Culture of Design

In the last three years, I have seen Microsoft’s design culture shift to tackle hairy design challenges that are rooted in legacy tradition. Business Week recently acknowledged the positive changes at Microsoft in the article, The Soul of a New Microsoft. For Microsoft Office, Jensen Harris and Julie Larson-Green both had a hand in the extreme makeover. Anyone who has launched Office 2007 see how Microsoft is using design to drive new business; after all, good design always ties back to customer value, and in the end, profits for the company.

This isn’t Shareware

I can remember how uninterested folks at Microsoft were in fixing Access design issues such as the getting started experience, AutoFormats, and graphics in the wizards. Instead, the team’s focus was on building great data applications. However, during the Office 2007 development cycle, visual design and usability were linked to P1 features. It was during this time that I saw that the ascetics of our products and the work artifacts are direct influencers on a customer’s eagerness to upgrade. In addition to Office 2007, we’ve seen this with Zune and Xbox.

I recall a meeting last year with a development lead on the Office User Experience team. The topic of design came up and I talked about the need to convince internal developers why design change is important. He mentioned that Jensen Harris had sold design to the developers on his team by explaining, “we aren’t selling shareware.” While shareware serves an important customer niche, it’s traditionally not pretty.

From my experience, applications that emit a positive vibe with customers are difficult to throw away and easier to extend. Users tend to gravitate to them because they help get their job done with more efficiency and pleasure. I think everyone enjoys producing work product that looks professional which leads to increased customer satisfaction and "good profits."

The Ultimate Question

Gail Giacobbe, the new Lead Program Manager for the SharePoint collaboration platform, recently turned me on to the great book, The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth by Fred Reichheld. The book helps businesses think differently about their customer relationships. It has changed in many ways how I evaluate the products and services that I use on a daily basis. Reichheld explains there are good profits and bad profits, and companies that earn good profits become industry leaders.

Bad profits are earned at the customer’s expense. They extract money from customers, but do so in a manner that alienates customers and demoralizes employees. Examples include airline change ticket fees and ATM banking fees.

Good profits; however, “are earned with customers’ enthusiastic cooperation.” They delight customers through good customer service and great products. Not only do customers want to come back, they tell friends, family, and colleagues. Things like free online shipping and low management fees for mutual funds are examples of good profits.

Reichheld talks about how important it is that company executives are held accountable for good profits. Until recently, this was a hard to track and quantify. The premise is to ask one simple question…

“On a scale of one to ten, how likely is it that you would recommend [company x] to a friend or colleague?”

Customers that answer 10-9 are considered promoters, 8-7 are passive, and 0-6 are detractors. The Net Promoter Score (NPS) is calculated by Promoters minus Detractors. This survey and formula gives a department or company an easy-to-understand and effective way to track performance.

I love this approach for a number of reasons. First, it gives me as a tool for communicating why a particular bug or design flaw can potentially detract from sales. In Access 2007, we fixed a number of legacy issues people had to hack around while trying to build applications. Marketing doesn’t talk about those issues, but I have already seen quite a bit of buzz and appreciation from developers. No longer do I have to hear, “the marketing team can’t sell, ‘Now Sucks Less.’”

Microsoft religiously tracks its NPS for all of its online services. If I ran Office, every team member would know their NPS and focused on moving the score higher.

Conclusion

Good design is not easy. It takes time, focus, energy and talent. In most situations, you need to learn how to express business value through impassioned customer service.