Windows Phone 8 Notifications and Multitasking Concept

Why Microsoft needs improve multitasking and notifications, and how it can look to Google and Apple’s latest offerings to do so.



The current offerings:

An apologist for the notification center


One of Microsoft’s most touted features, and in their eyes benefits, or Windows Phone 8 is that their home screen is littered with "live tiles". These incredibly minimalistic, constantly changing, completely square icons are Window Phone’s answer to both the static iOS’s icons and Android’s assortment of widgets. These live tiles offer advantages over both of the competitors’ offerings; being able to display more information at a glance is a big advantage over iOS, and they don’t create the confusion of widgets on Android. Instead of having to wonder what tapping on the widget will do (or what part you should tap on) live tiles take you straight to the app, no questions asked.


As great as live tiles are, they quite simply don’t offer the same service as a dedicated notification center. A lot of people don’t seem to agree with me on this, so let’s first define what the purpose of a notification system is. The best analogy I can come up with for what a notification center should do is that what a personal assistant does everyday. When you come in to work, they’ll tell you who called you and what they wanted, if you got any new mail, what your schedule looks like, and perhaps even suggest something you might be interested in, like a news story or magazine article. This is what notification centers do. They gather all your communications with the world and organize it for you.

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Meanwhile, this is NOT what live tiles are supposed to do. The Windows Phone 8 home screen has live tiles scattered across its space like a giant desk of a CEO with piles of paper strewn across it. This giant desk grants you the opportunity to quickly scan everything’s in sight, but doesn’t give you too much information to suck you in. You might see that you have 3 new messages over there, 20 pieces of mail to go through here, and a piece of mail that just came in too. But just as when a desk get’s too cluttered, live tiles can get too cluttered as well. Cluttered is NOT necessarily bad though, it just makes it a little harder to get work done quickly. Live tiles enable a less structured work flow than a comparable notification system.


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Before I move on, let me make one last point in comparing the use cases for both of these functions. When I first wake up in the morning, I like to go over everything that happened while I was asleep; check the news, respond to emails, text someone back, etc, as well as plan my upcoming day which involves looking at my calendar and appointments, and look at what homework I have due today. In this case, I would use my notification center, because I have plenty of time, and I am actively trying to achieve certain goals. Later that day, I may have ten minutes between classes, enough time to respond to a text or check my emails, but not go through all my notifications. At this point I would use the live tiles, because I would most likely have email and text pinned near the top, and not have to go searching for them. Two completely different ways to go about getting things done, but I think they work best in combination with one another.


Speaking of getting things done, the multi-tasking on Windows Phone is atrocious. No getting around it. The fact that I can only view one app at a time is stupid. It’s slow, doesn’t look that great, and isn’t very functional in design. Those are three major strikes. For part 1, there is not a whole lot I can do to make a design seem faster (save for putting some flames somewhere) so that aspect will have to be left to someone with far more technical knowledge than me. The unattractive and poor-function design I think I can improve upon though.



The Inspiration

Originality is Overrated

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via images.pcworld.com


This is the image that sparked my idea of how to fix Windows Phone.


I really liked how Windows Phone, and the Zune UI before it, used horizontal swiping, rather than just vertical lists, to navigate the operating system. More recently, apps like Facebook, have incorporated sliding panels into their mobile applications. I thought that these sliding panels, combined with the horizontal movements already established in Windows Phone could be the solution.


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via alexanderblom.se

I also looked to other operating systems to see how they handled notifications. I really liked the idea of expanded notifications that Android was pursuing, but I don’t think they have been using them correctly.


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via assets.sbnation.com


Back when I had the original Motorola Droid, I liked putting access to quick settings in the notification pulldown, but I never really found an implementation that I loved. You either lost screen real estate that would have otherwise been spent on notifications, or you had an ugly on screen button. Worse still is that there could be an entirely separate menu for the settings, meaning you would pull down the shade, hit settings, the notifications would disappear and only show settings, and you would have to switch back for notifications.


When it came to multitasking, I thought Android did a great job of showing open apps as they appear, but it still lacked a lot of information. I tried to take their form of multitasking to the next natural step.


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via www.digitaltrends.com


Early Design Stages

The First Sketches and Perspectives


There were three major things that I wanted to accomplish with these two features. First and foremost, they must be easy to use and understand. When I say this, I mean two things really. Everything has to be able to be operated with one hand. This also means it has to be intuitive enough for an average person should to understand it. Second, power users have the control they want over their devices. Third, it has to have something in both notifications and multitasking that no other operating system out there has. Something major.


