Tracing Project Neon

So over the weekend news leaked of Project Neon, a new design initiative for Windows 10. According to those early reports, Neon was started about a year ago as an internal project.

There are a lot of questions about Neon. For one how far reaching will it be? Is Neon for only the Shell; dig deep enough and you’ll find the stuff that’s been there since Windows 3.0? Or will it be deeper? Will it be part of one big update or slowly integrated in? Most of these answers won’t be known until Microsoft makes whatever their doing publically known. However we can sort of trace where Neon is coming from and why it’s coming together now.

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History Lesson

It is hard not to start a design conversation about Microsoft and not start with Metro; the design language built for Windows Phone. That design had a profound impact on Microsoft. In many ways Metro brought design thinking to Redmond as part of the product. And while Metro was influential it was/is divisive; especially the version that ended up in Windows 8. It’s development stalled with the stalling of Windows Phone and later Windows RT. This led to the Modern Design Language or MDL.

MDL faced a huge task; bridging the UI of Windows Phone with the UI of Windows 8. It had to work across screen sizes and inputs while maintaining the Metro ideal. The result was mixed. Much like Windows 10, MDL was geared more toward easing the fears caused by Windows 8 mobile first posture. A balance was hit in the update to MDL but much of what made Metro a strongly identifiable interface were taken out or muted.

Now that was a really condensed version and it only tells part of the story. The other half is about the formalizing of Microsoft design.

Between Metro and MDL design responsibilities were shifting at Microsoft. What we now call Metro started inside what was the Entertainment and Devices Group (home of Xbox). At that time Chief Experience Officer J Allard was working on consumer initiatives like Windows Mobile, Zune, and Xbox.

The actual work of designing Metro was done at Pioneer Studios, Allard’s skunkworks group. The Metro associated with Windows 8 was done by the Windows team headed Julie Larsen-Green under Steven Sinofsky. So different teams, different approaches, and little contact. After Allard and Sinofsky both left their respective domains were joined together into Windows and Devices. In an interesting twist the design team for Windows comes from the core developed by Allard. Design was also elevated with company reorganization.

Building the City

Back in 2015 the idea of the city as an analogy for Windows’ UI was used. The first time I heard it was from Principal Designer Kat Holmes. It was used then to describe how while each service, like Office, has its own unique identity it was still part of Windows.

The analogy was used again by Windows’ design chief Albert Shum to describe the changing approach to Windows UI in 10 (along with a stated recommitment to underlying principles of Metro like typography).

The idea of the City; a place with clearly defined lines yet also containing differentiated neighborhoods is a good place to start a discussion about the Windows Interface. Given the products built by Microsoft and the wildly different ways it’s used is a lot like living in a city. Windows is complicated and after both Windows 8 and 10 complicated in ways unique.

Neon seems to be about easing these complexities.

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Neon Signs

So why Project Neon?

Go back to the beginning of Windows 10. It was built upon the work of Windows 8 and RT and was mainly about answering desktop user concerns. The MDL was designed to make it easier on desktop users to use features built for Windows 8. The MDL was built to make the transitions between mobile and desktop easier along with making it easier for app developers to port apps to Windows. Part of the criticism that MDL received was based around how much it was about being this bridge without it’s own identity. And I think the designers in Redmond took the lessons of MDL and Metro into Neon.

At this stage I should explain that the primary goal of a design language is in creating a common framework from which designers and developers can start. It is a guide and not the rules. I think one of the big lessons of Metro was making sure people understood that the design language and guide are the basic things to do not the only thing. With Neon Microsoft is pushing Windows and its users further into the modern age.

(Okay this is the part where I make up stuff and I had no witty transition so I put this here instead)

Neon comes at a point where Windows is being pulled in many different directions. On one hand there is the traditional PC with its mouse and keyboard. Then there is mobile which depending on your phone may also look a little like your PC. The Xbox is now a Windows device as is the HoloLens which computes neither like a pc or a phone. Add to this devices like 2 in 1s and you factor in tablets (and pens); Windows is complicated.

So Neon’s job will be about making tablets, pcs, and phones feel at home and usable. Neon will also improve on the various inputs Windows uses such as pen and touch. With Windows 10 inking saw major improvements and I expect those to be part of Neon. Neon will also be a spring board for mixed reality. Devices like HoloLens and the HTC Vive need interfaces and Neon will be part of their integration.

Lastly, Neon’s design will be about setting Windows up for the next generation of devices. Windows 10 came about because Microsoft wanted to move forward. I think Neon is about defining what moving forward means.

It’s going to be interesting seeing how this pans out.

 

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