The following is an essay that can also be found at the Microsoft Design site. The essay explains the reasoning behind the renewed focus on design and user experience at Microsoft. It has been mildly edited for clarity.
Past market success in software and computing didn't require a diligent focus on user experience. Sure, it happened from time to time, but in the big scheme of things it was a novelty or an aberration that wasn't tied to market performance or product success in most cases. Even computers and software that defined their markets and were delightful to use simply didn' t capture the consumer imagination enough to become standards or become dominant. These simple facts have made computers and software downright unpleasant to use over the years. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the enterprise.
People may sing the praises of the functional performance of enterprise software, but rarely do you hear comments about how "fun" it is to use. Rarer still is to hear praise from a development team about how "easy" enterprise software is to implement or configure. This was chalked up to the fact that computers were too primitive to adapt to us and the context in which they were used by us. Constraints of the day required that we adapted to computers and not the other way around. In short, it was the cost of doing business.
We all paid for it—but there’s good news.
Good user experience is now common in the consumer space, and it's the next domain of differentiation in the enterprise. Effective user experience in software and computing is not perceived as a nice surprise when we find it—it's now an expectation that our experiences will be pleasant, secure, productive, delightful, useful, and adaptive. If it's not in your product or service, you’re not in business—at least for very long.
Numerous periods in the 20th century challenged our consumption of mass-produced goods and visual communications through artistic movements such as those inspired by the Bauhaus school and the pioneering designers of mid-century modernism. A recurring theme in these movements was the reduction of complexity and a focus on a form that supported simplicity and an understanding of context.
In fact, much of the design of human and machine interfaces, most notably in the interfaces developed by Xerox PARC and commercialized with great success by Apple in the 1980s and Microsoft in the 1990s, have their theoretic underpinnings derived from these movements. But then as an industry, we lost our way. New features, new capabilities and a need for compatibility often trumped the desire for simplicity, ease of use, or, often, reliability. Ironically, the potential to solve many of these problems has never been more attainable as the convergence of design, software and business theory is integrated with new capabilities in manufacturing and technology.
The most recent innovators in this area were not in the areas of information technology and computing, but rather in product development and marketing. These provide omens and portents for what software and computing has to aspire to in today’s world to ensure continued relevance and success. Some game-changing moments that we can ponder...
If you were making human-powered can openers before OXO came on the scene with its rubber-coated and easy-to-use kitchen utensils, life was easier as a manufacturer of commodity kitchen accessories.
When fit and finish was measured in millimeters versus micrometers and a car that lasted five years was considered the norm, life was easier than when Toyota and Honda forced themselves to evolve to become more competitive with American automakers.
Nobody realized that the brown prescription bottle you got at the pharmacy was such an inconvenience until they got their hands on the ClearRX bottle designed by Target that redefined how prescription medication is packaged in the US.
The ubiquity of the Internet allowed an aggressive rebirth in design for computing that in the past was always promised but rarely delivered. The connectedness of our new innovations came with tradeoffs in usability and in development complexity, however. When done well, design can make things more esthetically pleasing. When done poorly, it can complicate things. Industrialization and modular object-oriented software development has theoretically made it easy to tear things down and replace them. It made it easier for us to make poor choices, because things could always be fixed later. But the world now moves faster and our computing is vastly more complex, and our methods and tools don't scale very well to support the complexity and speed that is required in today's world. This is why internet-based application development is so compelling despite some of the tradeoffs that are made in user experience. But can it be better? What else do we need to be thinking about?
Add innovation to the mix, and things get fuzzier when it comes to measuring success. How do we define innovation today? Is it design? Is it technology? Is it marketing? What makes the iPod so compelling? It’s a beautiful and sensual consumer product, and Apple’s attention to the out-of-box and multi-channel experiences make its value much greater than the sum of its parts. But Apple also gave customers the iTunes Music Store. The music store, combined with the other innovations, made the iPod a platform that saved time and enabled choice. It was a series of innovations borne of product innovation, supply chain optimization, customer experience, service, and design, and much like the simple human-machine interfaces of the late 80s and early 90s, the iPod is a delightful way to interface with technology.
Now take a look at a product like the Xbox 360. It too is a product that is greater than the sum of its parts. It creates value as a compelling gaming system that allows social interaction with other players. Connected to a home PC with Windows Media Center, it becomes a platform for home entertainment for consumers and a multifaceted and measurable advertising platform for the enterprise, comprising innovations in product design, supply chain optimization, customer experience, service and design and community building.
Platforms that allow for connection, through a digital phone, a desktop computer, a tablet PC, or other new devices that support new ways of sharing experiences are where the next breakthroughs will occur. It's also why many of the devices that are made by Microsoft, such as Xbox, Zune, and Windows Media Center are focused on a rich and a connected experience.
The world is full of companies that are innovative because they understand their true purpose. Microsoft is a company that works to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential. We often say we are in the software business, and we are, I suppose, but our real purpose is to be in the people business. Our core goal is to create products and services that help you see the possibilities and the potential that surrounds you every day and in every place. The only route to success with this goal is to focus on user experience in everything we do.
Microsoft has had hundreds of design and human factors professionals work on designing our products for decades. What's changed the most in the past few years? It is our expectations as users of technology and our ability as a company to deliver on your expectations and empower consumers to do the same. With the Xbox, Windows Vista, Windows Media Center, Zune, Office 2007, or our Dynamics suite, you'll see that Microsoft has focused on the experience of our products—from how you use them today, to how you'll be able to use them tomorrow.
But we haven't stopped there. We've also taken this focus in the tools we create for professional developers and designers in Visual Studio and our upcoming line of professional design tools that bridge some of the traditional challenges that exist between the designer and developer workflow without demanding that either role adapt to the environments or the constraints of the other.
Professional interaction designers have spent a lot of time of making great solutions for customers, consumers and clients. Rarely have they been able to put as much focus into the tools they use to accomplish this. I feel empowered to be a designer at Microsoft because it's perhaps one of the only companies that puts as much effort into making great design and development tools as it does in software for consumers and the enterprise. We're far from seeing the best that Microsoft has to offer with some of the technology that drives Vista, digital devices and cross-platform technologies for the Web. But the tools and the hooks into our technology are there right now. Whether you develop standards based applications for the Web, rich media applications that run in the browser, or have a desire to extend your customers' reach with next-generation technology on the desktop and in digital devices, Microsoft is creating a new paradigm for creating compelling digital experiences.