The Design of Microsoft Surface

Microsoft Surface

I know I am a bit late to this party. It is pushing two weeks since the release of the Microsoft Surface and surely more eloquent individuals have stated what I am about to say. But some things you just have to address when they feel as though they’re a significant step forward for the design industry. The weekend after Microsoft announced its new Surface tablet and Windows 8, I happened to be in Seattle and decided to take an extra few minutes and stop in to the Bellevue Square Microsoft Store. If you’re not familiar with the Seattle area, basically I walked straight into Mordor. To get to the store I had to drive by the Microsoft campus. Normally, this wouldn’t have been something to mention, but my feelings for Microsoft have changed over the years. I have not been shy with my comments on the debacle that was Zune. Even in an era of “good enough”, they couldn’t get it right. Windows ME and Vista were veritable gong shows. Windows 7 felt as though it had them back on track to doing things right. But Surface….Surface is the first step Microsoft seems to have taken towards understanding that design is an integral part of their product offering(s).

Microsoft Surface

What I noticed first about Surface was that it is SOLID. As in, it is a rock solid piece of hardware. I picked it up and it instantly gave the impression that it is a well built piece of electronics. Tight tolerances everywhere. The right weight. My first reaction to the snap on keypad flexible keypad was that it would be better off without it. A simple cover on the tablet would be sufficient. If I really need to type, I’d go for their type-pad. The type-pad has spring loaded keys and feels like a keypad.

Microsoft Type Pad

This brings me to my problem with Surface, and subsequently Windows 8. It has an identity crisis. I get what Microsoft is doing. They’re trying to appeal to their old constituents that claim that they need things like a keyboard for productivity. The old constituents that can’t let go of the legacy of things like the Windows button bringing me to a desk top, and confusing me as to where I am within the OS. I tend to think that if I were to use a Surface for a week or two, I’d quickly get past this. But I can’t help but think on first blush that the Windows 8 interface is the Achilles heal of Surface. It is holding on too tightly to the past, and therefore keeping the product from being everything I expect from Microsoft.

My Expectations of Microsoft

I have very high expectations of Microsoft. I hated Zune because they could have done so much better than a me too version of a music player. I hated Windows ME and Vista because they were so tragically flawed and a company like Microsoft should not be putting out tragically flawed product. They’re better than that. They should want to be better than that.

That leaves me hoping that the current path that Microsoft is on, with the success of XBox and the strong design of Surface, that Microsoft is on track to being the world leader I expect them to be. I can’t put Windows 8 on that trajectory, yet. I definitely feel as though they’ve gotten it wrong having a touch screen on a laptop…but again, I need to get one in front of me for a while to allow myself to remain open to the vision they’re trying to bring to my laptop experience.

Oh, the last thing I have to say is that the Microsoft store was great. It felt just like an Apple Store (yes, that’s a back handed compliment). This plays into the same feelings of my expectations. I am tired of seeing Microsoft sliding in on other people’s successes. A group with as deep pockets as they have should be experimenting and putting out their own vision for the world. I guess I don’t see them as visionaries, but that’s what I want them to be.


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A Survey of One

Every now and then I have to remind myself that I am nothing more than a survey of one. I know what is going to appeal to me. I know how my brain reacts to whatever stimuli is put in front of me (and sometimes I’m completely shocked by how my brain reacts). The only reason I bring this up is because I have to remind myself of this survey of one notion. That, just because I am dealing with these issues, doesn’t mean everyone is. Or, for that matter, that I am even right in my assessment.

The element of the Survey of One is no more readily apparent than in Design. Everyone…and I mean EVERYONE has an opinion when it comes to design. Color, shape, ease of use, whatever. There is no shortage of things that can come between a Designer and that elusive finish line when you’re designing for someone else. My favorite analogy is the “Bring me a Rock” description of design. As a designer, you’re asked by a client/boss to bring them a rock. So, you can go out and find a rock and bring it back to them. Based on your survey of one, you find a good looking rock and bring it back to your client/boss. Upon your return, you find out that your client/boss doesn’t like that rock. Bring them another one. In the infamous words of Steve Jobs, “they’ll know it when they see it”.

