Windows washer: Meet Microsoft's antidote to Vista

Windows washer: Meet Microsoft's antidote to Vista (AP)
In this March 2, 2009 photo, Julie Larson-Green, Corporate Vice President for the Windows Experience at Microsoft Corp., poses in front of a wall showing the progression of the Windows start menu icons from Windows 95 through Windows Vista, at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. The Windows Vista logo will also be used in the upcoming Windows 7. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

(AP) -- Julie Larson-Green hopes you'll like Windows 7. If not, well, now you and a billion other people know whom to blame.

Microsoft Corp. is counting on Larson-Green, its head of "Windows Experience," to deliver an operating system that delights the world's PC users as much as its last effort, Vista, disappointed them. She's in charge of a wide swath of the system, from the way buttons and menus work to getting the software out in January as scheduled.

Given Microsoft's history, Larson-Green's plan seems downright revolutionary: Build an operating system that doesn't require people to take computer classes or master thick manuals.

"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.

relies on Windows for half its profit, which helps fuel money-losing operations like the pursuit of Inc. online. Windows was still profitable after Vista's 2007 launch, but its poor reception dinged the software maker's reputation at a critical time. Vista was designed for powerful, pricier PCs just as nimble rivals like Google were releasing Web-based programs that could run on inexpensive computers. Microsoft appeared to be clinging to an endangered world order that spawned its operating system monopoly.

What's more, Vista's initial incompatibility with many existing programs and devices, and its pestering security warnings, exposed Microsoft to ridicule in Apple Inc. commercials that helped computers gain . Businesses didn't give up Windows, but many delayed upgrading to Vista.

Microsoft's executives have since distanced themselves from Vista, acknowledging its flaws. Now the company needs Windows 7 to widen that distance even more.

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.

Focusing on real customers might seem obvious, but Microsoft's programs more often have reflected the will of techie insiders.

One reason is that Windows' dominance relies heavily on third-party software developers who keep churning out compelling new programs. To give those developers as many options as possible for reaching PC users, over the years Windows spawned confusingly redundant features. For example, you can tweak antivirus software settings by opening the program; by clicking on shortcuts from the desktop, task bar or "Start" menu; by responding to notifications that pop up uninvited from the bottom-right corner of the screen; or by poking around in a control panel.

Another bit of dysfunction stemmed from Microsoft's corporate structure. Windows employs thousands of people divided into groups that focus on search, security, networking, printing - the list goes on. With Vista and earlier versions, each group built the best solutions for its isolated goals. For example, two separate groups added similar-looking search boxes to Vista's control panels and its Start menu. Yet typing the same query into both boxes produced completely different results.

Larson-Green, a 16-year Microsoft veteran, grew up in tiny Maple Falls, Wash., about 100 miles north of the software maker's headquarters in Redmond. She waited tables to put herself through Western Washington University, then took a job in 1987 answering customer support calls at Aldus, a pioneering software company in Seattle.

During six years at Aldus, Larson-Green worked her way into software development and earned a master's in computer science on the side. But she credits her waitressing and customer-service work for making her good at her current job.

"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, 47, is engaging and eager in person - to the point that in one interview, she couldn't keep from repeatedly interrupting her boss, Steven Sinofsky, as he sketched the history of Windows. But while giving product demos on stage, she lacks the showman's panache that a surprising number of Microsoft employees display. At a developer conference last year, she seemed nervous as she showed off Windows 7's new features.

Later, she explained that as a woman, she worried that honing the softer skills of marketing might prompt colleagues to take her less seriously as a technologist. Larson-Green has spent her Microsoft career working deeply on many Microsoft programs, including the Internet Explorer Web browser.

When she landed in the Office software group a few years ago, Larson-Green was dubious that much could be done to improve the software, which dominates the market for "productivity" programs.

"I felt like it had been that way for a long time, (and) everyone was pretty happy with it," she said.

