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How Do You Solve A Problem Like Microsoft?

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a video game design consultant and the creator of leading blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Ever watched Hawaii Five-0? Ever notice just how much Microsoft product placement happens on the show? Some episodes feel like extended infomercial/tutorials for Surfaces wrapped around incidental events like shooting, chasing, surfing and such. One example recently showed Jorge Garcia using Cortana on a Windows phone and demonstrating its turn-by-turn map feature in detail for nearly a full minute. Not only was this cringeworthy, it was emblematic of the state of consumer-Microsoft today: the company that tells us it’s cool over and over.

Who Is Microsoft?

When I think about Microsoft (which is a lot this week because of Build) I tend to think there are three Microsofts. There’s business-Microsoft that conquered the world with Excel and isn’t going away any time soon. There’s tech-Microsoft that makes all the coding tools and servers beloved by a legion of developers. And then there’s consumer-Microsoft that makes phones, Xboxes and a variety of web services. Business-Microsoft and tech-Microsoft consistently seem to be in rude health, delivering profits and value and doing the meat-and-potato work of a giant corporation. Consumer-Microsoft, on the other hand, is supposed to be the front facing cool kid of the company, the one that’s selling the overall idea.

And consumer-Microsoft isn’t doing a great job. Indeed it never has. Consumer-Microsoft has long been trying to be one of the stylee brands that kids talk about around the campfire. In recent years it has developed a design language in its products, for example. It does slick press events in which it speaks in broad statements and visions and so on. Yet does any of it really take? Nope. Instead it projects this weird aura, as though it’s products are jack-in-the-boxes holding clown’s heads filled with serrated teeth and pox. The question is why, and I think a lot of it has to do with true identity.

From toothpaste to ecommerce sites, healthcare providers to jewellers, there is often an element of conversation in every consumer choice. Everything starts with how customers feel in relation to a company identity, whether as ally or enemy. This is why competition between products is almost never about merit, nor is it fair. We praise one widget and damn another because of what it means, not what it is. What it stands for and how it fits into a marketing story, not what it actually does. On the face of it it’s ridiculous (people stab each other over mobile phone choice?) but we do it anyway. Even by virtue of this post title at least half a dozen Microsoft defenders will launch into the comments of this post with swords drawn.

This behavior applies across all areas of business. They may not be sexy to regular folk but in their own sphere they have that same conversation with their customers as everyone else. Humans perceive the world in narratives and so there must be heroes and villains. There must be archetypes and identities.

To understand Microsoft you have to grasp the company’s identity, and why in Microsoft’s particular case that identity is fractured. Business-Microsoft, tech-Microsoft and consumer-Microsoft are almost like three completely different companies that just happen to share a bank account, but the kicker is that their cross-brand shenanigans do infect and dilute one another. Who is Microsoft? What’s it for? What’s it against? Why does it exist over and above earning profit? Nobody really knows. They know what certain parts of Microsoft want to be about, but not the whole thing.

The one most affected is consumer-Microsoft. It has little or no true identity. Sure the PC world runs on Windows but in the vast majority of cases those installs come via business-world partnerships rather than consumer preference. Windows works well enough and Windows-powered computers are cheaper than Macs, so they’re a default choice. But they don’t mean anything in the narratives of consumers no matter how hard consumer-Microsoft tries to sell us on the idea that they do.

The amount of money the company regularly plows into its web services, search engines and mobile products is staggering and yet the payoff is weak. Most of these products are perfectly usable, and yet for all their promotion consumer reaction is usually anemic. Even the recent success of the Surface Pro 3 is laudable, but it does seem as though it’s found a category that Apple will soon take away. In the consumer world Apple has an identity. Microsoft just doesn’t. However this is not for lack of trying.

The Grand Vision

Microsoft is basically stuck, caught between its three selves, and in asking the question it mostly winds its way back to a familiar answer. Since it’s the everything company it’s core self is to be the everything provider. That in turn becomes grand plans and grand visions of the “personally mine, ubiquitously everyone’s” variety. None of which have a squid’s chance in the desert. Whether it’s Live.com or Windows everywhere, the same code everywhere, etcetera, the company always ends up looking for the same universal kick. Microsoft keeps trying to solve that problem one way or another with elaborate technologies. But regular people never really seem to hear it. Why?

