The day Bill Gates called me rude — and other lessons in user experience

There was an almost interminable pause in the conversation, as Bill thought about what I had said. And then he looked up at me after some processing and exclaimed: “That’s just rude.”

~ ~ ~

In November of 2003 it was my job to get Bill Gates on board with the new designs my team had planned for the Windows user interface. I’d been in countless meetings with Bill, and already knew that I wasn’t great at convincing Bill of much. When it came to discussing the user interface of Windows we generally spoke past each other, which didn’t make sense to me then, but makes a lot of sense to me now.

The currency of the software industry, an industry that Bill Gates had a large hand in creating, is the engineer. Software gets built without executives, without marketers, without designers, and without accountants. It even gets built without testers. But it doesn’t ever get built without engineers. Bill is the ultimate engineer. Back in the 1980’s when graphical user interfaces were new and shiny, Bill internalized many of the lessons that made those original GUIs work. Concept reduction, consistency, skill portability, were all core to how to make a great UI. Why have 17 different ways to pop up (or drop down) a menu? Why have 17 different graphical treatments? With “one menu to rule them all,” users could learn how to use the menu once and then apply this knowledge anywhere they saw this affordance. That way, developers don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and users don’t need to relearn the wheel.

And this is still a sound fundamental principle of user interface design.

But engineers (like everyone) see the world through their lens. Engineers look at code all day. And when they see two pieces of code doing roughly the same thing, they immediately think about ways they could eliminate the wasted effort by combining them into one piece of code that performs both functions. And often, when coders participate in UI design, they make the same observations, and can overdo this principle.

Additionally, though it’s uncomfortable for the left-brained among us to discuss, another one of the fundamental aspects of today’s state-of-the art user experience design is to focus on how the software makes the user ‘feel’. You can imagine how popular a fuzzy notion like this is in a company (and industry) where empirically -minded engineers and their fans are running the show.

Just as I’d known it before all my previous meetings, I knew that Bill didn’t love my fuzzy notions about what makes for a great user experience. I’ll also confess at this point that I have a personal weakness when it comes to beautiful analogies. I overestimate their power to get people excited about ideas in which I’m invested. They’re certainly effective, but perhaps not to the degree that I imagine.

Back to my meeting in the board room with Bill Gates, and the 3 or 4 executives between he and myself in the Microsoft org chart. While the actual specifics of the day’s discussion are lost to history, I do remember clearly that we were debating the merits of my team’s user interface designs for powerful new data management features in the Windows Explorer. From my perspective, Bill’s preferred direction was overly abstract. We had created a compact set of tools to help users manage their files and folders where we felt we’d balanced the “learning curve” that comes with anything new with the way human beings actually think about things. Bill felt that we could reduce the concepts much further, thereby easing each user’s learning curve, and ultimately making them more powerful as they could employ this learning across a wide variety of scenarios. Cue my “beautiful” analogy.

At one particularly frustrating moment, I offered the following: “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.”

Then the pause.

Then Bill’s verdict.

Ouch.

As I saw my career disintegrate before me, I started to question just how “beautiful” my analogy really was. To his credit, Bill was forgiving, and met with me many times after that, giving me numerous opportunities to get him on board with all manner of ideas coming from my team (with varying degrees of success on my part). 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.

48 Responses to The day Bill Gates called me rude — and other lessons in user experience

  1. Mike says:

    too bad you spent all the time worrying about the design instead of securing the system. with all the malware attacks – beginning especially in the early 2000′s – the poor quality of windows products pretty much turned them into expensive toilets.

  2. C. Cotter says:

    We need to stop treating people as either artistic or scientific. This left-brain / right-brain myth has been debunked for years.

    Artists need to study more science and scientists need to study more art. We seem to have forgotten what the renaissance greats taught us.

    The next generation of software treats art and science (or design and engineering, if you prefer) as equal and vital.

  3. Marcelo Calbucci says:

    Thank you.

  4. Daniel Parks says:

    I suspect the meaning of Bill Gates’s comment isn’t actually important to your thesis here, but what do you think he meant by “Rude”?