So, as every designer worth their salt knows, the design brief and the process is imminently critical to preventing this survey of one from causing problems. Get your client/boss to commit to a path as early as possible. Get them to describe the rock they want. If they can’t do it, you describe it for them and design within those constraints. It doesn’t eliminate the problem, but it does help it.

All that considered, the survey of one is critical to the creative process. Every designer or artist should be designing for themself. I read a quote by Peter Gabriel recently commenting on the creative process:

“…you never really have any inkling when you write something that it’s going to touch people…”

The same is true for anything creative. You never truly know what is going to resonate when you’re creating something new. You have to trust your gut. Trust that your survey of one is going to make someone catch their breath. Because, that is the moment we’re all after, isn’t it?

Core77 Attention Deficit Designer

I wrote an article for Core77 called “The Attention Deficit Designer”. It was published yesterday and  similar to the reaction I got from my IDSA presentation, I am nothing short of humbled by the comments and reaction I am getting from this article.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to retweet, send me an email, or simply read the article and click on many of the links. I will leave a link to the full article at the bottom of this post. Here’s an exerpt:

I’ve talked to a lot of designers over my career. Many of them knew exactly what they wanted to do from a young age. They had some kind of mechanical inclination and an innate desire to take things apart and to create. They have the ability to focus and noodle over an idea in the methodical, inexhaustible manner of a diesel engine. In the world of the tortoise and the hare, they’re the tortoise. This article isn’t about them.
There is a whole other group of designers that run the race in a much different manner. If I keep with the engine analogy, they’re more the Ferrari’s of the world. They run fast and hot, hugging the corners with a jaw-dropping ability to win the race with awesome speed. Ideas for these designers come fast and furious. As capable as they are of the exhilarating win, they can hit the wall and explode into a gazillion little pieces. This story is about these Ferrari-like designers. They are designers that live with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder—ADHD or ADD for short.

You can read the full article over on the website.



Knowing only enough to be Dangerous Sucks

I hate the layout of my blog.  I also hate the layouts of 99% of the “Free” blog templates that are available online. To compound it all, as a Designer, I am more than capable of designing the layout of the blog I want.  I can envision it, etc.  But I’m a product designer that has focused on the skills required to bring a piece of hardware to production.  A valuable skill, but it leaves me dangling when I want to do something as simple as translate my vision to reality.

I know that HTML and CSS are relatively simple things to learn (if you have the time). I know that I can pay someone to do it, or buy a template that is available that is “close enough” to what I want. But, considering my ADHD traits, I tend to lean towards waiting a few months before I actually pay someone to bring life to my blog in the vision I have for it.

It’s either that, or I take the time to learn how to do the programming.

When it comes to the online world, I know enough to be dangerous. I can lift the hood of my blog and stumble my way through the code and change things, and make it happen.  But, once I do that it is more like I am randomly pushing buttons while sitting at the controls of an airplane. It is a dangerous thing to be doing. This situation makes the impatient ADDer in me want cry. Seriously, I want it done NOW. It drives me nuts that the solution isn’t there like a switch, waiting to be flipped.

So, ya. I hate my how my website looks and I am working on how to change it. But, I figure it is far better to be writing and getting this stuff out of my head, as opposed to sitting here and not doing anything at all. Baby steps.

Imagine the Possibilities

I had one of those days that allows you to believe right down to your toes that possibilities are endless. One of the conversations I had today was with a colleague of mine who’s son has been diagnosed with ADD. The conversation was cool in the fact that it helped me reinforce my thinking that ADD can be viewed as a gift.  With all the foibles of a brain that refuses to remember my lunch as I go out the door, it has an amazing ability to see the possibilities. Different angles and different connections of the dots. A brain that when set loose on the right path can do amazing things.

