In this first of many interviews to come with select talents at Microsoft, I will be speaking with NUI (Natural User Interface)/UX (User Experience) designer, Ron George. Ron has been a designer on various teams at Microsoft since 2006, including the Zune team and the Surface team. Prior to his work for Microsoft, he provided his talents for some heavy-hitters, including Sony, Disney, Yahoo, and MySpace. Learn what NUI and OUI are, find out why he loves working at Microsoft, read about his upcoming book on design, see mentions of Windows 8 and much more. And, yes, even Chuck Norris’ name comes up.
MSK: Thank you so much for your time, Ron. To kick things off, how would you explain “NUI” to a 90 year-old grandmother who has never once touched a computer?
Natural User Interfaces are just a way of explaining the method you interact with machines. Some machines require tools, like a remote control, keyboard, or a mouse. People who specialize in designing natural user interfaces challenge themselves with designing methods of interacting with machines that require no tools other than the ones you were born with.
MSK: Finally! Hang on for me while I run to the resting home to visit my grandmother to tell her about this …… alright, I’m back. She hit me in the head with her walker and told me to never speak to her like that again. Perhaps not for 90 year-old grandmothers, but that’s a great way to simplify what comes across a bit daunting at first glance to those unfamiliar with anything beyond UI as they’re currently familiar with it.
Now, what about OUI (Organic User Interfaces)? Is this a field of design you’re involved with in any capacity? If so, could you offer some personal insight into what it is and if/how/when you see it becoming the front-and-center focus of designers industry-wide?
Organic User Interfaces are just computers or displays with odd or varying shapes. If you had a bracelet and the entire outer edge was a screen that wrapped around, this would be considered an OUI. The thing to remember about these, as we start to delve fast and deep into the technology of new user interfaces, is that we need to think, “is this right for this purpose?” What would serve the user better? Don’t use new technology for technology’s sake. Use it because it makes sense. Organic User Interfaces are already here, but we need to determine if they are right for whatever purpose they are being designed for. I have seen some OUI watches that are quite good and I think that’s a great use for them as well. I have designed several interfaces for OUIs and I find it quite liberating. With such a specific function and not having to worry about every nook and cranny, you can get some very cool ideations going.
MSK: Excellent, excellent point regarding taking a step back to question if something is actually useful or if it’s just there because it can be. Now, speaking of technology for technology’s sake, how about some of those futuristic concept videos Microsoft cooks up? How much do you think Microsoft is asking themselves the very question you pointed out?
The futuristic videos you see may or may not come from MSFT. It all depends. Sometimes MSFT gives challenges to outside vendors to think up something crazy and those are usually the videos that somehow get, “leaked” online. The true MSFT videos that are created internally, at least in my experience, have never been leaked. These are where the real ‘gold’ is. I saw the ‘courier’ video that was leaked (click here to see it -MSK) and it was very basic with few truly useful interactions. If that was done in house, it would have been much grander and much more detailed. People seem to forget about how large and how the scope of MSFT is beyond what you see today by 3-10 years.
We have some of the most intelligent people in the space working very hard every day on things for users that probably will not be seen for 5 years. Thinking about the future and what serves the customers’ needs is a passion that we all enjoy very much. Some of my good friends in Research – who I have worked with for several years on products – are all working on great things behind the scenes that may not be produced in their current form.
MSK: From the little we’ve been privy to on the outside, it seems like a LOT of great-looking ideas from various freelancers don’t end up in final products at Microsoft. What all goes into the decision of selecting a, “final” UI for a product? Likewise, is it typical for design ideas to be shelved for future product consideration?
This is a huge question. There are so many factors that go into design decisions that it would be difficult for me to even scratch the surface of it. Freelance or not, great ideas will make their way down the chain of command. Always. It depends on so many things, such as engineering, localization, patents and IP, design, existing metaphors, user experience, business need, customer satisfaction, use cases, scenarios, mental models, etc. The list is huge. This is where great design comes into play. You need to work against all of these other factors to ensure you get your improvement into the RTM.