I told you I started my idea with that of the horizontally scrolling already present in Windows Phone and, to a lesser extent, the sliding panels used in many apps today. From these design paradigms, I envisioned Windows Phone 8 as existing in three planes The top plane is the home screen. It serves as a place to quickly see what’s going on in your world, without diving into them too much. With a quick glance you can see exactly what your phone is about. Below that, lies the notifications, accessed by swiping to the left, and multitasking, a swipe to the right.


So here is the first sketch I did.


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There are a couple of things about this design that really made me like this. By putting this ‘under’ the home screen it became much more usable. For example, one criticism I hear a lot about Windows Phone is you never know how much battery you have, what time it is, or things like that. Instead of that constantly wasting space, I wanted it to be hidden; but I also wanted it to be VERY quickly accessed. So by putting it on the far right side of the notification bar, you can barely have to swipe before you can see the time. Just pull a little to the left, check the time, pull back, and you’re right where you left off.


This semi-swipe is also really useful for notifications if done right. By showing the picture of the person, app, or event first, then the text as you pull, you can decide whether you need to respond right now, or if you can wait. For example, you might be having a great run at your favorite racing game when a notification comes in. You noticed at the top of the screen, but you didn’t have time to look at it right away. When you get to the next straight away you pause, semi-swipe open your notifications, and decide. It’s your ex-girlfriend? Keep on racing. It’s your boss? Better respond now.


Now I said I would make them expandable, and I did, just not in the way you expected. I didn’t want to be getting a bunch of notifications from one app like I do on my iPhone. And while I can limit them, I don’t want to miss out on any either. So where does that land me? I decided that I would again have a limit on how many notifications each app could have in the notification center, but that it could be expanded if the user wanted to. For example, I use a student planner a lot for keeping up with school work. For 90% of the time, it suffices me to know that I have something due tomorrow, and thus I have a single notification. But for that other 10%, I need to know what else I have to do. In that case, I simply slide on the handle below the notification, revealing prior notifications from that same app. This works great for games that notify you of progress, emails, or other forms of mass communication like Twitter.


The final thing I wanted to do with notifications was have a quick settings bar like Android. My mother has gotten two new things recently, a Samsung Galaxy S III, and an irrational fear that we will go way over our monthly data limit, and that she will be the reason why. Last month, she used less than 0.1 GB. We have 6 GB as a family. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, it’s probably good she exercises some caution in making sure she doesn’t use too much data, but far too often she decides to hit one of the settings button on her phone disconnecting her from bluetooth, wifi, the cellular network, or data altogether. That is the problem with having those settings in a widely used area. To remedy this, I came up with the following solution.


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By hiding the settings under the info bar, it both makes it accessible to those who want it, and out of the way for those who don’t. Simply swipe the info bar up, and the quick settings come out of the bottom, replacing the spot of the music player, or if no music is playing, the next app.



Multitasking took a bit longer for me to figure out. My first idea was to simply have the live screenshot of the app, like Android and Windows Phone do now, with additional information next to it. I quickly realized this makes no sense though. What is the point of the screenshot? In Android, it is so small that you can’t see what it actually is. Sure you can make out what app it is, but you can do that with a much smaller icon. In Windows Phone you can see a lot of the app, but even then, it doesn’t provide much contextual information to the user, and it comes at the cost of limiting the screen to only showing one app at a time. But the goal behind both of these ideas is solid. Show the user more information about what that app is doing. That’s when I decided I would much rather see a quick description of what was happening in the app than look at a tiny picture.


"Place 2/8. Lap 3/5. Ford Focus ST" reads a racing app.


"Composing email to Steve Ballmer" is the description for your email app.


"Google Nexus 4 Review theverge.com" is an example of what Internet Explorer could be saying.


By simply saying what it is doing, it becomes so much more usable than a tiny icon. But wait...what if I wanted to switch into email, but I wanted to search my inbox for a receipt, not finish writing that email to Ballmer. Too often I find myself using multitasking to switch back into the wrong part of the app, and end up taking more time to get where I wanted to be than if I would have just went home first. It’s infuriating.


That’s where expandable actions comes into play. This is where Google should have put them. Not notifications. Swipe down on that email app, and you get options to go straight to your inbox, search, or compose new message screen. Same with text messaging. Say you’re playing a game and you get a call. When you go to switch back to the game you notice it says you are last place now, when before you were in second. Instead of jumping into the race only to have to quit, you can expand the app, select main menu or restart race, and be on your way.


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One final thing that I wanted is the ability to access both of these things from the lock screen, so I put in an option for the user to allow this. But rather than show your a couple preset apps or your recent notifications like some phones do, I hid them a bit. It becomes terribly awkward when someone grabs your phone and unintentionally sees something they’re not supposed to. By hiding them to the side, it ensures this can no longer happen.