Yet customers weren't quite as happy with Office as they might have thought.

For years Microsoft had tested software with focus groups and gathered comments and complaints from customers. But around the time Larson-Green joined the Office team, Microsoft was trying a more precise way of garnering feedback. By deploying special software - with user permission - on computers running Office programs, Microsoft could track how people used their PCs day after day.

That helped explain one puzzle in Redmond: why Office users often asked Microsoft for features that were already in the software. The tracking data showed there were functions very few people had discovered deep in the menus and toolbars in Office.

More research and testing yielded a solution - the ribbon, which displayed different commands depending on what the PC user was doing. Then Larson-Green pushed Microsoft to get even more radical: to release Office 2007 without the hedge of a "classic mode" that would emulate the old look and feel for people who didn't like the changes.

It worked. Just as Vista was a magnet for complaints, Office 2007 won accolades from software critics and regular users. Larson-Green proved she had the stomach to challenge a Microsoft legacy. Her reward? The assignment to help fix Windows. When Sinofsky was tapped to lead the Windows division, replacing retiring Jim Allchin, Sinofsky drafted Larson-Green to come along, in a new position created for her.

"Some people are great at having ideas, and (have) no discipline. Some people are great at discipline, not much at ideas," Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said in an interview. "She's got both of those genes."

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 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 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.

From these billions of data points emerged big ideas that got boiled down into eight design principles. Larson-Green had them printed on folded slips of paper as reminders for everyone in the group.

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, though Microsoft still says the official plan is for January.

Microsoft's marketing machine will pore over piles of charts to decide whether is a success. Larson-Green says her measure will be the conversations she overhears at Best Buy and comments posted by bloggers.

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

See also: Behind the scenes with Windows 7 --


Jessica Mintz can be reached at jmintz(at)
©2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Apr 19, 2009
Windows is a total mess with so many retarded user interface solutions there sure is plenty of stuff to fix (like the moronic editing of file names after a single click, I've seen countless people struggling with this moronic "feature" which is the best example of a critical interface design flaw), but the biggest problem for them is they have nothing new to offer their users. The only notable change an upgrade of windows brings you are elevated hardware requirements so after such "upgrade" your computer is guaranteed to run worse not better.

But wait there are some innovations - all the usual stuff is placed in different locations and you have to learn once again how to do basic things. Add to it the extremely poorly written code which guarantees hundreds of critical bugs and incompatibility issues during the first 2 years after release and the need to reinstall all your software (which should have been fixed long time ago, new OS should be able to import all the old software, especially now when updates can be downloaded from the web) and you can very clearly see why upgrading to a new version of windows is not something people are looking forward too.

Luckily for her this chick vista is exceptionally bad so there are millions of people who will upgrade just to get rid of that crap so w7 is guaranteed to be popular (unless it is even more retarded but with all the outcry about vista it's unlikely).

The only thing that could save m$ from it's agonizing death, which will drag on for years, is a novel innovative software which people actually *want* to use. Yes, i know it's ridiculous to suspect m$ is capable of creating such a thing, but they are after all a software company and software companies should be able to write new software instead of milking their decades old products for centuries to come.

Gates and co, managed to turn M$ into money making machine mostly due to their pathetic business practices, it sure worked well from $$$ perspective but their monopoly allowed their programmers to stop caring about the quality of their product since it was sure to sell either way and now they are stuck with an extremely low quality code and a group of worst programmers on this planet. The later is due to the fact they hardly fired anyone so while the best programmers moved on to more promising enterprises the crappy ones are still there and even raising in ranks. The future does not look bright for m$.

Apr 19, 2009
WOW, you might go see a shrink about your issues and, whatever you do, don't forget to bring him an apple.

I disagree, I think he's right about pretty much everything he said. Vista bought nothing new, and although XP was granted, a lot stabler than past versions, it didn't really bring anything innovative to the table. That hasn't really happened since Win 3.11 went to Win95.