The thing about great ideas is that you need someone that can sell it. Having a great idea is one thing, but having the ability to sell it, advocate it, and foster it throughout the process is where a true designer shines. Doing up a sketch and throwing it over the wall is the easiest way to get an idea killed. You need to really cook your idea out, give multiple options, sell it, and really get behind it. Get your peers and management involved. Try to hammer it home. The biggest skill you can have is not only coming up with great designs, but also being able to explain them and demonstrate them to non-designers and designers alike.
I was talking to a good friend of mine who is a partner at MSFT. Partners are the upper tier. During his interview, some of the feedback he got was that he would do well at MSFT because he could explain his ideas thoroughly. I pride myself on being able to explain things and demonstrate things. I think that comes from a long line of small companies I worked for when it was only 2 or 3 designers and I had to pitch everything I wanted to do to get funding.
MSK: Many of my readers (as well as myself) are all about the visual concepts (past, present and future) of the Windows UI. For those like us, Longhorn was the holy grail in its early days. We ate, slept, and drank Longhorn; anxiously awaiting the next build leak or screen shot to surface. Have you ever worked on the Windows team – and if not, would you like to?
I have never worked on the core Windows Team. I did lend a hand in Windows 7 with the Touch Pack while I was at Surface. I am also currently involved in Windows 8 (I know that answer perks your ears up, haha). When I think back about 15 years to when I started doing this, Windows is where I wanted to land. I was just a simple graphics designer working in Corel with no formal training. I saw Windows 95 come out and thought to myself “why did they do this? Why didn’t they do that? …. I think I could offer some better ideas.” After many long years of grinding and studying… I landed there and it was everything I had hoped it would be.
I know many of the people that work in Windows and I think very highly of them. If they had an interesting role, I would definitely talk to them about a possible fit.
MSK: That’s great. Windows is definitely the product I’m most passionate about from Microsoft. Although Windows 7 brought forth a major step in NUI integration and the hardware leveraging it makes the whole experience fun and stimulating, do you ever really see NUI experiences taking off with home users?
NUI is the future. MSFT works on the future. You could imagine that MSFT is one of the leading design innovators for the NUI space. If you imagined that, you would be correct. All of the top dogs at MSFT – Ballmer, Sinofsky, J. Allard et al – are all VERY customer-focused. If the customers want it, they will drive their teams to deliver it. MSFT is very customer-oriented and drives itself to push the boundaries of what it can deliver to the customer, to enhance their experiences, and to make their life better.
MSK: Speaking of Microsoft and its drive, you have worked for a number of large, big-named companies. How – if at all – does the employee experience at Microsoft differ from other companies?
When I first accepted the position at MSFT so many years ago, I told my immediate circle what I was doing. Their reaction was, “what the hell does MSFT need with a guy like you?” Everyone knows my style. I am loud, extroverted, a tireless advocate of good design, and I never give up pushing for it. Their reaction was just a mirror of public opinion. They thought that I would come up here, be beaten down, and then just do what they had originally planned. They could not have been more wrong.
When I first came up, I thought I was walking into a non-design/engineer-oriented crowd that would scoff at my ideas. What I got was completely different. When I came up, the most common reactions were, “Thank god you’re here… I am so happy that someone is here to think about these problems. I’m just too busy.” That was the reaction to my ideas. They were glad someone would take into account all of these user problems because they had gone without a designer for so long and had to make due with what they had.
MSK: Nice! Every Microsoft employee I have ever interacted with has sang nothing but praises for the experience of working at Microsoft. Now, away from Microsoft, I noticed via your LinkedIn profile that O’Reilly has all but finalized the pressing of a design book you’ve recently finished writing. What is it called, what’s it all about and who would you recommend it to?
