Information for designers and interactive developers - Issue 2 - May 2008
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There's something in the air
There's no better way to test a platform than getting it's potential users to build applications on it. So, that's what we've been doing with Silverlight and Expression Studio for the last couple of years: Inviting a board array of customers to come spend ten Days with us at Redmond; We give them a crashcourse on our platform, and then set them loose to design and build an application that pushes the envelope. And, as they do that, we watch. And learn.

Microsoft made a bold move to enter the RIA platform space by releasing Expression Studio and Silverlight. We understand that building and innovating upon a truly great platform is a function of many axes, one of the most notable ones being: understanding the customer. What was, and continues to be very different about our customer make-up in this space is that they aren't simply developers and engineers. Instead, many of our customers are creative professionals such as user experience designers, interaction designers, visual designers, art directors, creative directors, and the list goes one. When you hear us talk about designers, it's these very folks we're referring to.

This article is about one approach Microsoft has taken - the Artists in Residency program - to get in touch with our audience while enabling them to directly impact our product development efforts.

The back draft
In late 2006, the need for a venue that could serve as a Petri dish for the Microsoft UX platform became very apparent. Barak Cohen, a product manager on Expression Studio, created the Artists in Residency (AiR) program to answer this need. The goals were to create an environment conducive to validating and creating compelling content with our platform, as well as, to train our key customers. Forest Key, Barak's manager at the time, came up with the name. In his words,
«I have a friend who is an abstract artists who did a residency in some cabin on the coast of Maine, where he had no electricity or water, lived in this beach cabin for like 6 months and found materials to create sculptures with driftwood and stuff. that was when I first learned about such things (as he was funded by some foundation). so the term "artist in residency" literally does come from that kind of experience. and I wanted to offer that to UX and interactive designers so we could get their feedback and also have them inspire our product teams with their creativity and style.»
Now, merely a year after its conception, Artists in Residency has evolved into a very effective validation and feedback channel enabling us to tune our platform.

The Artists in Residency branding features two characters, Nog (left, developer) and Yok (right, designer) from a short animation about Expression Studio that will soon be released at If you didn't already figure it out, the graphic tries to capture how designers and developers can live and work together harmoniously in XAML. The markup in the branding coincidentally forms an "enclosure" to represent the concept of artists in residency.

Fresh air
As a part of Artists in Residency, Microsoft invites five to ten key customers (design agencies, if you will) each month to its Redmond Campus. The good folks at the PAC (Platform Adoption Center) provide office space, conference rooms and IT support to the visiting artists. Barbara Lovelace, an Evangelism manager and one of the organizers and hosts of AiR, explains it best:
«Artists in Residency is part of Microsoft's company-wide initiative to build a stellar Silverlight and Expression ecosystem. AiR accelerates agency technical readiness and delivery by focusing on real-world scenarios in a lab environment and links the Expression and Silverlight teams to agencies for feedback. It works because everyone participates - product, marketing, PAC & evangelism teams - while they are building great software! And, of course, the agencies themselves. People keep asking us to take AiR on the road but you can't - the true value of AiR comes from connecting the right & left brainers who are building real-world software and customer solutions in a focused, resource-rich environment and letting them explore.»
Each agency is represented by one developer and one designer; this is a non-negotiable qualifier for participation. One of the core areas of innovation for the UX platform is enablement of a smooth workflow between designers and developers. Artists in Residency is the perfect place to test the workflow value delivered in the early versions of Expression and Silverlight.

The first wave
For the first couple of days, key members of product teams deliver a crash-course on the UX platform. For instance, Joanna Mason, one of two program managers in charge of shaping what customers see in Expression Design, delivers a ramp-up session on Expression Design. These sessions facilitate a direct channel between customers and producers of our technologies from day one. It's our sneaky way to start the feedback party. Tim Diacon, a recent attendee from AllOfUs, wrote to us after he got back to UK saying this
«It was great to meet the people directly responsible for pushing the Expression suite forward over the next few years and I know both, Mark and I, have come away with a very positive outlook on the future of Silverlight.»

