REDMOND, Wash. (AP) — Julie
Larson-Green hopes you’ll like Windows 7. If not, well, now you and a
billion other people know whom to blame.
Microsoft Corp. is counting on Larson-Green, its head of
“Windows Experience,” to deliver an operating system that delights the
world’s PC users as much as its last effort, Vista,
disappointed them. She’s in charge of a wide swath of the system, from the
way buttons and menus work to getting the software out in January as
Given Microsoft’s history, Larson-Green’s plan seems
downright revolutionary: Build an operating system that doesn’t require
people to take computer classes or master thick manuals.
“We want to reduce the amount of thinking about the software
that they have to do, so that they can concentrate all their thinking on
the task they’re trying to get done,” Larson-Green said in an interview.
Microsoft relies on Windows for half its profit, which helps
fuel money-losing operations like the pursuit of Google Inc. online.
Windows was still profitable after Vista’s
2007 launch, but its poor reception dinged the software maker’s reputation
at a critical time. Vista was designed for
powerful, pricier PCs just as nimble rivals like Google were releasing
Web-based programs that could run on inexpensive computers. Microsoft
appeared to be clinging to an endangered world order that spawned its
operating system monopoly.
What’s more, Vista’s
initial incompatibility with many existing programs and devices, and its
pestering security warnings, exposed Microsoft to ridicule in Apple Inc.
commercials that helped Macintosh computers gain market share. Businesses
didn’t give up Windows, but many delayed upgrading to Vista.
Microsoft’s executives have since distanced themselves from Vista, acknowledging its flaws. Now the company needs
Windows 7 to widen that distance even more.
You probably don’t know her name, but if you’re using Office
2007, the sleeper hit of the Vista era,
you’re already familiar with Larson-Green’s work. She was the one who
banished the familiar system of menus on Word, Excel and other programs in
favor of a new “ribbon” that shows different options at different times,
depending on what a user is working on. It seemed risky, but it was
grounded in mountains of data showing how people used the software.
Focusing on real customers might seem obvious, but
Microsoft’s programs more often have reflected the will of techie insiders.
One reason is that Windows’ dominance relies heavily on
third-party software developers who keep churning out compelling new
programs. To give those developers as many options as possible for reaching
PC users, over the years Windows spawned confusingly redundant features.
For example, you can tweak antivirus software settings by opening the
program; by clicking on shortcuts from the desktop, task bar or “Start”
menu; by responding to notifications that pop up uninvited from the
bottom-right corner of the screen; or by poking around in a control panel.
Another bit of dysfunction stemmed from Microsoft’s
corporate structure. Windows employs thousands of people divided into
groups that focus on search, security, networking, printing — the list goes
on. With Vista and earlier versions, each
group built the best solutions for its isolated goals. For example, two
separate groups added similar-looking search boxes to Vista’s
control panels and its Start menu. Yet typing the same query into both
boxes produced completely different results.
Larson-Green, a 16-year Microsoft veteran, grew up in tiny Maple Falls, Wash.,
about 100 miles north of the software maker’s headquarters in Redmond. She waited
tables to put herself through Western
then took a job in 1987 answering customer support
calls at Aldus, a pioneering software company in Seattle.
During six years at Aldus, Larson-Green worked her way into
software development and earned a master’s in computer science on the side.
But she credits her waitressing and
customer-service work for making her good at her current job.
“The primary things that help you create a good user
experience are empathy, and being able to put yourself in the place of
people who are using the products,” she said. “User interface is customer
service for the computer.”
Larson-Green, 47, is engaging and eager in person — to the
point that in one interview, she couldn’t keep from repeatedly interrupting
her boss, Steven Sinofsky, as he sketched the
history of Windows. But while giving product demos on stage, she lacks the
showman’s panache that a surprising number of Microsoft employees display.
At a developer conference last year, she seemed nervous as she showed off
Windows 7’s new features.