I’m still slaving away at finishing it up and getting colleague critiques. Hopefully the title will be, “Designing Modern Experiences.” It’s going to be a 3-part book to hopefully pull the wool from peoples’ eyes about product design, process, and how to design things for the modern consumer. People have asked me what it’s like to be a product designer/experience designer and use all of these touchscreen devices, websites, and other misc devices. It’s pure frustration. You have to remember that I have been a party to over 200 user experience tests in NUI designs, have designed several AAA products, authored papers, spoken to most of the great design leaders, given seminars on natural user interfaces and interactions, and have implemented so many different things that – just from experience – I see tons of errors and problems in the design of everyday things. Not minor problems, but major problems in the core designs that we see and use everyday. This isn’t that most designers are bad. In fact, most of the designers I see today are quite good. The problem is they are delving into a space that is intricate and unique. They need to read, study, and practice to be good in this space. My book is hopefully one small step in trying to make them better before their pencil hits paper.
The 3 sections of the book are each going to be geared towards a specific function for reference:
1- The first part is going to be core concepts that every designer must understand before undertaking a project. These will include simple things, but mainly to gain a common language and understanding moving forward. I recently read, “Designing Gestural Interfaces” by Dan Saffer, and to be honest – no offense intended – question his ability to give good tutorship on designing a gestural interface. In one of his first thoughts, he got one of our core definitions wrong. I mean, this is like writing a book about, “creating the perfect sentence” and then getting the definition of a verb incorrect. When trying to explain the difference between a gesture and a manipulation, he got it flat-out wrong. I corrected him here . One of the problems we have in design is to come to an understanding of the language we all use. I think one of the main problems with his book is the title. It’s lofty and his book contains nothing about designing beyond a slight understanding of what the interfaces are. In each of these 2-3 page reference concepts, I’m going to have many guest authors write about their passions. I’m going to have several senior MSFT employees write about what makes a good designer great and what skills a designer should have before they go into a meeting with them. I think it will be very enlightening to hear from a senior-level engineer about his advice to designers that want to, “sell” him on a design.
2 – The second part is going to be a process for design from start-to-finish. I’m going to include how to write an experience brief, user scenarios, what to think about when creating personas, and things to keep in mind while prototyping, testing, and refining. I think one of the main parts of this section will be how to RITE (Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation -MSK) test and how to get good results from that. I will have a few guest author UX leaders submit a few things here as well.
3 – The third part will be a relook at design patterns. Taking Jennifer Tidwell’s patterns from 2005 and giving them a fresh look and understanding. I will also put a few of my core principles in here as well about things I want deleted from every user interface ever created. Things like checkboxes, radio buttons, and wait UI need to hit the shelf. Their time is long gone.
MSK: Sounds fantastic! Your passion for your field of expertise is admirable and the fact that you’re culminating your experiences and advice into a book to help others is great.
To get a little random on you, your LinkedIn profile says you’re a former Marine squad leader. Based on that experience, could you beat up Chuck Norris?
I rarely meet other former Marines at MSFT (go figure, ). Although, I actually did meet a former Marine a few weeks ago in a Windows 8 meeting and I think we were both stunned. One of the jokes I always tell everyone is that everything I ever needed to know about being a great designer, I learned from the Marines. The first is to be mission-oriented. When you have a date and a budget, you hit it. No matter what you have to do, you must hit your goals. People do not want to hear excuses. If you have to work on Christmas to hit your deadline, so be it. If you have to hire people out of your own pocket to hit your deadline, so be it. Do what it takes to hit your deliverables and your reputation will always speak for itself. I always think of that great line from Glengary Glenross: “First place, a new Cadillac. Second place, you’re _______ fired!” That type of passion is what it takes to be great in this business. If you want to make the computing world a better place, it doesn’t happen with long lunch breaks and going home early. It comes from hard work and drive.
One of the biggest problems I initially had when going from the Marines into design was being perceived as confrontational. I am a big guy at 6’6″ and 275 lbs. I would always stare at people straight in the eyes and people from different cultures or just typical IT workers would be a little intimidated. I would get complaints about my presentations and how I conducted myself in meetings. The biggest change I made was to not stare straight into others’ eyes anymore. In meetings, I tend to look elsewhere, or to the audience as a whole. To scan the people rather than focus on one person, even when answering a question. I haven’t had any complaints for several years now.