Apr 19, 2009
DX10 wasn't new? Play a game that supports both DX10 and DX9 in both modes, contrast and compare them, and then try and tell me that there was absolutely nothing new in Vista.

I've used both XP and Vista extensively, and I honestly don't understand people's intense hatred of Vista. Vista fixes a huge number of extremely annoying "features" in XP. XP was in many ways absolute shit. Vista on the other hand has a few annoying things about it, but you can turn every one of them off (everything from the borked indexing (which I partially turned off) to the UAC (which I disabled) to the lack of file menus (which I turned on). These are features that are on/off by default, but if you don't like that then you are completely free to turn them on or off. Microsoft doesn't force you to use the UAC if you don't want to.

If you know what you are doing then Vista is superior to XP in most ways.

Of course if you're utterly clueless then yes, you might have problems. But, frankly, if you're that clueless then you don't have any choice in operating systems. Several Linux distros are great, and they require a fair amount of technical knowledge. Windows is acceptable, and it requires a lesser, but still appreciable amount of technical knowledge. But fortunately for people with no knowledge of anything whatsoever, the Apple OS(es) exist. You can be a complete moron and still make them work. That's probably a good thing, too;) (though obviously not everyone who uses a mac is a moron. Some just like the pretty colours and the neat user interface... though it is almost exactly the same as the Ubuntu interface...).

Apr 19, 2009
In short: I understand why people use Linux, and I understand why people use Windows. I cannot for the life of me fathom any reason why anyone would *ever* buy a Mac.

Apr 19, 2009
I'm not a Mac fanboy, I actually use both Windows and Mac (my Mac is mostly for programming, I'm an iPhone developer). And the thing is, Mac's don't freeze. They don't even lag when you try to do something. And they don't do anything weird when you put the computer to sleep. OSX and a bunch of other Apple products are designed for simplicity, ease of use, and stability. Windows is an open platform OS. Think of all the millions of possible hardware configurations it has to deal with. That's why it's so bloated, but it is compatible with way more stuff than a Mac is. OSX is only designed to run on a few specific hardware configurations. Meaning they can test every one of them and make sure everything works. Their user interface designers recognized long time ago that software is about functionality, not just features. So the features users need and use most are easily accessible, while the more advanced features are tucked away in menus, unlike Windows where all features, no matter how often they are used, are randomly placed in arrays of tabs and menus.

I'm not defending either one. I'm just saying the two were designed for a different purpose and for a different user base. The only thing I will say that I don't like hearing is that Macs are supposedly so much more secure. That's not exactly true. It's because the majority uses Windows, it is more profitable for hackers to write malicious code for those machines. The moment Apple becomes a monopoly like Microsoft (doubt that would happen), you will see viruses and trojans for the Mac.

Apr 20, 2009
Why is there an obsession to see something revolutionary? Do we want innovations for the sake of innovations or are we looking for features that we'd like to use? I don't see too many people listing what they'd like to see in the next version of Windows. I know bagging M$ is fashionable and I have done my share of it too. But, Apple is not the answer. Sure, we'd love to have the perfect OS. Trouble is, nobody has it and never will. We live in an imperfect world and our OSes are no different.

Apr 20, 2009
I disagree, I think he's right about pretty much everything he said. Vista bought nothing new, and although XP was granted, a lot stabler than past versions, it didn't really bring anything innovative to the table. That hasn't really happened since Win 3.11 went to Win95.

Well, he listed EXACTLY one feature that was less than useful - the single-click editing of filenames. I agree that a lot of newbies have trouble with it. Apart from that everything else was just one big rant. As a Windows user who had to work on a Mac for nearly a year, I went through all the problems he highlighted that a win-user faced. I thought it was braindead of the Apple engineers to put stuff in the places that they were in. In short, the OS you are used to is what you want to see anywhere else.

