He has also tried to change how Microsoft operates, so that engineering and business concerns do not come before “humancentric” design considerations. In some cases, Microsoft computer scientists are now being joined on an equal footing by social scientists, industrial designers, and others in what he calls “renaissance teams.”
“Microsoft, along with any other company that wants to survive in this world, has to start saying the technology of the human—the technology of culture, if you want to use that bizarre terminology—is as important as the technology of silicon,” he says.
But even with Buxton on board, Microsoft has learned that the process of getting design right can be humbling.
One project Buxton has helped with is Microsoft Surface, which debuted a few years ago as an extravagantly expensive, coffee-table-size computer with a multitouch screen—a real Frankenstein’s monster compared with the iPhone that Apple would soon release. The machine was, by Buxton’s account, hacked together Rube Goldberg style with separate cameras and projectors, and marketed to a very small audience while the company worked on better technology and slicker software. Finally, after five years, the company released a new, thinner model whose screen doubles as a camera and a display, a technology Buxton says he has been dreaming of for more than 20 years. In fact in the early 1990s he built something called Active Desk, which was essentially a primitive Microsoft Surface on a drafting table.
Now he says the beating Microsoft took in the press over Surface worked in the company’s favor, because it made people discount the potential for the product and gave Microsoft the freedom to develop the idea in plain sight.
“In general, when you see companies that really are innovating, if you look back—this is what we don’t do well in our industry—you’ll say, ‘Oh my God, they were telegraphing from day one what they were going to do, and none of us saw it,’” Buxton says. “In the end, we’re not quite the boobs that some people thought we might have been.”