    Did he think you implied that he’s stupid because a shower, a toilet, and a water fountain “obviously” shouldn’t be combined?

    It seems like a rather nice comparison to me.

  5. That’s not rude. It’s funny and true.

  6. Hillel says:

    @CCotter – I agree that artists and scientists should stretch themselves and that balance is core making fantastic software. Nonetheless, the reality that I experienced (and often continue to experience) is often quite different.

    @DanielParks – I think he felt like my saying he wanted to combine a toilet and a water fountain was an obnoxious way to make my point. In fairness, I could have used a less provocative example that didn’t imply the other person wanted people to drink from a toilet bowl.

  7. wcdolphin says:

    It doesn’t actually seem that you provided much insight or value… You told a story and added a conclusion that was largely orthogonal to the experiences you told us of…
    If Engineers look through code all day, and Bill is the ultimate Engineer, why was he in the board room?

    On another note, amazing title! The title was the best part of the article, in my opinion– it made me interested in reading something that did not actually provide much value, in the end.

  8. Innocent Bystander says:

    Ironic that BG responded to your analogy in a very emotional way!

    Second point I find that most scientists are quite interested in art and music. Eg in my own case I have been listening to Mahler yesterday, just now planning a trip to see ancient art and buildings. Artistic people on the other hand are often willfully ignorant about science.

  9. Jodon says:

    Agreed on many accounts about the careful equilibrium that needs to exist. Personally, while a little crass, I thought your analogy perfectly captured the concept you described. Maybe it hit a bit closer to home than Bill would’ve preferred?

    Side note: Some people are willing to drink from toilet water fountains ;) (from the Exploratorium in San Francisco): http://www.flickr.com/photos/qat_staff/4400820011/

  10. Brian Dunbar says:

    too bad you spent all the time worrying about the design instead of securing the system.

    Speaking of ‘rude’.

  11. A really interesting anecdote and certainly an illustrative one. In my (admittedly limited) experience, the way to win over engineers in this regard is user testing. It can be a brutal learning experience watching users fumbling around with an interface. Further, it seems like post-testing interviews can get engineers more attuned to the touchy-feely aspects of using software. Do you have any experience doing this and can you speak to its effectiveness?

    • Hillel says:

      I am certainly a fan of incorporating the reality of a user’s experience into the design of a piece of software. However, the vast majority of pre-release, lab-oriented, user testing is not something I find particularly useful or cost-effective. And when it comes to engineers, many (though certainly not all) of them love to dissect the test to the point where designing an infallible test to prove something one way or another is almost impossible. Even worse, sometimes there are aesthetic calls that are a function of brand, or emotion, or design experience that an engineer wants tested — i.e. Google testing 17 shades of blue on a piece of UI.

      Honestly, I think my main problem is that I am allergic to doing a bunch of busy work to prove something to an engineer that is taking a narrow approach to user experience design. I don’t make them write their code in two ways and do performance testing and security testing to make sure I know which is the most effective approach. I trust them to make the call.

  12. Pingback: Bill Gates Was Speechless When A Microsoft Manager Compared Windows To A Toilet (MSFT) | Technology News

  13. j-kidd says:

    The evil combination of shower, sink, and toilet bowl. I wrote a similar analogy a long time ago about KDE vs GNOME:

    http://forums.gentoo.org/viewtopic-p-1091000.html#1091000

  14. Adam says:

    You know, I don’t think he called you rude. Rather, he was referring to the gratuitous differences in interaction between the three water systems.

  15. Wis says:

    I think that was a quite apt analogy.

    At least Bill didn’t say, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

  16. Pingback: Bill Gates Was Speechless When A Microsoft Manager Compared Windows To A Toilet (MSFT) | TechDiem.com

  17. bob says:

    it was a rude thing to say. Because the purpose of the comment was not to illuminate but to make him feel stupid. If someone said that to me trying to convince me of something, i would be offended.

    You have correctly identified the analogy fetish as a weakness. In UI design there are few facts and alot of preferences. If you dont have a black and white answer besides your taste, you cant expect anyone to follow your lead,

  18. Tony says:

    The rude comment is simply an argument from intimidation. He assumes you understand his reference which is missing.

