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"It's a process of test and re-test. We try to find the problems, correct the problems, and test again to see if the problems have been taken care of."
Archive of Past
In a darkened room deep within Building 17 on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, a beefy, bearded man in his late 20s puzzles over a pile of pictures and words that have been cut apart with scissors.
It's not playtime.
Rather, Microsoft engineers in an adjacent booth watch the man through one- way glass, hoping to learn if some features designed for the next version of Publisher will make the grade. The man, Bruce, is transforming a brochure he created on Publisher into how he thinks it should look as a Web page. If Microsoft programmers have guessed right, the "morphing" feature on the next Publisher-which automatically converts Publisher documents into Web pages-will do a passable job of meeting Bruce's expectations.
Each day, dozens of tests such as this take place at Microsoft Corp. as the company's usability engineers test new and developing products. Their objective: to understand how to make Microsoft software more functional and easier to use. Every person using a Microsoft product-whether they're clicking the "Start" button on Windows 95, or compiling lists on Excel, or sending out a party invitation with Publisher-benefits from their work.
Heading up Microsoft's usability group is Marshall McClintock, an affable 46-year-old trained as a human factors psychologist-a branch of psychology that studies how people and the world around them interact. It's the sort of training typical of McClintock's group, which has the job not of designing software but of gathering data on the people who use it.
"Computer people have always been notorious about sitting around and making up data," McLintock said, sitting in an office filled with psychology texts. "They'll say, 'Well, my mother would never know what that button was.' We try to find if that's true, that their mother really wouldn't know what to do with that button."
To that end, McLintock and his usability engineers bring in as many as 1,000 subjects a month for several hours of tests. In each test, subjects are given a carefully defined set of tasks and are observed as they try to accomplish the task using a new piece of software. As they work, their actions and comments are recorded for analysis.
Group engineers may also drop by a usability lab to see how a particular feature or piece of software is received, giving them immediate feedback that is often relayed to the engineers building a new program.
"It's a process of test and re-test," McLintock said. "We try to find the problems, correct the problems, and test again to see if the problems have been taken care of."
Microsoft's engineers say the feedback is key to their design process. "We keep the usability group busy," said Mike Schackwitz, program manager for the Publisher group. "When I'm watching a test, I pick up subtle things that I wouldn't otherwise get using the product myself."
As a result of the usability group's tests, Publisher is loaded with small changes that make it more user-friendly, such as the positioning of the text and control buttons and features like the little yellow balloons that suggest tips on how to work more effectively.
"That came about because we'd watch somebody try something and say, 'Oh, if they only knew about this feature or that feature,'" Schackwitz said.
Microsoft's approach to figuring out how people use its software has come a long way since the first two usability engineers started work at Microsoft ten years ago. Even when McLintock joined the company, in 1990, he had only seven colleagues. Now more than 100 people work in the group, including 80 engineers such as McLintock. And every Microsoft product that hits the market goes through several rounds of tests.
It isn't always an easy process. As McLintock puts it, the challenge facing his team is to make the personal computer as easy to use as a pen or stapler even as it works as a word processor, fax machine, desktop publishing tool, engineering assistant, office manager or flight simulator.
"The computer is a general tool-it can do many things," McLintock noted. "That makes it a very powerful tool. That also makes it a very difficult tool to use because I have to figure out what I want to do and then figure out how I'm going to do it. So we try to do things like the graphical user interface to present the user with some hints as to what's possible and how to accomplish a task."
To that end progress is being made both by the computer industry and computer users. McLintock recalls test subjects who would come in and try to use the mouse as a foot pedal or hold it up against the screen. "Now, at least, even people who aren't computer users understand that somehow you control the computer by holding the mouse so," he said, rolling a mouse over his desk.
And today's rich array of command buttons and menus are light years from the not-that-distant past when a new computer user was confronted with the notorious "C:" prompt, a blinking cursor, and no clue as to what was next. Now, even a software veteran like McLintock regularly sees new features that make his work easier. "My spelling has greatly improved since we put background spell-check into e-mail." he said with a laugh.
Writer Douglas Gantenbein remembers spending hours trying to figure out what "C:\" meant on his first Compaq DeskPro.