Apr 20, 2009
This comment is utterly true "Focusing on real customers might seem obvious, but Microsoft's programs more often have reflected the will of techie insiders." Nerds, and ex-nerds who have become managers pull the wool over the eyes of customers, ignoring what they want, in place of features the nerds think are "cool". Or which they imagine will advance their career. The joke, if you care to call it that, is that sometimes customers are posing the really hard problems -- and the engineers just aren't up to them.

Apr 20, 2009
So does this bitch sleep with every Microsoft executive? I'm convinced she's single-handedly responsible for the user interface disaster that is Office 2007, Windows Vista and Windows 7. What Windows has come to be! A single person's private fancies "revolutionizing" the UI by throwing away features. I couldn't agree with superhuman more.

Apr 20, 2009
I've been using the Windows 7 beta on my cheap Acer laptop. It definitely loads and runs faster than Vista 32, but that's because my install of W7 is 64 bit, and my Acer has an AMD Athlon X2 cpu, which is 64 bit. W7's GUI reminds me of Windows 2000, which was much less cluttered than Vista. If W7 is cheap, then it should be competitive with the upcoming Ubuntu 9.

Apr 20, 2009
As a software Eng/CIO and just a total nerd I am going to put in my thoughts. I have used every version of windows from win286 up. As for as I am concerned there are 4 version of windows.

1. all the 2.x 3.x versions

2. the Chicago code base 95,98,me

3. the pre 2000 Version of NT

4. the 5.x and 6.x version of windows NT

Let me start out by saying Vista is not all that bad if you have the right hardware. But the only reason I would recommend it is if you need a 64bit OS. If you are running less than 4g of ram and do not have a 64bit CPU it is a dog. IT was designed to be a 64bit OS not a 32bit. Now why did i bring up the other OS well they as in case 1 and 2 or really a 16bit OS. Any one remember win32 for windows 3.11. Well it sucked as did 95, and the first version of 98. It took Microsoft 5(95,a,b OEM SRII,98) tries to get the 32bit 9x stuff to work 98SE was the first stable version of 9x and if it made more than a day with out crashing that was good.

Now you say well they have 7 tries to get NT right yes and XP SP2 and Vista or both very stable platforms. Vista in its 64bit version is very fast. and for essentially a 2.x release(XP 64bit and 64 bit 2003 being the 1.x version) is very good.

Now lets compare that to OSX it took Apple 4 major tries and about 30 services packs to get OSX usable and 10.3.9 was really the first truly stable version of OSX it then took then 10 service packs to get 10.4 ironed out and that one broke sound on about half the macs so they rushed 10.4.11 out the door, 10.1 and 10.2 they were unstable as hell. OS9 and 8 were not much better. Don't get me wrong I love OSX it is just that it has it problems.

I also like OS/2 which was nearly imposable to get installed but was and is the absolutely most stable OS I have ever run.

There is Solaris it is as stable as OS/2 but other than Oracle and firefox not much runs on it.

And last linux. Well it is great OS its kernel is stable as all can be. KDE not so much dragging and dropping file from one place to the other will kill the file browser. Gnome it wont exactally die on you as just do nothing. KDE 4 was so bug plagued that most vendors just left it out. It has the same system requirement as Vista maybe more. The one big gripe of Vista was its memory use. Most of that is used as a cache linux does the same thing and will use 100% of free memory for its cache.

Any way I don't want to get in to a Linux bash or a OSX bash. The point I am trying to make is all things have there place and use. Vista should have never been released in a 32bit version as it is a 64bit OS.

Now its user interface well that sucks but have you tried KDE that is a mess as well and sit a windows user in front of a Mac deer in headlights.

That's my 2 cents rant over.

Apr 20, 2009
She is the one that forced the ribbon in Office 2007? The ribbon interface is the ONLY reason I disliked 2007, and it lessened my productivity enough that I got our company standard to remain with Office 2003. They should have at least let us choose which interface to use.

I already fear for Windows 7 a bit more than I did previously...

