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Highlighting the woman behind the Windows 7 user experience

The AP writes about Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft's head of the Windows Experience and the person most directly responsible for the UI changes in Windows 7:

"We want to reduce the amount of thinking about the software that they have to do, so that they can concentrate all their thinking on the task they're trying to get done," Larson-Green said in an interview.

You probably don't know her name, but if you're using Office 2007, the sleeper hit of the Vista era, you're already familiar with Larson-Green's work. She was the one who banished the familiar system of menus on Word, Excel and other programs in favor of a new "ribbon" that shows different options at different times, depending on what a user is working on. It seemed risky, but it was grounded in mountains of data showing how people used the software.

"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," she said. "User interface is customer service for the computer."

Larson-Green's team began with centralized planning, in contrast with the old culture that let Windows subgroups set their own agendas. For example, in the past, different groups worked on home networking. One group decided how Windows would share files among multiple computers at home; another group figured out how to get shared printers up and running. As a result, the steps for networking PCs and printers were inconsistent -- and harder for PC users to master.

As she did with Office, Larson-Green sought insights in a daunting mass of data.

Vista was the first version of Windows to include the remote-tracking software that had helped Microsoft hone Office, and nearly 11 million Vista users had let their PC activities be logged. Larson-Green's team also surveyed more than 250,000 people around the world and showed other users prototypes, some as simple as sketches on paper.

And thus they stake their claim to how the Windows 7 user experience was heavily tested before the Beta began. Interesting.

From these billions of data points emerged big ideas that got boiled down into eight design principles.

Many of the principles come back to Larson-Green mantras of "user in control." The team tried to build an operating system people could use without studying first, one that would let them get right to reading the news or sending e-mail without dragging them down a rabbit hole of settings and configurations. A system with manners, not one that constantly interrupts with bubbles, boxes and warnings that, data showed, people ignored or raced to close.

The Windows groups agreed in principle but old habits often reared up. Many Windows teams still wanted to be able to create alert bubbles for their functions.

"We've probably talked to every team in Windows about, 'No no no no, we don't want you to pop your notifications. Windows is not going to use these notifications to tell users things,'" said Linda Averett, a Windows user experience manager.

Larson-Green is already planning Windows 8, though her team continues to tweak the Windows 7 user interface. Signs point to a possible release months ahead of schedule.

"I think people are going to like it," she said. Her voice rose a few notes when she added, "I hope so."

Oh, they're going to love it. But given the discussions we've had here already, it's clear that they'll be plenty to do for Windows 8 as well. :)

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