Later, she explained that as a woman, she worried that
honing the softer skills of marketing might prompt colleagues to take her
less seriously as a technologist. Larson-Green has spent her Microsoft
career working deeply on many Microsoft programs, including the Internet
Explorer Web browser.
When she landed in the Office software group a few years
ago, Larson-Green was dubious that much could be done to improve the
software, which dominates the market for “productivity” programs.
“I felt like it had been that way for a long time, (and)
everyone was pretty happy with it,” she said.
Yet customers weren’t quite as happy with Office as they
might have thought.
For years Microsoft had tested software with focus groups
and gathered comments and complaints from customers. But around the time
Larson-Green joined the Office team, Microsoft was trying a more precise
way of garnering feedback. By deploying special software — with user
permission — on computers running Office programs, Microsoft could track
how people used their PCs day after day.
That helped explain one puzzle in Redmond: why Office users often asked
Microsoft for features that were already in the software. The tracking data
showed there were functions very few people had discovered deep in the
menus and toolbars in Office.
More research and testing yielded a solution — the ribbon,
which displayed different commands depending on what the PC user was doing. Then Larson-Green pushed Microsoft to
get even more radical: to release Office 2007 without the hedge of a
“classic mode” that would emulate the old look and feel for people who
didn’t like the changes.
It worked. Just as Vista
was a magnet for complaints, Office 2007 won accolades from software
critics and regular users. Larson-Green proved she had the stomach to
challenge a Microsoft legacy. Her reward? The assignment to help fix
Windows. When Sinofsky was tapped to lead the
Windows division, replacing retiring Jim Allchin,
Sinofsky drafted Larson-Green to come along, in a
new position created for her.
“Some people are great at having ideas, and (have) no discipline.
Some people are great at discipline, not much at ideas,” Microsoft Chief
Executive Steve Ballmer said in an interview. “She’s got both of those
Larson-Green’s team began with centralized planning, in
contrast with the old culture that let Windows subgroups set their own
agendas. For example, in the past, different groups worked on home
networking. One group decided how Windows would share files among multiple
computers at home; another group figured out how to get shared printers up
and running. As a result, the steps for networking PCs and printers were
inconsistent — and harder for PC users to master.
As she did with Office, Larson-Green sought insights in a
daunting mass of data.
Vista was the first version of Windows to include the remote-tracking
software that had helped Microsoft hone Office, and nearly 11 million Vista users had let their PC activities be logged.
Larson-Green’s team also surveyed more than 250,000 people around the world
and showed other users prototypes, some as simple as sketches on paper.
From these billions of data points emerged big ideas that
got boiled down into eight design principles. Larson-Green had them printed
on folded slips of paper as reminders for everyone in the group.
Many of the principles come back to Larson-Green mantras of
“user in control.” The team tried to build an operating system people could
use without studying first, one that would let them get right to reading
the news or sending e-mail without dragging them down a rabbit hole of settings
and configurations. A system with manners, not one that constantly
interrupts with bubbles, boxes and warnings that, data showed, people
ignored or raced to close.
The Windows groups agreed in principle but old habits often
reared up. Many Windows teams still wanted to be able to create alert
bubbles for their functions.
“We’ve probably talked to every team in Windows about, ‘No
no no no, we don’t want
you to pop your notifications. Windows is not going to use these
notifications to tell users things,”’ said Linda Averett,
a Windows user experience manager.
Larson-Green is already planning Windows 8, though her team
continues to tweak the Windows 7 user interface. Signs point to a possible
release months ahead of schedule, though Microsoft still says the official
plan is for January.
Microsoft’s marketing machine will pore over piles of charts
to decide whether Windows 7 is a success. Larson-Green says her measure
will be the conversations she overhears at Best Buy and comments posted by bloggers.
“I think people are going to like it,” she said. Her voice rose a few notes when she added, “I hope so.”
Jessica Mintz can be reached at jmintz(at)ap.org.