Last night, I sat down and took a stab at my research schedule for the next few months. I'm on a foggy highway. I mostly know what questions I have to answer. I say 'mostly' here because I expect that some of my questions won't be the ones that really need answering (but I'll figure that out soon enough), and because I expect that additional questions will come to light as I answer the existing ones. But I really don't have an inkling of what the answers to those questions will look like yet.
We're in the early stages of defining the next version of Office, so the road ahead is almost entirely shrouded in fog. I'll be spending a lot of time in the next few months on the road and in my usability lab talking with users, answering my questions and learning where the road leads. The fog will lift, although perhaps by nothing more than sheer force of will.
This is my favourite part of the process. It's also the bit where I get the most nervous. If I deliver research that is flawed or incomplete ... ugh. The risk is huge. The better I do, the better Office will be in the next version (and the one after that, and the one after that, and ... ).
Consider this to be my usual plug that if you want to help define the next version of Office, you should sign up to participate in usability studies. If you're an Entourage user (especially in an Exchange environment) and in the Bay Area, you should sign up as fast as your little fingers can type. When you fill out the form, make sure that you fill in the apps you use (such as Entourage), because that's hugely helpful to me.
Last week at SxSW (which I have got to get to sometime!), Michael Lopp, one of the senior engineering managers at Apple, was part of a panel about design. During the panel, he was asked about the design process at Apple. The Tech Beat blog at Business week has the best description of his complete answer.
One of the points that he brought up was the need to plan to throw out good designs. He put it as "10 to 3 to 1". Start off with ten entirely different good designs. Good is the key word there -- they can't just be a couple of good designs and then a bunch of other junk to make the good ones look even better. You have to make ten really good designs, which is to say that you have to come up with ten different ways to reach the same goal. In doing so, you stretch yourself in thinking about the problem and your design. Then you whittle from ten designs down to three, iterate on those three designs, and finally end up with a single strong design.
Lopp isn't the only one singing this tune. Bill Buxton (whose latest book is currently top of my to-read pile) and Alan Cooper (his latest is also in my to-read pile, but a bit further down the queue) have both been talking about this in their own way. Buxton talked to Channel 9 about design and user experience last year, and gave a keynote at Interaction 08 earlier this year about the design ecosystem. Both are fantastic talks, I can't recommend them highly enough.
This is how you get design right. You have to really invest in it. Investing in it isn't about money, it's about time. Your designers need time to think about solving the problem, and they need to tinker with lots of ideas that get towards solving the problem. They need to invest time in coming up with ten good designs. This means that you have to be okay with throwing out good designs. You're throwing out good designs because good isn't good enough — you're looking for greatness. Greatness rarely springs fully-formed from your forehead (no matter how much you might wish it would). Greatness comes from a lot of work, and a commitment to the work that is necessary to achieve that greatness.
It's a huge commitment, but the payoff is also huge. In last month's interview with Fortune, Steve Jobs talked about 'push[ing] the reset button' on the design for the iPhone because he couldn't 'convince myself to fall in love with this'. Everyone talks about setting the bar. Setting the bar to something that you need to fall in love with? What a design goal! But look how many iPhones Apple has sold. Would they have sold so many if the design weren't something you fell in love with?
My mom called me earlier this week to wish me a happy birthday and to complain about spam. Mom, you see, has joined the digital age. She's got herself a laptop, she's got herself an email address. She doesn't have a blog and she's not on Twitter yet, but it could just be a matter of time. If you see the "Confessions of a Judge Judy Addict" blog in the future, you can take comfort in knowing that my mom has started blogging.
Mom is going through all of the stages of new email user that I've come to expect over the years. The first stage is the email forward. They're all new to her, so she religiously forwards them along as well. I haven't had the heart to tell her that all of those jokes have been around since the dawn of time, and no, they really aren't from George Carlin or Jeff Foxworthy.
The second stage is replying to spam. Spam is an easy thing to understand, since it's just the same as the junk mail that ends up in her physical mailbox at home. If you call the company sending the junk mail to say “please stop”, they will. So, she reasoned, if she hit the "unsubscribe" link in the spam, she'd stop getting so much junk mail. Sigh. She's learned the hard way that doesn't work.