We pair up each designer + developer team with a mentor, or as we fondly refer to them, AiRHeads. This is a Microsoft employee who is uniquely qualified to be the enabler for his team. The mentor is committed to being the team's guide and first point of escalation regarding any and all aspects of their residency. Tyler Simpson, the test manager of Expression Web and a two-time mentor, explains it in his own words.
«The value that I see myself adding as an AiRHead is that of a facilitator and shepherd. I help brainstorm project concepts and help pick one that's appropriately scoped to set my team up for success at the end of the event. Customer teams often travel from outside the US and invest two weeks of their time to make themselves and their talents available to Microsoft. It's important to me that each AiR attendee has a positive and rewarding experience during their stay - timely answers to questions, help with coding problems, technical whiteboard sessions, chats over lunch about what it's like working at Microsoft, or just hanging out after work playing Guitar Hero. The direct feedback we receive is invaluable - we're getting domain experts in our midst who are both extremely knowledgeable on competitive platforms/tooling and more than happy to share constructive feedback with us about our Silverlight and Expression story.»

Dinner at Redmond Typhoon is now an AiR tradition. Tyler is the farthest one on the right, Barbara is the farthest one at the table (left row), Steve Guttman who heads up Expression Web is the first one on the left, and I'm behind the camera. Everyone else at the table is an artist in residence.

Blowing us away
By the end of day two, mentors and teams work to finalize each team's showcase project concept: a Silverlight application that pushes the boundaries of the UX platform. This is when the fun really begins. Each team has seven days to go from concept to execution as they ingest a set of technologies that have just recently been introduced to them. Day four is when it "clicks" for most folks, and then it's full-speed ahead through the weekend. Some teams have actually pulled all-nighters in the lab, fueled by pizza and caffeine.

Some teams, such as AllofUs, took the scoping exercise for the week-long project to a whole new level.

The final afternoon of the program is a show-and-tell; it's the grand finale, and in the spirit of good reality TV (is that an oxymoron?), it's appropriately titled, "The Final Showdown". The teams present their work to an internal Microsoft audience consisting of testers, program managers, marketing managers, software engineers, and all sorts of folks; the common thread between all the attendees is a passion for and deep appreciation of great design and functionality built upon Silverlight and Expression Studio.

The applications that have resulted from AiR are some of the best Silverlight applications I've seen to date. At this time, we're working to test and host several of them on the Silverlight showcase. In the meantime, here's a very static peek at a few of them (all ye AiR alums out there who're reading this, I'm sorry I didn't include yours; it had much more to do with space and time constraints on my part, not lack of coolness exhibited by your work).

FaceYak was an ambitious project that the talented team from The Think Tank designed and developed in a week. It talks to Facebook and Kayak and gives you a way to explore your friends as a function of how much it's going to cost you to fly to them the upcoming weekend.

SilvrSurfr, created by the duo from Worktank Brand Storytellers, took data visualization for a fun spin with their Flickr explorer. Type in a word, explore pictures tagged with that word, explore related tags and repeat. It's slick, intuitive, and finally does the overused "carousel" metaphor some justice.

SilvrSanta was created by the team from the renowned Mexican studio, GrupoW. They created a customizable Silverlight-based holiday greeting card. Aside from validating that Silverlight and Expression Studio is a great platform for this scenario, the demonstrated that Expression Design can definitely ignite the canvas for illustrators.

