Microsoft: Leopard: Spots

When invited to a Microsoft ‘Voice of the Customer’ briefing, I must confess that I didn’t know what to expect. Software that expects the customer to close their computer by going to the ‘Start’ button obviously doesn’t really understand customer needs.
A search on the internet revealed that ‘Voice of the Customer’ is actually quite an accepted term in software circles. It’s about understanding customer needs through market research in the early stages of a project, then prioritising them in order to influence product development. You can find out more at wikipedia’s entry on the subject.

The briefing went way beyond the voice of the customer though. Perhaps it should have been called ’second-guessing the needs of the customer’ or something. Microsoft wants to get things right, customer-wise, in the first place and then make it easy for customers to get resolutions to problems encountered – sometimes before they’ve even encountered them.
You’re probably thinking what I was thinking; “Microsoft has been in business over 30 years, shouldn’t it have been taking this approach all along?” And I don’t have an answer to that, except that I suspect that programmers (who, in general, have little grasp of the average user’s needs) were left to run wild with their clever but irrelevant and often inconsistent (across applications) coding.
Microsoft seemed to have little idea of, or sympathy for, the hours that users would waste trying to find answers to their problems. As the web increased in popularity, Google probably became the first port of call, with real users in forums or Q&A sites becoming the best source of answers. Although, having said that, I have a note here that says Microsoft itself participated in 13 million email or chat conversations, took 24 million phone calls and served up two billion on-line self-help requests. I presume that was in a year. It represents a ton of work and a huge cost for the company, over whatever time scale. This is, presumably, part of the trigger for a customer-focused revolution.

So, the new order is determined to design products better in the first place, be made betterin the second and be better supported in the third. One of the company’s products that has already gone through this particular mill is Windows Server 2008. In a comparative time period, the incident volume was half that of its predecessor, Windows Server 2003.
Rather than have to plough through arcane knowledgebase articles, online users will be able to hit a ‘Fix it’ button. Later on, an online service will be able to undo something that’s harmed your system. Running applications will be monitored for health and get fixed in the background.
Microsoft has 424 full time employees, plus contractors and vendors involved in this quality process. Even so, it has to prioritise its work, it knows, for example, that Windows Mobile is a pain but it’s still not reached the head of the queue.
However the Windows 7 operating system that our beloved leader (Alex Bellinger) blogged about last week, received the full treatment, and it shows. Half a million individual items of feedback were processed. Five diagnostics and 108 design changes were incorporated as a result. It’s no wonder it’s becoming one of the best-received Microsoft offerings.

The company could have saved users (and itself) a lot of pain had it introduced such processes from the start. But then, without the internet, this would have been virtually (no pun intended) impossible.
Let’s hope that this really does represent a fresh start.

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