Now that she's mostly understood the concept of spam, we're now working on the concept of phishing. She told me that she nearly got caught by a phishing scam. My parents have been talking about joining the AARP. So when she got an email last week that purported to be from the AARP, she followed the link in the email and began happily filling out the information. She only stopped when the site didn't give her an option for sending in a cheque instead of providing her credit card details.
Like spam, she's got the basic concept of phishing down, in that she understands that there are scammers out there who want her credit card details or her Social Security number. But she doesn't quite know how to identify phishing on sight, so it falls to me to explain it to her. It turns out that it's hard to do it in non-geek-speak.
So I spent most of the time on the phone explaining various ways to identify phishing websites, and trying to put it into Mom terms. Here's what I came up with:
This isn't a perfect list of how to identify phish, but it's a reasonable start for my mom. Here's hoping that I don't have to get deeper into phishing identification with her ...
As my boss mentioned on Mac Mojo in his Office 2008 update post, we've been working on the 12.0.1 update. It hit our servers this morning, and you can download it now.
What's in it? The complete list is here. My favourite fixes are:
You can either download it directly from the link above, update when Microsoft AutoUpdater does its job, or open the Help menu in any Office application and select Check for Updates.
Go forth and update!
One of our goals here in MacBU is to be a good Mac citizen, which means supporting OS technologies. We've long had a fantastic AppleScript dictionary. In Office 2008, we extended our AppleScript support, and added in support for Automator. All four apps got the Automator treatment. Earlier this morning, I noticed that that the folks over at The Unofficial Apple Weblog have started a series of posts dealing with automation in Office 2008. They're starting off with automating Word, and promise the rest of the apps in the future (although they don't say when).
Go forth and automate! And let me know what actions you've come up with -- I'd love to see some real-world examples of how you guys are using it.
(As a reminder, Automator actions are part of the Standard and Special Media editions of Office 2008. They're not included in the Home and Student edition.)
A long-standing Microsoft tradition is to decorate the offices of people who go on vacation. Last week, the developer lead for PowerPoint took a well-earned week to go skiing. Now, of course, I have absolutely no idea whatsoever who might have been involved with such a thing. The rest of the team here in California was snug in their offices, working away hard at the upcoming 12.0.1 and file format converter updates. It must have been elves.
It's probably the same elves who decorated our development manager's office when he was in Hawaii a couple of weeks ago. While he was gone, we had a pile of really big empty boxes in our hallway. The boxes are big enough that the PowerPoint dev lead could, after cutting out eye holes and drawing on a face, fit into one of them:
Now, if one were mathematically inclined (as one could imagine that a group of software engineers are), one could determine that, given the volume of the development manager's office and the size of each of the boxes, how many of those boxes would fit into the office if it were packed perfectly. Of course, you can't get a perfect pack, since the office has minor things like furniture in there. So the real answer to how many boxes can fit in is also an exercise in mathematics, albeit more difficult to calculate. It's so difficult to calculate that it might simply be easier to count the number of boxes that end up in the room. The answer, in case you're curious, is 33. (I have a maths degree, so I figured it out.) Photographic evidence is lacking, however, because the boxes were so well-packed that all pictures simply came out brown. Or so the elves tell me, anyway.
The elves were kind enough to take pictures of their latest handiwork, though.
Here's the back wall (note that the window is covered, as is the light above -- I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader, and the PowerPoint dev lead, to figure out what everything else in there is):
Everything on his bookcase, and even his posters, were covered too:
The back of his desk got the full treatment as well. The cables have now formed a weird spiderweb sort of thing that looks pretty cool. Why the elves left a bookend on the floor is a mystery to me.
The dev lead got back from vacation this morning, and has found two of his monitors (he has a total of four), and one each of his keyboards and mice. When the lights are on, the office is about three times as bright as it usually is -- I'm surprised that he's not wearing sunglasses. He's not sure if he's actually holding up a coffee mug or not here ...
(More pictures might come later, if more pictures captured by the elves came out okay ... )