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Microsoft Talk @ ToRCHI

Had the opportunity to attend this month’s Torchi event, featuring two guests from Microsoft. Lisa Anderson, MS Surface User Experience Director, talked about the fundamental shift from command line interfaces to GUIs, to what she called Natural User Interfaces (NUIs, I guess). Some really cool theoretical thinking in her presentation but it would have also been nice to get into a more concrete discussion about where they’re headed with Surface. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the SDK and interface guidelines spec. Lisa talked about how they’re trying to make the interface “disappear” by leveraging intuition and allowing interaction through direct manipulation. But there must be at least some standardized interface elements built into the Surface and I’m really keen to learn what these are and how they work.

Jansen Harris’ discussion about his work heading up the Office User Experience Team was also really interesting and much more concrete. No matter how you feel about Microsoft’s past performance when it comes to innovating the user experience, it’s hard to deny that they did a great job with the latest Office suite (and this has been borne out both critically and in terms of revenues generated). 3 things Jansen mentioned that stuck with me:

  1. Early-on they established a set of design tenets to guide decisions at a high level over the course of the project. One that really stood out to me was “Straight-forward is better than clever.” I know I’ve often been guilty of breaking that rule :)
  2. Developers took the first couple of months basically rebuilding the programatic foundations for Office specifically so that the UX team could afford to make mistakes and revise as they progressed along.
  3. The Office 2007 team was comprised entirely of people who passionately believed in the project. If your heart wasn’t in it (and there were apparently those who fundamentally disagreed with the idea that MS could or should re-engineer the UX for Office), they found something else in the company for you to work on.

In general, I was impressed by how much grunt-work the team put into validation and evaluation throughout the design process. Rather than testing for testing’s sake or gathering data just to justify pre-ordained decisions, they used evidence to answer very focused, well-defined questions.

Quick plug: ToRCHI events happen monthly and are usually worth coming out to. Great guests and good discussion.

David Gillis More posts by David Gillis