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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.

18 Responses to “Microsoft: Bad User Experience Is Cultural”

  1. Zoli Erdos said

    Microsoft’s approach to users is very simple:

    We have decided. Now, users, STFU.


  2. […] It looks like Bob Warfield is should send a Virtual Invoice about now […]

  3. ekampf said

    I copied your post, fired up MS Word (2007), pasted… and it worked as expected.

    Having previously worked with UX folks at Microsoft, specifically in the Office group, I’ve seen a whole lot of effort put into UX topics.
    From creating the personas for the entire team to focus on in term of features and experience, to doing lots of UX tests, collecting feedback from beta testers etc.
    In fact, if you compare Office 2007 to the previous version you’ll see most of the effort on that version was put into creating a better experience and I think they’ve done an amazing job (I could hardly use Word\Excel before…)

    They’re not perfect (no one is, not even Apple), but the amount of thought and effort put into UX at Microsoft is, in my honest opinion, something for other companies should look up to…

    Eran Kampf

    • smoothspan said

      Eran, I appreciate your problem. As I mention in the post, there are folks on the net who say Word just exhibit this behavior, just as you have. OTOH, I have the behavior on my wife’s PC, on my home PC, and on my work laptop. They are all generic installs.

      So perhaps it is a bug or unintended behavior. But then why not fix it? I am again, not the only one experiencing the problem, because others on the net have brought it up.

      There are a lot of other usability problems that I could point you to, but the rest of the web has already gone there a zillion times. Vista is their most recent user experience failure.

      It’s pretty hard to see Vista as something other companies should look up to.

      • Zoli Erdos said

        “But then why not fix it?”

        Oh, c’mon, you would not want to miss the collective hunting game of finding a solution … via Google, of course not one of those cryptic MS KB000897w56y89yrbxn’s 🙂

      • ekampf said


        From a brief look at google (here) it seems like this problem is caused by 3rd party addons…

        All to often Microsoft takes the fall for crappy hardware\software vendors’ faults.
        Another point for thought when comparing MS vs. Apple platform strategies…

      • smoothspan said

        Eran, I’ll bite because I’d love to make this bevahiour quit. I followed your search.

        First search result says it is due to Works being installed. BTW, that is MSFT not a third party. I don’t have works installed, nor do I have the .dll in the MSOFFICE directoty that is discussed anywhere on my hard disk after a search.

        Second search result, same claim, that it is MS Works.

        Third search result, its MS Works, try uninstall. I did, there is no MS Works listed.

        Fourth result: person with problem is asking on Microsoft KB. Nobody bothered to respond. That’s typical.

        Sixth result, a sub-result of #5, asks why VB does this too. Nobody responds.

        Seventh result = Spam. Ignore.

        Eighth result: Someone is having this problem way back in Word 2000, almost 10 years ago! More complaining about MS Works. I don’t have MS Works.

        Ninth result: Another Microsoft site. This one says it is due to global templates, a COM add-in, or MS Works. That’s at least 2 new things to look at. Mind you, the directions talk about the Tools menu, which MS did away with in their terrible UI redesign that gave us the ribbon. I already complained about that one here:

        Eran, tell me your firm didn’t give us the ribbon?

        But, checking the templates just led me back to the MS Word startup directory, which I already found was empty. As far as COM add-ins, there is only 1, a Microsoft add-in related to Outlook. Oddly, when I want to delete it, it doesn’t show up in the pop up dialog. Probably special cased.

        I give up at this point. However, it is clear from the search that a whole lot of people have experienced this problem, which just makes my point.

      • Zoli Erdos said


        Now I know you are to blame. For not having Works:-)

        Joke apart, I was just telling someone today (or was it tweeting?) that my fist laptop in the 80’s had 640Kb (that’s K not M!) RAM and two 720k floppies, no hard disk – this little thing was happily running MS Works, and easy-to-use beautifully integrated productivity package at the time when MS Office was not even a concept… Just individual programs that did not talk to each other… Than MS decided it was not big, bloated and expensive enough, and “blessed us” with Office..

      • smoothspan said

        Zoli, a lot of those old integrated packages were cool. Works was neat. Framework was neat. My first startup had one too. We took the spreadsheet out of it and that became Quattro Pro.

  4. smoothspan said

    Zoli, LOL!

    It’s funny, but the better user experience route ala Apple is even more likely to respond that way.



  5. Zoli Erdos said

    How true. Except there are forced unhappy slaves in the MS camp vs. crazy religious voluntary slaves in the Apple one. 🙂

  6. schlafly said

    You can get clipboard utilities that will cache multiple items. Even if the last clipboard item gets cleared, you can go back to a previous one. Perhaps Msft ought to build this into Windows.

  7. aboutdev said

    We all don’t like behavior that is not akin to what we expect. However, we all have different ideas on what should be the norm. I am able to reproduce this issue in the following steps.

    1) Open up Firefox.
    2) Go to a page and copy it.
    3) Close Firefox.
    4) Open Word 2007 and paste. => Result is that nothing copies over.

    Here’s another one to try.

    1) Open up IE 8.
    2) Go to a page and copy it.
    3) Close IE 8.
    4) Open Word 2007 and paste. => Result is that it WORKS! (for me)

    And another one.

    1) Open up Notepad.
    2) Type in some text and copy it.
    3) Close Notepad.
    4) Open Word 2007 and paste. => Result is that it WORKS! (for me)

    This behavior is something that I noticed on my own machine. It appears that Firefox is the one that clears the cache on close if you have set it to Never Remeber Your History. Funnily enough, I started IE 8 in Private mode when doing my test and did NOT expect it to save the cache.

    So Smoothspan, did you close Firefox before starting Word? Can you try the very same sequence in both IE and Firefox to see what happens? Just curious to know whats going on! 🙂

  8. ajaydawar said


    Great Post. What I appreciate the most is how you think about the nature of our in the hi-tech industry when seemingly mundane issues like “word” problems are encountered.

    I have been an engineer, product manager and product marketer and would like to comment on the MS Product manager episode. I agree the product manager / marketer needs to say that is time for a western movie. After that things start going bad at hi-tech companies because product managers don’t have experience working with UE designers and don’t appreciate that function so much. They think they can do UE designs. That said, engineers generally don’t have a good track record of this either – at least the ones that I have come across.
    It is hard to find that many Bobs – who understand the engineering, design and have a feel for customer needs. However it is easier to find a team and have team members who can appreciate each role and work together. Not putting together such a team shows lack of passion for good UE. If UE is important then companies must be willing to spend good money on it and give the UE folks a seat on the table.

  9. […] than anything else I can think of: clearing the clipboard when you bring up an Office app. I’ve written about this before because it has caused me to have to reconstruct a considerable amount of content over the […]

  10. […] than anything else I can think of: clearing the clipboard when you bring up an Office app. I’ve written about this before because it has caused me to have to reconstruct a considerable amount of content over the […]

  11. […] software companies just don’t care about user experience. Whether it’s a culture of not paying attention to user needs or a perception of user experience design as a luxury, enterprise software vendors are often seen […]

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