The XAML Design Guidelines Are Out There--If You Look Under the Surface

Helpful resources for designing WPF/Silverlight/Windows Phone 7 apps

Back in 1995, Microsoft published Windows Interface Guidelines for Software Design. This was the book that defined the "battleship grey" design of applications and focused on ideas such as where menu bars should go and how the top-right menu item should be "File" and the far-right item "Help." Microsoft immediately implemented these design guidelines in Office for Windows 95. Developers took it as gospel, control vendors built controls to support the design, and all was right in the world.

It was the web application that first disrupted this design. HTML, for all its faults, offers a huge diversity of design choices, and every so often, a really amazing website design came along and shook us out of the simple grey world we were living in.

But the real crisis of UI was the release of Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) in 2006. WPF is a totally new way of approaching UI design, but Microsoft largely punted on providing interface design guidance. This isn't as crazy as it seems—after all, you can only provide guidance if you build applications using the technology, and it took a good long while for Microsoft to actually build a significant application using WPF.

Unfortunately, as cool as Visual Studio 2010 may be, it's not a great representation of what line-of-business applications should look like in WPF. Beyond WPF in Visual Studio 2010, the nature of UI is on the move as well—multi-touch is here, and with the huge success of Kinect, I expect gesture-based computing to come on fast.

Then I took a look at the Surface Toolkit for Windows Touch beta. While it comes from the Surface team, it doesn't require a Surface—just WPF 4.0. Inside the toolkit are an entire set of conventional controls as well as some more touch-specific controls. There are, of course, extensive sample applications for all of the controls.

The sample applications give you a real sense of how WPF can create the next generation of battleship grey applications... using similar monochromatic colors that your users will be familiar with, but with a design sensibility that makes your form "feel" nicer. There's a subtlety to these WPF controls, with softer, rounded edges and smooth manipulation behavior.

The standard controls work like any other controls you've dealt with, plus including some touch behaviors that go beyond normal mouse controls but are still quite useable without touch. There are also touch-specific controls like the ScatterView control, which is entirely touch-centric, but awesome (and easy) to use.

Finally, if you haven't done so recently, now is a good time to go out and take some third-party WPF controls for a spin. Control vendors have advanced the look and feel of their WPF controls substantially, and virtually all offer some sort of trial period. More importantly, they offer some styling guidelines to make it easier to take on that modern WPF style.

You don't have to be a designer to make good-looking WPF/Silverlight/Windows Phone 7 applications—you just have to go looking in the right places. And this issue has some great directions on how to learn more.

Richard Campbell is technical director of DevProConnections, cofounder of Strangeloop Networks, cohost of .NET Rocks! ( and host of RunAs Radio ( He has more than 30 years of high-tech experience and is both a Microsoft Regional Director and Microsoft MVP.

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