model is an evolutionary step forward in application online Help. As you read this article I hope you will catch the vision a little quicker than I did.
This question was raised recently at PDC 2003. Speaker Shane McRoberts (MS Help Team): "We are looking at converging Longhorn Help with VS/MSDN Help. But I probably shouldn't comment on that too much at this stage".
So, it will probably happen eventually, but maybe not for several years. The Microsoft Help Team is clearly focused on designing Longhorn User Assistance at the moment. When it does happen, maybe it will run on the Windows Longhorn platform only. Who knows, a lot can happen in the space of a few years.
In the meantime, we continue to use MS HTML Help 1.x for our reference libraries, and MS Help 2.x if you are integrating into Visual Studio 7 documentation. Now let's get back to talking about User Assistance / application based Help.
Up to now, our model has been to write a neat, well-designed UI coupled with a massive Help file that documents every aspect of the software. But our software has a high learning curve, overly complex screens, and verbose Help that nobody reads. We need a better approach. We need to evolve UI design.
According to Microsoft, we need to let User Experience (UX) drive our designs. Hey, putting the User at the center of our User Interface design makes perfect sense to me.
Here is a nice definition of UI from msdn.microsoft.com. Notice the fresh new emphasis on "user experience" appearing in all new Microsoft publications.
"User experience and interface design in the context of creating software represents an approach that puts the user, rather than the system, at the center of the process. This philosophy, called user-centered design, incorporates user concerns and advocacy from the beginning of the design process and dictates the needs of the user should be foremost in any design decisions."
Microsoft is all about UX at the moment. Here's what Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin said at WinHEC 2004.
Allchin also declared the coming product waves to be part of what Microsoft calls "the experience economy," where only those products that think through end-to-end experiences will be wildly successful...
Experiences, Allchin said, will focus on the "doing," or the entire flow of events that a user will need to perform in order to succeed at a task. In Microsoft's current operating systems, these experiences include the Windows XP photo acquisition and management system and the roles-based management tools in Windows Server 2003. "But we need to do much more," Allchin said. And in the upcoming waves of products Microsoft will issue through 2005, he noted, the company will do just that.
[Read the full article at SuperSite.com]
User-centered UI design is so big in Windows Longhorn that it even has its own code-name: Aero. This quote from the Vista Developer Center explains some of the new Longhorn code-names...
Aero is the new Windows user experience. Aero consists of guidelines, recommendations, and user experience values that help your applications get the most out of the Microsoft Windows Code Name "Longhorn" pillars: rich presentation (code-named "Avalon"), data (code-named "WinFS"), and communication (code-named "Indigo").
The 3 Longhorn technology pillars referred to here are:
A quick word on graphics.
There are two levels of user experience in Longhorn, currently called Aero and Aero Glass.
The Aero user experience is built on the low-level Longhorn graphics API (Avalon) and requires a graphics card with DirectX9 3D GPU, AGP4x bus, 32MB of RAM, minimum resolution of 1024x768 (XGA).
The Aero Glass high fidelity user experience uses high-end visuals and transitional animations. On top of the Aero requirements, it requires 64MB of RAM (128MB to 256MB recommend).
In addition to these two levels are the classic Windows 2000 type visuals. Classic visuals may initially be the choice of corporations.
WinFX is not just another loosely related collection of Operating system APIs. The WinFX library is very well-structured and designed, and will help programmers create better UI that conforms to the Aero user experience. From msdn.microsoft.com...
"For programmers the WinFX™ managed classes make it easy to build your applications with the Aero user experience. In addition, applications that apply the Aero user experience guidelines have opportunities to integrate more deeply with the Windows shell and thereby get more exposure to more potential customers. Aero's advances in usability and aesthetics will help excite and empower your customers."
Avalon WinHEC PowerPoint presentations:
Paul Thurrott articles:
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