Windows Vista's astoundingly long beta period is winding down (they just sent out the "what did you think of the beta?" surveys to testers), which means a whole wave of analyses of the new user interface is about to be unleashed.
Amongst the hand-wringing over the choice of colors and animations, and the inevitable kvetching about the need for new video cards, it's worth pointing out the rise of some interesting personalities from within Microsoft. In fact, the most notable thing to learn from Microsoft's recent enormous leaps in the usability and attractiveness of its flagship products is that there actually are personalities at Microsoft.
Take Tjeerd (pronounced "Cheered", as is noted every time his name is mentioned) Hoek, a design director at Microsoft. There's a brief profile of him on the Microsoft Design site (did you know Microsoft had a design site? I didn't.) Having worked his way through various versions of Office from 95 to XP, Tjeerd moved to Windows and became one of the driving forces behind trying to make Vista not just pleasant, but possibly even enjoyable. I think they've done a fairly good job, just based on some admittedly superficial testing of Vista betas. But you might want to take that with a grain of salt given my effusive praise for Microsoft Office 2007 and my earlier kudos for Jensen Harris, who is roughly Tjeerd's counterpart on the Office team.
Caveats aside, take a look at this 2004 Paul Thurrott interview with Tjeerd and Hillel Cooperman:
Hillel: It's a funny thing. It's very easy to look at a company -- and I'm not saying you're doing this, but I did do this -- and see some of the very obvious spots where we could be less boring, less formulaic, or whatever those things are.
Hillel: We make it hard on ourselves because our style is not to push a single personality as the genius behind all of it.
Paul: Are you sure about that? [Laughter]
Hillel: No, when it comes to the UI ... Look, we certainly have a single personality when it comes to the guy that is running the company. But even there, there are a lot of people on stage during keynotes, and it's not just people doing a demo for Bill Gates. I mean, that was my job, but ...
I'm talking about, from the UI perspective, this is a real team effort. The bench that we have around the UI is so exciting, but you're only seeing two of us today. When you come back in April, you have to meet everyone else.
Here's the truth. The reason we've never been great at telling this story is that ultimately, if we have to choose between making it as great a product as possible and getting the story out, we'll always choose the former. We don't really care about the credit. We've only started to care recently because we've realized that it sets the tone for what users expect from the product. So it's not so much that we really care about getting credit, but if we're going to talk about what we're trying to accomplish, the credit goes to a broad group of people.
Another great look at the team's attempts at being more human, not just in the user interfaces they create, but in their interactions with customers outside Microsoft, is in this 2004 Discover article by Steven Johnson.
A growing awareness of the inextricable connection between emotion and cognition sparked Microsoft’s push toward aesthetically pleasing software. For many years their products were the virtual equivalent of the barren cubicle mazes of many modern offices: functional, but devoid of life, of personality. Neglecting aesthetics might have made a kind of cruel sense in an older, assembly-line context, in which work revolved around mindless, repetitive labor. Factory owners didn’t want to inspire creativity among their employees; they wanted to drill it out of them. But the keyboard jockeys of the information age -- precisely the people using Microsoft Windows -- do their best work when they’re rewarded, rather than discouraged, for creativity and mental agility.
I find the parallel between the humanization of Microsoft as a company and Microsoft's software products to be fascinating. Given that Apple is considered (fairly on unfairly) the reference standard for usability and delightful experience, I wonder what impact it will have in the long run that none of the many rank-and-file designers within the company are allowed to speak publicly with their own voices about the work they do. Either way, increasing competition to make software more pleasant can only be a good thing.