Microsoft’s top designers leave to give away lovely flowers

This startup makes me sad. Not because it isn’t doing beautiful stuff. They are. Maryam will smile when she gets her flowers delivered this morning. UPDATE: she laughed and said “you remembered I love flowers.” I guess that’s a hint, huh? ;-)

But Long Zheng only gets part of the story of three designers who left Microsoft to start a new company. More on “They’re Beautiful” over on TechMeme.

See, I know two of the three people involved. But there are other designers I’ve seen come to Microsoft and leave, too.

These designers tried to make Microsoft build products that are more fun to use, more emotional, more visually pleasing, more user-centric.

IE, more like the iPhone.

But they keep getting shot down, over and over and over.

So they leave.

When I worked at Microsoft I helped get one very talented designer hired into Microsoft (I won’t name him, sorry). The fact that Jenny Lam was working at Microsoft was a key part of his decision to come. He only lasted a few months. He never told me the reason cause he’s a professional but I could see it in his eyes. He knew that the company would never listen to him.

Microsoft is run by geeks. You know the type. They don’t understand why you need to design in animations, great sounds, and a flow from one experience to the next. They, at heart, think that a simple text list is just as good as something that has nice animations, fonts, graphics, etc. Heck, most of the developers who work at Microsoft live in text editors all day long. Even if they do get it, the committees kill these features when the project runs behind schedule because they take a ton of coding time, a ton of testing time, and don’t provide any “hard” value to the product.

Ask yourself again whether the iPhone would sell as well if you had to click a “next” button to see your next photo instead of having them animate across the screen while you drag your finger. My Nokia has the “next” button style interface. My iPhone is magical to use because it does the drag-the-finger animations. Apple listens to its designers. Microsoft and Nokia obviously do not.

It isn’t lost on me that the Xbox team is not located on Microsoft’s campus. They forced Bill Gates to give them a series of buildings about five miles away from headquarters so that this geek culture couldn’t poison the teams who needed to build something a bit more artisitic. Er, emotional. It also isn’t lost on me that Bungie, the folks who make the video game Halo, has its own building 10 miles away from headquarters (in the opposite direction from the Xbox team) and doesn’t even have a Microsoft sign on the front of the building. When you walk into Bungie it’s clear that the artists run the place, not the developers.

Most engineers I’ve met don’t get this stuff. Don’t understand why video games have an emotional effect on people.

Last night I interviewed Nicole Lazarro of XEO Designs. She talks exactly like Jenny Lam. She’s an “emotional architect” and helps game companies improve their games and has a document about “Why We Play Games” that’s a good read for someone trying to understand the emotional response. She does TONS of user testing and she’s already working on a study about the iPhone and why it makes people smile when they use it (they do, and several of the reviewers say it literally makes them laugh when they use it).

Dave Winer, last night, when talking with Nicole, said that it felt like the iPhone was designed by a set of movie artists, rather than software designers. He said that was both good and bad. That it “felt good” (he says the iPhone feels like driving a BMW) but that they forgot lots of little lessons that software developers had learned over the past 30 years. I’ll let him tell you what he meant by that, but those of us with iPhones have all hit lots of walls, and when you hit a wall you’ve probably hit one of those places where a lesson was forgotten

Joe Hewitt, one of the developers on the first Firefox team, was working with Nicole to build a game on the iPhone, among other things. He’s writing about that experience on his blog, by the way. He keeps hitting the walls too and he’s having to do hack after hack just to get it to do something basic, and simple, like a list of song titles.

Anyway, I have an interview with Jenny Lam, back when she worked at Microsoft.

Jenny, and Hillel Cooperman, and Walter Smith are creating a company up in Seattle that’s already one to watch.

Oh, and the flowers? They are nice and all, but are really just a front end to Silicon Valley’s next big business model: Virtual Goods. If I were a Silicon Valley startup trying to get venture funding, I’d go visit Hillel and see what kinds of virtual goods partnerships they could make.

Thanks for the beautiful flowers, can’t wait to see what they do next.

I would rather have had a beautiful set of experiences on Windows, though, or an “iPhone killer” from the Windows Mobile group. I hope that the great designers still left inside Microsoft (and there are a few) start getting listened to by the culture inside Microsoft. But the stream of designers that leave Microsoft isn’t sending a gesture of love and inspiration.

Oh well, at least we have some nice virtual flowers.

141 thoughts on “Microsoft’s top designers leave to give away lovely flowers

  1. I would just like to point out for the record that there is only one designer at Jackson Fish. I’m very much a developer, and Hillel is…hard to briefly describe. :)

    Also, Bess: we are mowing the grass real soon now!

  2. I would just like to point out for the record that there is only one designer at Jackson Fish. I’m very much a developer, and Hillel is…hard to briefly describe. :)

    Also, Bess: we are mowing the grass real soon now!