Fanning the winds of change
Artists in Residency is grounded in the notion that you need raw and relevant customer feedback delivered to an attentive and concerned product team in order to build the best platform for creating interactive web experiences. To that end, we make two asks of each team. One we've discussed in some length earlier in this article: a bleeding-edge application. The other is raw, real-time feedback. We furnish each artist with a feedback form, and constantly encourage them to shamelessly capture every little nit they can think of. You clicked a button and encountered a dialog that's not well laid out? Lay it out for us. You don't like how the timeline works in Blend? Tell us how it should work. You want canvases in Silverlight to expose some new properties? Propose them. We place a lot of importance on completion of these feedback forms, as it's a substantial part of our ROI for running AiR. Here's just a small sampling of some of the feedback in its raw form:
  • The biggest barrier to this version of the technology is definitely the use of OO Javascript programming. It will be very challenging to get the designer community excited about this technology because they will likely be only able to achieve simple interactivity without the use of Javascript.
  • Thank God we can animate vector points now. That was something that was really missing before.
  • I like the Easing grid so I can get a visual on how the easing will play out. Flash has this too but the one in Blend is easier to understand and use for some reason.
  • I want better masking! Show me both the Masker and Maskee after I create a clipping path. Don't lock the two together so I can edit the Maskee without the Masker moving with it. Also let me animate the Maskee and Mask independently after they are joined. The workaround I found of masking a canvas and animating inside that canvas seemed a bit cumbersome.
  • Give me the option of constraining aspect ratio when using the property palette to change width or height.
In conjunction with the feedback forms, the Expression Blend, Design and Web teams also run open feedback sessions with these teams. And, when we say open, we really mean open. The program management teams responsible for features and functionality of each of these products show up with notebooks, and kick off the session with, "So, what's not working for you folks? Spit it out." Needless to say, the artists inevitably do because by the time these sessions occur, they've spent two to three days working with the products: an adequate amount of time to form an opinion about the good, the bad and the ugly of the each product. Part of my job is to evangelize Expression Studio, so I have gotten to know a lot of folks on that team. I can say with great certainty that the Expression Studio team definitely seems to have a healthy addiction to listening to the bad and the ugly about their own products.

It's probably obvious, but worth mentioning nonetheless that Artists in Residency is a tremendous team effort that is enabled by the proactive participation of many teams at Microsoft. Arturo Toledo, a Technical Product Manager who focuses on Silverlight and Expression Studio training, has contributed a tremendous amount to initiatives like AiR and compares it to reality TV -
«AiR is like that reality show: Survivor. As part of this adventure, we make attendees get in trouble on purpose. Then we help them find their way out with the help of mentors who provide advice, tips and tricks. At some point in the event, participants even start helping each other. By the end of the AiR, we all usually end up with new friends and a community feeling of achievement where everyone usually gets farther than they'd initially thought they ever would to deliver great Silverlight experiences. that just feels good!»

The weather vane
The fact that I was able to turn each of the sub-headings of this article into a play on words related to "air" - as a side note, admittedly, this is an odd place to indulge my need to turn everything into a pun - is almost as remarkable as some of the work I've seen delivered through the Artists in Residency Program. One of the wonderful things about this program is that it's a monthly dose of inspiration to watch these teams go from being completely new to the platform to delivering complex scenarios, both from a design and development perspective, in seven working days. Yes, there is work remaining to unlock the dream of a seamless designer-developer workflow, but it's nice to kick back at the end of every AiR and say to oneself, "Wow. I had no clue you could build that using our tools."

I hope you've enjoyed this candid peek into the product development philosophy we nurture in our UX platform teams. In closing, I'd like to share a quote from Jeff Parades of RadarWorks, one of the first participants since I joined forces with Barbara to help evolve and run the program six months ago. I may be biased here, but I agree with him -
«Awesome, Awesome, Awesome! Thank you so much!

This was by far the most effective training program I've ever attended. I walked away with a project under my belt, new friends, a few business contacts and the bragging rights for making an impact on the future of your platform. You guys deserve huge round of applause for all your hard work.»
Microsoft's Artists in Residency Program is funded by the Developer Marketing Team, run by The Developer and Platform Evangelism Team (D&PE) and powered by pure passion and caffeine.
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