The history of the start screen in Windows Phone 8

Live Tiles have been a much loved feature in Windows Phone since the platform launched back in 2010. Microsoft has since improved the functionality by extending the column support from two to four, enabling more tiles to be present on-screen at any one time. But how did Live Tiles in Windows Phone 8 come about at Microsoft?

A detailed post on the Windows blog runs readers through the development and design work of Live Tiles and how the feature was improved. Josh Phillips, author of said post and who served as program manager for the start screen redesign in Windows Phone 8, goes into detail about how difficult and daunting it was to approach a feature that was already loved by consumers. His thoughts on first seeing Live Tiles in Windows Phone 7:

"I was hooked: My phone, it seemed, cared about the same people I did."

Making the start screen more personal was a challenge, and to get it just right was essential for Windows Phone to increase its marketshare by offering consumers an intuitive and unique user experience. We'll be the first to agree that the team successfully achieved their goal - the new start screen is a welcomed improvement. Should it have gone wrong, we could have been looking at more problems on Microsoft's mobile list.

For those who are unaware just what Live Tiles do on Windows Phone, they replace static app icons one is accustomed to seeing on competitor platforms (iOS, Android, etc.). Displaying useful information from within an app, Live Tiles ensure users spend less time navigating around the device but receive relevant information they need from the app itself.

Phillips goes into explain what the engineering team looked at in the previous Live Tiles to see how and where they could implement improvements. First off the team decided to tackle adding more tiles to the start screen, enabling consumers to pin more personal content. Second, they looked to make it possible to reflect the personal content they wish to pin to the start screen. And third, how the team could make the start screen more distinctive than it already is.

Oh, and adding more accents was on the todo list. Many more accents. If that wasn't enough, the arrow proved rather tricky:

"That arrow, by the way, was a tricky little guy—and provides some insight into how the software design process typically works. Initially we figured we could safely remove it. But when we began bringing real people into our usability labs to play with the redesigned Start screen—something we always do as part of the design process to double check our hunches—we saw that quite a few of them weren’t finding the App list, which requires a quick left swipe to see."

It's an interesting read that goes into detail how much work has gone into improving the user experience in Windows Phone 8. Be sure to head on over to the Windows Blog to find out more about the process.

