Steve Ballmer leaving will make no difference.

The villagers are unhappy; they are blaming the poison / toxic well (share price) of their beloved Microsoft land on the wicked warlock – Steve Ballmer. He has to go, and when he is gone, all in the land of Microsoft will return to the happy times, life as we know it will be better and food will of course be much tastier.

Firstly, Clue the f*ck up.

If Steve Ballmer came into his office today and said "dang it, you are all right, I have to go. I hereby resign, bye!" nothing and I repeat nothing would change. The problems inside Microsoft are definitely leadership issues but at the same time, the source of the pollution / toxic situation is well within the leadership areas.

Think of Microsoft product teams as clans within a larger empire. All clan leaders are thirsty for power (most anyway) and depending on the moon cycles any one of them can take over the other clan’s turf as it really comes down to individual success and less about how that clan leader made his/her clan successful. If you do well in XYZ Company, you will in turn be moved into a position that you can continue your success in – point and case, Scott Guthrie (CVP and likely Bill Gates replacement) is now in charge of Windows Azure.

Knifing the Steve Ballmer baby as one person put it, is really only going to create a power vacuum. The moment he gets thrown off campus all major players within the clans will jockey for the next seats of power and you whilst there will likely be an immediate freeze on all roles (until the caretaker / new person gets his/her business cards etc. printed) there will still be some internal knife fighting taking place.

The reality is that Microsoft’s "toxic" issues are not a result of one rogue Executive it is more to do with a whole layer of General Managers, Directors and Presenditial masses. Even guys like Scott Guthrie who is undoubtly liked by all is one you definitely don’t want to piss off in the internal Microsoft circles (I’ve seen him rain his Gu-lighting, he can be a hardass just as much as the rest of them – to loosely quote something to the words of “Last guy who f*ked with me I stuck his head in my fridge” ..funny point is we all then looked for his fridge…dunno why).

The culture within allows bullying, in fact it’s very "lord of the flies" at times when there is little or no direction and/or worse when there is failure upon failure occurring (as you end up with "hey I can fix that, get of my way…followed by more…"hey I can fix that fix, get out of my way") moments.

Steve Ballmer needs to go but not for a sweeping reform but more to do with starting the engine that may one day lead to a sweeping reform. If Steve Ballmer is fired from the Microsoft tomorrow it won’t making a licking difference as you really need to shed people like Lisa Brummel (VP of HR) first. HR inside Microsoft are as useful as a blind/mute/deaf lawyer in a murder case. The crime has been committed but you best study your own defense and the legalities within as HR will just nod, smile and wonder what all the talk is about as they have the role guides, global citizenship programs that go nowhere and do nothing to attend to  that or think up new ways to screw staff over with ideas like "we should remove all towels from carpark shower rooms…that will save us $$$!!"

Microsoft have lost many quality staff the last 2 years, some of the folks that have left I know whilst others I only know of. I sit back and think, "Wow, that guy and that guy oh and that girl…they will be very hard to replace…" so far I have not seen a replacement for them, I have seen a lot of new knuckleheads try to fill their shoes but ultimately have come unstuck.

DevDiv Silverlight team for example is in a weird place and furthermore that product is going backwards not forwards. Silverlight 5 has some interesting new features but the engineering component to Silverlight was never a problem, it just like WPF suffers from the same surrounding issues – lack of interest.

End is simple. Get rid of Steve Ballmer but face the reality it will not make that huge of a difference to both the share price and culture within. All it will do is create a vacuum of chaos initially and may adjust the culture slightly at best.
90,000+ employees do not take their marching orders from a single man. It goes through layers of bureaucratic passive aggressive stakeholders first.

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The 6 things that annoy me when you design my software.

1. Stop making bottleneck software


Technically you could write most software today as one big mega-class with loads of switch / if&else statements. If you did that, not only would every other developer you come across immediately punch you in the nose but it would also become hard to maintain over time.

We agree that would be stupid right. I mean one large file for all code! – yet why do I always see software designed in such a way that it becomes the Swiss army knife of all tasks associated to the user, in that it becomes feature-heavy based around feeble arguments of "but the user wanted.."

The user is 80% of the time a jackass.

You are armed with a plethora of programming models today, stop crowding (thereby creating UX bottlenecks) the user interface for every single role known to man. Figure out the "persona’s" attached to your software and if need be, make smaller contextually relevant versions of the software per person (whether it be modular or separate specific installations).