Yes, that same brain needs help – harnessing. It requires processes, and habits, and routines. It will also turn tail and run screaming from every process, habit, and routine you try and put upon it. But when you remember that ADD is simply a part of the human condition, you can realize that it can be a gift if treated properly.

I can do things that I know other’s can’t do 1/2 as well.  As a designer, I can close my eyes and imagine an object in my head.  I can spin that object around and look at it from different angles.  I can push and pull it and imagine it in different colors and materials. I can then translate that to reality. This happens in rapid fire.  Different objects. Different products that could be made.  A noise bordering on a cacophony at times.

The problem is the noise gets overwhelming.  It is an excess of information that creates an analysis paralysis. So, you need to figure out how to slow it down.

I did that today on my way home.  I pulled a Supertramp and took the long way home. I drove along the river, and watched the sunset.  I even pulled over for a few minutes and listened to the silence. I let it be quiet for a moment and allowed myself to imagine the possibilities.

They’re endless today.


An Aweful Waste of Space

One might argue that ADD makes one a bit of a pop culture junkie.  Other’s might just call it being a geek. Yet another category might call it being a loser.  I tend to think there’s a bit of truth in all of the above.  Whether driven by ADD or not, one of my favorite lines from a movie comes from “Contact” with Jody Foster and Matthew McConaughey.  It is a pivotal moment in the movie when a young version of Foster’s character is speaking to her now deceased father and asking him whether he believes there is life on other planets, to which he replies, “If it is just us, it seems like an aweful waste of space”.

What human being has never thought how cool it would be to travel to another planet? Heck, in this day and age, you have to think we better get on our horse and figure out how to get off the planet we’re on so that we don’t go the way of the dinosaur.

Apparently, there’s proof to the fact that there’s actually other planets that could make a good version of Earth 2.0.  The Kepler Telescope is currently cruising the skies above while taking in the sights of deep space in search of other Earth-like planets.  Based on the results released recently there are upwards of 2,236 planets that are considered “candidate planets” and one that has been confirmed as being possible to keep water in a liquid state (critical for life as we know it to exist).

So, to all my fellow Designers.  We now have a confirmed reason for designing a real life USS Enterprise!





Three Design Lessons from Star Wars

If you know me, this next statement will not come as any shock:

I’m geek and I love Star Wars.

This isn’t profound by any stretch of the imagination.  I am a small voice in a cacophony of Star Wars Geeks.  In fact, I am probably not particularly far along the spectrum when it comes to Star Wars geekery.  I love that a movie that I saw when I was 5 is still alive in my imagination and I have passed that love on to my kids.  My daughter likes Star Wars.  But where the torch of geekiness is being passed, is to my son.  He is now 5 years old, and I have had my Mom send out all of the Star Wars toys my brother and I played with as kids. There’s the plastic Darth Vader action figure case (with the original Darth Vader action figure and his vinyl cape, et al), the Millennium Falcon, the AT/AT Walker, the Cloud City Pod Car, and the Rebel Snowspeeder. Yes, I love playing with my son by running around the house yelling “peww, peww, peww”, and “Han shot Greedo first”! I might possibly have even maybe played with some of the toys myself once or twice after he’s gone to bed.  But nobody was around to see it so you can’t prove it…and I’ll deny it if you try and say I did.

This past weekend, Spike TV had a Star Wars marathon.  My son and I, even though we own all the DVDs, got caught up in watching the commercial laden version of Episode 2. While I was sitting there, my mind did start to wonder how Star Wars applies to Design. I tend to think that there are several design lessons to learn from Star Wars.

1. Create the Vision then Let Go 

I’m going to say this, more to publicly get it off my chest than anything else.  George Lucas sucks as a Director.  Seriously, he’s horrible. What he’s good at is being a visionary. When he comes up with the story, guides it, shapes and molds it but let’s it go, he allows for magic to happen.  If you don’t believe me, go back and watch Episodes I, II, III, and IV. All directed by Lucas, and all of them are horrible from a cinematic perpspective. With the same set of actors and same visionary at the helm, Irving Kirschner created the epic Empire Strikes Back which is pure genius.

