Bill Buxton busts out

He calls it “the temple of geeks,” but Bill Buxton sounds more than comfortable in his new home.

Comfort is an important issue with Buxton, who recently joined a team of sociologists, cognitive psychologists, hardware engineers and software experts at Microsoft Research. The former chief scientist at Alias (and before that, SGI), Buxton has spent the better part of 30 years focusing on human-computer interaction. This includes stints as a consulting research scientist with Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, Ontario’s College of Art and Design, the University of Toronto’s computer science department and Bruce Mau Design. It may be his leisure activities, however, especially his love of the outdoors, that has informed his career path.

“I’ve never done a focus group in my life,” he says. “If what we’re doing is experience design, how do you expect to be any good at it if in the body of your life you’ve had hardly any experience? The first thing you want to do is have an incredible breadth of experience. I believe that my time, say, mountaineering or skiing or cycling or whatever else all bear remarkable fruit in terms of bringing insights and stuff to what I do.” 

Though he lives in Toronto and will be spending one week each month at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash., Buxton recently began a four-month residency at the vendor’s lab in Cambridge, U.K., where he spoke with about his plans for the future. How did you end up at Microsoft?

Bill Buxton: It was a funny decision. It actually took over a year to arrive at. Not in the sense that it was hard to make up my mind, but over the year it just became clear it was the right thing to do. There never was any offer, or even a job application. It was almost a point where I wrote to Rick Rashid, who is head of research and said, “You know what? I think this is the right place for me. Let’s figure out how to make it work.” He said, “Yeah, that sounds good, what do you want to do?” There was no active recruiting. I think on both sides we just felt this was the right place and time for us to be together. 

ITB: Can you speak at all about the kind of projects or areas of research you’re working on? I know some of it is probably top secret.

BB: First of all, I haven’t been here long enough to do anything really secret, so in that sense we’re in good shape (laughs). But part of it is I didn’t come on board to work on a specific project but rather to bring a skill set and try to figure out where it can have the most impact. A large part of my first mandate over the first six months is really trying to get to know the company, to learn things I would not know otherwise, then start to figure out what makes sense and where to be most effective. The easiest way to get a sense of where I’m going in the future is just to continue this trajectory from the past. It was to keep doing the thing I’ve always been doing – working on interaction, working on relationships. So instead of any single device, to see how the pieces of this puzzle fit together. And of course where people are the principal part of the puzzle, both as individuals and as let’s say organizations, or cultures.

ITB:You have a personal mantra on your Web site that says, “We are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the ‘things’ that we sell, rather than the individual, social and cultural experience that they engender, and the value and impact that they have.” How well do IT managers and CIOs broker the relationships between users and  machines and live up to that mantra?

BB: One of my close friends is a guy named Steve Pozgaj, who used to be CIO at McKenzie Financial in Toronto and who worked at CIBC. I try to talk to people like that and have friends who keep me honest. I think from those conversations the thing that’s always frustrating is there seems to be budget and time for projects to run over schedule because of poor planning or not enough planning, and there’s never enough time to do the planning up front. It’s often, I think, the CIO who is caught between a rock and a hard place because they’re being pressured from one side to deliver and to get things done, and the other side is, “Well, why doesn’t this do what it should do?” It’s a cultural thing to know that you must be able to plan, and planning involves the front-end design. Before you even commit to build something you have to know far more about how to use it. Often things go way over schedule and don’t do what they were supposed to do because you had to commit to a design and a program way, way too prematurely.

Here’s the other way I’d say it, and it’s a much more succinct way to say it: a great deal of our systems development right now is about usability, even when you do focus on the user, and how to get the design right. I think we spent far too little time figuring out how to get the right design. To me, it’s about getting the right design as well as getting the design right. Said another way, it’s about problem-setting as much as it is about problem-solving. That takes time, and it takes a different approach and mentality perhaps than often we have on our team. 

ITB: Who should be involved in the problem-setting?

