Content, not the chrome. Apps, not the phone.

Ahead of WWDC 2013, many people were still expecting Apple to add live tiles, and possibly widgets to iOS 7. I didn’t expect either, and as a result wasn’t terribly disappointed to see them not included (that might be an understatement on my part).

At first glance, live tiles may seem like a no-brainer in any operating system. Tiles that provide you information from within an app… How could this go wrong?

Here’s the problems that I have with live tiles in Windows 8, and why I think they wouldn’t make sense on iOS (either):

  1. They’re overused.
  2. Often, they aren’t that useful.
  3. They are distracting.
  4. They’re hardly ever in view.

Let me explain each a bit.

They’re overused. Why do I say this? Because Microsoft has focused on live tiles in their messaging for app developers as if apps that don’t feature a live tile should be shamed. Not the case. I believe live tiles should only be used when there is something actionable to present to the user (ex: new mail) and that actionable item can succinctly be presented though the live tile (ex: subject of the mail). Unfortunately, even just the built-in applications from Microsoft abuse the live tile concept. Too many feature live tiles, and too many of those live tiles are of very limited utility or are too repetitive. Having one or two live tiles is fine, especially if they’re useful -like Mail and Weather, and perhaps Calendar.

But if you add too many live tiles, Windows 8 stops looking like this:

Windows Start screen

And instead starts looking like this:

Times Square

What I’m saying is that there is a point where the utility of live tiles starts to become a problem, not a benefit, if you’re shoving too much dynamic information in the user’s face while providing very little value.

Often, they aren’t that useful. Much like a well-designed app, the utility of a live tile is only as useful as the content it is set to display. iOS has featured notification badges (the red overlay on Mail that constantly indicates you’re not at inbox zero) for many years. Many people bash the badges as being stupid or useless, but they serve as an action indicator where often, not much more is needed, and even more often, not much more can be done. A notification (or live tile) on a badge should instantly provide an indicator of status if that’s all it is to do (ex: You have new mail), and a deeper summary if that is possible (your iOS line-of-business app that tracks new tasks for your helpdesk has 32 new tasks). In iOS, the icon for Calendar has, in effect, always been a live tile. The date you see on the icon is the actual date. Though of limited utility (given that there is already a clock at the top of the screen in the iOS shell, and the icon is tiny), the icon for the clock app in iOS 7 is now a live tile in the same sense – it features the correct time, including a sweeping second hand.

But I don’t believe a live tile should always be live, and even when it is, if it isn’t actionable, it’s no better than After Dark. It ceases to have utility, it’s just there for entertainment value. Applications that do have a concrete reason for offering a live tile absolutely should. If they don’t, they shouldn’t. Don’t provide one just because “you’re supposed to”.

They are distracting. As I noted above, if you’re looking at the Start screen to find a particular application, and you have very many live tiles, it starts to become distracting, and not helpful, that they application is trying to provide you more information than you actually need at that moment. The start screen isn’t an app, it’s a shell. The primary reason for it to exist is to run applications. Rotating pictures of people, or of your own collection of photos (both of which repeat) are novel and cute for a bit, but rapidly become tiring to me.

It’s like going into Best Buy to look around, and getting inundated with salespeople. You know what you’re looking for, and otherwise it’s just a distraction.

They’re hardly ever in view. The Start screen is a shell, It’s not even like the Explorer shell or the gadgets in Vista where it could be set to always in view. If you’re not actively launching an app (or using multimon), the Start screen isn’t in view. So why the emphasis on adding interactivity (or infinite customizability) to a thing that’s basically just a launchpad?

This gets us full circle back to why I don’t think it’s a big deal that iOS doesn’t have live tiles, or even widgets. I’ve mentioned before that Microsoft employees seem to like using the expression “(just) a sea of icons” to describe the iOS app launcher. Well, yeah. That’s kind of the point? It’s a brutally simplified shell that gets you in to the apps. The iPhone (or any iOS device) isn’t about the platform, and it isn’t about the shell. It’s about the apps. Mobile devices exist to be view portals into the functionality provided by applications – including those built-in to the device.

When using a mobile device, users don’t sit there staring longingly at the shell, waiting for it to do something. They’re in apps, responding to notifications from other apps through the shell, and jumping between apps using the sharing verbs available between apps (monikers or direct APIs). On stage when first revealing Windows 8, Steven Sinofsky highlighted the focus of Windows 8 on (with a not-so-subtle jab at the browser of the same name), “content, not the chrome”. To that I add, “It’s the apps, not the phone”. Yes, shells need to evolve and grow. But rarely should they be the center of attention – as that’s rarely where the user actually spends most of their time.

6 comments

  1. Michael C.Bazarewsky

    We had some back and forth on this on Twitter but partially at your urging and partially to get a larger audience on the discussion, I’m posting here also.

    I agree with some of what you’re saying, but I think there’s a huge disconnect with reality of certain aspects of Live Tiles.

    1,. They’re overused.

    Well, any tool can be overused. Notifications on Android and iOS both are an abomination for this reason. The number of crap notifications I see on both platforms (I have both for testing/development purposes, and friends have both for “real” use) is insane, and the controls that are supposed to prevent it are weak at best. Yet everyone keeps telling me that a “notification center” is critical for Windows Phone. Um, yay?

    2. Often, they aren’t that useful.
    Again, same point about notifications. But I’d go further and say that I would miss Live Tiles. As Microsoft says, it’s not always 73 degrees and sunny, and that nails it 100%. I unlock my phone and there’s the weather. I look at it, I see what I want to see, and I’m done. Launching an app would be a waste of time. (With lock screen stuff that’s even getting to be less – I don’t even have to unlock the phone.) For Windows 8 – not WP 8 – there’s a lesser argument, but I still like weather (as an example), or Photos. There are crap ones – the SkyDrive live tile is idiotic – but you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have – the facts of UI.