    Secondly he attacked the messenger not the concept you were offering.

    All in all he is saying I am bigger than you so shut up dummy. I have the floor here, and I intend to keep it.

    Not conducive to honesty, or encouraging true discussion or training the concepts involved. A simple power move.

  19. Greg Raiz says:

    Good story. I want to say the discussion was around combining the start menu with Windows Explorer (though I may be remembering wrong)

    Hope all is well.

  20. Pingback: Bill Gates Was Speechless When A Microsoft Manager Compared Windows To A Toilet (MSFT) – Finding Out About

  21. Mitch says:

    I’ve worked with a number of designers. Some know how to simplify things to their essence, some justify overly complex interfaces with multiple points of entries and patterns for similar functions. The latter beget unmaintainable interfaces backed by unmaintainable code that confuses users. The former produce simple, slick products.

    Frankly, while Bill’s attitude has not resulted in elegant interfaces for other reasons, his desire to make similar functions have similar methods is correct.

    Bill was right. You sound like an artist, not a designer. Someone who could create beautiful objects and design simple interfaces, but has no clue about how to much engineering and deduction really is essential design.

    I learned my lesson working on interfaces with designers who think every situation requires a tailored interface. While correct in rare, highly explainable situations, this attitude is almost always to the detriment of quality and experience.

  22. Bay Area Alan says:

    When you can’t argue on facts, attack the person or subjective natures of ideas. You’re rude/your idea is rude.

  23. John Laurence says:

    Toilets have a very negative connotation and I believe that is what turned him off.

    If you had employed a slightly different comparative the response would likely have been better.

    Perhaps – shower, sink and a water fountain?

  24. aps says:

    Bill bashing aside. He was never particularly intimidating, the better argument always won if you stood your ground and he loved robust discussion. I suspect, having been around in that era, that he was commenting on the way you said it. A little patronizing maybe (like some of this article). Good story though and great promotion tool – it hit BI.

  25. miller says:

    oh i remember these conversations! i didn’t have them with bill, but with PUM’s, BUM’s etc. ad nauseum. it’s brave to take you thoughts and passions to the leadership knowing in advance that it most likely won’t be received. it’s also a little dysfunctional. ;>)

    thanks for posting this to remind me why i moved on!

  26. Louise says:

    It was rude and I think you added nothing with your analogy. Apple may be able to find some work for you to do though.

  27. Wouter says:

    @Hillel “I don’t make them write their code in two ways and do performance testing and security testing to make sure I know which is the most effective approach. I trust them to make the call.”

    And yet that is exactly how engineers work out which way is best when there is an argument in a team or even in his head. User testing designs is a solid engineering practice. The scientific approach that most engineers are comfortable with. I would never force a UI design specialist into doing anything, or dictate how she should do her job, but I might ask for proof over preference when there is differentiating opinions. That’s not purely an engineering practice, it’s a management style as well.

  28. laurent says:

    catchy headline aside – our point about not only each of us having our own lens but also the “dominant” lens that a company favors based on how it’s evolved is a great one. (engineering focused, media focused, mkt focused, etc…)

  29. krishan sharma says:

    Leave aesthetics apart i think as an analogy Hon’ble Nr Bill Gates shd hv taken it as complemnet.I almost worship this living human soul fm western world.God bless him & his business.Also sir learn to suffer fools wd grace

  30. Ben Slivka says:

    At Northwestern University we call this Whole-Brain Engineering(tm). See a cool 3 minute video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2TFYZsNQ88
    –Ben

  31. Orion Adrian says:

    @Mitch I’ve found the reverse to be true. That more often than not, especially in “enterprise” software that the engineering dictates that everything fit into this small box and in order to do that things have to be squished, cut, trimmed, and beaten into shape. This usually takes the form of variables not meant to do what they were originally meant for. Or being “clever” and taking advantage of some existing side effect. Finding the correct UI experiences and clearly communicating what is possible and how things should be accomplished — usually through existing expectations — is usually the way to go. Even if that produces multiple UIs, as long as those UIs are easy to learn and appropriate, then things will work.