In the business world bundles are essential. You don’t sell one item you sell a series. You turn a customer into a licensor, and build brand loyalty, value and lock-in. In the tech world similarly you sell customers on suites rather than single tools. Get everyone signed up to sets of tools – as Adobe does, for example – and you’re gravy. But that approach doesn’t work so well for consumers because consumers are hard to sell on intangibles.

With people it’s more like this: There’s a product, a neat product that does a cool thing. They buy the product and discover that it’s just as neat as they had hoped and then maybe they buy another and another. The product becomes cool, crazy cool maybe, and so it goes. From iPods to Jawbone speakers, FitBits to Tesla batteries it’s the same. Consumers don’t have the time or patience to buy visions. They buy emotions, easily expressed by single objects with a strong sense of identity. They buy selfie sticks, not solutions.

Selling integration and complexity is hard because it’s selling the space between objects. It turns into a lot of boring feature talk. Remember a few years ago when Sony was trying to sell us on its meta-idea for BluRay while Nintendo was selling us on waggly-wavy Wii? Selling to consumers is like that. Similarly remember when Sony ditched all the big talk and instead produced a powerful game console that sold itself as a powerful game console while Nintendo went crazy with Wii U? Same. Microsoft keeps trying to glue its consumer products together but consumers consistently respond with apathy or suspicion.

And worse: cleaving to the grand vision means the company compromises the core utility of its products.

Micromuddled

Once you get past all the sales a product is ultimately supposed to be used. I use Gmail for example, and have for years. I was sold on the idea of its conversational view and its intelligent filtering but that sale happened a million years ago. I still use Gmail these days because in part my email is tied there, but in larger part because I trust it. Past the shiny wrapper it turned out that it was actually good. The problem with a lot of consumer-Microsoft products of late is that they’re not. Here’s a simple example:

My Xbox One can display broadcast TV:

2015-04-24 10.01.29

Where is it?

Take a good look at the screengrab above and tell me: How do I watch TV from here? You would think – as most people would – that it would be obvious. It would seem obvious to a kindergartner that there should be a TV tab, a Games tab and for those tabs to have lists of weird things like TV shows and games you own in there. But of course it’s not because Microsoft. To activate a primary feature like TV you have to go into My Games and Apps and find the TV app, or go over to the What’s On page and try to understand it. Or maybe one of the middle joypad buttons might do it, then again maybe not.

It’s an example of just how much of a muddle consumer-Microsoft gets itself into. The company consistently takes great engineering and buries it in opaque design that’s nominally all about the feels but is actually all about the wank. The Xbox One is exactly like that. It’s a great machine but as a product it’s tragically confused and has no earthly clue what it’s trying to achieve. The net effect is that I love what mine can do but I hate the actual Xbox part of it, meaning the user interface, the store, the default applications. They’re terrible. Truly utterly terrible. Grand Theft Auto V is beautiful on the system and Alien Isolation is dark and spooky but they’re living on a system that’s the equivalent of your obnoxious friend who would be a great guy if he could just get over himself for five minutes.

Xbox is pushy when you sign in, but poor with discovery and navigation. It’s keen to explain to you how it can do cool things but the underlying structure for finding those things operates according to a kind of interdimensional-horror logic that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lovecraft novel. Xbox has slick animations and sounds and yet can’t seem to decide on a simple rule for backing out of an app (sometimes you zoom out, sometimes you flip up, sometimes to the main dashboard, sometimes to a previous app). Xbox is glossy with high def promise yet many of its features like Snap induce active dread. I’ve owned the system 6 months and still can’t remember how to get in and out of Snap.

It goes on. Much of what you’d expect to be ordinary functionality such as finding a list of your games requires work. The only way to overcome its rage-inducing complexity is to hunt for games and pin them to a list of favorites (Pins). But that list will only appear if you’re online with the machine. (No, seriously.) Figuring out how to install a game can sometimes lead to weird store pages, but also uninstalling a game requires investigation. Tapping that three-line button will get you that option sometimes, depending on where you tapped it because Microsoft. Meanwhile a great deal of dashboard space pushes a Friends feature that you will never ever use while its digital store pages manage to show you a princely four options at once.

