REDMOND, Wash., Dec. 4, 2006 — Microsoft’s work to target creative professionals, first announced at PDC (Professional Developer Conference) 2005, may have come as a surprise to some. However, core to the company vision, Microsoft is moving fast down the path to helping software development organizations and design houses build “people-ready” businesses by providing platform and tools technologies that place end user needs front and center.
As articulated in today’s announcements, Microsoft’s strategy makes creative designers first-class citizens within the software development process and offers them a powerful platform for better collaboration with their developer team counterparts. Indeed, major platform and tools enhancements to the Microsoft Expression product line announced today bring the craft of creative design to the forefront for design firms and software development organizations seeking to deliver next-generation applications that offer a new and higher level of user experience on the Web, client and beyond.
PressPass spoke with Expression General Manager Eric Zocher to learn more.
PressPass: What is Microsoft announcing today?
Zocher: Today’s announcements focus on the latest enhancements, pricing and availability of our Expression family of products as well as significant platform momentum as demonstrated by the first community technology preview (CTP) for Windows Presentation Foundation “Everywhere” (codename), or “WPF/E.”
In terms of Microsoft Expression, the big news is our announcement of Expression Studio, an integrated suite of tools for professional designers which includes Expression Web for creating standards-based Web sites, Expression Blend (formerly “Interactive Designer”) for designing superior experiences for Windows, Expression Design (formerly “Graphic Designer”) for the design of visual elements for Web and Windows experiences; and a new tool, Microsoft Expression Media, which provides digital asset management and unifies team workflow across the suite.
While the full Expression Studio is planned for delivery in the second quarter of 2007, we announced today major product momentum, including the first finished product and product previews that the creative professional community can get their hands on immediately. Expression Web is shipping today and available for purchase. We also released a Beta 1 of Expression Blend, and a CTP of Expression Design.
On the platform side, we announced and released the first CTP for “WPF/E,” which offers a cross-platform browser plug-in for delivering rich media, animation and video content based on Windows Media. Windows Media is the industry’s most pervasive media platform for the Web, desktop and devices — in fact, it recently won a Technical Emmy® Award. Expression Media and Design include support for the authoring of content for the “WPF/E” preview release. Customers have been asking for a way to reach broad and targeted audiences for presentation of rich media online, using standards such as AJAX, and the CTP, along with ASP.NET AJAX is the beginning of our answer to this request.
PressPass: Microsoft seems to be talking about “user experience” a lot these days. Why the emphasis on user experience and can you comment on how Expression Studio relates to this concept?
Zocher: “User experience” is literally the overall experience that an end user has interacting with an application. At home, work and play it’s estimated that the average person will use an average of 5-6 software applications every day. With increasing user demands and high competition for attracting and retaining customers, a bad user experience in business terms can quickly erode brand loyalty. In the work environment, a poorly designed experience can make employees — and ultimately the organization overall — less productive and can require massive training and support expenditures. Industry statistics show that software applications that are poorly designed for end-user needs raise the cost of training and in the worse cases are simply not widely adopted.
When we talk about user experience, what we’re really talking about is focusing on the user instead of technology for technology’s sake. It’s the difference between purely functional software and software that truly, seamlessly meets end user needs.
Great user experience is at the heart and soul of our Expression family of tools. Used in collaboration with our Visual Studio development tools and the .NET Framework technologies, the solution directly involves the designer in the software development process.
PressPass: Why is Microsoft targeting professional designers and why now?
Zocher: I think the simple answer is that really good user experiences require not just developers, who do a lot of the implementation work, but also professional designers of all different kinds —visual designers, interaction designers, usability experts and so forth— to take a close look at people’s needs. Designers tend to have the vision for how to accomplish this, but their vision sometimes gets misinterpreted when it is sent in static mock-ups to the developers who write the backend code.
The “why now” is that a “good enough” experience is increasingly not good-enough, which is giving rise to new requirements for development teams that build these experiences.
As Microsoft started planning the Windows Vista wave of technologies many years back, it was clear from the beginning that designers were going to be a crucial component in bringing these experiences to fruition. To realize the full potential of software experiences we need to make designers first-class citizens in the development process.
Our own investments in great user experiences are fully evident in Windows Vista, Office 2007 and the Expression products themselves — each of which had significant designer participation in crafting the experience that the products deliver to end users. Over 400 designers work at Microsoft on various products, so we see the need ourselves within our own product teams as well as from customers. What we’re hearing is that these new products are more aesthetically polished, the features are more purposeful and discoverable, and end users are more successful and satisfied than in the past.
PressPass: Can you elaborate on some of the challenges facing professional designers today and the role Expression Studio can play in addressing these issues?
Zocher: What we’re doing with Expression Studio is taking the first steps in helping designers become better integrated into the process of building and delivering user experiences, and helping designers and developers work better together.