2. Third Party Controls do not negate the need for a designer.


When I first left Microsoft and joined the working class (mwahah), I was often thrown into the deepened of projects that needed some UX makeovers. Given I have both a programming and design background it seemed a natural fit so sure, go with the flow I say. I’d walk into a typical gig and sure enough I’d see 3rd party controls lurking about (ie Telerik, Component One etc).

Nothing against these brands but if you are dealing with WPF or Silverlight then let me give you a heads up on why this is a bad idea. Firstly, the 3rd party controls are just a quick dirty fix to get around bad UI design, I get it, budgets are non-existent so you do the best you can. Secondly, these controls are made for multiple developers around the world, so there are many keys to turn on and off for them to snap together – which means your controls are not on a diet. Thirdly, you need to walk a mile in the shoes of say a C++ programmer or some language that used to have to play a game of memory Tetris to really grasp the concept of the second point.

Diet is the keyword. If you are dealing in Silverlight space the leaner and smaller footprint your code has, the snappier things are going to get. I am not talking about pure CPU no-holds bar processing time; I am talking about rendering pipeline time. I am yet to see an example of 3rd party controls improving performance and not subtracting them.

Stop outsourcing design for third party controls and I am looking at you graph boy/girl.

3. Every screen has a soul.


In UI Principles space there’s this little concept call false affordance. It means something that looks like it was supposed to do xyz but does nothing (i.e. Push the button and all negative energy will disappear scams).

If you have some software that has a hierarchy of navigational elements, you click on the first node, and it does nothing but expand to the second node but at the same time shows a view with some "weak" summary (i.e. description etc.). Stop, you are doing it wrong.

Every click has a purpose of existence. If you have a dashboard, what is its purpose? Think about its relevance in the grand scheme of things. Should it be fresh content daily/weekly/monthly? Is a holding pattern screen necessary?  The screen, which is like the UX principles are buffering between two major waypoints – you know the one screen in the app that really has no purpose other than to get you from A to C but somehow you felt the need to keep B in place.

If you have a screen that is filled with say two Input controls and that is it. That is a freakin dialog box, it is not a screen. Stop being lazy and think about the problem not how easy it is for you to just whack up an app. It’s not about you, it is about them *points to the end user*.

4. You are not a magician so quit giving me the constant "surprise" moments.


Ever used an application that when you click on something random inside a screen suddenly a piece of User Interface randomly appears somewhere in the screen? Maybe hidden inside a secondary tree node somewhere?

This is not a magic show and you are not a magician. Progressive Disclosure is great when done in a way that leads the user on a journey, no more "I’ve just modified the screen, if you guess what I just did you get a fluffy kitten" moments.

5. Humans are smarter than you think


I have covered this quite a lot but let me re-iterate in the theme of this post. Over 90% of the world’s computer population right now has some piece of overly complicated unnecessary piece of crap software installed on their hard drive that they have somehow managed to figure out partially its inner workings.

The benchmark for success right now in this space is so low you could trip over it and still succeed.  My point is the end users are actually smarter than you give them credit for. If you are in a team and someone says, "Yeah our users aren’t smart enough to.." challenge that jackass upfront. As did he conduct a survey where One in Five housewives came back being dumber than he anticipated?

If an average worker-bee can sit through SAP ERP or any piece of software that Oracle/Microsoft throws at them, they can sit through your software as well.

The trick is to make it enjoyable for them, to be the software that does not feel like the others – the stand out. Rather than holding them hostage to complexity because of your own arrogance, try to think less about the complexity levels and more the enjoyment levels. Software should be enjoyable as we work WITH software – we do not USE it.

6. I did not buy a cat so it could be my master.


My kids wanted a kitten and so me being the "fun" dad I bought one. Today that cat rules the house most of the time because we react to it, not the other way around.

In software, this often is similar to what happens. We buy software thinking it will save us time and money as it will improve the master/slave relationship to our daily lives. Instead, we become more enslaved in its processes.

An example. Today I went to my bank ANZ (which I am ditching – F*K you ANZ). I said, "I’d like a copy of my home mortgage statement to give to your competitor so I can leave your dumbasses – i.e. YOU ARE FIRED"

I watched the teller pound away at a keyboard for like 5mins before she arrived at a point of some kind that then needed her co-worker to give her instructions on generating a printable report.

