You've read the blog posts, watched the "Surface" commercials, and heard that developing an app for Windows 8 is an interesting opportunity. (There's a huge market! After all, it's the No. 1 operating system in the world.) So what steps should you take to "get to know" this new platform and build an app?
We've been playing with, designing, and developing apps for this platform for more than a year now, and nearly every client we've spoken to about Windows 8 is interested, but they find it challenging to understand the new platform and what it can do. We had to help them quickly learn the operating system, and the following are the steps we recommend to make that happen.
Play with a Windows 8 tablet or a Windows 8 PC
There's simply no better way to learn than to dive in. If you have a Windows 7 PC, you can upgrade it to Windows 8 (part of the "built-in" market). However, we think it's important to experience the "touch-first" user interface as well as a mouse and keyboard. Therefore, we suggest that you go purchase a Surface or other touch-screen-enabled Windows 8 PC (or camp out at your favorite PC store for a few hours). There is so much to learn from simply using a Windows 8 tablet or PC. Swipe across the screen to view the start screen tiles, and notice how everything in Windows 8 is "page-less" -- it's one big panorama.
Your first recommended stop is the Windows Store. Just touch the green Store tile, and you're in. As you might expect, the apps are grouped into categories with featured apps highlighted within each group (your goal is to land here). These featured apps change regularly and tend to be apps that offer great content and great experiences. Windows 8 has integrated search, so swipe from the edge to open the "charm" bar (this gesture is so simple that it'll be ingrained into memory and become an intuitive gesture when using Windows 8 apps), and select the search charm. From here you will be able to search all of the apps within the store. We recommend checking out the following to get a good sense of apps for Windows 8: Naturespace, iCookbook, Conde Nast, AllRecipes, and Parents Magazine.
It's normal to be afraid of change -- every time Facebook changes its interface, large amounts of people complain before they have even tried it. But after a few weeks, they get used to the new interface, and you don't hear anything from them anymore. We have found this to be true for Windows 8 as well. The interface is fundamentally different from iPad and Android tablets, and it takes time to get used to. The funny thing is that once you get used to it, you'll catch yourself swiping from the edges on an iPad or reaching out to touch other computer screens.
Learn Windows Store app design principles
Now that you are familiar with panoramic pages and swiping through them, you might have also learned that there are actions found in the bottom app bar (unique to each app) and that share and search are located in the charm at the right edge. That's a good start, but to make sure your app achieves a great Windows 8 experience, we think you should learn these three core design disciplines.
Content before chrome
The current interface on iPads and Android tablets are a mixture of chrome (buttons, tab bars, status bars, etc.) and content. On Windows 8, this is fundamentally different. Your content should be emphasized, while buttons and navigation should be tucked away in the bottom or top app bar. There might be fear that the user won't find those controls, but we find that after some time with the platform, everyone gets used to these controls.
Fast and fluid
"Fast and fluid" means various things. From a technical perspective, it means that you should reduce the waiting time when performing actions (like opening a detail page) by using asynchronous loading in a smart way. From a user experience perspective, this means showing a lot of content up front and allowing the user to scroll through long pages without having to wait and load new pieces content. You should get used to the concept of long panoramic pages. It's much easier for you to scroll and scan than to decide between sections.
The best way to understand this concept is to play with the calendar apps on both the iPad and the one that comes with Windows 8. Notice the textures and real-life metaphors (also known as skeuomorphism) that identify iPad apps and the lack of real-life metaphors in the Windows 8 calendar. Instead you will see how content is large and upfront accompanied by large, crisp fonts. You will see that designing for Windows 8 is different than designing for iPad. It requires a new design effort, but the results can be very compelling.
Identify Windows 8 features and opportunities for your app
Windows 8 comes with a whole range of unique features that you should be aware of before developing your first Windows 8 app. One of these is snap view, which allows you to multitask by placing two apps alongside each other where one app takes up approximately one-third of the screen and the other app the remaining two-thirds. For some applications, running in snap view can be more important than fill view. Take a calculator as an example. It's very likely you'll need to input data from another source, such as a PowerPoint deck.
Built-in share is another feature that is treated differently on Windows 8. An app can share with whatever app the user has installed that can capture the share. This means that sharing capabilities basically come with low cost, and there is a unified way of sharing content. This is a big opportunity for many apps to increase the virility of the content seamlessly through the share contract.
Search, like share, is also baked into Windows 8. Unless your app is built around search (like a search engine), a search field should not be placed within your app. The end-user knows where to locate the search field because it's always placed in the search charm, so there should be no fear that the user won't know how to search. In fact, placing a search field within your app would confuse the user more than relying on the built-in search charm.
There are also a lot of opportunities with live tiles (the tiles you use to open a Windows Store app) that you should understand. By rotating through pieces of content from the app, the user might be enticed to open the app. This is in strong contrast to a static logo. From a branding perspective, you might prefer a static logo, but we think you can increase your app usage rate while supporting your brand by using rotating pieces of content.
App monetization models on Windows 8 are also unique compared to other platforms. Windows 8 offers you the opportunity to use Microsoft's cash register, or you can use your own and keep all revenues. Free trials are also available on Windows 8, but an app publisher can maintain control by defining the details of what the free trial means. In-app purchases are also available -- a popular monetization strategy on iOS. Microsoft maintains the traditional 70/30 revenue share (you get 70) if you use its transaction system, but it also offers a nice bonus: Once you hit $25,000 in gross revenue, the revenue share changes to 80/20.
Creating a successful Windows 8 app requires good planning, great design, and good use of Windows 8 features.
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"Metro style with app cells" image via Shutterstock.