• By Everett McKay on July 26th, 2011
  • Getting from good UX to great UX

You ship your culture: Why Microsoft didn’t invent the iPad

I recently presented UX Design Essentials for Managers to a group of executives. Everyone there had an iPad and loved it. Most said that they were using their iPads for routine tasks now, and rarely needed their laptops anymore. Their top question for me: Why didn’t Microsoft invent the iPad?

Good question!

It’s a very reasonable question to ask, and the answer is extremely relevant to the course. After all, Microsoft had a huge head start, with an early lead in tablets and touch. Windows XP, Tablet PC Edition was released in 2002, Windows Vista had pen support built in by 2007, and Windows 7 had touch support built in by 2009. And Windows has a huge market share advantage to help get traction.

By contrast, after the failed Newton, Apple showed very little interest in tablets. My friend Bert Keeley, a tablet and touch expert, approached Apple about creating a tablet but was rebuffed by Steve Jobs, who said “We won’t do those.” When Apple finally shipped the iPad in April 2010, it was extremely late to the party.

Fashionably late, it appears, as the iPad has driven Microsoft’s tablet efforts into oblivion. And it took all of a week on the market to do so.

Dick Brass got it wrong

Dick Brass is a former Microsoft VP who led their tablet and e-book efforts. After the iPad was released, he wrote the New York Times article Microsoft’s Creative Destruction, where Mr. Brass explains how Microsoft’s “dysfunctional corporate culture” squandered its early lead. He tells a tale of technology backstabbing and sabotage remarkably similar to the plot of Mean Girls.

But is this really the reason why Microsoft didn’t invent the iPad? Here’s an interesting thought experiment: suppose Microsoft executives were a little less adept at backstabbing and sabotage, and gave their full support to Mr. Brass. Would Microsoft-based tablets have been as successful as the iPad?

My answer: No.

Microsoft is a technology company, but the iPad success required an experience company

Many people believe that UX design is problem solving and Microsoft definitely falls into that camp. Here’s a problem solving approach to designing a Microsoft tablet:

  • Define problem Create a tablet-based OS that works with the most popular apps.
  • Find a solution Identify the top usability problems (often called “pain points”) with using Windows on a tablet, develop technologies to work around them, and ship a version of Windows with those technologies.
  • Evaluate Determine if users can browse the web and use Office reasonably well. If so, problem solved. Ship it!
  • Improve Continually improve the product and Office integration over time based on customer feedback.

(BTW: What’s up with “pain points”? Many people talk about these—as if not being painful is a good user experience design aspiration.)

If the iPad didn’t exist, this might seem like a reasonable plan—especially to a Microsoft VP. Exploit the Windows market share, get something out there quickly that runs Office, and see what happens.

But in the context of the iPad, there are three glaring flaws with this approach:

  • The iPad is a success because it’s delightful. The iPad is optimized for the top tasks that don’t require a keyboard. The software is simple, easy to use, and responsive…you don’t have to futz around to use it. The multi-touch support is responsive and intuitive. The device itself is light, feels great in your hands, has fantastic battery life, and is a perfect gaming device. Overall, it’s fun, fast, and hassle free. Merely being functional or having a reduced set of “pain points” is a non-starter.
  • Running Office is the least interesting thing you can do with a tablet. Note how getting support from Office was a crucial part of Mr. Brass’s story. But aside from simple email, Office-type tasks are too cumbersome for a tablet. The iPad’s simple, hassle free operation is optimized for browsing the web, reading books, playing games, watching videos, and having fun. That is, everything other than using Office.
  • People aren’t going to wait around for you to get it right. More on this later…

Having tablet technology doesn’t matter. Running Windows and Office doesn’t matter. Having a delightful, hassle free experience does. That is why the iPad is successful.

Apple gets this, but Microsoft doesn’t (Mr. Brass included).

Something everybody wants, but nobody needs

The iPad is unique among consumer electronics devices. The iPad is something everybody wants, but nobody needs. There is nothing you can do with an iPad that you can’t do with a laptop or a smartphone.

This is not a slight. After all, nobody needs a Ferrari either. Rather, it sets an extremely high bar for UX design. There is no clear need to fill—beyond customer delight.  Without a clear need, if the results aren’t delightful, what’s the point?

Getting it right the first time

Microsoft can create delightful products—but only after it has exhausted all other possibilities. The much-maligned Zune is an interesting example. While the initial release was weak, the Zune desktop software was delightful and made iTunes look like a spreadsheet. But by the time Microsoft got it right, it was well beyond the point where anybody cared.

The “three tries to get it right” approach worked just fine in the Windows and Office era, but doesn’t work anymore when your competitors are hitting grand slams every time at bat.

Lessons learned

OK, enough about Microsoft’s problems…what does this mean to you? Here are the key takeaways:

  • You ship your culture The products your team creates are a reflection of its culture. Your team’s vision, plus it goals, team members, reward system, and decision making process are all a reflection of its culture. If that culture doesn’t value great user experiences, your products won’t have them. That’s that simple. A dysfunctional design culture is an executive problem—it’s not a problem non-exec employees can possibly fix.
  • Top players are getting right the first time now The “three times to get it right” approach doesn’t work anymore. If you don’t create a great user experience, your competitors will do it for you. Don’t expect your customers to wait around.
  • Experiences matter; features, technology and “innovation” don’t. Innovation is a meaningless word. Nobody cares. People do care about features and technology, but only as a means to an end. Great experiences do matter—people want to be delighted by the products they buy and use.

Attention managers: Do you need help improving your team’s design culture? Please consider hosting UX Design Essentials for Managers  for your management team. This class will help your team identify and work through its design culture challenges (having a neutral outsider drive really helps), plus help boost their UX design skills.


Leave a Comment / What do you think?

3 Responses

  • Kayla Block - August 15, 2011 at 12:55 pm #
  • I found this blog from linkedin today and I’m loving it. Great articles. Thank you!


  • Torfi Magnusson - October 3, 2011 at 4:50 pm #
  • Interesting that the culture of a company can have such a big impact. Do you think that this is the main reason for Apples big success in recent years?


  • Everett McKay - October 3, 2011 at 5:01 pm #
  • I do. I became aware of the importance of culture when I attended a talk by August De Los Reyes at Microsoft when he basically said “We ship our culture!” It took me awhile to fully appreciate this insight, but now I see it everywhere. Culture drives everything. As I mention in the post: “If your culture doesn’t value great user experiences, your products won’t have them. That’s that simple.” Most team cultures I’ve seen focus on technology, features, and schedules first.


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