Steve Jobs did this…or so his archetype goes. He created the vision and acted as the final say on all products. But he let his team do the work.  He let the Designers design, Programmers program…etc.  He held everyone to a very high standard, but he knew he wasn’t a designer.  He, in his words, knew it when he saw it but was unable to do it himself.  I wish, after the original Star Wars (Episode IV), Lucas would have done the same. Don’t fall into this trap with your product.  If you are coming up with a new product or company, you are probably an amazing visionary.  Create the vision, guide, shape, and mold, and hire a Design Team. Then get out of the way.

2. Remember Your Archetypes

Every product has a personality.  As does every company.  Star Wars, and every other Lucas epic, is wrought with the simple idea that archetypes are king.  Sometimes the archetypes are instilled from the beginning, other times they’re forged by time.  Here are a few examples:

Han Solo/Apple/Steve Jobs – The Outlaw archetype is the guy that shoots from the hip (maybe even first). He does things different(ly) from everyone else and rules are merely ideas to consider.  He tends to have a chip on his shoulder.  Everybody loves the Outlaw, but there’s always an element that keeps you on edge for feeling that love.

Luke Skywalker/Google/Sergey Brin and Larry Page – The Hero archetype saves the day by choosing the path of good over evil. The temptation of doing evil is constantly pulling at The Hero, and while he may be tempted by the Dark Side he always stays true to his feelings that good prevails over evil.

Darth Vader/Microsoft/Bill Gates – Ruling the Galaxy is a taxing job and nobody is better suited for the job than the Villain archetype.  As the villain, you are going to make a lot of people unhappy along the way, especially when you use the force to choke your opponents into submission. Deep down, you may be good but you have embraced the dark side and have no problem leaving a path of destruction behind you as long as you get to the top.

This is all a very fun way to say, give your product or company a personality. Choose your archetype, even if you don’t overtly announce it to the world.  If you don’t at least consider what archetype your product is to be, you increase your risk of ending up with a product that has a severe identity crisis. I believe it was Yoda who said it best, “If confused you are, confused your customers will be”.

3. “Use the Force, Luke”

At the end of the day, Design is something that requires a good gut. It either feels right, or it doesn’t.  If you’re a Designer, you get it.  You feel The Force all around you.  It comes from years of observing product trends and learning how people interact with products.  Color theory is second nature and the knowledge that changing something by a fraction of a millimeter can make or break the success of a product doesn’t shock you.

If you’re not a Designer, you need to hire a team to design – and I am going to sound like a broken record – then get out of their way.  Being a visionary is one thing.  But having a vision but being unable to share your vision is another causes a lot of grief.  You need to have what you want spelled out very clearly.  If you don’t, you are going to run into exorbitant cost overruns, you’re going to frustrate your designers, and be sitting at the end wondering where it all went wrong.  If you don’t have that vision, be prepared to pay for it.  In either an organized way by allowing your Designers to interview you and then create a visionary document for you which you will sign-off on, or in the painful way of playing the game of “I know it when I see it”.  I suggest staying away from the latter unless you have a very deep pocketbook.

Even with these little tongue-in-cheek metaphors, the bottom line is that developing a product is difficult, expensive endeavor. You can save yourself time, money and headache if you just sit down with a bag of popcorn and watch a few hours worth of Star Wars. Even if you don’t gain any insight into how you can develop your next product, you will at least have a little bit of fun along the way.

Steve Jobs :: The Other Side of the Coin

I recently posted about Steve Jobs and his proficiency at being a complete asshole.  As with many things in my life, I put something “out there” then I take a while to digest what I’ve done.  After lamenting about how I see Jobs’ personality as something that prevents me from propping him up on some kind of internal iconic pedestal, I also see a side to him that simply makes sense.

