Microsoft's emojigate shows why Windows 11 will never have a unified design

Emoji
Emoji (Image credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft's emojigate popped up in the news again after lying dormant for a few months. It looks like Microsoft may bring 3D emoji to Windows 11 after all. The perplexing saga of emojigate includes blog posts, marketing materials, and project leaders from Microsoft contradicting each other. It's drawn a surprising amount of passion and criticism. The latest chapter serves as a reminder of Microsoft's track record of mixed messages and poor communication. It also illustrates that the company struggles to deliver a unified vision across multiple teams, and that fact has me worried about Windows 11.

This saga isn't about emoji, at least not to me. I'm sure there are people that are upset about Windows 11 having 3D or 2D emoji, but I think emojigate illustrates a larger problem within Microsoft's design process. If Microsoft can't deliver a clear message about what it plans to do with emoji, how can we expect the company to enact a unified design strategy across Windows 11? And if the company can't design emoji and then ship them to an OS, how can we expect Microsoft to unify the look of all of Windows 11, which is tremendously more complex?

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Mixed messages still haven't stopped

Windows 10X Emoji Panel

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Emojigate is a needlessly complex saga that I've spent far too much time on. I can't imagine how the people designing the emoji feel. There's probably some sort of icon that'd illustrate how the designers feel... if only it was available in 3D. In any event, the entire saga is just odd. It includes Microsoft having blog posts and tweets highlighting 3D emoji coming to Windows 11 and the senior program manager of the Windows Insider team claiming that the posts used the wrong graphics.

Despite Brandon LeBlanc claiming that Microsoft's posts used the wrong graphics, the tweets in question have not been removed. Microsoft didn't update the Medium post on emoji until November 22, 2021, which was more than a full month after emojigate kicked off.

On top of posts being updated late or being left untouched, Microsoft continues to send out mixed messages. Nando Costa, a distinguished designer at Microsoft, says that the company is working to make the Windows 11 emoji 3D.

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How has a higher-up from Microsoft not sent out a memo about this?

Maybe Microsoft has changed its plans regarding 3D emoji on Windows 11, but why would those changes be announced by a designer on Twitter instead of an official blog post? Why has Microsoft's design team been silent on this for months?

It doesn't seem that difficult. Either 3D emoji are coming to Windows 11, or they are not. Microsoft could clarify its plans, send out word to its employees and contractors, and clear it all up. Instead, we're left to piece together tweets, new blog posts, and posts that occasionally get updated with new information.

Looping it back to Windows, if Microsoft can't get on the same page about whether its emoji are 3D or 2D, how can we expect the company to piece together decades of Windows code into a consistent design?

Microsoft's design is consistently inconsistent

Office Context Menu Edge

Source: Leopeva64-2 via Reddit (Image credit: Source: Leopeva64-2 via Reddit)

Windows 11 includes elements from several versions of Windows. It also has apps, windows, menus, and other components developed by different teams. As a result, there's an incredibly long list of inconsistencies within the OS. For example, a Reddit post recently noted how the dark and light modes of Windows 11 differ, such as how one utilizes rounded corners on highlight boxes and one doesn't. The point of this post isn't to highlight every inconsistency within Windows 11 since I don't think our CMS would allow an article that long. If you head on over to the Windows 11 subreddit, it's easy to find examples of mismatching menus and inconsistent designs.

Of course, this isn't anything new for Microsoft. The company has been tremendously slow when it comes to upgrading the look of legacy components. Microsoft only started testing a new volume UI this year. The one currently available on Windows has been around since Windows 8.

When it comes to design, you can say one thing about Microsoft: It's consistently inconsistent. Even when the company has a design framework, new or refreshed apps don't always end up looking the same. What we get as users is an OS and set of apps from Microsoft that look half-baked.

Mismatching menus are probably here to stay

Windows 11 desktop context menu

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Microsoft has come a long way when it comes to the look of Windows, but I fear that the company will never truly unify the look of its OS. Separate teams implement design languages differently. Microsoft's first-party apps wildly vary when it comes to fitting in on Windows.

Even if unifying the look of Windows and Microsoft's own apps was a priority, I question Microsoft's ability to execute a unified design strategy. After all, the company can't even figure out which emoji it's shipping.

