Julie Larson-Green

2008 Outstanding Technical Leadership
In revamping the interface of Microsoft Office 2007, Larson-Green effected a paradigm shift in one of the company’s most successful products.

"At first, no one wanted to change Office dramatically," says Julie Larson-Green, who was tasked with overseeing a reimagining of the product's end-user interaction and overall experience in the fall of 2003. Larson-Green's leadership of Microsoft Office 2007's redesign, the most radical revamp in the product's history, required immense courage and conviction, to which this award attests.

A specialist in user-interface design, Larson-Green began working with Office in 1997, when she program-managed FrontPage. She subsequently helmed UI design for Office XP and Office 2003, which had evolved into a large organization of carefully negotiated compromises among the application suite's various programs. Although Office's great success was based on customer familiarity, the Customer Experience Improvement Program was indicating that users, while basically happy with the product, were increasingly either unaware of (possibly redundant) functions among Office's different programs or frustrated by the amount of training necessary to use an astonishingly complex set of commands, dialogs, and interaction modes.

After deciding that Office needed to be made easier to use, Larson-Green's team arrived at the elegant solution of the browsable Ribbon (or Office Fluent user interface) and its contextual cousins that united the product's common capabilities and ease of experimentation. "The breakthrough," Larson-Green says, "arrived with contextualizing the user interface and realizing that all of the product's features didn't have to be present all the time."

SELLING THE REDESIGN
As development of Office 2007 proceeded, Larson-Green was confronted with the equally formidable task of selling the redesign across Office's various programs. "Our biggest challenge," she says, "was convincing people that we had an idea that would work." Heavily invested in the earlier version, the Word, Excel, Outlook, and other organizations were initially reluctant to relegate control to an umbrella design team. Even more significant, Larson-Green had decided not to compromise the integrity of Office 2007 with the safety net of a "classic mode."

It's difficult to change the direction of a large organization at the best of times. It's even more difficult when the goal is still incomplete. Larson-Green's ability to argue her vision without necessarily being able to address myriad objections in detail is a remarkable trait in a data-driven culture such as Microsoft's. One by one, however, the suite's principals bought into the design as it was being tested and fleshed out.

Office 2007 shipped to nearly universal critical acclaim in January 2007, and Larson-Green was promoted to corporate vice president of program management for the Windows Experience. As with Office 2007, she plans to identify and solve customer problems, which will in turn drive a new design and its subsequent engineering. "In the old world," she notes, "coding would start and design would kind of evolve with the coding."

COLLABORATIVE EFFORTS
Flattered by her nomination for the Outstanding Technical Leadership Award, Larson-Green admits to shock at winning. "I was very pleased," she says, "but also kind of embarrassed. I may have been the ringleader, but I couldn't have done it without a lot of help from a lot of people." She cites principal Office User Experience Team Program Manager Jensen Harris, Product Design Manager Brad Weed, General Manager Dave Barthol, and Test Manager Sean Adridge as key collaborators.

As for the prize, Larson-Green will treat its dispensation as a family affair. "Unless we all agree on one, we're going to split the award and each pick a charity," she says. "My seven-year-old son has already decided he wants to do something with animals. My fifteen-year-old daughter wants to do something with children. And my economist husband is doing all the research on how much money goes to programs versus administration."

View Larson-Green's official press profile.