Windows Phone 7 Is Just The Beginning

Disclaimer: Heck of a long post ahead. It’s divided into three sections for quick perusal. 1. Microsoft’s change over the past few years. 2. Windows Phone 7 – The Product. 3. Windows Phone 7 – The Team. Enjoy. 🙂

Today, I’m proud.

When I tell people I’m going to work at Microsoft after graduation, I usually get one of two reactions. The first is the regular congratulations, typically from people outside of the information technology field. The second starts with a raised eyebrow, then a comment: “I hear it’s pretty stodgy over there.

Reading blog posts and tech sites disparage this or that about Microsoft makes me cringe. I’m nothing if not loyal. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t at some points wish I could tell people I was associated with Apple or Google or Amazon or anyone else.

Hip. Innovative. Modern.

Those are certainly not things that you normally hear said in the same sentence as ‘Microsoft’, except when the word ‘not’ is in there as well. Perhaps that was true up until a few years ago. I even had this conversation with my GPM. Microsoft’s changing on the inside, but no one seems to know it. How can we show people what the Microsoft of the 21st century is all about?

Microsoft’s Reinvention

Different parts of Microsoft are changing at different rates. In the Business Division, things are somewhat more difficult to change. Over in the Entertainment and Devices group, you’re seeing what an increased focus on really delighting the user has already done. Xbox 360, Zune HD, Surface, Project Natal, and, most recently, Windows Phone 7 Series show what is brewing within the ‘Borg’.

Microsoft E&D Products

It is that latter project that I want to talk about in depth here, both from a product standpoint, as well as its affect on me, several months ago. As you may know, I interned at Microsoft this past Fall (2009) in the Office InfoPath PM team. During my interviews, I had requested a design-oriented position, citing Office’s Ribbon UI overhaul as something I found pretty cool. Well, I got placed on an Office team. Perhaps not exactly what I wanted, but I was determined to make the best of it.

I had a fantastic semester with a great team, but I wasn’t certain if the enterprise space was right for me. Three things convinced me to give it a shot in a full-time position.

  1. My team was absolutely phenomenal and the mentoring I received there convinced me that I had a heck of a lot to learn about the PM role, regardless of which team I was on. I am pretty much guaranteed continued mentorship when I return this summer.
  2. A PM in the E&D division helped guide my views on the Office group. He was seeing the mentality of innovation and user-centered design spread throughout the company, Office included. He also inspired me to drive that mentality, regardless of where I found myself.
  3. This was the clincher. I had several opportunities to talk with one of the PMs on Joe Belfiore’s team about the future of Windows Phone. It convinced me that Microsoft was indeed changing for the better and I wanted to be a part of that.

At the time, I was strongly considering graduate studies in the HCI space, hoping to work on the next generation of mobile computing. I surmised that the mobile phone, of all computing technology, was most aligned with a task-oriented operating design. The concept of applications is, in my opinion, already kludgy on the desktop and laptop. It makes even less sense on a smartphone. I saw mobile phones as the first place where an operating system could change the way people use computing technology today.

Task-Based

Instead of opening and closing applications, which has little analog with the mental and physical tasks we perform in the real world, the mobile should be centered around accomplishing logical (groupings of) tasks. I want to communicate with my friend. How, be it SMS, email, phone, or Facebook, is really secondary to that primary goal. I don’t want to think about which application to launch, because that precedes the goal of communication with a conscious and limiting decision. Once I have that SMS app up, I’m limited to 140 characters. Perhaps what I had to say requires many more. Over to email I go. That’s no good.

Windows Phone 7 Series People Hub

Windows Phone 7’s concept of ‘hubs’ are task-centers in disguise. Look at how they’re designed. One is people-centric. I want to communicate with a person. Let me decide how to do that after I get all the information I want/need about that person.

Another is media-centric. I have some time to kill. Launch the Zune hub and all my media needs can be satisfied there, whether it be radio, stored music, streamed music, or videos. No separate apps for Pandora. It’s all in one place.

Then there’s the Productivity hub, with Mobile Office. Again, you’re not launching individual Office applications. Instead, your documents are there – the application itself isn’t important – and you can work on any of them within the same hub experience.

Photographs can come from a multitude of places. They could be saved. They could be taken on the camera on the device. But in addition, Flickr, Picasa, and Facebook are just a few of a multitude of services that are connected in the cloud. Again, why have applications for each service? I want to view photos and all of these services provide photos. Give them to me in one place so I can accomplish my task in one place.

The design doesn’t punish a poor or wrong decision. It removes that potential for a wrong decision altogether, but still gives all the options.

