While I was preparing for my Alive with Activity talk at the //Build 2012 conference last October, I was thinking more deeply about the design of the Windows Start screen, live tiles, and why, exactly, the API for live tiles (as well as toast notifications), limits you to using a predefined ‘template’ for a tile’s XML update payload. Put another way, why didn’t Microsoft just allow apps to create whatever kind of tile updates they want to? Why shouldn’t an app developer have complete control over the appearance of their tiles?

The clearest reason, to me, is that the Start screen is the central piece of shared real estate in the whole system. As such, it really begs for a sense of unity across the whole experience, and works best when there is consistency between the tile updates that are happening for all the apps involved.

With this in mind, I’ve been reflecting on the Start screen experience as it relates to the three ‘qualities’ of energy, known in the Bhagavad-Gita and other Vedic teachings of ancient India as the ‘gunas.’ These qualities are something that one of the best-known modern masters, Paramhansa Yogananda, drew from extensively in his teachings. For example, one of his early writings, Psychological Chart (1925), identified many different psychological qualities as expressing one or more of the gunas.

The three qualities or gunas, as explained in Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, are tamas (obstruction, inertia, ignorance), rajas (activity), and sattva (elevating or expansive, sometimes written sattwa). These provide a way of understanding the predominant nature of human beings, and is, in fact, at the core of the Living Wisdom School attended by my son (a system that is explained in the book Education for Life, written by J. Donald Walters, himself a direct disciple of Yogananda).

Human psychology aside, my point in this post is to think about the ways that the start screen of an operating system can be designed, and how they related to these qualities.

One design is something we all know very well: a screen full of static icons, perhaps with a pretty picture in the background. Yes, this design has been around for 20 years or so now (can you say Windows 95), and while it works and can look beautiful, it’s actually quite lifeless. In many ways, then, this design can represent some elevating qualities (sattva) but by its static nature—if not its age!—represents inertia (tamas).

Another design would be to give apps a space on a start screen in which they can do anything they want—any kind of text and image content, perhaps video and audio, whatever kinds of animations they might choose, and so on. Certainly this is a step above the static, tamasic kind of experience, but the result is un-unified, undirected, and chaotic. This is rajas at its best, like when you’re busy and active just for the sake of being busy and active. Such activity helps remind you that you’re not dead, but isn’t particularly elevating in the sense that you derive any true joy or happiness from it. Indeed, what lies at the end of this road is exhaustion and a collapse back to the tamasic state. Put another way, if you designed a start screen like this and (hopefully) allowed users to turn off the noise, it’s likely that they’ll turn it off rather quickly, especially if multiple apps wanted to play audio and video simultaneously!

A third design is to allow for some activity, but in such a way that there is that sense of unification, coherency, and beauty without letting things get out of hand. This is both rajas and sattva working together—an activating+elevating experience.

And this is exactly what I think the Windows Start screen, through the tile update templates, achieves. There is activity, certainly (and still something that users can control), but that activity is coordinated such that tile animations and the update cycle happen in a way that’s actually enjoyable to look at, rather than an eyesore.

If you haven’t been on your Start screen for a bit, assuming you’ve been reading this post, hit the Windows key and watch what happens. When you first land on the Start screen, there’s a moment of rest where everything is quiet. Then a number of tiles will update more-or-less together (but a bit in a sequence too), and then everything gets quiet again. After a time, a few tiles will again update or animate, and then a period of rest.

It’s this coordination between the app tiles, combined with the period of quiet and rest, that makes the Start screen alive with activity, but not busy with activity. And as apps draw their tile updates from a choice of available templates, every update has a relationship with the others that also reinforces this sense of unity.

Personally, I think it’s a brilliant solution.

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