Malcolm Gladwell just published an article in The New Yorker about Jobs’ role in history as “A Tinkerer”.  Someone that riffs on previous inventions/ideas and makes them better.  Apple didn’t invent the mouse, they made it better.  They didn’t invent portable music devices, they made them better.  You can see the pattern already.  He had a vision for what he wanted from products and he imposed his will upon that vision to make it real.

His personality aside, what he did that I believe was at the core of his success was to be the final say in every aspect of the product.  The archetype that is Steve Jobs is a man who did not allow anything to be designed by committee. If the product, in its final form, did not meet his stamp of approval it didn’t go out the door.

Now, this is a pretty ballsy approach to business that I don’t think most people have the…well….balls to take on. The flip side to taking the credit for the success of the product, you’re also the goat when it doesn’t succeed. So if you’re in position to be where the buck stops on all decisions, you have to be prepared to get kicked in the teeth when your decisions fail.

I look at products that I admire most, I venture to guess that most of them had some kind of visionary at the helm.  Design by committee is the number one way for your product to become mediocre.  A group of people who approach their product development as a joint effort are going to take twice as long, have more complexity, and be more watered down than if it follows a single vision. I believe there’s a place in the world for both options.  The Microsoft and Apple paradigm will carry on in every industry well after I’m pushing daisies.

So, where does this leave me?  It leaves me wondering if there is a way to create a strong vision, take the lead on the vision, inspire those around you to follow that vision, take the pounding from everyone around you telling you that your vision is wrong, and doing it all without being an asshole along the way.

If you have thoughts, or comments…I’d love to hear them.

Steve Jobs :: The Asshole Factor

I, like most people these days, am fascinated by Steve Jobs. He has been the lead on countless products/projects that have changed the world for the good. I am far from a fanboy.  I do own an iPhone and an older generation iPod Nano.  I have never owned a Mac computer, but I appreciate what they represent. I still remember sitting in a friend’s house back in the 80s gawking over the Apple IIe and similarly gawking over the original Macintosh when it came out.

But I am a PC.  Well, I was.  Now I believe that the world is condensing and I see the concept of a PC disappearing into the cloud. I love what is happening in the Tablet space and I can’t wait to see how it plays out between Android and Apple (the new Microsoft vs. Apple).

But this post is about Steve Jobs and how he’s a colossal asshole.

Last night I was watching the PBS documentary on Jobs, called Steve Jobs: One Last Thing. And the thing that strikes me every time you hear someone speak of Jobs, you get the standard sound bites: “Genius”, “Visionary”, “Master Marketeer”. The second thing that strikes me is that I have yet to come across anyone who doesn’t follow the standard sound bite with a “but”. And the “but” is always some variation on the theme that Steve Jobs is an asshole. I struggle with this. A lot.

I, like virtually every other person on the planet, have had to deal with assholes in the workplace. Each time I witness a tirade by someone pitching a fit like a 3 year old, why people tolerate it. We don’t tolerate it from 3 year olds, why do we tolerate it from 43 year olds? I know I am not alone in this. I can even go as far as saying that I’ve witnessed first hand collegues of mine getting stripped down in such a way, that there is no way that it didn’t affect them on a very deep, personal, and emotional level.

In the PBS show, there are first hand accounts of face to face shouting matches that were classified as being “like a playground bully”. There was an interview of Richard Branson where he wore kid gloves with everything he said, but you could read between the lines that there was no love lost between the two. He used words to describe Jobs that came across as backhanded compliments.

In order to ensure I am clear in this, I don’t have a problem with being “tough to deal with”. The idea of being perfectionistic in your approach to business is not something I shun. In fact, with my ADD tendencies, I respect it because it is a very difficult thing for me to achieve. It is the sociopathic approach to business that is far more common than anyone seems to admit that I have a problem with.  It is almost as though the higher you climb on a corporate ladder, the more people think you need to act like an asshole.

So, the point of this little diatribe is that while I appreciate all of the great feats Jobs has accomplished during the course of his life.  I don’t think I can respect him as a person. In a way that catches me off guard, that leaves me feeling a bit empty inside.