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Surface tablet

I was lucky to attend the Surface event at Pier 57 via ITP. Update posted below.

Despite the reviews, I wanted to see and interact with this product and software. The one thing I really think is notable is how the software responds to the hardware. There is an accelerometer in the keyboard cover and one in the tablet, so based on the interaction of the keyboard cover, the software in the interface responds. For instance, if the keyboard is connected to the tablet, and you are trying to type in the address bar; as soon as I click on a key, the web browser form and "pinned" items (global bookmarks) are automatically prompted. In contrast, if the keyboard is folded under to support the tablet as a stand, then as a soon as the user taps on the screen, the digital keyboard slides up (see photos). These are subtle details that mesh hardware and software and keep the user flows continuous.




Strangely enough, I really liked the UI, and even better than some of the other operating systems out there. There are similar components and patterns, but the interface is so different. I could tell Microsoft invested a lot of their budget to UI design because the feel of it is so different from some of their desktop applications (compared to using Office software on a mac or IE browsers on a PC). The flow and feedback were strangely meditative (more explained below). There are a lot of little details that were carefully crafted to add up to this experience I am talking about.

Here are my notes not in any particular order (please refer to this set of photos):

• Seamless integration between hardware and software making ixd's intuitive

• Thoughtful design considerations to keys in keyboard (i.e. if the user's finger is perpendicular to the key, the device recognizes that the user wants to click on a button versus if the user's fingers are angled on a particular key, the device interprets that as a separate interaction)

• Careful considerations regarding implementing a touchpad and the placement of the touchpad is closer to the space bar (reminding me of those eraser nubs in IBM laptops). A colleague of mine asked whether the touchpad in the cover was gratuitous to the ixd of the touchscreen. I thought it was a fair question, and this colleague of mine worked at IDEO. The response given is that the touchpad offers "precision." The designer/developer explained the experience of writing and editing an email on a mobile screen was a disjointed experience and flow: user types, user makes a mistake, user interrupts her train of thought to touch the screen and place the cursor, user edits email, user continues to write email. With a touchpad, the user can quickly navigate to the cursor area, and edit the email without fussing with where the cursor is before or after the edit, saving valuable seconds and less grief. The surface team member framed it in the context of testing the product quickly at the airport. I wanted to know what his participant's occupation was... I only assumed that their target users are male business executives, which brings me to my next point.

• Careful consideration to gender dynamics. I decided to try to type some terms or addresses, but had trouble typing. I felt that the individual keys were wide and made for fingers that were wider than my own (probably male hands). And the keys were raised a little higher than expected. When I typed, I was mistyping, or some of the keys were sticky or weren't sticky enough. A staff member noticed that I was having trouble, and swapped the cover. There are two versions (e.g. one designed for people used to typing on flat surfaces, and one for people interested in receiving tactile feedback). I guess the beauty is the modularity of these keypads, though with the second keypad, keys were sticking or not registering with the tablet. I was told to re-seat the keyboard. I think this could probably be fixed digitally.

• Global navigation appears on the right and over a scrolling content interface, which was kind of peculiar to me at first. I was having trouble trying to swipe in the global navigation. To me it seemed buggy because at times it appeared, and at times it disappeared. Then a staff member alerted me that I had to swipe from the beveled area, so basically the black frame around the screen is touch-sensitive. All four sides can prompt up a chrome emerging from the side you are swiping. This was not intuitive or apparent at first because I had to unlearn some of these metaphors learned from ipad behavior. One thing that kind of bothered me that an app developer can incorporate 1 or all sides of the chrome. So if you are in an app, would you have to swipe all four sides to see if a chrome appears? This may not be a problem if the user frequents this app.

• Search panel slides from right. The one thing I think looks odd is the back button placed on the left side, even though the modules is sliding from the right. I see why they did that (global behavior in all the other apps), but I think this ok for users of android interfaces. There is back button on many android devices. Having used iOS interfaces, I can see where my opinion is probably an edge-case.

• Search panel, is so easy. There are filters at the top: apps, settings, files, store, etc. Then everything below the rule are results. There is no advanced search. Within apps, there is a contextual search (at least I can say that for 1 of the apps, though I can't confirm b/c I thought I took a photo of it). Let's say you search for "cookie," the search results might display "settings" and "Martha Stewart," and if you tap on "Martha Stewart," the result will lead you to a cookie recipe in an issue of "Martha Stewart." I think it is almost similar to ios global search, but I don't think there are filters above the results.

• Because the search panel features Bing search, will google users be annoyed if they have to take an extra step to open up chrome or link to google search? I did not check to see if there were google apps on this device. I did see amazon and kindle apps.