Apr 20, 2009
I knew this ribbon bar interface had to be the work of one manager forcing his (turns out to be "her") personal preference on the rest of us. Why on God's green Earth did she decide to rip out the "classic" menus?? I STILL can't use the stupid ribbon bar interface and it took me nearly an hour to find out how to print or do the old "file menu" functions. Who the heck would have thought to click on the stupid logo (that replaced the control menu) for those features?!?!?!? That's COMPLETELY unintuitive.

To use M$ terminology:

- My User Experience SUX in Office 2007!!!!
- It's completely unintuitive.
- I'm MUCH LESS productive.

and I ask again: Why, oh WHY did she insist of removing the old menu bar?

I hear that much of Windows 7 will have menu bars (notepad, MS paint, etc...). I've got W7 beta installed in a VM and they've (or "SHE") FORCED the moronic newb start menu on everyone. You can't use the classic start menus anymore... NOT AN OPTION!

She also removed "My Computer" and such from the desktop.

The Quick Launch bar is also gone. The new task bar does NOT replace all of the functionality of the quick launch, contrary to what the inexperienced tech writers have been saying.

Search is so cumbersome, I just drop down to a command prompt (DOS box) and search from the command line. It's impossible to find anything otherwise.

W7, I predict, will be a disaster in terms of Microsoft's expectations. Though, it will probably do better than Vista, simply because Vista did so poorly.

Office 2007 and Windows 7 are designed for your grandmother, who has trouble operating a VCR. Your grandmother will be more productive in Office 2007 and Windows 7, but experienced, techy people will suffer the most.

Apr 20, 2009
DX10 wasn't new? Play a game that supports both DX10 and DX9 in both modes, contrast and compare them, and then try and tell me that there was absolutely nothing new in Vista.

D3D 10 is just an interface. It's not so much a feature in Vista as microsoft's choice to not expose the same hardware features in XP is an attempt at black-mail.

I've used both XP and Vista extensively, and I honestly don't understand people's intense hatred of Vista. Vista fixes a huge number of extremely annoying "features" in XP.

Vista had a wide variety of interesting planned features back when it was known as long-horn. As it neared release all the interesting features evaporated and I mean every single one of them. It ended up being just windows XP with some irritating fluff(such as aero and x-box-huge icon default size). It had the usual teething problems of any OS, but there was nothing to make putting up with them worth while.

Apr 21, 2009
Let's see buy Windows Vista/7 or get absolutely the same experience for free with Linux? And include the much better live support by other Linux users in forums? Oh, tough choice. Well, I think this time I'll go with Linux.

Apr 21, 2009
Windows and Linux are NOT absolutely the same experience. That's one of the reasons people switch to linux or mac.

Windows is easier for most people and has more vendor support (works with more hardware).

Linux is free and comes with source and many say is more stable and more secure.

The UIs are generally similar, but different enough that most Windows users have tough times trying to get used to Linux.

They are VERY different. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses... although, Microsoft seems to be putting extra effort into making their UI more cumbersome and less powerful (ribbon bars and nonsensical search).

Apr 21, 2009
Just wanted to add that in spite of what you might think, I'm not an MS fanboi:P. The MORONIC ribbon interface introduced in Office 2007 was the reason why I switched to OpenOffice. I dislike many parts of OpenOffice, but I refuse to use that stupid, stupid, stupid interface in MSOffice 07.

Apr 21, 2009
If I had a penny for every time Microsoft promised a new and better OS, I'd be extremely rich. Sorry, too little, too late. I have moved on to other more robust, easier to use and secured operating systems.

Apr 25, 2009
I guess I'll be the odd one out and admit that I actually do prefer Office 2007 over Office 2003. I actually do find '07 easier to use.

[runs and hides]

Apr 25, 2009
And that's fine Hungry4info2. Changing the GUI isn't a bad thing. It's the fact that they completely removed the oldstyle menus that bugs me. It was unnecessary.

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