In the past, designers often printed out static pictures of their designs and walked over to the developer with a stack of pages, or sent the developer a .jpeg or other image file that the developer tried to reproduce in code. The way the design turns out in the final software offering is very, very different — and often inferior — to what the designer had in mind. Frequently important details are lost and consistent elements of the design get built differently.
There are many reasons for this, and we are making strides to alleviate the problem, primarily by focusing on the workflow between the roles. Specifically, we are providing role-appropriate tools for both designers and developers (in the form of Expression and Visual Studio tools), which share common project files and markup languages.
In the case of .NET Framework 3.0 applications, the tools share XAML files (eXtensible Application Markup Language), which describe the look and behavior of a rich user interface and can be readily used in both the design and development tools. For standards-based Web content, both toolsets support all current standards such as XHTML, CSS, XSLT, XML, ASP.NET, etc. For both scenarios, the work of the designer using the Expression tools is fully and directly utilizable in the actual final application, as opposed to being relegated to “mock-ups” or “proxies” of what is actually intended.
PressPass: This seems like a new path for Microsoft. What’s the interest level been so far?
Zocher: The interest has been very high, both from designers themselves, but more broadly from all the roles in the development life-cycle process, including developers and the decision makers on Web and Windows development projects. We’ve already had more than a half a million downloads of preview versions of the Expression tools. I think the draw is that we’re really approaching the designer/developer workflow with some very innovative new tools, and at the platform level we are offering a breadth of solutions for not only Windows but the Web and other platforms.
Also, we are seeing a very positive reaction to our discussion of the theme of user experiences and its growing importance. I think many customers are surprised to hear Microsoft talking about this notion, particularly with the passion and seriousness with which we are thinking about the end-to-end process and what will be required to bring user experiences to the fore in application development.
PressPass: What makes the Expression family — and Microsoft’s approach in general — different from other products on the market? Why is it necessary?
Zocher: We are targeting real-world challenges, and we’re focused on the continuity of user experiences for all major end-user touch points on the Web, desktop and beyond. Most of the professional design products on the market today were originally conceived and built in the era of desktop publishing’s emergence over 15 years ago. Today, the design mediums are different, as are the needs of designers, and that presents a huge opportunity for us to bring some new, innovative approaches with very real value to customers.
For example, today’s leading-edge Web sites are constructed using CSS and XHTML, offering richer visuals and standards compliance which are quickly becoming the norm. This modern approach diligently separates the content from the layout/styling — a theme that is carried over in how our Windows Presentation Foundation applications are built with XAML.
PressPass: A CTP for “WPF/E” was also announced today. Can you comment on how that fits into Microsoft’s broader strategy around user experience?
Zocher: Certainly. People have different needs that designers and developers are trying to meet, so we offer a broad spectrum of platform technologies for delivering experiences, from the runs everywhere, lowest common denominator experience of the Web all the way to the ultimate experiences on the GPU-accelerated desktop with the .NET Framework 3.0. “WPF/E” is the middle ground of user experience. It’s integrating Web standards with the flexibility, power and richness of XAML-based design and development that you get from the .NET Framework and takes it cross-platform over the Web and eventually to devices and beyond.
“WPF/E” also addresses the need for a rich, robust and malleable video platform on the Web. What we are hearing from our customers is that they need a simple way to embed Windows Media files and streams directly into a fully customizable Web player for cross-platform playback. The “WPF/E“ December CTP takes us closer to meeting that need by providing support for playback of Windows Media, which enables the delivery of rich audio and video integrated with animated graphics and text overlays, dynamic resizing, and marker support for interactivity. And for content creation, we will be introducing Microsoft Expression Media Encoder (MEME) as a feature of the Expression Media product next year to more easily automate encoding workflow and publishing of rich video content for this new platform.
PressPass: How will these experiences that are built with Expression be consumed by users?
Zocher: We have talked about three sweet spots for experiences: 1) The standards-based Web is everything you would imagine it would be. It runs everywhere. It is the Web today as we know it. 2) The richer Web with “WPF/E” runs cross-platform and cross-browser, including the Safari browser on the Mac, and Firefox and Internet Explorer on Windows. 3) The ultimate experiences are targeting the .NET Framework 3.0, which is built into Windows Vista and is also downloadable for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.
PressPass: How would you summarize Microsoft’s overall vision or future strategy related to user experience?
Zocher: We really want to enable designers and developers to be able to push the envelope — to make software, to make experiences, to make the Web better working and better looking than it is today.
We are providing an end-to-end platform and tools to make it easier for design and development teams to build better, more user-centric applications that span the desktop, Web and beyond. To achieve this, it’s imperative that designers are able to fully come to the table and work hand-in-hand with all the other design and development team members. As great as we think it is, what we’re delivering now with Expression Studio and the .NET Framework 3.0 is only the first step. We’re going to go a lot further. This is only the beginning.