  32. Pingback: Bill Gates Post Revisited — The Reactions | Jackson Fish Market

  33. Shad says:

    I think that Mr. Cooperman’s analogy is poor. He was trying to prove that “ways” are synonymous with “functions” in the context of his analogy. He even admitted that we use a toilet, a fountain and a shower in “different ways at different times” and that they cannot be used in a unified manner. Why? Because they function differently. Flushing water in a bowl is far different from gargling water in the sink. It has nothing to do with the learning curve at all. I am not trying to prove that Mr. Cooperman’s idea of having a variation in the usage of the GUI is futile. No one can prove whether the idea is effective or otherwise until it has been implemented in a large scale and see a general feedback from the users. The only problem I see is the kind of analogy he used in his presentation.

  34. bob says:

    Wow. I’m astounded by the opinions here. Science-minded people don’t get art and arty people don’t get science. Come on people, stop being so narrow minded. There are some artists with an appreciation for science and vice versa, there are also people for whom the same could not be said. None of this has anything to do with the anecdote around a poorly phrased comparison.

  35. TS Kan says:

    Good works are not the means of waste of time and code but the result.

    Correction does much, but encouragement does more.

  36. Kipp Woodard says:

    That was an awesome analogy! I can’t say that it was applicable in the context, since I don’t know enough about the context, but I think your analogy was profound. Bravo!

  37. Jumahat Amin Bin Abdul Majid says:

    Peace,
    A speech comes from a person accumulated experiences and the product comes from the concept of the mind. The mirror in life is the people around us where we have the same needs and wants in life. Software is the extension of life in technicality.

    bonikingv

  38. Phil M. says:

    Actually, I think your analogy is pretty good. It’s just the timing and situation that made it seem rude. That and he probably saw your point, but didn’t want to admit it openly.

    @Jodon, I couldn’t drink from that.

  39. Carlos says:

    xD Existe un dicho: Donde manda capitan… No gobierna marinero…

  40. KJMClark says:

    Agreed with Phil M. If he were a classier guy, he would have thought about it some more and maybe chuckled. But Mr. Gates has never come across as social and sophisticated. Kind of like Jobs in that respect – genius, driven, but not social or worldly. I don’t think your analogy was necessarily rude; he was most likely just trying to shut you up for challenging him.

  41. Your analogy was witty and perceptive. It was Bill Gates that was rude to you by not acknowledging that.

  42. Vincent says:

    From all this water I didn’t see even one meaningful example what that “art genius” offered to Bill. From modern position it will be nice to see how far both of ‘em thought.

    Anyway, most of Win controls are handy and unique. What I can add there is some powerful grid, combobox-tree, time-editor and may be some bells like outlook’s bar.

  43. ben says:

    Interesting article. the other comments are even more interesting…

    I would ask whether or not the analogy is applicable. In some ways it is, but in some ways it’s not. If it weren’t for the sanitary-hygine aspect, we probably could use them all for the same thing (or at least overlapping) functionality. While that same sanitation aspect doesn’t exist in the computer world, maybe something equivalent (ie malware) may exist.

    The point comes down whether or not you can use the same tool to accomplish different functions. That can only be answered by looking at 1). how different the functions are & 2). what is the true cost of having multiple tools.

    Few people need a 50-piece screwdriver set. Fewer people would be okay with using a knife blade as a screwdriver. Advocating either extreme would be wrong.

  44. Fatman says:

    Well, if u think ur idea is so great y dont u implement it urself? wat? Cuz u dont know how to program? Then shut the f*** up and follow the lead, dude.

  45. I fell off my chair laughing. Love it!

  46. Billy says:

    Well, your wish was granted. Now Bill has left, Balmer and Sinofsky have successfully injected art into what was considered (windows 7) an engineering and gui masterpiece. Enjoy it!

  47. Romina says:

    He meant rude as in the fact the author of this article had compare the users of Microsoft as some being showers, others toilets and sinks. It’s a rude analogy as who wants to be compared to a toilet?

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