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Q&A with Bill Buxton

Bill Gates loves him. So does Peter Gabriel. This Toronto-based musician-turned-design-guru shares insights into why technologies succeed or fail

Globe and Mail Update

Not many people can claim endorsements from both Bill Gates and rock icon Peter Gabriel. But Toronto tech whiz Bill Buxton's new book, Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design boasts testimonials not only from the world's richest
man and the founder of Genesis, but also from Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Bill Moggridge, co-founder of IDEO, the legendary California-based design house.

Buxton, now a principal researcher at Microsoft, started in the music program at Queen's University (he plays the saxophone); it was the early days of digital music and Buxton began his path toward technology by mapping notes as numbers and algorithms. He eventually drifted into computer science at the University of Toronto (where he's still an associate professor) and finally found himself moving into the world of technology and interactive design. That journey has taken him to the Ontario College of Art and Design and some of the largest tech centres in the world, including Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center.

Along the way, the 59-year-old musician-turned-design-guru has amassed a series of patents and gained unique insight into why technologies succeed or fail.

You've complained that design—specifically, the interface between user and machine—is often an afterthought. Is it still that bad out there?
Yes, it is that bad—though with a few exceptions. We're still in a situation where design, in terms of users or customers, is tacked on at the end. This is most prevalent in high tech, which is at the same point that industrial design was in 1927. That was the landmark year when four key events occurred in the U.S. First, the president of General Motors hired Harley Earl as a designer. His first car, the Cadillac Eldorado, caused Ford Motor Co. to shut down its line for six months until it adopted what Earl started. We went from one-size-fits-all, to curves, pinstriping, colours and engineering that made the car beautiful to look at and to drive. Two years later, Henry Dreyfuss, who'd been a theatre set designer, opened his business, Henry Dreyfuss Associates, which is still going. Dreyfuss is most famous for designing the classic Bell rotary telephone. Then, there was Walter Teague who designed pocket-sized Kodak cameras in beautiful pastel colors, which Apple used for its iPod mini. Finally, there's Raymond Loewy, who started as a fashion designer; he redesigned the Coca-Cola bottle and logo in 1955, as well as my favourite car of all time, the 1963 Studebaker Avanti. They all created industrial design as we know it.

How can we learn from what happened 80 years ago?
I say we're stuck in 1927 because we have a new class of product—PCs, mobile phones, MP3 players and GPS—but there's no user interface in either the hardware or software. Traditional industrial designers can't solve the problem. They understand the hardware but not the software. Computer scientists understand the software, but they have no experience with design. To get that right, we need a new kind of designer who understands both the technology and the context. There's no place to learn that right now, just like there was no place in 1927 to learn industrial design.

Where did we go off the tracks after such a strong start?
The problem, as my friend Wayne Cherry [a former designer for GM] notes, is that these designers were successful because they were hired by and reported to the president. Some companies, seeing the success of design, created their own internal design departments. Design then went from reporting to the president to the executive vice-president, to corporate VP, to director, to some manager way down there. It's like that for tech companies; they're simply not positioned to be successful.

So when we talk about design, we're not talking just about how it looks—it's about how it works and how it's marketed. What's an example?
Google is successful not just because of its design, but because its business plan and technology all work together. It's holistic.

Are there other exceptions we can learn from?
Apple. And working for Microsoft, I think this gives the example credibility. Jonathan Ive joined Apple in the early 1990s, when John Sculley was president. He was there through the slide, right to the point where the existence of the company was threatened. Then, Steve Jobs came back and turned the company around. But the key thing is that Jobs did it with the existing talent. So, it wasn't the lack of talent causing Apple's downslide—it was the disenfranchisement of the talent who had the skills to solve the company's problems. Ive designed the iMac and that turned Apple around. I don't mean that the president of the company has to be a designer, but he has to protect the designers because design is the life of the company. When business people talk to me about being design-centric, I ask, Do you have someone who makes design decisions? Because you can't look me in the eye and say that you value design unless you have someone at the level of CFO or CIO who is responsible for it. Otherwise, you're telegraphing to your company, your employees, your shareholders and customers that you don't take design seriously. So I say to them, unless you do that, don't waste my time—or maybe I should say, read my book.

CEOs reading a design book? That's funny in a scary way.
I started writing this book for the design community. Then I realized that if I was wildly successful, the best I could do would be to create a bunch of people with the potential of Jonathan Ive, who would end up frustrated and shooting themselves if the engineers and executives and people they worked with didn't see the value of their work. I would be wasting my time. Take Apple. It's not Jonathan Ive or the design group or the iMac or iPod or iPhone. It's all of it—it's the legal department that negotiated with record companies for iTunes for 99 cents, it's the advertising department's iconic black silhouettes, it's the stores. It's all on brand, and they designed that. Any company that doesn't have that is going to get clobbered. So I rewrote the book for everyone.

As a principal scientist with Microsoft, doesn't it irk a little to point to Apple as a classic example of getting the design and interface right—and improving on it?
Yes, but that doesn't mean Microsoft can't come out with good design. I joined Microsoft two years ago. I was 57, well along in my career. Why would I go to Apple? They don't need me. Microsoft really wants to change and grow its design capability, and it is. I want to compete against people I respect, like Apple and Google. I have three iPods, but I don't use them much now that I have a Zune [Microsoft's MP3 player]. I think Microsoft got the Zune right—it just works. The New York Times online reader is another great example of technology that works and is transparent to the user. No one talks about it being a Microsoft product, but it is.

Aside from the iPod, what other digital products have really got it right?
I love ATMs and the satellite dish I put up at the cottage that gives me Web access in the middle of nowhere. And the avalanche transponder—it saved my friend's life because it is a technology that does one thing, and only one thing, really well. The more features you add, the less useful a product becomes. I also like the checkout counter at the grocery store, which has sped up paying for purchases. The Canon EOS digital SLR, which I bought my wife for Christmas is also great—it just works, and it's easy to use.

Which ones failed miserably despite a good premise?
I was in San Francisco, and a Wells Fargo ATM ate my card. I was pooched. I spent half an hour on my cellphone, but all they could tell me was that I couldn't get my card back and that it would be shredded. I went to a Wells Fargo branch and said I wasn't leaving until I got my card back. I did get it back, but the design failure here is that you've got to plan for when ATMs fail—because they will fail. The system broke down, and that isn't good customer service. It means I will never, ever, use another Wells Fargo machine again. It's all about the user experience, and you have to design that.

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