MIX09 Day 1 Keynote Pt 1: Bill Buxton on Experience Design

Earlier today on the visitmix site, I posted a “live blog” of the first two MIX09 keynotes here in Las Vegas. Now that the dust has settled a little, I wanted to provide an edited version for broader consumption. If you’re looking for a comprehensive, blow-by-blow account of what went down today, read on…

First up was Bill Buxton, one of the leading design voices within Microsoft Research. He presented a passionate exposition of the impact of great design and the way that tools need to evolve to better solve the problems faced by “experience designers”.

Introducing Experience Design

Despite the economic downturn, it’s a great time for design!

A useful parallel is 1929, in the middle of the Great Depression, when industrial design was in exactly the same formative stage as experience design is now. Think about it – what a stupid time to launch a business! Yet this was the period in time when Henry Dreyfuss designed the classic phone and Raymond Loewy created the Studebaker Avanti design as well as the Coca Cola logo. Another example: Walter Dorwin Teague started in 1926; his principal customer was Kodak. At the time, they had a single black camera; he helped them expand their brand by producing editions in multiple colors in silk-lined boxes, these sold at double the price of the black original.

Again, what idiot would start up a design company in the middle of the depression? It turns out that every one of the companies these guys founded is still going right now – and the lessons learned are still valuable today.

Industrial designers talk about objects; but it’s the experience of interacting with the product that is the true result of the design, not the object itself. I spent some time working with Trek – the guys who designed Lance Armstrong’s bike. But there are multiple ways to render it: as a simple image of the product, or in a different, mud-splattered stance that shows the essence of mountain biking. In many ways, the latter rendering is a more faithful representation of the experience, even if the bike itself is less prominent: it captures the excitement and the energy. This is what we design – what our tools do.

The question is, how do we do it by design, not by accident? As an example, think of a mobile phone. It’s easy to draw the phone itself, but what about the phone interface? Now clearly, the interface is as important as the hardware, but it’s much harder to draw. That should worry you, because design is about rapid iterations so you get to the right version. What about the experience of using the phone? Here’s the challenge – if you can’t sketch it in a few seconds, how can you capture its essence? We need the same speed and versatility of designing experience, otherwise we’d better start rethinking the structure of the design process. And it’s not just about the phone – the same is true whether you’re designing websites, applications, or anything else that requires interaction.

Designing with Experience in Mind

So how do we do it? When I think about design, I think one needs to think in terms of multiples: offering multiple choices rather than selecting a particular path. You’re not allowed to make a decision as a designer - instead, your role is to ask the right questions that lead to the right answer. Designers don’t come up with solutions, they come up with provocative choices. Naturally there’s a challenge of how to combine the goal with the budget, personnel and resource issues required to get to this point, but if we have the right tools or techniques, we can be just as efficient as our industrial and graphical design colleagues.

Again, how? Well, certainly don’t write code, as a start, sketch. I don’t care how good you are with Expression Blend or Photoshop, you can do the first iteration faster with a Post-It note than on a computer.

How do you sketch time? Experience is a temporal phenomenon. To show the flow, we use a state transition diagram. You need to have as much detail in the transitions as in the states, otherwise you’re going to get it wrong. A guy called Ron Bird from the UK has done some interesting work in this space, showing how each screenshot is connected in the state transition diagram. This is where the reality comes in – the state transition diagram is a good indicator of the complexity. My dream is that some day we’ll have a tool that will provide a way to combine the sketches with the state and enable rapid iteration between those.

People think that design is a creative process. In fact, design is the most negative discipline you could come up with. You start with a million ideas and come up with just one! The biggest part of creativity is throwing away stuff without upsetting folk (and most of what you throw away is yours!) These things are far too important to take seriously; we need to change from sketching to prototyping; from ideation to valuation. We need a really important variation in the suite of tools we use.

Microsoft and Design

What about Microsoft? When I joined three years ago, thee was only one person in the technical leadership with a design background. Now there are about ten. There is significant growth in senior ranks joining from other companies, but also many others have been promoted from within. And growth in the design community isn’t just at a senior level. In less than two years, we’ve grown user experience headcount by almost 1.5 times. This is almost twice the rate that we are hiring technologists as a whole. In fact, we now have about 800 designers and user researchers.

By way of example of the impact this influx is having, two of the young user experience designers who joined Microsoft recently created the Arc Mouse, for instance – a great example of design-led innovation. Another example is the Zune – to go from a standing start to the Zune 2 in just nine months was a remarkable feat. It’s not about the device, it’s about the software and the whole ecosystem.

We need a unified way to develop these interaction experiences, regardless of the target platform: that’s how we get the return. The Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger, once said, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. What we’re going to do as a company is to show you how we can help you in the preparation so that you can reach the optimal experience.

Comments (6)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Bill Buxton talked about why user-centered design is so important; now we’re going to talk about the

  2. Anonymous says:

    I woke up super early this morning and watched the MIX keynote live ( Here are my live tweets ). I must

  3. Anonymous says:

    From now through the end of the MIX09 conference in Las Vegas, Rob Burke will be providing his insights

  4. Anonymous says:

    From now through the end of the MIX09 conference in Las Vegas, Rob Burke will be providing his insights

  5. Anonymous says:

    From now through the end of the MIX09 conference in Las Vegas, Rob Burke will be providing his insights

  6. Anonymous says:

    At 9am Pacific (GMT-7), I’ll start live blogging the second day of MIX09 keynotes. As with yesterday,

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