Are Microsoft Backpedaling on Windows 8's Charms?

Sunday, 7 April 2013

William Devereux writes about some of the changes Microsoft introduced in the recent updates to its productivity and entertainment apps:

Many of the updates added support for type-to-search, which allows you to initiate a search by simply typing in your query from any screen. This, of course, was already supported in the Windows Store and on the Start screen. The Mail app, however, contains some interesting and potentially telling changes. Printers have always been directly accessible from the devices Charm, but a new print button on the app bar is essentially a shortcut to this menu with all non-printing devices removed. More importantly, a search button can now be found at the top of the email list. Like the print button, the search button simply launches the Search Charm.

webOS may have pioneered type-to-search but most people are regretfully unaware1. Fortunately, Windows 8' execution is in no way inferior; its simplicity elegantly conceals its power. So, I'm pleased that more apps are supporting the behaviour2

Of course type-to-search is unavailable when experiencing Windows 8/RT in tablet form i.e. no external keyboard. There's the Search charm, but its discoverability has been questioned. Third-party apps, such as Amazon or National Rail, took initiative by including a search box in their UI that offered the same results as the Search Charm but completely bypassed its interface. This is different to Mail that only has an icon shortcut to the Search charm. Its addition is essentially Microsoft conceding that the criticism of the discoverability of the Charms was in fact valid. I'm pleased, as I find it alarming that when I want to search an app, I still take a moment, supporting Jakob Nielsen's observations:

The old saying, out of sight, out of mind, turned out to be accurate. Because the charms are hidden, our users often forgot to summon them, even when they needed them. 

And I've been a user for months now. However, if I'm in an app and come across something I'd like to cross-search using another app(s), there's no hesitation whatsoever; the swipe for Charms is instinctive and the interaction incredibly satisfying. This may suggest when I'm in an app, I don't expect the need to consult the OS (i.e. the system-wide Charms) to perform an action within the app. However, if the action is to be performed on another app, it feels completely natural to refer to the Charms in this context.

As for the addition of a print shortcut to Mail's app bar's, I think this was necessary primarily because the print functionality is buried away under a Charm with a label, Devices, that the user is unlikely to correspond to printing3. The shortcut isn't dumb either as it removes all non-printing devices from the list. That is, it's not duplicating a Charm but intelligently accessing a contextual state within it. 

Devereux also noticed an instance where the Search Charm is neglected entirely in the recently leaked (non-final) Blue update's PC Settings:

Strangely, the PC Settings “app” now includes a search box in the upper-right corner of the screen. Unlike the buttons in the new Mail app, Windows Blue’s PC Settings appears to eschew the Charms entirely, with search results appearing in a drop-down box.

I've not installed Blue, so I can't confirm if the results displayed from the PC Settings' search box are the same as the equivalent search using the Search Charm. If they are (and I'm assuming so), it's following the example already set by third-party apps mentioned previously. It does set a dangerous precedent though. There's merit in including a search box when search is pivotal to the experience, such as on Amazon. As far as Microsoft apps are concerned though, apart from Bing, I can't identify any others where this is the case. And that's why this is a potentially4 worrying development. 

I interpreted the addition of the search and print shortcuts in Mail as an acknowledgement from Microsoft that the Charms may lack discoverability. They are essentially shortcuts to the Search and Devices Charms after all - nothing less, nothing more. On the other hand, I consider the inclusion of the search box in PC Settings as early evidence of Microsoft questioning the effectiveness of Charms altogether, as it isn't a shortcut but effectively a substitute for the Search Charm. 

Update: Jon Bell's (previously a Windows Phone design lead and now on the Office design team) recent tweet sums up the 'problem' succinctly.

1. There are others too.

2. Not all apps support type-to-search. For example, just typing on Internet Explorer still does nothing. If there was one app you'd expect to adopt this behaviour, Bing and all, then this would be it. IE 11 may do so, but I'm puzzled why it doesn't already. Further evidence that Windows RT severely lacks the polish that Blue aims to belatedly address. 

Natural exceptions to the rule are text editor/document writer apps. I'm also uncertain if the behaviour is appropriate when an app's UI has a visible search box, such as on the Amazon app that doesn't support type-to-search, as I think it's odd for a UI element that's visible to gain keyboard focus indirectly.

3. The Devices Charm doesn't only include printers, and that's why it's a suitable label. Unless the Charm was split up (something I wouldn't recommend), such as "Print, "Scan" etc., then keeping the label general makes sense.

4. This may be removed in the final Blue build. If so, nothing to worry about.