It was the same with Windows 8 and only slightly better with Windows 10. Yes it’s great to have that Start Menu back, but take a look at what’s actually in it:

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 11.58.59 AM

(I know this is from a preview product, but it will launch in a couple of months and so is unlikely to change much.)

There are plenty of options. Some are images and some are not. Some are differently sized. Some are applications and some are system functions. Some are differently colored while some are the same, and so they bleed across one another. Ask an average user to find an application not presented and they’d likely be lost (All apps, bottom left corner). Ask them to find the Shut Down button and again they’d be lost (top right).

Yes it’s bad, but my point is that it’s a uniquely Microsoft kind of bad. Rather than present one or two simple schema it presents four and leaves the hapless user to figure it out. And why?  Once again, identity. Consumer-Microsoft seemingly doesn’t know what Xbox is, or meant to be. It’s a games console, it’s a TV unit, it’s a streaming box, it’s a Skype box, it’s a computer in the living room, it’s a a a… Consumer-Microsoft similarly doesn’t know what Windows is, or meant to be. It has some hazy idea for a cross-operating system of destiny – but that’s just back to the same old grand vision. To physically use these products is to watch their ambitions fight for your attention like cats in a bag and to have zero faith in their follow-through.

For all its resources Microsoft’s conflicted identity makes its products seem goofy and atonal, and it can never seem to explain why you would want them without sounding sinister or like your dad trying to be cool. Microsoft is always trying to bring users into a grander vision, but the single purpose of that vision is never obvious. Microsoft is always hanging bells and whistles off of everything it does, but toward unspoken ends. And so the identity that it projects is incoherent and its products feel almost inchoate.

The Fix

Let’s dispense with the two common solutions proposed for fixing Microsoft. The first is for the company to get out of its failing sectors and focus on what it’s good at. Nice idea but in Microsoft’s particular case it would cut the company off from many avenues of innovation, and thus fall far behind competitors. We don’t live in an age with such clean divisions between office and home so it’s important to keep a hand in. Meanwhile the second solution is to separate the consumer division out into one or more subsidiaries and give them autonomy. Xbox would be an ideal candidate. And yet although this sounds attractive, history has it that companies that go this route (Sony, for example) often descend into civil war.

I think there’s a third way, one that doesn’t require killing divisions or chopping the company up into a federation, and that is for Microsoft to embrace its identity across all parts.

Despite the PR, consumers usually know exactly who or what a company is really about. A branding strategy might forge a temporary shift in perceptions but an organization’s true self emerges regardless. Microsoft’s design teams have been trying to make it seem San Francisco cool for a long time, to show that they have a handle on what you want, will find attractive and cool. But – speaking as an outsider – that’s not the company’s true self.

Microsoft is much more Seattle than SF, by which I mean to say it’s a corporate dork rather than a corporate hipster. A highly skilled and savvy corporate dork with brains to burn and sharp ideas, but a corporate dork nonetheless. It might want to be slick but it just isn’t. That’s why its marketing always seems to end up like Jorge Garcia riding a moped telling you about Cortana (or the equivalent). It’s a layer of chintz applied to a deeply geek base.

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 12.25.22 PM

What does Microsoft embracing its identity actually mean? I think it means owning the fact that this is a huge and powerful company of engineers, and ceasing all design that isn’t in service of better utility. Like forget trying to be a consumer’s dream and instead rely on the consumer to like products that can actually do stuff. Is that such a tall order?

Why get lost in the oxygen free world of user interface design and instead be the engineers you truly are, Microsofters? Why not embrace the dull rather than flitting between fashions? Why not develop features that genuinely evolve the utility of a product rather than its surface? In the console space for example there isn’t much call for the wackier Kinect stuff or the global Bing searches. On the other hand having a cloud-enabled rental system for games that made them cheap to try? Players would love the hell out of that. Why not make a dashboard for the system based on boring ideas like finding games and minimizing navigation through being sensible rather than falling into semantic airy fluffy wibbly wobbly timey wimey reasoning?

Microsoft: be the engineering company you actually are and don’t worry so much about being cool. Y’know?