I am sitting there thinking the following things:

  • Why are you typing so much?
  • Why can’t I do this online myself? You give me access to every other account functionality yet why not this?
  • Why am I giving you everything but a DNA sample to authenticate I am who I say I am still to this day?

My point here is that aside from a crappy online service from ANZ Bank, the teller herself should have a simple input control that has a button next to it. Inside that input control, she types, "Print <AccountNumberXYZ> Mortgage Statement as of Today"

The input box then does the following:

  • Looks up my account number and verifies it still is active.
  • Takes the verb Print to mean "fetch" and the words Mortgage Statement as being what should be fetched whilst the word "Today" meaning as in Now(). Then spit out a piece of paper with that information. In otherwords “PrintMortgageStatementWorkflow(custId, date);”

I think I make my point(s) in saying why are we jumping through hurdles to make software do the work when it feels like we are a separate background thread in the software’s world.

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Why Microsoft is failing at WP7.

It is easy to sit on the sidelines, point and laugh at how the overall Windows Phone 7 tire fire is burning daily. It is also greatly disappointing to see as whilst I had predicted from the start that Windows Phone 7 will fail with consumers but could win with business/enterprise it’s also bitter sweet victory in many ways to be right.

How did the product arrive at this state? Where a pittance of allegedly 1.6million units have been sold out of the 2million units known to be “in-market”. My thinking is as follows:

No Aesthetic Differentiation.


Stating that is bold and a bit of an eyebrow raiser, as clearly the Metro UI is different to the rest right? Not really, as you are probably looking at this through the lens of a TechEd T-Shirt wearing c# ninja aka Microsoft “aware” perspective. The reality is if you go into a mobile store of any kind around the world, you just have to stare at the buffet of phones on display and cannot really help but notice one thing. They all seem to look kind of like the iPhone in terms of shape – keep in mind we humans are pattern people, we seek patterns first and then adjust to what the pattern is second.

If all the phones have similar shapes then what does that say? Does it feel like an iPhone knockoff? It has the similar price tag. So why pay for a copy of a popular device when you can have the real thing?

Assuming you get past that train of thought let us look at it from a different perspective. You are in the store, you get excited over the initial 10seconds of “Wow, nice UI” moment(s). The more you use it, the more you start thinking “meh, what kind of apps does this thing have?” so now you have to grasp the concept of the Zune Marketplace – assuming you’re outside of the US and the brand Zune is “What the freaking hell is a Zune?” moment(s). How do you grasp Zune Marketplace while in a store? You click on Marketplace but nothing happens as most phones have no internet connection(s) in stores.

I have seen many a “marketplace” on the ye olde phones that were run by carriers so what makes this different to those as again who is Zune? What apps do you have and do you have Angry Birds? Skype? Foursquare? Facebook (yes its built in, but are others outside the Microsoft sphere of influence aware of this?) etc?

Too consistent & poor quality bands.


The differentiation is one thing but then comes the moment of too much consistency. All of the applications tend to blur into being the same old cookie cut style. There is not a real sense of change or theming in place other than games. Today’s twitter application looks like a thousand other twitter applications aside from some color changes. There is no real sense of depth and whilst the team has pushed for “authentically digital” which is a noble gesture in the art scene, it is but one lacking in the consumer space.

To put it another way, If I have a voice recording “memo” style application then please make it look like a recording application (i.e. iPhone uses this big Microsoft and it takes on this “theme” of being the app). There are some diamonds in the rough when it comes to the marketplace, not all are bad – most are though.

All it takes is any C# developer with some developer muscle and a lame brain idea around FlashLight, Twitter, Task list or Tip Calculator and pretty much soon you have a saturated idea brimming to the surface of applications made available to you for purchasing. The quality baseline for success in the market is measured around quantity not quality. iPhone is no different much like Android, the difference with those phones however is they aren’t the ones struggling to convince people that their old version isn’t the same as you see before you in the new version(s). They don’t have as big of a hill to climb back out of and arguing mediocrity in quality bands as an excuse as to why is plain stupid.

There is no switch up inside the phone, all apps tend to become the same look and feel repeatedly – so my point is this is not just a phone it’s a media device that should be filled with brainless eye candy as much as functional brilliance. Let the audience decide if Authentically Digital compositions are their cup of tea but forcing all to bow down to this mentality is simply locking you into a bubble of ignorance.

Dance with the girl you came with.