Sean Endicott
News Writer and apps editor

Sean Endicott brings nearly a decade of experience covering Microsoft and Windows news to Windows Central. He joined our team in 2017 as an app reviewer and now heads up our day-to-day news coverage. If you have a news tip or an app to review, hit him up at sean.endicott@futurenet.com (opens in new tab).

13 Comments
  • Don't care much about the emoji, but agree about consistency. For example, why are trash bin menus whit when my theme us dark mode? Did they forget or why exactly. W11 is more consistently simple which I appreciate, but still work needed
  • It’s more fundamental.
    Microsoft are still a company torn by division.
    Literally offdiv,windiv and devdiv still at odds. UWP? Offdiv didn’t embrace it. WinUI3. Not even a GUI builder in Visual Studio upon release. MS move the development goalposts all the time making life so hard for developers. They always seem to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory - every time.
    They need a singular strong leader to unite a common technical roadmap. SatNad is not that person. Sadly.
  • Emojis. Dozens affected.
  • Windows. Hundreds of millions affected.
  • I don't think the emoji miscommunication should be cause for concern about the rest of Windows. It is just a symptom of what has been the case forever. UI inconsistencies, while aggravating to some subset of users, really don't typically affect the usability. I think the task is significantly harder for MS than the main competitor (Apple) in this space. Apple did a great job in UI changes that are pretty darn consistent across the OS, but they have a limited amount of hardware on which it needs to work, and all of it their own. MS has a dizzying assortment of hardware the OS has to work on, first and foremost. UI consistency is important, but it certainly isn't more important than functionality. There is just so much a limited number of programmers can do. Yes, limited. Even as big as they are, MS can't just throw ever more developer assets at it. Even if the resources were available, twice as many programmers don't always make the job take half as long.
  • I don't see the diverse hardware compatibility of Windows has tk do with the UI design of the OS. Android which is similar to Windows when it comes to having trying to work with different hardware, still manage to update the UI of Android far more consistently than Windows. Another one, Linux Distros on desktop, which runs on any PC hardware, have far better UI consistency than Windows, and large amount developers contributing to those distros aren't all paid to do that tasks. I guess it's a complex combinations of issues within Microsoft organization that involves their philosophy when it comes to executing design, different teams have their own interpretation and no unified messages, and myriad of UI framework that plague Windows over the years that there is no one system to get it updated. I guess UI framework has alot to do with it, while other OS seems to have dealing with single or very few UI framework and very robust system that updating theme is relatively easier and far better to produce better layouts. Still that doesn't explain how with same UI framework, one app have slightly different execution of the same design language than the other. One has more padding than the other, other app has this UI animation while other has none or animates differently on same UI element. This "emoji gate" saga brings up the issue not just about emojis, that issue is far minor. Like this article illustrates, it shows the still lingering organisational issues internal at Microsoft when it comes to design, despite having really good designers, the execution and messaging are still lacking.
  • What UI design has to do with hardware compatibility is that there are only so many people working at MS. A lot, yes, but still limited. If you have to choose between having them work on compatibility vs window dressing, you pick compatibility/functionality. I covered this. If you have limited resources to work on your car, do you concentrate and making sure it runs reliably, or do you paint it?
  • Windows 11 is a let down in this aspect. I expect it to be 50% more consistent than Windows 10 by the time Windows 10 support expires and people are forced to jump wagons. Of course this will be the time whrn Windows 11 will become an abandonware OS and Microsoft will pit all its effort into Windows 12. They will never finish consistency.
  • Microsoft had the best "emoji" 15 or so years ago with MSN. (Yahoo! had pretty good ones, too--just not as many.) Whatever they were doing then, they should just keep doing that.
  • I think everybody interpret messages too much, based on what they want.
    Someone at MS writes this tweet
    You read "the company is working to make the Windows 11 emoji 3D."
    You could also read that his team is trying to push it internally but it's not validated.
  • Metro UI on Windows Phone was awesome so they are capable of making a unified system.
  • I think it was during Aero era that when Microsoft were the peak of unified design, since the OS design are so cosistent until Windows 7 and their products mostly conform to it. Windows Phone when released, still have Aero exist. Windows 8 came but it's Metro Design were slightly different from Windows Phone back in the day. Metro or what become Modern Design were unified in Windows 10 and its mobile version. Issue is Windows 10 PC gotten even more plague with inconsistent design despite unifying the tablet UX with desktop.
  • Oh, good GRIEF! Just STOP, already, with stupid emoji. I look down my nose at people over their reliance on this insane toy.