  3. I think one thing is wrong in your entry, IME most *good* developers won’t say no to a good UI designer.

    They probably won’t bother/don’t know how to do it right to begin with, but if the designer can show how the changed UI helps the user they’ll be happy to implement it if they can.

    If the designer can’t show how the changes help the user then why should the developer bother? (Before anyone mentions a consistant company look/feel that [should] help the user)

    However, there are always situations where for one reason or another a UI improvement can’t be used for some platform, time or cost constraint.

  4. I think one thing is wrong in your entry, IME most *good* developers won’t say no to a good UI designer.

    They probably won’t bother/don’t know how to do it right to begin with, but if the designer can show how the changed UI helps the user they’ll be happy to implement it if they can.

    If the designer can’t show how the changes help the user then why should the developer bother? (Before anyone mentions a consistant company look/feel that [should] help the user)

    However, there are always situations where for one reason or another a UI improvement can’t be used for some platform, time or cost constraint.

  5. “It also isn’t lost on me that Bungie, the folks who make the video game Halo, has its own building 10 miles away from headquarters (in the opposite direction from the Xbox team) and doesn’t even have a Microsoft sign on the front of the building. When you walk into Bungie it’s clear that the artists run the place, not the developers.”

    It is classical innovation and new ventures thinking to separate the culture of a new venture from the “going down the cost curve” mainstream thinking of the parent.

    A creative culture is needed for the new projects. Xbox has been a happy accident for Microsoft and they still don’t realise this to the full extent. One of the key reasons it is successful is that it is a separate, physical and different culture from the main MS crew.

  6. “It also isn’t lost on me that Bungie, the folks who make the video game Halo, has its own building 10 miles away from headquarters (in the opposite direction from the Xbox team) and doesn’t even have a Microsoft sign on the front of the building. When you walk into Bungie it’s clear that the artists run the place, not the developers.”

    It is classical innovation and new ventures thinking to separate the culture of a new venture from the “going down the cost curve” mainstream thinking of the parent.

    A creative culture is needed for the new projects. Xbox has been a happy accident for Microsoft and they still don’t realise this to the full extent. One of the key reasons it is successful is that it is a separate, physical and different culture from the main MS crew.

  7. It’s nice to see public recognize the importance and significance of designers.

    It’s nice to see this blog covering design.

    http://www.theyrebeautiful.com needs to adjust the homepage layout for certain browser with installed toolbars. You can’t click the button if the Grass Footer id=”footer” is covering those 2 buttons where the id=”page_buttons” is.

    I am trying to encourage Wikis to put more efforts on the Beauty side of the equation. We’ll see more on our “Beauty & the Beast of Wiki – Usability vs Functionality”.

  8. It’s nice to see public recognize the importance and significance of designers.

    It’s nice to see this blog covering design.

    http://www.theyrebeautiful.com needs to adjust the homepage layout for certain browser with installed toolbars. You can’t click the button if the Grass Footer id=”footer” is covering those 2 buttons where the id=”page_buttons” is.

    I am trying to encourage Wikis to put more efforts on the Beauty side of the equation. We’ll see more on our “Beauty & the Beast of Wiki – Usability vs Functionality”.

  9. “It is really easy to see why companies like Apple, Nintendo, etc. just plain get it, and it is hard to see why companies like Microsoft, Nokia, Motorola just don’t get it. It is so simple yet so hard to understand.”

    Before cannonizing Apple and Nintendo, let’s not forget their huge design mistakes:
    Apple: Flower-Power and Tie-Dye iMacs.
    Apple: Lamp Shade iMacs.
    Nintendo: Lunchbox GameCube
    Apple: QuickTime player, period (both Mac and Windows versions).
    Apple: iTunes UI

    All companies have hits and misses.

    Scoble, you ignored Gary Russo’s comments regarding Microsoft’s streaming of Live Earth (why, because it goes against your theory that Microsoft can do no right)?
    http://news.com.com/8301-10784_3-9740511-7.html?part=rss&subj=news&tag=2547-1_3-0-5

  10. “It is really easy to see why companies like Apple, Nintendo, etc. just plain get it, and it is hard to see why companies like Microsoft, Nokia, Motorola just don’t get it. It is so simple yet so hard to understand.”

    Before cannonizing Apple and Nintendo, let’s not forget their huge design mistakes:
    Apple: Flower-Power and Tie-Dye iMacs.
    Apple: Lamp Shade iMacs.
    Nintendo: Lunchbox GameCube
    Apple: QuickTime player, period (both Mac and Windows versions).
    Apple: iTunes UI

    All companies have hits and misses.

