Sometimes You Have to Ignore Your Users.

My mum isn’t the most technical person around. Sure she’s lived with my computer savvy father for the better part of 3 decades but that still doesn’t stop her from griping about new versions of software being confusing or stupid, much like any regular user would. Last night I found out that her work had just switched over to Windows 7 (something I’ve yet to do at any office, sigh) and Office 2010. Having come from XP and Office 2003 she lamented the new layout of everything and how it was impossible to get tasks done. I put forth that it was a fantastic change and whilst she might fight it now she’ll eventually come around.

I didn’t do too well of convincing her that, though ;)

You see when I first saw Vista I was appreciative of the eye candy and various other tweaks but I was a bit miffed that things had been jumbled around for seemingly no reason. Over time though I came to appreciate the new layout and the built in augmentations (start menu search is just plain awesome) that helped me do things that used to be quite laborious. Office 2007 was good too as many of the functions that used to be buried in an endless stream of menu trees were now easily available and I could create my own ribbon with my mostly used things on it. Most users didn’t see it that way however and the ribbon interface received heavy criticism, on par with that leveled at Vista. You’d then think that Microsoft would’ve listened to their users and made 7 and office 2010 closer to the XP experience, but they didn’t and continued along the same lines.

Why was that?

For all the bellyaching about Vista it was actually a fantastic product underneath. Many of the issues were caused by manufacturers not providing Vista compatible drivers, magnified by the fact that Vista was the first consumer level operating system to support 64 bit operation on a general level (XP64 was meant for Itaniums). Over the years of course drivers matured and Vista became quite a capable operating system although by then the damage had already been done. Still it laid the groundwork for the success that Windows 7 has enjoyed thus far and that will continue long after the next iteration of Windows is released (more on that another day ;)).

Office 2010 on the other hand was a different beast. Microsoft routinely consults with customers to find out what kind of features they might be looking for in future products. For the past decade or so 80% of the most requested features have already been in the product for a while, users just weren’t able to find them. In order to make them more visible Microsoft created the ribbon system, putting nearly all the features less than one click away. Quite a lot of users found this to be quite annoying since they were used to the old way of doing things (and many old shortcuts no longer worked) but in the end it’s won over many of its critics showcased by its return in 2010.

What can this experience tell us about users? Whilst they’re a great source of ideas and feedback that you can use to improve your application sometime you have to make them sit down and take their medicine so that their problems can go away. Had Microsoft bent over to the demands of some of their more vocal users we wouldn’t have products like Windows 7 and Office 2010 that rose from the ashes of their predecessors. Of course many of the changes were initially driven by user feedback so I’m not saying that their input was completely worthless, more that sometimes in improving a product you’ll end up annoying some of your loyal users even if the changes are for their benefit.

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  1. Haha with a title like that, I was expecting the article to be about Steve Jobs… ;-) Gotta love that famous line about “sometimes you have to show the users what they want”.

    Still, kudos to Microsoft for being innovative. I was one of those users who was cursing the change to the ribbon format, and the changes in Vista/Win7 from XP , but now I love it :-)

  2. He’d definitely be another good example, if he had listened to his users on the iPod and iPhone you wouldn’t have the products we know today. His genius in that area has also been his undoing in the past but he’d really have to do something horrific for that to happen again.

    I was one of the few that liked most of the changes in both when they first came out and I was fighting an uphill battle for a while. I’m glad most people are on my side now so I get to feel all smug and stuff ;)

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