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Tips on “great design” from . . . Microsoft!

I came across this (link from here):

A post . . . reminded me of a great technique I [@destraynor] learned about from Bill Buxton. Bill is a Principal Researcher in Microsoft where his main role focuses on designing a company that permits great design to happen. As many have learned to their peril, it’s not simply a case of just dumping talent in a room full of Ikea furniture. In large companies you have to design the process that creates design. One key idea Bill advocates is an emphasis on exploring the solution space before iterating on a solution. . . .

It goes on from there, but all I could think of was . . . this must be the first time the words “Microsoft” and “a company that permits great design to happen” have ever appeared in the same sentence. Sure, Clippy was great and Windows Vista has changed how we think about the world, but what great things has Microsoft done lately?

Next in the series: Automobile design tips from the creator of the AMC Gremlin!

OK, ok, to be fair . . . I don’t know anything about Bill Buxton, he might well be great. No need to blame him for Clippy; maybe his presence in Redmond will turn things around. It just seemed funny for the blogger not to even notice the dissonance of “Microsoft” and “great design” being in such close proximity.

P.S. This was good, though.


  1. Jeff says:

    You’re forgetting the obvious ––– the Zune:
    What genius decided on brown? “From the people who brought you decades of beige boxes…comes a brown thing!”

  2. Dominic Brown says:

    Bill Buxton is a very insightful guy, and did a lot of early work on multi-touch interaction. I’ve read a fair bit of his stuff, and he has a lot of interesting things to say about the cognitive and ergonomic requirements of interface design, and the human and social context of digital technologies. He got into HCI via digital electronic music; in fact I think he did a degree in music before pursuing computer science. He’s a genuinely original and passionate advocate for excellence in design. What he’s doing at Microsoft, where creativity goes to die, I don’t know,

  3. Haplo says:

    This is a really cool demo from microsoft research which is filled with awesome people.

    Kinect is I think the last great thing from Microsoft, while it was derived, follow the research and you will see they contributed non trivially. Many people like the new windows phone design.

  4. John Mashey says:

    I saw Bill occasionally when he was at Alias in Toronto, acquired by SGI, but had heard of him before that.
    Anyway, I always thought he was very good. See also:

    As for MS in general, I would at least give them some credit for XBOX + Kinect, especially as the latter caused MS to have to induce serious changes in their supply chain. [I.e., there can be weird interactions between designing what you want and getting your supply chain to be able to build it at reasonable cost. MS folks gave a great talk on this at Hot Chips a while back. There were some real difficulties in getting the right sensors.]

  5. Martin Hjelm says:

    Bill Buxton is fantastic. His book Sketching User Experience is really great and insightful.

    A good talk he gave at Design Mind Salon

  6. i says:

    If the most recent examples of poor design you can come up with are Clippy and Vista, maybe MS isn’t doing that badly anymore? For my money, MS actually has the best looking phone OS out there, Bing has a nice clean look, and,frankly, I have a hard time thinking of a recent MS product that is really poorly designed.

    • Andrew says:

      It wasn’t so much that I thought new MS products were poorly designed, I just don’t quite see the point of them. Bing is ok, I guess? But I already have Google. I certainly wouldn’t call Bing an example of “great design.” I don’t have a cell phone so maybe you’re right about that one. I use Word sometimes and it’s ok but I’m not impressed by its design either. Not a disaster, maybe, but nothing to be proud of, especially given the resources they have to throw at it!

  7. John Mashey says:

    Without particularly defending MS, let me observe a few rules of SW design:
    1) Design encompasses user interface. internal structure and interfaces with other software.

    2) Huge resources may be necessary, but big teams are infamous for not producing elegant, brilliant designs, which most commonly have been done by 1-3-person core teams.
    Given N people, potential work ~ N, but potential communication paths ! N^2, which means people work very hard to try to organize to cut the latter back, else communication overwhelms getting actual work done.

    3) And of course, there is the old computing aphorism (with no slight to anyone):
    Q: How did god create the universe in 7 days?
    A: No installed base.

    In fact, over decades, many efforts to clean up user interfaces on existing programs have been resisted by the installed base, who have gotten used to what they had, even if it was bad. Of course, inside Windows are features derived from UNIX that were created in the early 1970s. Try first page of this for a whimsical view of software evolution.

    4) All thig might be summarized as:

    A surgeon, engineer and programmer are arguing about which profession came first.

    Surgeon: surgeons were first, remember extraction of Adam’s rib?

    Engineer: hah, earlier than that, god made the universe out of chaos … that’s engineering.

    Programmer: but who do you think *made* the chaos in the first place?

  8. Peter G says:

    After I’ve read “…exploring the solution space…”, all I could think of was ‘More cowbell!’. Seriously, though, recent MSFT efforts are much more pleasant to look at. Not Apple quality yet, but significant improvement overall.

  9. DK says:

    I used to hate MS. So many things got so wrong! That ended when I had to use other OSes on a regular basis. MS sucks but it sucks a lot less than its main competitors. At least in the areas that matter to me.

    Teller’s article is great.

  10. Joseph says:

    I like the idea that the result matters but so does the difficulty of the task. It’s hard to evaluate the questionable results (VISTA!!) without remembering both the need to support legacy software and the need to please the user base. Given how many people it has to try to not make loathe it and the number of employees who have to be coordinated, maybe they are doing a good job.

    Looking at the counter-factual might involve . . . destructive? . . . testing.