    Scoble, you ignored Gary Russo’s comments regarding Microsoft’s streaming of Live Earth (why, because it goes against your theory that Microsoft can do no right)?
    http://news.com.com/8301-10784_3-9740511-7.html?part=rss&subj=news&tag=2547-1_3-0-5

  11. I’ve had beers with enough Nokia designers and other employees over the years to have gotten the impression that what Scoble is describing is a lot like what happens at Nokia too, except the abuses being committed by managers, not by actual engineers. The decisions are made by managers who have no real investment in the product, and just don’t want to rock the boat; they sit around in meeting rooms all day talking crap about things they know nothing about, and come up with nonsensical decisions. Then far, far too much of it is subcontracted out, so most of it is just enforced by contract, rather than having designers/coders be able to stand up and say hold on, this makes no sense, and it’s going to be complete crap.

    I’ve been a Nokia user(never an employee, and probably never after this post.. :) ) ever since their first “car phones”. Their initial UI was fantastic–simple, fast, and got the job done. I’ve stuck with them since because they have still managed to keep the UI better then the atrocious UIs of their competitors. Even so, “better than horrible” does not equate “good”.

    Now that the iPhone is out, Nokia has an example of the kind of phone I know many of their designers have been pushing for for years–apps that are integrated, simple, and coherent. Unfortunately I suspect that what the managers will take away from the iPhone will be no more than “we need to add transparency and more animations!” and more of Nokia’s actually fantastic human resources will head off to jobs elsewhere.

  12. I’ve had beers with enough Nokia designers and other employees over the years to have gotten the impression that what Scoble is describing is a lot like what happens at Nokia too, except the abuses being committed by managers, not by actual engineers. The decisions are made by managers who have no real investment in the product, and just don’t want to rock the boat; they sit around in meeting rooms all day talking crap about things they know nothing about, and come up with nonsensical decisions. Then far, far too much of it is subcontracted out, so most of it is just enforced by contract, rather than having designers/coders be able to stand up and say hold on, this makes no sense, and it’s going to be complete crap.

    I’ve been a Nokia user(never an employee, and probably never after this post.. :) ) ever since their first “car phones”. Their initial UI was fantastic–simple, fast, and got the job done. I’ve stuck with them since because they have still managed to keep the UI better then the atrocious UIs of their competitors. Even so, “better than horrible” does not equate “good”.

    Now that the iPhone is out, Nokia has an example of the kind of phone I know many of their designers have been pushing for for years–apps that are integrated, simple, and coherent. Unfortunately I suspect that what the managers will take away from the iPhone will be no more than “we need to add transparency and more animations!” and more of Nokia’s actually fantastic human resources will head off to jobs elsewhere.

  13. Robert, hotornot.com doesn’t sell virtual flowers, they sell an invite to meet someone wrapped in virtual flowers. there’s a big difference between that and this stupid flowers thing.

    it’s bad design the other way: prettiness is all that matters, functionality is irrelevant. put on your calendar to post about jacksonfish a year from now, i bet at least one of them has gone back to the mothership by then.

  14. Robert, hotornot.com doesn’t sell virtual flowers, they sell an invite to meet someone wrapped in virtual flowers. there’s a big difference between that and this stupid flowers thing.

    it’s bad design the other way: prettiness is all that matters, functionality is irrelevant. put on your calendar to post about jacksonfish a year from now, i bet at least one of them has gone back to the mothership by then.

  15. “The virtual goods business model is in it’s infancy…kind of like the days of prodigy and compuserve.”

    Hello?

    Virtual goods have been SELLING on the internet for 15 years now. Software, games, music, ebooks, stock photos being sold online is virtual goods has been going on for years.

    I think you explicitly mean virtual clipart gifts, specifically from men to women. That in itself is not new as dating sites have been doing that for years as well.

    While it is true that Koreans have been conditioned to want and pay for this, it is less true in our market. At the very least you need a large pool of hot women in order to make that work. Not politically correct, but true.

  16. “The virtual goods business model is in it’s infancy…kind of like the days of prodigy and compuserve.”

    Hello?

    Virtual goods have been SELLING on the internet for 15 years now. Software, games, music, ebooks, stock photos being sold online is virtual goods has been going on for years.

    I think you explicitly mean virtual clipart gifts, specifically from men to women. That in itself is not new as dating sites have been doing that for years as well.

    While it is true that Koreans have been conditioned to want and pay for this, it is less true in our market. At the very least you need a large pool of hot women in order to make that work. Not politically correct, but true.

  17. And for that matter, if I were in charge of the UI team and had to defend myself in front of a goddamn committee, the answer to every question of theirs would be either “APPLE!” or throwing hardware of them in their general direction. At some point, even they have to get it.

  18. And for that matter, if I were in charge of the UI team and had to defend myself in front of a goddamn committee, the answer to every question of theirs would be either “APPLE!” or throwing hardware of them in their general direction. At some point, even they have to get it.

  19. The Office UI team got out some rather nice looking stuff, way better than what you’ve got with Vista. Now that a lot of people of said team are now in charge of the Vienna UI, and probably things past that, maybe we finally get something decent.

  20. The Office UI team got out some rather nice looking stuff, way better than what you’ve got with Vista. Now that a lot of people of said team are now in charge of the Vienna UI, and probably things past that, maybe we finally get something decent.

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