Source: Windows Blog

Rich Edmonds
Senior Editor, PC Build

Rich Edmonds was formerly a Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

  • I always wondered why not put a tile there to provide users with some visual guide into the apps list. Then I figured a tile would be most useful if it could provide dynamic information about apps. From there, I came across the idea that apps were responsible for creating notifications, so the tile could work as a nify trick to show notifications.
    Working with that, I came up with this:
    I think the apps list needs to be changed into a proper hub.
  • Personally, I don't have any need for a notification centre, but I can appreciate that some people do.
    I actually like some apps to be static - many apps don't allow you to configure the type of information shown on the tile. I especially don't need notifications for apps I only check infrequently. What I'd like is folders/custom hubs to organise my apps as I see fit, without having to pin them to the start screen. These hubs can be used as app launchers, while the start screen is purely for notifications. I'd also settle for being able to filter the app list by a category selector.
  • Well, if there is a notification tile, you can choose to minimize its size so it only shows you a number, indicating apps have new notifications, but it wouldn't get in your way in any way. Should you choose to tap on the notifcation tile, you'll be taken to the notification panel where you can review all notifications.
    Having a notification center doesn't really affect the way Windows Phone behaves right now. Those who don't need it can certainly just ignore it.
    From a design standpoint though, your phone shouldn't show a toast notification which would disappear automatically, leaving you uninformed about maybe an important message. There should always be a place where you can review notifications. This principle has been observed even in feature phones from 2004, but not in Windows Phone. I think the majority would welcome a notification center as shown by polls conducted here on WPCentral.
  • Notifications must die! On other platforms with a notifcation centre instead of live tiles, you're constantly spammed with notifcations you'll see at least twice. I feel more comfortable using Windows Phone, because I'm in charge of when I want to check notifications from apps, and because notifications appear on live tiles, I always notice them quickly, without being spammed by pop-ups and notification sounds.
  • But you're ignoring the fact that not all apps that send notifications have a live tile or not all update it that do. Also we may only want an app primarily for its notification and not want to have the app pinned. But it comes down to choice. Those who want notifications can enable them and those don't will not. But WP definitely needs a notification centre and it should have been there by now.
  • I was confused by the mention of the arrow still being in WP8, as I thought it was binned. But I can see it in the image at the bottom, so it's only the right gutter that's gone. I would actually like an option to turn the gutter on/off, as the live tiles are gigantic on > 4" screens without a gutter.
  • With the gutter, small tiles would be pretty small even on larger screens.
  • I've tried out the W Phone 8 app on my 4.3" screen... the small squares are the size of my fingernail, so they're still very usable and accessible. The medium-square tiles are huge, the double-wide ones are massive!
  • I have a 4.7" Windows Phone, and the double-wide tiles seem small to me. That's in Tango.
  • In 7.5 they're fine... I'm talking about the 7.8/8.0 sizes. You can see for yourself by downloading the "W Phone 8" app. The double-wide tiles are just under 1/3 of the screen instead of well under 1/4.
  • I would still love to have the option to turn the gutter on. You are right that small tiles would be too small then, but there is an easy solution for this: Just allow two sizes (standard + large) for the tiles with the gutter on. Those two sizes are already on wp7 phones, they are just not customizeable. Would be IMO easy to do and bring even more options to chose for the important start screen.
  • Yeah, it should be very easy. It reminds me of the fiasco with IE... In 7.0 we had a forward navigation option, search on page, and really nice tab selection. In 7.5 they ripped out the first two and hid the tabs in the menu (2 selects instead of 1). It was a backwards step and only now are they being reintroduced in 8.0. I hate it when they change things after we've all used it for a long time and say "oh you don't need that". Same with the gutter - they tell us it's essential & wonderful and then just rip it out later. They should give people options... Let people at least have some choices, although not as many as Android ;)
  • Honestly, Live Tiles are good but they are still unable to replace the need to click the app to read more news. I love Windows Phone and currently own a Lumia 900 replacing my Omnia 7. However, to be brutally honest, Live Tile is somewhat feels like Siri, lotsa potential but still at the moment more gimmick than anything else.
  • I feel they've been limited by developers not by functionality.
  • I think you're viewing it from the wrong angle. Of course when a live tile shows you information you're interested in you then need to open the app for more information.
    However this also means that when the tile doesnt show you information you dont need to open the app. For example my public transport tile shows me whether there is a delay on my 'favorite' stations. On my Android I always had to check this app, sometimes 4 times a day. Now I just glance at the startscreen and I'm done. Unless of course there actually is a delay, in which case I open the app to see what my best alternatives are.
    Same thing with news, mails, messages, calls, weather, etc. Sometimes the information on the screen is enough, for example when the rain radar tile shows incomming clouds containing rain. But most of the time I use the live tiles to know what requires my attention. That way I dont have to open so many apps. I remember that back on Android I had a morning ritual to open 10 different apps before heading out. Thanks to WP I no longer need to do that and I can just move on.
  • Well said.
  • App hub would have been great.
  • Please vote for it here:
  • In my opinion, the live tiles are very intuitive. They give you a glimpse of what's going on. Having used several platforms prior to using a windows phone, I've grown bored with the endless sea of apps. I for one true appreciate what Microsoft has done. And I'm very excited about the live apps.
  • An App Hub would be great, but I don't think it's a necessity.
  • Of course not a necessity because people can reach and launch apps right now, but I think it would be better if apps had a dedicated hub due to reasons I explained in the forum post above.
  • I'd want a custom hub, but more like the Applications list in the Pictures hub, or the Collection in Games. Notifications in those hubs is interesting, but non-essential for me. I'd definitely want a setting to turn notifications on or off, as I really hate having numbers all over my apps and also having uncontrolled data usage and processes running in the background.
  • is there a limit to how many tiles can be placed on the start screen in WP8?
    what was this limit in WP7.x?
  • There is virtually no limit for both, u just pin however many u want! I personally dont need too many to pin but once WP7.8 comes im pinning more so I can scroll not so much and still be able to glance at my info :D
  • If it also makes u happy, I was also curious if I was able to pin all my apps, so I just did it right now, and I punned all my apps on my WP7.5 first generation phone for no lagg whatsoever. Not ideal but I have a around 60-80 apps I believe lool so ye :)
  • I think the only thing missing from WP is custom cool would it be if we could create a news hub like our me tile which aggregates our news in one hub or a book hub which takes from different stores or apps into one..
    If live tiles have replaced icons, hubs could replace the way you create a folder on other OS.
    This could be potentially massive.
    Also, only if MS could allow others to link into their message hub or me hub. Imagine what's app and kik and g talk all under the messaging hub with options to open whatever you want and have one stream..
    It'll be beautiful!!!
  • Yeah, we've been crying out for that for a long time :(
  • I can't wait to get the new start screen on my lumia 900 :)
  • Hmm, I always thought that they ditched the arrow in WP8. Never knew that they dragged it all the way to the bottom (not surprised, given the size of the tiles). Can't wait for WP7.8 to play around with that new Start screen. :)