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Archive for July 1st, 2009

Microsoft: Bad User Experience Is Cultural

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 1, 2009

I just lost an hour of work to Microsoft Word because it clears the clipboard every time you start it up fresh.  It’s been doing it for years.  I knew about it, but I simply forgot.  I was working on a blog post in WordPress, and decided I wouldn’t finish and wanted to transfer it to Word.  I often transfer posts to Word because it gives better spelling and grammar checking.   I would leave the doc on my Windows desktop at home, and finish when I returned.  An additional complication was that I had accidentally published the article prematurely, and so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone.  So I copied it to the clipboard, deleted it from WordPress so it would no longer be published, opened up a new Word document, and…  Shite.  It was lost.  Word cleared the clipboard.  I knew this as soon as I saw Word starting to come up, but there was no way to stop it at that point.

What idiot at Microsoft thought this would be a good idea?  What group of idiots let it continue for years?

I have a dim recollection that this is done for some sort of security reason.  There is a hack or exploit that is thwarted by deleting the clipboard’s contents before the app comes up.  But I don’t use any other app that has this behaviour.  Clearly there are better ways to avoid the security problems, because other apps have found them.  A search of the web will tell you everything from, “Word doesn’t do this, what are you talking about?” to “It only happens if you have Works installed” (I don’t), and on to, “Oh yeah, it’s stupid behavior, but you can install a pop up app that captures the clipboard for you so Word can’t destroy it.”

The great mystery to me is that this isn’t accidental behavior.  It isn’t some newly introduced bug that will be fixed shortly in a patch.  Microsoft thinks this is better, or at the very least, doesn’t care enough about the User Experience to do anything about it.  They have made a conscious and well-reasoned by their lights decision that Word should work this way.  So, probably a couple of times each year, I manage to lose some data because of it. 

That brings me to the cultural question on User Experience.  What sort of a culture would do this kind of thing?  More importantly, what sort of culture is needed to avoid it?

Microsoft is hugely driven by product management.  With a few notable exceptions (Anders H. and C # would be a good one), the PM’s make all the key customer facing decisions.  This dates back a long time ago to someone telling Bill Gates he desperately needed to get some business expertise into the company and not just let the geeks run it.  So he led with product management, and with Steve Ballmer, who came out of Consumer Packaged Goods product management.  Product Managers run the show there.  And that is the fabric of the culture that let’s Microsoft Word delete the clipboard (which is, after all, intended to facilitate integration between apps!), among many many other terrible user experience discussions.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Product Management is extremely valuable.  Product Managers are the only people in most organizations whose full time job it is to listen to customers.  That’s important!

However, that job is different than the job of a product designer.  To use a Hollywood movie metaphor, the Product Manager should be the Producer, not the Director and not the Screenwriter.  The PM will decide, “The market is ready for a good Western, because it has been a while.”  Then the Director and Screenwriter will put together Unforgiven.  They’ll get a very small group of fantastic actors (corresponding to the developers) like Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman.  Each group has to give the other group’s sufficient “turf” and artistic freedom to be successful.  Can you imagine it working if the Director had to micromanage Eastwood or Hackman too much?  Likewise, if the Producer got to far into the details of the movie, the Director could not succeed.

But there is a school that companies like Microsoft subscribe to that view User Experience as being a function of debits and credits.  If we make this change, will we sell any more copies of Microsoft Word?  There is a big deal on the table, and if we agree to change the product to suit them, even if it is a bad idea for others, we can close that deal today.  That problem does not affect enough users, so we don’t need to worry about it. 

That’s the language of dollars and cents as it applies to product design, according to this school of thought.

Thanks to Techmeme, I came across a nice article about Jonathan Ive, who is one of the key designers at Apple responsible for the iPhone and iPod.  Though they seem to surprise the writer, there are fantastic insights into what it takes to create a culture that delivers great user experience.  Trying to calculate user experience with debits and credits is most decidely not how it is done:

Ive was insistent that the key to Apple’s success was that it was not driven by money – a claim that may raise eyebrows amongst shareholders and customers – but by a complete focus on delivering just a few desirable and useful products.

Total focus.  Total focus on building insanely great products.

So how did the company decide what customers wanted – surely by using focus groups? “We don’t do focus groups,” he said firmly, explaining that they resulted in bland products designed not to offend anyone.

Christopher Frayling reminded us at that point of Henry Ford’s line about what his customers would have demanded if asked – “a faster horse” – and it’s surely true that the point of innovative companies is to come up with products that customers don’t yet know they need.

Focus groups and prioritized customer driven feature lists are not the answer.  They’re too tactical and do not create conceptual integrity.  The involve detailed placement of trees rather than creation of a beautiful and healthy forest.  I touched heavily on this idea recently and on how it is insidious for Enterprise Software.  But it is even more dangerous for consumer products.

But it was the physicality of design work that Jonathan Ive was keen to stress – from the Apple design workshop full of machines, throwing off a lot of noise and dust, to visits to Japanese aluminium craftsmen to learn how that material could be crafted into a laptop casing. Yes, of course he and his team use all the latest computer-aided design tools – but he also likes to knock out a physical prototype and feel the weight of it in his hand.

He told a story about how, as a boy, he’d taken apart an old-fashioned alarm clock, and inside the spare outer casing found a mass of workings, “an entire watch factory”.

I read that as the designers are steeped in personal contact and use with the product.  Personally, I just can’t take a job working on a product unless I relate to it.  I’m an engineer, but a creator of things moreso.  There are lots of kinds of engineers, but the best love to create many things.  My own leisure time activities almost universally involve creating things–blogs, web sites, computer controlled machine tools, music, and a number of other things.  The tactility and physicality of design that Ive talks about reflects an aesthetic sense.  It’s less engineer and more like an architect (one who creates buildings, not code) in terms of the feel.

Until you have a culture with those sorts of values, and that empowers those sorts of people, your products will lack great user experience.  It doesn’t mean you can’t succeed, but don’t kid yourself that your success will be built on great user experience.  It will come from some other source.

Years ago I had a discussion with a Microsoft Product Manager who had come to a company I worked at about this.  He wanted to establish the same culture.  I described for him what I am describing here.   He responded, “Bob, you’re a great product designer, but as a company, we can’t count on being able to find enough Bobs.  So we need to use product managers instead.” 

It is much easier to use product managers to create a repeatable process.  After all, there is much less passion involved.  For many markets, it may not be worth Apple-style design.  People often wonder for Enteprise software whether it matters, for example.  But I don’t buy my PM friend’s argument.  Talent of all kinds is always scarce.  A decision to eschew finding talent for a repeatable process creates mediocrity.

Related Articles

Zoli Erdos always has a humorous but wise take on the issues he blogs about.

Talk about a bad user experience:  Microsoft ad has woman vomiting.  These things would never see the light of day if the user experience cops were effective.  Valuing user experience has to be built in to the culture or it doesn’t happen.

Maybe its just Evolutionary Hardwiring that makes it so easy to get upset with Microsoft.

Posted in business, Marketing, strategy, user interface | 18 Comments »

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