On Design: MS’ Own Worst Enemy

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The “Microsoft redesigns the iPod packaging” video got a huge amount of well-deserved attention a little while ago, and I was extremely pleased to learn that the video actually originated inside MS. One very big point for Microsoft.

On the down side, however, this video exists because something in Microsoft’s corporate culture breeds a whole lot of utterly godawful design decisions. Like, really bad. The self-awareness suggested by the existence of the iPod video is promising, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

An Example
For reasons too boring to explain here, I ended up on the Microsoft Office Online site a little while ago. After spending some time scanning the main page — trying to figure out which of the 110 visible links* might lead to the information that I was looking for — I decided to just go with the link that exhorted me to Evolve to today’s Microsoft Office. Get more done.

You really have to follow the “evolve” link above and click around yourself to understand, but I’ll give you the basics here: it’s a flash-based extravaganza in which you navigate around an office that is populated by people with dinosaur heads. As you mouse over people and objects, they increase or shrink in size, move around in an erratic and irritating fashion, or sometimes do nothing at all. When you click on certain of these objects, a little text layer appears in the middle of the screen, providing you with a couple of bullet points about some Microsoft Office product.

Happily, during some stage of the creative review/testing process, somebody noticed that it was virtually impossible to tell where you’re supposed to click in order to get more information, so there are red (or sometimes orange, for some reason) dots on the objects that you’re supposed to click. This also has the happy side effect of making it look like somebody in this office has just run amok with a paintball gun, which was enough to keep me entertained for most of my visit.

But there’s more. The bottom part of the page is made up of little frames (changing based on which room of the office you’re currently in), each of which is its own little mini-page linking out to another source of information. Take a look:

The screenshot above is from the “Managing Information” section of this site. Stop laughing. Yes, it appears that the only approach that the MS design committee could agree on for “managing the information” that they wanted to present on this topic was to have eight different iframes of information, each of which is only partially displayed. And I particularly like the cases where we’ve got iframes within iframes so that you end up with two nested sets of ugly scroll bars cluttering up the view of a single, small piece of information.

What’s really sad about this is that it’s intended to promote software like Outlook 2003, which is actually well designed, powerful, and pretty easy to use. Almost as sad is that I expect that I’d like the original proposal for this monstrosity, and possibly even like some very early iteration of it. Be that as it may, when you take a look at this site, it becomes clear how important it is — essential, even — that Microsoft takes the message of that MS iPod video seriously.

* Yes, I counted the links. It breaks out as:

  • 4 in the header
  • 42 in the left navigation
  • 40 in the page center
  • 16 in the right navigation
  • 8 in the footer

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