BB: Certainly the technical and engineering side must be at the table. They’re essential but they’re not sufficient. It depends on the nature of the enterprise, but you need people who perhaps understand the application domain pretty well. There’s a Scandinavian approach where you bring this about through participatory design, where end users are involved in the design. I’m increasingly thinking that it’s important to recognize design is a distinct profession, and everyone is not a designer. A large number of companies would greatly benefit by having a chief design officer as much as having a chief information officer. And in one sense, if we were to take an example, that’s what Steve Jobs is to Apple. In addition to being CEO, he’s also chief design officer. It’s just to understand where design can bring you in terms of letting you really unleash the technology resources that you have within the organization. And they’re complementary, I’m not trying to put them in an adversarial position at all. A designer without a good engineer is useless, just as an engineer without a designer has got their legs cut off. 

ITB: Is that design philosophy linked to the corporate culture, and if so, how does that get disseminated throughout the organization?

BB: This may sound bizzare coming from somebody at Microsoft, but I think Apple is a worthy adversary – I’m a competitive athlete, if you know anything about me – and I respect our competition. There’s a guy named Jonathan Ives, who is head of design at Apple. What no one says in any of the press writeups or points out – which I think is most significant – he joined Apple in 1994, I believe, when John Scully was still president. He was there through Scully’s presidency, through (Michael) Spindler’s presidency, (Gil) Amelio’s presidency, and then when Jobs came. The quote-unquote miracle of the iMac and iPod — which turned Apple around and helped our entire industry get revitalized – was done with existing talent. It wasn’t new staff, it wasn’t new technology, it was simply a cultural shift in terms of priorities and taking advantage of the talents within the organization. The principle thing I see is that a company like Microsoft is loaded with that kind of talent. If I have an ambition, it’s to help bring about a similar kind of thing, to release the talent that’s frustrated. Just think how frustrated Jonathan Ive must have been before Steve came back. And think how closely the company came to being acquired or going out of business. And yet the talent was right there in the organization, and how many companies are like that? I’m afraid I’ve worked for some of them, more than either of us would like to admit. It’s trying to understand these types of case studies, learn from your competitors, learn from yourself and really look at it.

ITB: A lot of vendors have been talking about improving user experience for quite some time. How far is the gap between what they’re articulating and what we’re actually seeing them execute?

BB: I think my profession, the user interface side of things, got stalled for about a decade and got into a bit of a rut, and it was when we started to believe it was all about usability and functionality things like that, which is very different from experience. I can buy any bicycle and it’s beautiful and it works. Let’s think about a simple knife in a kitchen that you cut a tomato with. I’ll bet you every single one of your readers, including you, has a knife is the only knife you’ll use to cut a tomato, because of just how well it works and how it feels. All the other knives work, but this one just brings a smile to your face. It could be your car, it could be your bicycle, it could be pen – we all have things like this. And I think that’s not about usability, but those are the things that change a product from being mundane.

ITB: Those seem to be very subjective responses to a product, though. How can vendors reproduce something in mass quantities that creates that experience on an individual level?

BB: Only with really great effort and care. And they won’t get it right every time. How do you make a feature film that not only works but is fantastic? I had this experience over Christmas. I was doing some images and I downloaded this piece of software from Microsoft I’d never heard of before, called ImageStudio. It was like that. It was like, “Holy cow!” Every time I did something I was amazed at how well it went. So it can happen with software. It can happen with certain tools and things, but it doesn’t happen by accident. I don’t have the formula for getting it right, but I sure have a formula for generally getting it wrong: Just keep doing things the way we are right now, and we’re sure to get it wrong, even if you get it usable. If you want to get it right, stop doing what we’re doing, and do something different. And that is, say, this is part of our objective, this is part of the spec. If it doesn’t do certain things, it doesn’t ship. 

I suspect that you’re right about one thing: as long as you’re trying to address everyone, then it’s hard. Especially if you’re not only trying to beat everybody, but do everything for everybody. The more you do that the less likely you’re going to succeed. But I’d say the original Palm Pilot had the same type of appeal for many of its users at that time. For me, I’ve got to tell you, when I’m ice-climbing and skiing, I have that relationship with my climbing gear: my ice tools, my clamp-ons, my avalanche beacon. Those are all things that are really intimate and I just like picking them up. I like the sound, the balance, I love everything about it.

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