• Careful consideration to ad placement. I opened up Bing Finance, and I really couldn't believe my eyes. As I was scrolling through the different sections of articles, an ad appeared at the very end. No ads littered through the content, just at the very end. And every 5 seconds or so, it is animated with a different ad. I think this works because, the user can't really ignore the ad, since the global nav and search panels are in the right chrome. What a nice solution to an annoying problem of scattered ads littering content in web sites. I am not sure if the ad used is of IAB standards. When I clicked on the ad, it opened a full screen ad in modal view, then it stops there. No you can't click on it, and it will not displace you to the "Citibank" website. You just close it.

• Love, love, love the progress dots that animate in different patterns over search form box (catch a glimpse of it in IMG_6874). Maybe it's because it doesn't look like a spinning hour glass, spinning beach ball, or just a solid bar. It almost looks like an animation of a river current, which is why waiting doesn't seem urgent.

• Messaging is more subtle. Usually error messages are flashy... Just the text "No internet connection detected." I emphasize the use of period because it looks like a statement. Some of the typical error messages feel like they are yelling at you (see this brief video).

• Love, love, love that the cursor is more visible. There is a circle attached to the bottom of the cursor (see IMG_6913).

• Like the idea of pinned, though I think it will take some time to learn the color schemes of brands, apps, and icons.

• Multiple ways to prop the tablet, via cover, without cover, cover folded under the tablet, tablet with kickstand AND no cover, etc. Many options were considered. Power usage was a consideration, so if you had 20% power left, you could remove the cover so it doesn't drain your battery.

• I think it might be too late for this, but the power port and keyboard-cover port are so similar in shape and size, and differ by just one lead. I almost short-circuited it by plugging in the power adapter into the keyboard-port of the tablet. Maybe the magnet functionality of the keyboard port acts like an additional switch and safety precaution (similar to a reed switch).

• There is balance of browse and search. Obviously browsing through content is easy and continuous horizontal scrolling (in comparison to ios paginated menus). Everything is so visual, even the filters are visual (they appear in a carousel). See "Pinned" example.

• One thing that I didn't play around with but the staff member mentioned is a global share tool. You can share within an app to a different app. For example, I am in the Martha Stewart app, and I want to share this cookie recipe, I would click on the global nav, click share, and I think post it to, let's say a recipes app(?) Not sure, but if this is possible, I think it's cool.

• In the global nav, there is a way to link to other devices (Kinect? XBox?)

• For publishers, they won't take a cut if you have your own purchasing system. If you use their store, it's the typical 70/30.

• Forgot to check if there was a camera for video conferencing, but specs say there is/are.

• This was probably my favorite app. You can choose a type of liquor or a branded liquor, and find special recipes. I believe there are 350 drink recipes in this app. Just imagine propping this tablet on your bar table, and making this drink.

Here is a demo of it:

Was it worth the wait? I think so. Before I attended the demo, I was really skeptical of the product because of my past experiences with other Microsoft software, albeit web app, Xbox, etc. I think if the interface design was a half measure, people would discount the product. In this day and age, users just don't have the patience to test a product out, especially if the cost is competitive with current existing products (i.e. ios, android).

Would I use the this tablet? Currently, I am married to ios because I've bought a lot of apps that wouldn't be transferable. However, I can see my sister, who is a small business owner and PC user migrate to this product. Currently, she has an ipad1, but does not own any apps, but a lot of music. Music is find to leave to your iphone, however, and since she uses only free apps, I could see her experiment with a Surface tablet. As for my mom, she had such terrible experiences with the Windows desktop interfaces and internet explorer, that I got her the iPad3, and now she can't part without it. And my mom can't even understand the chrome interface at all (too complex!) I think if Microsoft can offer as many apps as ios, then I think there will be hope. Also, if Microsoft can offer a lot of partnerships with third party designer/developers, I think users from other operating systems could migrate. For instance, current styluses for iOS are awkward to use because users can't rest their hands comfortably on the tablet. But, I recently saw this "Active Stylus" by Perceptive Pixel that allows users to rest their hands comfortably on the surface tablet. Not that I am knocking Google Goggles, but for me, I would like more conventional products. Maybe the surface keyboard connection could be used to design and develop really nice speakers. Last, XBox and Kinect really has a huge cut in gaming. Will they incorporate games into Surface? Will that drive their business?

FWIW, my rankings for holidays gifts are: (1) mobile ios, (2) surface products, (3) android (tablet). Though I wouldn't mind an android for myself to hack things.


Update (November 4, 2012):

I just found out from a colleague, Thomas Feliciano, who went to see the Surface tablets in the Times Square pop-up shop. He said that the current tablets, Surface RT will not run legacy apps, however Microsoft will release the Surface Pro in Q1 of 2013, which will be able to run legacy applications as well as new apps from store. I believe he said you would be able to side load Windows 7/8 (potential for a USB). It will be for users who want the power of a laptop. It will also come with a stylus (that hopefully allows people to rest their hands on the screen).




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