How this design geek’s toilet analogy fell flat in a 2003 pitch to Bill Gates

Jenny Lam and Hillel Cooperman of Jackson Fish Market. (Photo by Red Box Pictures)

We love hearing old stories about how Bill Gates operated at Microsoft, in part because the software titan has reshaped his image so much in the past few years. Today, many perceive Gates as a leading philanthropist, so you can sometimes forget that the billionaire was first and foremost a hard-charging software geek and businessman running the world’s most powerful tech company.

Gates’ engineering-oriented style came through in a story shared this week by Hillel Cooperman, a former Microsoftie who in 2003 was tasked with pitching Gates about new designs related to the Windows user interface.

Cooperman, who now runs the Seattle startup Jackson Fish Market, writes in a blog post about how his left-brain notion of user design collided with the “empirically-minded engineers” who ruled the roost at Microsoft. Frustrated that his message about the importance of user design was not getting across, Cooperman let this analogy fly.

“Bill, a shower, a toilet, and a water fountain all have mechanisms to control water flow, places where the water comes out, some sort of porcelain basin to hold the water, and a drain, but we don’t combine them into one thing to reduce their learning curve. We don’t merge them into one object because each of them are in use in fundamentally different ways at different times.”

The story paints an interesting picture of the culture within Microsoft at the time, a culture that Cooperman said was driven very much by engineers over UX designers. (And probably still is to this day).

Cooperman concludes:

“Ultimately, I never did succeed in making Bill really comfortable with a more emotional approach to software design. But the real lesson of the day was learned. In the software industry, as long as the engineering-minded run the show, the notion of subtle and textured user experience design that balances the emotional and functional aspects of a software experience will always struggle to take root.”

Go here to read the full post.

UPDATE: Here’s more from Cooperman who offered this take on the design culture within Microsoft when contacted by GeekWire.

I would also add (not that anyone gives a shit what I think) that Microsoft is doing super work these days on a variety of fronts including XBOX, Windows Phone, and of course the new Win8 Tablet UI. I was a very small part of a large number of people at the company over the last decade who recognized the need to inject more design DNA into the way Microsoft creates software. I just happened to have a good story of some of the company’s growing pains in that regard.

  • http://twitter.com/jclaussftw Jason Gerard Clauss

    I think you meant to say “right-brained” in your article.

  • http://twitter.com/jclaussftw Jason Gerard Clauss

    But I totally side with Cooperman on this. Engineers should not be allowed to design UX. I was amazed when Metro came out because it looked like someone actually put some thought into it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=94500172 Kyle Kesterson

      I was having this conversation with a CTO yesterday who has been put in a position to have to design UX, and I’d have to say I disagree that engineers should not be allowed to design UX. Let me say that I am a creative founder and know exactly why you feel that way.

      However what I’ve seen from him having to design UX in an app all the way through, is that he has come to understand and appreciate the nuances that he never before understood. Now he’s finding himself obsessing over nailing the UX and wishes more than ever he had someone creative next to him to help capture and deliver the experience.

      He’s also acknowledged that the Lean methodology does not entirely apply to delivering on and learning from a product that relies heavily on experience. Writing ugly code that makes a product work will not get the same results as delivering a shoddy experience with an ugly face. People respond to what is in front of them. You will end up with false positives and false negatives if you shortcut the subtleties that make it so the experience is truly living and breathing in front of you.

      Try the opposite of not allowing engineers to take on that role, and encourage it, even if it isn’t meant to be the final result. It will allow them to walk in our shoes and finally grasp the importance of what we do. That being said, us creatives need to take it upon ourselves to understand the engineer’s perspective as well. It’s only through complete mutual understanding and appreciation will our collaborations be the most successful.

      • http://twitter.com/jclaussftw Jason Gerard Clauss

        I’m not saying that the engineers shouldn’t have input in the process. But too many companies make the mistake of not hiring a dedicated UX designer or putting out a call for a “UX designer” who conveniently must also be a programmer. It’s kind of like saying “Now hiring babysitters. You must know how to change an oil filter.”