Windows 7: Usability Testing

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on October 28, 2008

There was a surreal moment at the end of Microsoft’s Windows 7 reviewers’ workshop on Sunday. During the question-and-answer period that closed the sessions, a participant asked Microsoft SVP Steven Sinofsky whether Microsoft did any usability testing of Windows 7.

Sinofsky looked dumbfounded, then finally replied, “No. Never,” to general laughter.

In fact, Microsoft is legendary for its extensive usability testing and customer consultation in the development of new products. I could make a case that they actually do too much, or to be more precise, that Microsoft officials pay too much attention to what customers say they want. The result of trying to please everyone is feature bloat, multiple ways of doing just about everything, and a general incoherence of product design.

Contrast the Microsoft approach to Apple, where all decisions are made by a tiny group of executives very much led by decider-in-chief Steve Jobs. Not a whole lot of attention is paid to what customers think they want because Jobs and his colleagues believe that they know butter than the customers themselves do of what consumers will really want. And damn if they aren’t right most of the time.

I’m not saying that Apple is necessarily right and Microsoft wrong. The instinctive feel for products that Jobs and his design guru, Jonathan Ive, have is very, very rare. And Microsoft has to sell to much broader markets and, in particular, has to appeal to corporate buyers who are notoriously resistant to the emotive product appeal that Apple relies upon. But those who think that Microsoft has strayed into trouble by failing to listen to customers are on the wrong track.

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Reader Comments

mark schraad

October 29, 2008 01:23 PM

Not sure I would go so far as to say they do too much research. The problem lies in letting research, and users make the product decisions. No matter how much research you have, you (the designer) still have to make prudent decisions regarding target markets and appropriate attributes.

It may seem simple to design products that appeal to and work for everyone, but that is an incredibly tall task.

Gordon Montgomery

April 20, 2009 05:03 PM

It's HOW you do the research and WHAT you use as filters to interpret results. If all you are looking at is features you will get a product with a lot of features. If you look at human behaviors then you'll get many fewer features and a product that "thinks like a user".

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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