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.