Nearly a decade ago, Microsoft launched its Windows Phone platform with the promise that its software would free users from their phones. The first big ad campaign showed people engrossed in their devices at clubs, restrooms, and even on a roller coaster, while frustrated bystanders asked, over and over: “Really?”
Windows Phone would answer those frustrations, said Microsoft. It was “designed to get you in and out, and back to life” with the help of the company’s striking tile-based Metro user interface. Microsoft envisioned a world in which apps would talk to each other seamlessly and content flowed freely. Despite some great design principles, Windows Phone didn’t work out, but Microsoft never gave up on the idea of improving mobile productivity.
Today, Microsoft is reviving some of these ambitions by bringing what it calls its Fluent Design system to its mobile Office apps, a simplified set of principles designed, just like Windows Phone, to speed things up on the go. It’s even letting third-party app developers embrace these design elements with toolkits to prettify their own apps. This will have the benefit of making Microsoft’s mobile apps feel more consistent, but the end goal is the same as Windows Phone’s was: to get users in and out of their apps quicker and back to life again.
“When we look at the mobile market, we feel like no one has done an amazing job of nailing productivity on phones across voice and visual systems in a sort of microtasking kind of way,” explains Jon Friedman, corporate vice president of design and research at Microsoft, in an exclusive interview with The Verge. “We feel like it’s our birth right and duty to help people in the world accomplish their goals, so that’s why we’ve been super focused on this.”
Several features and changes aim to make tasks easier when on the go, including Play My Emails on Outlook and Read Aloud on Word and other Office apps. Microsoft also added features like document and table scanning to Office and OneDrive to improve productivity.
Fluent Design is a framework of principles that guide app design. Initially part of a push by Microsoft for Windows 10, Fluent Design now extends to Microsoft’s mobile apps. The redesigned Office apps implement Fluent Design elements throughout the app experience, including the app icon, splash screen, cells, cards, typography, people, and file lists.
When creating the redesigned mobile apps, Microsoft had a team of 40 designers create a mobile UI toolkit that makes it easier for developers to use the same components across apps. These toolkits are also available to external designers that would like to build apps that align with Microsoft’s mobile efforts.
Microsoft’s mobile applications on iOS and Android have continued to grow in usage numbers, and Friedman discussed how mobile applications sharing a design language helps people be more productive. “When mobile apps seamlessly connect and feel similar, it reduces cognitive burden by eliminating the need to re-learn app patterns and navigation. This is especially important to us as we’re investing in side-by-side productivity scenarios on iPad and Surface Duo.”