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Microsoft makes design central to its future

First Published      Last Updated Jul 21 2014 02:06 pm
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As part of one noteworthy design project, the company plans to make greater use of the tiles in an update to the Windows 8.1 operating system. Pressing Start while in desktop mode will soon bring up several boxy live tiles in the pop-up menu, from which users can launch touch-first apps in the traditional mouse-and-keyboard environment — a feature it previewed at its Build developer conference in April.

Groene's Surface team already showed off design improvements with the Surface Pro 3, released in June. Clicking the device's accompanying pen launches the OneNote note-taking app, so it's as ready as a yellow legal pad for scribbling. And a new bar magnet on the keyboard cover and a kickstand with a wider range of motion helped created a sturdier foundation for typing on a lap.

Another problem the design team is working on: fixing the "hamburger" icon, says Shum.

The icon, featured in Windows Phone and the Xbox One, has three stacked lines resembling two buns and a patty. It mostly acts as a "junk drawer" for random menu items, so it's not clear what you'll get when you click on it, Shum says.

On the Xbox One controller for instance, a physical hamburger button represents "enter" on a virtual keyboard. In games like "Titanfall," it brings up a menu of various in-game options. In Windows Phone's Cortana app, though, a hamburger button will bring up options for interacting with the digital assistant.

Shum says his team wants to make the icon work similarly across devices. A hint: it will act like a signpost in a city with many neighborhoods. "It should always be this thing that allows you to go to different parts of the city," he says.

The company is also working to expand the use of the Cortana digital assistant, which is active on some Windows Phone devices. The voice-activated persona is meant to offer help proactively — giving you a snapshot of traffic on the route from the office to your home when the workday ends, for instance.

Kat Holmes, a principal designer who helped design Cortana, is working on ways that it might work in other Microsoft devices, from PCs to the Xbox. The guiding principle, which adheres closely to Microsoft's new philosophy, is to help the user in various ways depending on the situation.