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Field Trials -- Part 3

Car ride home

Charlton Lui was the development manager for the Tablet PC at the time that we did the major field trials.  Charlton is a great guy full of a lot of energy and a way of rallying the troops to get things done.  It’s probably his really bad sense of humor that he trots out in all situations, but regardless of that fact, I really do like Charlton.  Charlton didn’t come out to the field trials until one of the last several weeks.  By that time we had something in the neighborhood of 30 or 40% of the team observing and actively shadowing the participants.  As I hadn’t been spending much time back in Redmond, I only knew threw the grapevine that a lot of discontent over the direction of the tablet was starting to ferment.  Most of this was since many people had seen the field trial participants and were hanging their heads low as to what we were seeing since it wasn’t nearly the rosy optimistic picture of tablet usage that we had been living in our self-enclosed cave at Microsoft.  On the way back from a full day of observation I was driving the car and I broached to Charlton that the prototype of what was to become Journal just wasn’t working.  Charlton just didn’t want to hear it since it was his “baby”.  In fact Charlton had previously had a software company that Microsoft acquired that was specifically based on a pen based note taking application.  The heart of the software at this point in time was code re-written and ported based on a lot of the original ideas in that software.  This was where many of the basics that created the “word processing” came from.  We’re lucky that we didn’t have an accident in the car as it was a pretty heated discussion with lots of discussions about all the usability studies that had been done on the old software and how they had done lots of research and seen that people wanted this functionality etc.  It’s not that he was necessarily wrong, but the first priority that we saw from absolutely everybody was that they want to take notes as they take notes on a piece of paper.  Once they’re comfortable with being able to do that, then maybe just maybe, they might be more comfortable with something advanced (or at least they aspire for some of the advanced functionality, but don’t necessarily understand the trade-off in the inherent complexity that accompanies it).  Charlton just didn’t want to hear that I was suggesting that we pretty much scrap some of the underlying principles in the software and start over again.

 

This is a pretty common reaction that I’ve seen especially in the software world.  Many people whether they are developers, program managers or even usability specialists are not willing to go back to the basics and throw it all away if they think that the model is wrong.  Most times people try to put on patches on top from additional functionality to give a different entry point or more and more help topics to try to address these concerns.  It takes a lot to let go of your “baby”, but I think that if people did it more often than we’d get better products all the time.

 

 

Breakfast

It couldn’t have been too many days later when I arranged to have breakfast with Steve Weil when he came out to observe.  Steve was one of the program manager on the tablet group, I don’t remember if he was a lead at the time or not, but basically he was someone who through interactions before I recognized as more of a bigger dreamer.  He sees a lofty vision for some product and works as hard as he can to obtain it even if it seems at odds with other goals on the table.  So while we’re at the breakfast table I talk to him about the conversation with Charlton plus what I think about the fundamental change that needs to happen for Journal – we need to get rid of the dependency on “lines”.  Making this change was pretty radical since it would really require a complete overhaul to the product since absolutely everything in it was based on associating text with the closest line.  We talked through a lot of what we saw and how the product would be different.  I knew in talking to him that he was game because he recognized that this was the proper thing to do.  It was just a matter of figuring out how to get other people on board with it.  We started drafting through the different things that needed to happen, how the interaction model would work and what the basic functionality would be for the product.  At that point in time things started to really click…  Alex Loeb who was the VP (well she wasn’t a VP yet) also had another product that she was responsible for which was a product called MODI (Microsoft Office Document Imaging).  This product is all about scanning in documents and letting the text of the document be searchable in the background so the document can be found rather than just OCR’ing the document and dumping it into a Word doc.  Maybe I’ll talk more about this product at another time as I also worked on this in detail, but for now Steve was realizing that if they could basically grafted the inking capabilities on top of the MODI application and then started to add back in some of the other note taking functionality.   So while I was wrapping up the field trials, he was actively lobbying and working with folks to change the picture of the world for the tablet team.

 

 

Wrap up

The last day of observations for the field trial was a Thursday.   I flew home late that evening and dragged myself into work the following day to spend some time in the office for the first real time in months.  There was lots of commotion going on at the time as we were trying to figure out how to cope with all the information we had gotten from the trials and how we were going to change the plan of record and what it meant for many on the team.  Alex had likened the experience to shipping a V1 product and getting the feedback that it wasn’t right so that you could start over to ship the right thing in V2.  It really was a hard time for the team in general since many were trying to cope with the fact that we didn’t build the right thing the first time around, but there was definitely an upbeat attitude amongst many since now we felt that we had good, grounded insight into what would work.

 

Sometime during the afternoon of that Friday, Alex stopped by my office to talk.  She wanted to know how things were going and what some of the upcoming plans were.  But more importantly she wanted to ask if I could write up something brief for a BillG thinkweek paper.  You can all do your own google search on what these are, but basically he spends a week reading important topics from around the company.   I said sure, but then she told me that the papers had to be in on Monday!  Here was one of the more important documents that I would be writing at Microsoft and I only had the weekend to do it!  I’ve written content in other BillG thinkweek papers and reviewed many as well.  Often times there are weeks of writing and back and forth discussions on the team about the content etc.  So I go off to start writing the document like a madman on Friday night and well into Saturday when I have something that I think is a good draft, but then the unthinkable happens…. my hard drive fails, the machine crashes, I lost everything.  I was just about to call Alex and let her know that I just can’t put anything together when I realize that this is a big opportunity so I started over again, trying to recall from memory what I wrote and in the process create an even better document.  In retrospect I think losing the original helped me to write a better document the second time around.  So late Sunday afternoon I sent the document out for review.

 

It was interesting in that those who had been to the trials agreed with everything that I had written and really had no substantive comments to add.  But the Architects or the “BBC” as we liked to call them (Burt, Butler and Chuck) were not quite bought in nor was Charlton as to the conclusions that I was making.  Alex looked it over and we got it over to our resident editor and we made a few quick copy edits and it was sent off to BillG.

 

There were a couple of unusual things about the think week paper.  First off it was around 10 pages in length when Alex was expecting a 2 page executive type summary for Bill rather than some in-depth analysis on some of the major topics.  The second thing was that as far as we knew this was the first “user research” document that anyone had given Bill to read as a think week paper.  Bill in the past has been semi-notorious for not necessarily agreeing with the user research particularly when it’s research on a product or a vision that has yet to be released or widely available.  Thus he was definitely a skeptic and given his passion for tablets (in the first year of the team’s existence we meet with him monthly and exchanged lots of email – so he was like a member of the team) he might also discount the findings.

 

Well in the end, it turns out that Bill didn’t dismiss the findings, in fact he quoted some of the findings in other meetings and when we met with him after think week he asked for some further follow-ups to some of the information etc.  It was a great victory as he saw the value of the project, the value of the results and fully supported the team in making the major overhaul that was required.

 

So we ended this trial and started planning how we could get more great information like we observed during this time….

Published Thursday, July 08, 2004 1:20 PM by EvanF
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