What it actually looks like


So I apologize ahead of time, I’m not the best graphic designer, but here’s what my idea would look like.


This is what Notification Center looks like when fully opened. Events are arranged by time, with newest at the top. As you can see, either the person’s picture or the app icon is justified along the right edge. In the lower right hand of the person’s avatar there is the icon of the app they are connecting through. In theory, it would also work for other images, so a news publication could include a thumbnail for the headline and have it there.


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The music app is permanently cemented to the bottom, right above the info bar. This insures it is always in reach of the thumb with minimal effort, as well as making sure it is always visible upon first glance.

Power Planner is the only notification that can be expanded here, shown through the use of the blue bar with ellipsis.


Here’s what it looks like when that notification is expanded. It simply pushes the bottom app out of the way to make room.


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When you swipe the smart bar up, the music player disappears and the quick settings appear.

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The Smart Bar is one of my favorite features. The entire bar acts as a battery indicator, it glides across the screen as your battery drains. It also features your connectivity figures, music player, and name which takes you straight to your me card. Useful if your phone is lost or you are injured.

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A quick ‘peek’ at the notifications.

(I really don’t like how this looks for some reason, but I think it would work better in action.)


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And here is multitasking. As you can see, you get the typical app icon, but with a lot more text than normal, which actually gives you a better idea of where you left off. I use the same bar with ellipsis to show that an app is expandable, as is the case with messaging. In Twitter, Kindle, and Internet Explorer, I already pulled down their expandable features. Just that slight gesture gives each app, and the multitasking in general, a huge bump in functionality.


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Here's a comparison of the functionality of different multi-tasking UIs.

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Finishing Touches

Bits and Pieces I left out


So I know this isn’t a huge change from Windows Phone 8 as it stands today, and I’m certainly not claiming to be completely original with the ideas, but I think this concept shows how some of those ideas can be improved upon. I’m sure there are some questions you all have though, so I’ll try to answer those here.


What about the app list? If swiping to the left is for notifications, where did it go?


That was actually one of the first things I decided upon, the app list is gone. I did this for a few reasons. One is the lack of actual good Live Tiles. By putting every app on the home screen, developers will be forced to make better and more functional live tiles. Two, I thought the list wasn’t very nice looking, and it was a pain to use.


That said, there will need to be some other changes due to the lack of a list of apps. Universal search is a necessity at this point, and Microsoft should have already enabled it. Something like the one in Windows 8 is perfect. Functional, beautiful, powerful. Also, some sort of folder system needs to come along. I have a few ideas for it, but I’m not ready to show that off yet.


Won’t people accidentally bring up notifications or multitasking while just navigating around? Or worse, won’t be able to bring it up at all.


I thought this at first, but it seems like I rarely actually swipe from the edge of the screen. Most navigation is little directional swipes in the middle of the screen.


What about the expansion of notifications and recent apps? Won’t that mess with scrolling in those lists?


Most of the time, you’re pushing your finger from the bottom of the screen to the top in order to scroll, while expanding requires the opposite motion.


How do you get rid of apps or notifications?


By simply swiping the item to the center. So for multitasking, you swipe to the right to remove an app, for notifications, swipe to the left. This is so you don’t accidentally go to the home screen instead, which would require an swipe in the opposite direction.



Conclusion


I did this for three reasons really. The first was that I’ve never done anything like this before, and really wanted to push my design skills and see what I could do. The second was because I really want to see Windows Phone improve and succeed. I may have an iPhone currently, but I really wanted to love my Trophy when I had it, I just couldn’t. Regardless of if I ever switch back or not, competition is good for everyone.


And the final one was far less noble. I wanted to prove people wrong. Over the past week we’ve seen a lot of people come out and say many of the Lumia’s shortcomings, or rather Window Phone 8’s shortcomings, were actually the opposite. They were improvements. Comments have been saying that Windows Phone can give you more notifications than anything else because of the Me Tile where all your social media is pulled together. While that is a great tool for organizing all your networks. The assertion that you can get more notifications that way than on a traditional center like iOS or Android is an outright lie.


I think this is the best way I can explain it. Live Tiles are great for when you already have a plan, a notification center tells you what your plan should be. If you know you need to check all your emails, or respond to a bunch of phone calls, than the WP8 home screen is a great beginning point for that journey. It simply tells you yes or no, and sometimes how many times yes, to the basic question. Notification centers do much more than that, giving you subjects, times, and people before you even act on something. These are two different ways of going about business, but neither is right or wrong. Rather, they should coexist so that we may use each to their fullest potential.


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Thanks for reading, browsing, skimming my post. If you have any criticisms, comments, or praises I would love to hear them!