These are the end result of a local GOVT dept who bought HP iPAQ's instead of WP7 for development purposes? Sad?

Consumers are morons, and are easily tricked if you have a brilliant strategy. Urban legend of Colgate guy wanting to increase toothpaste sales that tried everything but in the end all he did was increase the diameter of the hole in which toothpaste pours out of by 3mm in the end sent sales through the roof (given we used more toothpaste unwittingly). It is a story I was told in my days of Marketing 101 training, but it stuck with me for obvious reason(s) – hopefully.

Microsoft is so preoccupied with “beating” the other guy (and we used to drink that compete rage elixir often) that its lost perspective on the places its getting success – Business/Enterprise. Go into a govt department, large mining company, finance sector the whole thing and ask them how they are coping with business related devices such as PDA’s and wanting field staff to do xyz. You would be surprised at the response you get – especially how iPhones, Androids and Windows Phone 7 are not even in the race. The reason being is simple – “How does one deploy a private app to my citizens?”

The reality is Microsoft’s spent the lion share of its marketing spend on US Consumers hoping that this like some kind of weird end of year Xbox style achievements metrics “Congratulations! You have Achieved Level 1 in sales!” moment(s).

Inside Australia for example the WP7 Marketing is a secret? As its rare you catch glimpses of its existence outside a mobile store and even then you have Windows Phone7 Logo right beside Windows Phone 6 devices.  Confused? I was.

The win here while it may not be loud (which sadly gets you career points in Microsoft) is that if Microsoft released an Enterprise follow-on with the WP7 devices focused on allowing draconian SOE overlords to brick the phones in such a way that forces its peon’s to adhere to the blah blah policy then you in turn would have a backdoor into consumer market.

The reason being is these are human beings the phones are being handed to during work hours. The more they use them, the more the grow accustom and forgiving towards the device you are giving your crack away via corporate mandates. Establishing a habitual usage amongst the business/enterprise community in turn creates natural evangelism, which in turn can either make or break you (if its crap phones it will be very loud as to why).

If you are in a meeting and you see many WP7 phones in the room, you cannot but help notice them – that is what they call “product placement” in marketing terms and you get it free amongst the business community.
Nobody is doing this right now, and I’ve witnessed thousands upon thousands of units of HP IPAQ like devices running Windows Mobile 6.5 as a result (right now I’m staring at a body of work I’ll need to work on soon in this space, simply because no Wp7 device is available for commercial usage).

Competitions are an act of marketing desperation.


I was once told inside Microsoft that if you get to a point where you are running a competition to excite developers around a product, you have failed. It is the last desperate refuge for a marketing to try to regain some lost momentum around marketing a product that really needed more than a “Win a new phone?” moment(s).

When I was doing my interviews for Product Manager on the Silverlight team, my bosses boss (Dave Mendlen) asked me how I would handle a competition etc for a product if had $50k to spend? I guess he wanted to see me break it down into its overall pieces etc. My response was simple

“I’d take the $50k,  put up a 1x Page website and simply give away a CAR in any country around the world for the best and fairest blah blah”.

My point was simple; competitions suck firstly so I would rather get this fool’s errand out of the way upfront. Secondly, if you are going to have competitions then go big or go home. Don’t pussyfoot around with $1k or below offerings, you want competition right? You want people to take notice and work hard to fight to the finish then put a carrot that is big enough that it feels both reachable and enriching at once.

I see way to many competitions for developers to write xyz Windows Phone App around lately and it’s just sad to watch. Microsoft needs to raise its game and seed the product in much smarter ways then weak competition tactics. Evangelism needs to be smarter and the marketing spend / product placement campaigns need to be better than it is today. Seeing a Windows Phone 7 on a TV show is a good start but it lacks follow-up(s).

If I go to a geek conference of any kind I want to see Wp7 branding everywhere but I also want to see someone doing something interesting with the phone(s). I want sizzle and holding creations as if the one Brandon Foy hostage to “If you get 200k+ views I’ll let you do a commercial for real” is like asking Don Draper to audition for entry-level copywriter. You had talent in front of you and you still missed it.

In Summary

The phone is failing and it is not really the actual phones fault it’s more direction, understanding of who needs the phone and lastly ensuring the quality bands associated with the phone raise. If you are going to go head to head with Apple who have shown repeatedly that Industrial Design / User Experience is what consumers are really attracted to. Bring it fully do not “version three we will get it right / marathon speech” it to death.

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