Designing a dual-screen experience
Over the past several decades, product manufacturers have continually adapted devices to meet a dynamic set of ever-changing human needs. We’ve made things smaller, lighter, more flexible and more inclusive. We’ve integrated touch input and developed smart software to help you succeed in an efficient and elegant way.
As both the rhythms of everyday life and perceptions of productivity continue to change, we ask ourselves: how can we enable people to move more smoothly between creativity and content consumption, between professional and personal spaces?
The release of the Microsoft Surface Duo, a dual-display mobile device with features designed specifically for this form factor, is one way to address this issue.
Such an exciting opportunity is extremely rare for designers. It’s like finding a new room in a house you’ve lived in for decades. Which passages will open? What creative ideas will come up? Likewise, with the Surface Duo, we asked what new workflows can be enabled with the two screens, and how their junction could simplify tasks and reduce cognitive load.
It was created based on years of user research, and the software was developed taking into account the hardware features of the device. This opens up new possibilities for improving user efficiency. You can participate in an online meeting and simultaneously open a document on a device that still fits in your pocket.
Surface Duo – as a device and as a category – is in its infancy. We know there is work to be done to improve it. That is why we invite you to take part in our creative process to shape its future together.
To get a more detailed understanding of the work done, I spoke with Deepak Menon, who leads the design team for the Office application. We discussed the research behind our design decisions, how we used the Surface Duo, and our hopes that you will take those ideas and bring them to life.
John: Deepak, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I know we’ve both been using Surface Duo for the past few months …
Deepak: I actually used it as my main device. I don’t think I need anything else!
John: AND, of coursewe say so because we designed it. 😉 But I think it’s a testament to the work to understand what people need and how using two screens can empower mobile devices.
Deepak: Right. It is not just a “smartphone” with two screens. It’s not just a foldable tablet. This is something new, offering an experience that is made possible by the “junction” of two screens, and not in spite of it.
John: When we started working on Surface Duo, we started with the question: What human needs are not yet met? What is the difference between what people are trying to achieve and the tools that are available to them? And how can this gap be filled? The form factor of a dual-screen device allows you to deeply immerse yourself in the idea of performance.
Deepak: Especially mobile productivity.
John: Yes, your team has done research in mobile-centric countries like India and China.
Deepak: We know that people want to start and end a task on the same device – they want to get in and out quickly. And companies rely on what we used to think of as “entertainment” – voice, video, and photography – for the collaboration and operations they need.
John: We see these patterns often. In the past, productivity was purely quantitative – more widgets per second were produced. Productivity today is creativity. It boils down not only to your state of mind, but also to your results. We constantly switch between consuming and creating, thinking and acting. There is a “lean back” mode when you consume and process information, and there is a “lean forward” mode when connections suddenly appear in your head or you need to do something.
Historically, our devices were designed to use one of these modes at the same time. The beauty of the Surface Duo is that it lets you move from thought to action, back and forth – and still fits in your pocket.
Deepak: This certainly takes content consumption to the next level – it gets better because you have more screen real estate. In Outlook, you can quickly see detailed information for an entire week, and in Word, you can flip through pages like in a book, or view them side by side. On average, a document is less than two pages, so with Surface Duo, you can view the entire document without scrolling.
Creative activity is also increasing. In PowerPoint, I like having a slide on one screen and thumbnails on the other, so I can stay focused without losing a sense of the big picture. Alternatively, I can have several applications open that will work on different screens.
John: This is one of my favorite scripts. I’ll be chatting in Teams in dual landscape mode with the video at the top and the parsed document at the bottom.
Deepak: Or put the baby monitor on another screen! 😅 COVID-19 has mixed work and household chores, and Surface Duo can help you find balance.
John: You might think that during a pandemic, when there are so many people at home, mobile use could decline, but there is a lot of evidence to the contrary (from early February to late March alone, the number of weekly mobile Teams users grew by more than 300%) … Personally, I don’t want to be in the same room or watch the same screen all the time. Other people also talk about the need to move or work outside. When I started using Surface Duo, I could have a more powerful and productive experience.
It also handles windowing elegantly. Opening multiple windows is common on PCs, but not on single-screen mobile devices.
Deepak: There has been a lot of research into how people use application windows to improve performance, and the seam between screens reduces the cognitive load of manually managing windows. In some cases, it separates the two applications. In others, it creates panels where you can perform individual actions or switch more smoothly between consuming and creating micro-moments. Again, this is because the interface between the screens is seen as an opportunity, not a limitation.
John: I love that the Surface hardware and software teams are always pushing and surprisingly collaborative, complementing each other. Surface Duo gives you more screen space, seam, and new ways to hold your device in different positions. It has to adapt to different types of content and activities. The only flexible solution to this problem is to design simultaneously so that the hardware and software can work together.
I want to go back to what you said earlier about photography, video, voice – the input options that have become critical to collaboration and creativity.
Deepak: Yes, a camera and microphone are required on a mobile device. We wanted to make the most of these sensors in our Office application so that we could do a lot of scenarios on the fly. How to quickly approve an expense report when helping your child with homework? Or take part in an interactive online class while you are on the bus?
John: I love the inclusiveness of this approach. People have very different learning styles and ways of working. These responsive input models help people with different abilities to perform the desired actions.
Deepak: When we combine new input models with artificial intelligence, then the potential of the device is revealed to its full. We hardly touched the creative side. There are many ways to help people express themselves more easily, clearly and convincingly. For example, we can do more with templates – turn a Word document into a beautifully designed PowerPoint presentation.
John: There is so much in the physical world – how do we convert more analog data to digital?
Deepak: And how can you help people do more with these results? Combining intelligence with mobile sensors and input data – there are many ways to improve productivity, family safety and peace of mind. I think we’ll see how third-party developers take these ideas further.
John: We have already seen some very interesting solutions. During a Microsoft hackathon, someone came up with a Surface Duo game that uses a new pose we never knew existed: two people playing the game can flip second screens to face each other. Of course, they must be at least six feet apart.
Deepak: Of course.
John: We’re thrilled to put Surface Duo in people’s hands to see what they can do with it and what creative possibilities they find. What kind of innovative software they will create. We’ll find out what isn’t working and how to fix it.
Deepak: There is so much more to come – this is really just the beginning!
Surface Duo is the first generation device, and we are still in the early stages of exploring its future development. We cannot do this without you.
Let us know: what seems strange? What’s great? What do you want to use it for, what not yet? Demand that the design adapts to you. This is our goal.
As Deepak says: This is just the beginning. Where are you taking us?