Several of the screens shown are quite busy, as many have noted, especially the homescreen. The METRO UI theme takes cues from mass data displays such as airport flight monitors, which also update rather frequently. It’s proven to be an efficient way to present a lot of data in many situations, so perhaps it’ll work on the phone as well. Albert Shum, Director of Mobile Experience Design alludes to this in the following video.

I believe Windows Phone 7 is easily the closest out of all the smartphone platforms to reaching that task-oriented design I dream of. I’m very excited about Windows Phone 7, sure, but more than that, I’m interested to see if this is the start of a more task-oriented design to all the computing technology that surrounds us. That means PC operating systems as well. I’d be a staunch supporter of  such a design path.

Let’s be clear here – the Windows Phone 7 Series announced yesterday isn’t the end of the journey. It’s the beginning. There are so many more things in the pipeline that continue to break down the walls between siloed applications. More and more, the operating system will be about helping you accomplish tasks in an efficient and delightful way.

The Team

As I mentioned earlier, I had the privilege to get a look into the workings of the team that worked on Windows Phone 7. Hopefully I’m okay to write about it now, since the product has been announced. You might have noticed that Joe Belfiore mentioned he came to the Windows Phone team from Zune a bit more than a year ago. The person I spoke with also previously worked on the Zune team. I even met the lead designer for the Zune UI, and you guessed it, he was also working on Windows Phone. The UI shown today makes it clear that this was an ex-Zune team led effort. In fact, I imagine the upper echelons of the Zune team were simply plucked up and placed in Windows Phone somewhat more than a year ago.

That also gives you an idea of the time frame of what was accomplished and why it’s going to take until the holidays 2010 for shipping product.

But that team. It’s very different. I’m sure they were this way when they were working on the Zune, but upon moving to Windows Mobile/Phone, the team grew significantly. Getting everyone on board with the user-centric design mentality was a monumental accomplishment. I spoke with the PM on this point – how can you sufficiently convince people of such a large shift in design philosophy? Numerous points were discussed, but the short of the story was the team belief in creating a fantastic user experience, and progress along that path only solidified the idea that this was simply the right thing to do. The results created a feedback loop of buy-in. Of course, the stick had to come out a few times, to make sure things didn’t degenerate into the previous mess, but all in all, a very successful story of a real shift in the workings of a major team within Microsoft.

The team is simply different from any other I’ve seen thus far Microsoft. The people are ‘hip’. They talk about emotional design. They believe in it. I had a chance to see the lab where a lot of the magic happens, and my, my, I imagine Apple’s design labs aren’t much different. You see some of it in the video earlier on. The team is even physically laid out in a different way from most of the rest of Microsoft. I hope to take some of those learnings anywhere I go. It looks like it works.

Windows Phone 7 was a highly guarded secret, and the shock and awe value they got today was exactly the effect they were aiming for. I happily kept my mouth (and fingers) shut for the past couple months because that’s the least this wonderful team deserves, to reap the fruits of their hard labor.

Windows Phone 7

This is why I’m super proud. Congratulations Windows Phone 7 team! I’ll be looking forward to the end of this year with great anticipation!

3 thoughts on “Windows Phone 7 Is Just The Beginning”

  1. What’s the deal with Msft employees using the world “delightful” to describe the UI experience in phone7? I noticed you used it and every other video, interview or piece of writing I’ve read recently about the new OS uses that word, it must be conscious and it seems like an odd choice of description if the goal is hip branding. Any insights?

    Wrote a bit about phone7 myself over at GT. Not as technical and focused on the Msft marketing approach. I’m pumped for the public release though, it’s going to be awesome. Will it be available sans phone for personal install do you know?

    1. I probably picked that term up more from the large number of videos I’ve been watching with Microsoft PMs showing off the UI. Delightful is to WP7 as Magical is to iPad. I think Microsoft has a better shot at delivering on its adjective. 😛

      The goal isn’t necessarily to be hip, but instead create an emotional reaction to the interface. I spoke with one of the key players in the design of the Zune + software and there was a big emphasis on UI discovery. That instant when you realize you can go back a step by tapping the cropped letters at the top of the screen brings a squeal of, well, delight. It’s not simply about creating a pixel perfect button or placing them in the logical order. Instead, to truly make the interaction memorable and enjoyable, you need to tug on the heartstrings a bit. More character and soul, as the marketing folks on the WP7 team would say. Yeah, it’s sort of this hippie-sounding ideal, but I’m a big proponent of it. When something works just so, you can’t help but smile.

      As for a software-only install, that won’t be available via official channels, but you can be pretty certain XDA-Developers will hack it to no end, if that’s your desire. Warning, it will suck on lower end devices. There’s a reason the hardware specs requirements are quite high. It’s a pretty intensive OS.

      I have some thoughts on your article as well, which I’ll post over there.

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