    3. They are distracting.
    A bad one can be. A good one can be fun. Leaning back on WP for a second, one thing I love is my XBL Avatar showing on the Games tile. It’s really stupid, but I love it. I keep that tile full size for that reason alone. Is that a distraction – seeing my XBL avatar poke into the tile? Yes. But it’s one I like. One I choose to have.
    I do think controls around them on W8 would be nice – ability for me to control if an app’s live tile is actually shown. On WP8 I can just not pin the app – and apps let you control their tiles in any event. Not quite as clean in W8 yet but I think we will get there as people learn the platform.

    4. They’re hardly ever in view.
    This is again a W8 vs. WP8 thing and probably the one I most agree with, but look at the logic here:
    A) Without a weather tile
    …. “what is the weather?”
    …. “Start Screen”
    …. “launch weather app”
    …. “wait for it to load”
    …. “wait for it to update”
    …. “look out the window or go to the bank and look at their sign because this is already too much”
    B) With a tile
    …. “What is the weather?”
    …. “Start Screen”
    Answer!
    The fundamental idea – and one that is repeatedly missed I think by critics – is that the whole idea of launching an app for simple things is dumb. Having to interact with an app at all is dumb. The “app is good” fallacy is all over the place. Whether it’s apps that are pretty mobile web sites when the a mobile web site is sufficient and more cross-platform, or apps that require you to launch them to actually get something done, the idea that I should have to launch an app to do something is a broken model. Completely and utterly broken. The model should be task and data oriented. Live tiles at least get us partially data oriented. (For that matter the People hub is a wonderful idea for the same reason – it’s data and task oriented.)
    So it’s not perfect, or even close to it, but it’s MUCH better than not having it. If I wanted Program Manager’s icon grid, I’d run Windows 3.0.

  2. Notifications at least on iOS can be turned on or off per app, avoiding the overuse problem.

    Can you turn off live tiles per app?

    Also people seem to always pick the same examples: weather and time. The use cases just aren’t very convincing beyond those.

  3. They sure can. In fact, it is arguably easier to turn off live tiles than it is iOS notificaitons.

  4. Michael C.Bazarewsky

    That’s a reasonable response – hopefully this reply will be as reasonable.

    I’ve had very mixed luck with iOS notification control. I don’t know if it’s bugs or what but it just seems like it doesn’t work as I expect.

    There’s also the problem of apps that have both legitimate and bad notifications in the same app. All or nothing is not necessarily a good answer.

    The Twitter conversations that led to my putting a reply on this end included other examples – calendar appointments (one or many, take your pick, depending on app), sports scores, the Me tile (Twitter, Facebook, etc. in one place), etc. It’s very much a case of you don’t realize just how nice they are, until you have them, then you wonder how you went without them for so long, at least for me. I can’t imagine not having them now.

    As another example. I like having my “Family” tile flip and show me the most recent update from anyone in that group across linked social networks. I feel much more connected to those folks than if I had to go launch a Facebook app and a Twitter app to see those notifications. Or even launch the People Hub. I just wouldn’t bother if it didn’t look interesting.

    Another example brought up by someone else (Peter Bright – Dr. Pizza) was the idea that the Bing News tile showing an interesting headline gets him to click in to that tile. Yes, the tile is an application launcher, but the content of the live tile drives the click and launch in a way that otherwise wouldn’t happen. It actually draws him in, compels him to see content that interests him that he otherwise wouldn’t see. Yes, this is not the “home is a reset” mindset – this is “I have a minute, let me see if anything jumps out at me” – a different way of looking at home/Start.

    Another good part of this actually compared to notifications for me at least is they are comparatively unobtrusive – you deal with them when you want to. You don’t have to act on them when they come in. One thing that annoys me a lot about iOS notifications is when they build up and you have to tap through them all. “Your iPad hasn’t backed up in 12 days” tap “Your iPad hasn’t backed up in 13 days” tap “Your iPad hasn’t backed up in 14 days” tap etc. (wording of example not exact, going off of memory). A live tile would never do that since it’s telling me the right now. (The flip side goes back to the original post point Wes had about it being distracting potentially if it changes too much, which I agreed needs better controls around it.)

    And it’s not like Apple doesn’t know there’s a value to this concept since they have and use all over the place the little number circle thingummy, which is a rudimentary form of Live Tile. They just don’t let you go all the way with it. Sometimes a number is good enough. Sometimes it isn’t. Depends on the use case.

  5. Michael very eloquently answered your criticisms, but let me summarize quickly:

    1) Live tiles can be switch on and off easily.

    2) You can vary the amount of info presented by making them bigger or smaller.

    3). They entice use of an app where an icon can not e.g. showing the latest news headline on the Bing tile, or Facebook update or twitter mention from the People bug or email headline or share price changes etc. It may be distracting to some, but these are the items I prioritized myself by pinning them.

    4) Regarding over-elaborating the shell, I think a parallax wallpaper is a lot worse. If you prefer a live tile-free experience you could always just make all your tiles the smallest size, and then you would have your sea of icons with badges once again.

  6. “They’re hardly ever in view. The Start screen is a shell, It’s not even like the Explorer shell or the gadgets in Vista where it could be set to always in view. If you’re not actively launching an app (or using multimon), the Start screen isn’t in view. So why the emphasis on adding interactivity (or infinite customizability) to a thing that’s basically just a launchpad?”

    This is what I have been saying for ages. Microsoft has risked alienating an entire user base for a new UI which is basically just a launcher. How many people just sit looking at the Metro home screen waiting for something to happen? An OS should stay out of the way and let the user get on with their work (or play), not impose itself on the user whether they want it or not.

Leave a Reply