Q&A: Microsoft’s Center for Information Work Wins Industrial Design Excellence Award

REDMOND, Wash. , June 27, 2003 It’s rare for software to win an industrial design award. But that’s just what happened this week when the Industrial Designers Society of America announced that Microsoft’s Center for Information Work has won a Gold 2003 Industrial Design Excellence Award (IDEA).

Located on Microsoft’s Redmond campus, the CIW provides the company’s corporate customers and partners with an immersive, interactive glimpse into the future of information worker productivity. With its wraparound, panoramic monitors and futuristic teleconferencing cameras, those who tour the center often come away impressed with the variety of appliances on display. But as Brad Weed and Tom Gruver point out in a recent conversation with PressPass, much like the relationship between a light bulb and electricity, the center’s cool hardware is only as good as the software that lights it up.

PressPass: We won’t know for sure until the awards are handed out in August, but why do you think the IDEA judges chose the CIW for this honor?

Gruver: Microsoft has done a very thorough job of creating a visual and interactive way to explain something that’s hard to explain. It’s fairly straightforward to submit a mouse or piece of hardware for an award, but how do you show people the importance of software? And even more challenging, how do you show people the vision of where that software is going? I think our success in communicating this is one of main things that led to this award.

Weed: We won for a category called
“Digital Media and Interfaces,”
of which software is a component. I think what impressed the IDEA judges is how interactive the whole CIW experience is. People who tour the center are able to physically experience the technologies on display. They can role-play a day in the life of an information worker in the future, work through some of the problems they might encounter and see how the software helps solve these problems. The ability of customers and partners to experience the CIW in an active way has helped us to create excitement around our vision for productivity software, and we think the judges recognized that.

Gruver: We also think they were struck by the fact that there really is great design coming out of Microsoft, which has actually always been the case, but which hasn’t gotten as much attention until now. Winning an IDEA Award is the ultimate compliment from the design industry for product design, and we’re very proud to bring this award to Redmond.

Productivity software at the Center for Information Work uses panoramic monitors to provide a viewable screen several feet wide; they can display multiple applications simultaneously. Click image for high-res version.

PressPass: The award focuses on the convergence of design and functionality. What were the key design principles or goals that led the CIW to that point of convergence?

Weed: We focused on three principles, which we define as
“power,” “teamwork”
Power is really the empowerment of people and the power of individual creativity. Teamwork is the collaboration element, groups of people working together toward an end. And everywhere is this notion that people should be productive anywhere, any time. We arrived at those three things in a combination of ways. One, the Office design group has a 12-year history of observing people as they use our software, whether in usability labs or in the workplace. We also relied on product planning, where a great deal of market research, surveys, focus groups and participatory design has been done over the past few years. Additionally, we reached out to Microsoft Research, which employs technology researchers, behavioral experts and other academics. We combined these areas to understand the components that would most effectively communicate our vision of where productivity software is going, which is the No. 1 goal of the space.

Gruver: Most Microsoft customers today are running a PC with some version of Microsoft Office on it, and many of those folks think that the tools have
in some sense, that they’re as productive as they’re going to get. They don’t necessarily think that there will be much advancement or innovation with regard to productivity tools over the next three to five years. So how do we build something to show customers that there is still a lot to be done to enhance productivity? If we can show them how this software will evolve, that can in turn translate into an understanding of how the software can continue to make them a more competitive company.

PressPass: How does the software complement and work with the hardware and physical design elements of the center?

Weed: There are many examples of this. One is with the panoramic display device, Broadbench, where the software takes advantage of the screen’s periphery and large surface area to help users focus on the task at hand while still keeping tabs on email and other incoming information. This comes from the notion that if you can expand your work surface you also will expand the power to be creative. One thing people don’t do with paper is keep their documents in one stack and constantly reshuffle them to keep the most relevant one on top. Yet until now because of monitor space, that’s what we’ve done with software. The display allows the software to take advantage of the increased
“real estate,”
so workers can use it in a more natural way. Another example is the interaction between the Tablet PC and the meeting software, where users can combine individual notes from their Tablets onto a main conference room
“white board,”
and can even drop files from the tablet into this common area for use in the meeting.

Gruver: People tend to walk out remembering the cool hardware because it’s so tangible. Yet the real answer is that without the software behind it, all of this stuff is relatively useless. With RingCam, for example, there is a huge amount of software that allows this 360-degree view to be mapped together so it’s seamless all around the table. There’s even more software that allows that view to be synchronized with directional microphones so that when a voice talks, the software can automatically figure out which voice goes with which head. And once it does that, it can actually display that singular person talking in a secondary, bigger picture. It’s the same with Tablet PCs. Tablets wouldn’t be much more useful than laptops, but when you start talking about the software pen recognition, inking, handwriting recognition, etc. now all of a sudden anyone who carries a clipboard around a manufacturing facility can become an integral part of the company’s business systems in real time. And it’s the software that makes all of this possible.

PressPass: When do you expect these concepts to start making their way into the business world?

Gruver: We generally tell customers three to five years. The analogy that I use in tours is that of the concept car in auto shows. You go to an auto show and you see an absolutely gorgeous car on the floor, very futuristic and really cool. That concept car wasn’t intended to actually go into production, but a lot of the technology that was used in that car will get broken down and used in other models.

Weed: Then, on the flip side, some of this stuff is going to come sooner rather than later. RingCam, for example, is a fully functioning piece of hardware, so that could be out on the market relatively soon. Even this year, the next version of Office will contain technologies we’ve worked with in the center, such as the meeting workspace in SharePoint and peripheral pop-up alerts in Outlook. Other ideas are further out there. But one of the great things about the CIW, one of the reasons we really like bringing customers through, is that we can use their feedback to help guide us. If something really seems to resonate, then that gives us an opportunity to focus more on that area. If they think something’s just silly or not helpful, we can scale that back or try to put the technology to a different use.

PressPass: Will there be another version of the CIW any time soon?

Gruver: Our general goal is to try and do a major refresh every 12 to 18 months. Part of it will be based on what we’ve done already. Then, if MSR is coming up with something new that we think is interesting, or if the product groups are heading in a new direction, those things will be incorporated. Right now the center contains many ideas that are being encapsulated for the
product timeframe. As
becomes more of a reality, those ideas will be worked through as they become real code. So basically, what we do in that 12 to 18 months is keep our finger on the pulse of Microsoft to see what’s changing.

PressPass: Is there a point at which productivity software won’t require further innovation?

Weed: I don’t believe there’s an end. Human ability and behavior will continue to adapt and transform, and we will invent entirely new and novel ways to accomplish unforeseen goals and missions. We believe software can inspire that change in people and the way they behave, and in turn software has to adapt to that change. So, just as there are no limits to human creativity, there really are no limits to productivity software.

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