Larson-Green: “UI Is Customer Service for the Computer”

Windows Vista wasn’t exactly a success, and as such, Microsoft needed different people to manage the development of Windows 7. One of those new people is Julie Larson-Green, who made a very good showing with Microsoft Office 2007, which took the bold move of replacing the menu-driven interface with the newly designed Ribbon interface. The Sydney Morning Herald (awesome name) decided to take a look at who, exactly, Larson-Green is.

If you would’ve told me only a few years ago that Microsoft would dump its entire Office interface, the interface to one of its two cash cows, I probably would’ve thought you were mad. I wouldn’t have believed that Microsoft would be daring enough to come up with an entirely new interface to one of its prime products, and on top of that, not include a panic-button for those who are unwilling to spend a few minutes to accustom themselves to the new interface.

So, when details of Office 2007 made their way onto the net, with information about the new interface, I immediately wanted to know who on earth was the person who had the determination and skills to put the large bureaucratic corporate gears inside one of the world’s largest companies in motion. As it turns out, it was a somewhat shy former waitress and customer service person, the now 48 year old Julie Larson-Green.

Larson-Green tells SMH that her experience as a waitress and customer service person makes her good at her current job. “The primary things that help you create a good user experience are empathy, and being able to put yourself in the place of people who are using the products,” Larson-Green explains, “User interface is customer service for the computer.” As someone who has worked in a specialised hardware store for 6.5 years, I agree with her.

When I heard that Larson-Green would spearhead the GUI effort for Windows 7, I had confidence that Windows 7 would bring something new to the table on the interface front. Sure, it wouldn’t come with a completely new paradigm, but it would make the Windows interface more consistent, more logical, less annoying, and most importantly, more intuitive. I wasn’t let down, as I personally find Windows 7 to be a massive stride forward interface-wise compared to previous versions of Windows, to a point where I often consider it more pleasant to use than Mac OS X – again something I wouldn’t have believed if you had told me that a while ago.

Larson-Green isn’t just a manager – she has a master’s degree in software engineering, and has spearheaded several projects within Microsoft, mostly related to user interface design. She explained to SMH that she is often afraid that as a woman, “honing the softer skills of marketing might prompt colleagues to take her less seriously as a technologist”. As a result, she appears somewhat nervous when doing large demonstrations.

Still, within Microsoft, she gets a lot of praise from her colleagues, and Steve Ballmer himself is (obviously) also very positive about her. “Some people are great at having ideas, and [have] no discipline. Some people are great at discipline, not much at ideas,” Ballmer said about Larson-Green, “She’s got both of those genes.”

The SMH article explains that Larson-Green took a – for Microsoft – new approach to Windows development: instead of letting each sub-group set their own agenda and goals, she centralised everything. From immense datasets thanks to the opt-in usage tracking tools in Windows, and 250000 surveyed users, her team extracted 8 design principles, mostly focussed on “user in control”. Windows should be a “system with manners, not one that constantly interrupts with bubbles, boxes and warnings that, data showed, people ignored or raced to close”.

Rumour has it Larson-Green is already working on Windows 8, but she’s obviously also still tweaking the user experience in Windows 7, which is supposed to be released in January 2010 (but all signs point to an earlier release). She says that her measure of Windows 7’s success will be the talks she hears at Best Buy, and whatever bloggers have to say about it. “I think people are going to like it,” she added, “I hope so.”


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