"I’ve been at the company … since 2006," says Sam Moreau, who oversees design and user experience for Windows. "Internally, that’s code for: Vista isn’t my fault."
Moreau spoke yesterday at New York City’s Soho House, an intimate, members-only club in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Surrounded by the library’s tufted chesterfield sofas and leather-bound books, with a plate of hors d’oeuvres in one hand and a fizzy cocktail in the other, Moreau talked casually about the monstrous task he faces: to rethink the world’s most widely used operating system in developing Windows 8, the most radical overhaul of Microsoft’s premiere software since Windows 95.
"It’s the ultimate design challenge," he says. "You’ve got 25 years of Windows before you. It’s really hard to take all that, and preserve it. There’s a responsibility to preserve it, but you also have this responsibility to evolve it forward—knowing that when you change something, you’re changing how computing works."
Moreau and others at Microsoft refer to this challenge as "the tyranny of having a billion users." In the same way that Google and Facebook can’t introduce a new feature without receiving some backlash, Microsoft can barely adjust a single pixel without causing a worldwide uproar. So imagine what it’ll be like when users around the globe first feast their eyes on Windows 8: a mobile-inspired operating system with Metro-style animated tiles, designed to connect user experiences across PCs, tablets, and smartphones. (The desktop, a common and comfortable concept for users of all ages, has been demoted to a background function.)
"Taking away things wasn’t really the point of our design," Moreau says. "You can’t just change stuff for change sake. We have this saying: Change is bad, unless it’s great."
To wit: For Windows 8, the design team decided against reusing the "Start" button, one of the operating system’s most recognizable features. "It wasn’t like we had this idea to get rid of it," Moreau says. Rather, once the design focus shifted to tiles, the "Start" icon, which gave users access to menus, files, and programs, became irrelevant. "An icon is just this thing that looks like fake glass, is kind of shiny, has a fake light source and drop shadow, but doesn’t really do a good job of telling you all the context hidden inside of it," Moreau says.
Moreau calls interface changes a "promise" to users. If you can’t commit to a change like tiles completely, then it won’t resonate. "Otherwise, it’s just another thing that you’re not confident about how it will work," he says. "If I can’t make that promise universally, then I can’t have it do that job." In other words, you can’t upgrade the design and functions, and just "clutter it with all this other stuff" for good measure.
Microsoft acknowledges there will be a learning curve for Windows 8, but that’s the case with almost any innovative new idea. Moreau cites the mouse, now an extremely familiar product, but a device that Moreau says was "super controversial" when PC makers first introduced it to the world. "People hated it; they freaked out; they didn’t understand it," he recalls. "But I don’t think anybody would say that we should’ve taken the mouse away and not done that evolution. Those types of evolutionary steps take a hump to get over."
For Moreau, the decades-old baggage of Windows isn’t ultimately a downside. There is something rewarding about designing products for more than a billion users. "It’s not like a legacy hanging around my neck—it’s the opposite," he says. "Otherwise you’re designing something that’s irrelevant. I’ve done that before: I’ve worked for companies where all I did for years was vision projects. They were never real; it was all fake or vaporware. It’s super boring. Yes, you can fill your portfolio with interesting and pretty stuff, but it’s not very fulfilling."
He adds, "What’s fulfilling is to take something that really, really matters, and make it better in a way that moves the world forward."