MSK: Holy crap! 6’6″ and 275 lbs. fits the bill of an NFL player, not a designer! You should have a life-sized cardboard cutout of yourself included with every copy of your book with a little quotation bubble rising up from it that says, “First place, a new Cadillac. Second place, you’re _______ fired!” Just a little bit of value-added there to motivate your readers. Just a bit.
Okay, now it’s time for a few questions from others! There were quite a few, but so as to not take up much more of your time, here are the ones I’ve cherry-picked.
@WithinRafael asks: “What studies would you recommend for students looking for a track to UX-related work/design?”
I would begin with a few books to see if it interests you. I created a store at Amazon to keep all of my book recommendations in one place, so feel free to start here. There are a few books in there that are great, but the rest are good if you are looking for something to read. Great books are, “The Design of Everyday Things,” “Don’t Make Me Think,” and anything by Bill Buxton.
@maryjofoley asks: “How much do different teams share (ex: Zune HD UI influencing other products)?”
All teams share. The ability to share things is another question, though. Some teams just do not have the resources to go out, find materials, ask for them, and implement them into their own particular products. One of the great things about the NUI initiative that is going on right now at MSFT is just that. They are collecting all the NUI projects from around the org and bubbling them up for other teams to see, use, and learn from.
@energizedtech asks: “In the interface, will we see a Windows where the monitor replaces the physical desktop where the keyboard and mouse are unneeded?
I think this can already be implemented but the “Desktop Metaphor” is something I want to get rid of completely.
@eganist asks: “Why can’t the UX procedures concocted by Jensen Harris be used everywhere? Office 2007 and Windows 7 were a dream. VS? Not so much.”
Jensen didn’t work in Windows. One of the key things about MSFT is to remember that each team works on their own schedule and own budget. So implementing features would be up to that individual team and vision.
MSK: Well, Ron, I would like to thank you once again for taking time out of your busy schedule to provide us with an insightful interview. It is always interesting to hear from folks like you who are obviously incredibly instrumental within Microsoft, but who remain, “behind-the-scenes” to most of us not in your field. To wrap things up, if you can, share with us what you’re up to these days and where we might find your work present.
Well, last Friday was my last day at MSFT.
MSK: Well, alrighty then! hahaha.
I have started my own design business and am going to start consulting with a wider set of select clientele. Although its only about 6 of us right now, we do offer end-to-end solutions on everything from Product Design to complete Experience Design. The main reason for this is to try and spread good interface and experience designs to a broader audience. I will still continue to work with MSFT on a majority of projects and I have so many friends over there, it’s where I want to be in the end game, of course. In fact, I have already received my first two projects from MSFT and am working on them now. With more free time, I can help many more teams than I could working there full-time. Eliminate the typical employee stuff and just do design… it enables you to spread the love more. I love the place, but right now I see myself trying to help more people than I could before. It’s hard to try and help non-profits and medium-sized businesses – even more-so large businesses – while working at MSFT due to legal restraints and competitive issues. What most businesses don’t understand is you don’t need to have someone as specialized as us around all year. You just need some good concepts and designs up front with some good principles to adhere to moving forward towards implementation. Current design teams can be taught the basics, given some concepts, and massaged to completion.
So since this is my first interview after opening my doors, I will officially announce my open for business here on your blog. I am open for business and now producing proposals for interested companies to fill their needs.
Ron George, Inc. – Focusing on designing emotional and engaging experiences that have the greatest impact on your most important audiences.
You can visit Ron George on the web at http://www.rongeorge.com, or you can shoot him an email him at rg (.at.) rongeorge (.dot.) com! And if you had any doubts, check out what he has written at the bottom of his site:
We are the Seattle based Human Computer Interaction Specialists. Give us a try and you will see
why Microsoft has chosen us to be involved with Windows 8 planning.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview as I certainly had fun speaking with Ron about Microsoft and his field of work from his perspective. Feel free to leave your comments and any questions you may have for Ron. I’m sure he’ll stop by and say hello every once in a while and check in to see if anyone has any questions for him. Alternately, you can shoot him an email at the email address provided above.