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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.

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