Desperate designs: Microsoft Bob legacy

Arseni Mourzenko
Founder and lead developer
December 15, 2016
Tags: interaction-design 8

Since I'm mov­ing to a dif­fer­ent city, I had to find a mov­ing com­pa­ny for my fur­ni­ture and the servers. Here in France, the user ex­pe­ri­ence when deal­ing with those com­pa­nies ranges from poor to “WTF hap­pened in the head of the guys who did this freak­ing web­site and why are they hat­ing so much the un­for­tu­nate users?” The most pop­u­lar form con­sists of ask­ing you to fill some in­for­ma­tion the com­pa­ny don't even use; then, a guy from the com­pa­ny calls you and leaves on your an­swer­ing ma­chine a mes­sage ask­ing to call a num­ber. So they wast­ed time de­vel­op­ing a use­less form, just to waste your time fill­ing it so they could waste their time call­ing you to give you a phone num­ber. Like if sim­ply putting the phone num­ber on the web­site in­stead of the stu­pid form is that dif­fi­cult...

But I'm not here to talk about the gen­er­al de­spair of those com­pa­nies. Among them, there was one which did an im­pres­sive fea­ture: a fea­ture which was im­pres­sive­ly use­less and an­noy­ing.

Case study

Those of the read­ers who are old­er than me, or those ones who are in­ter­est­ed in de­sign, should re­mem­ber the 1995's Mi­crosoft Bob—“one of Mi­crosoft's more vis­i­ble prod­uct fail­ures” ac­cord­ing to Wikipedia, as well as The Mag­ic Cap from Gen­er­al Mag­ic re­leased in 1994. De­spite their rapid fail­ures, they gave rise to a bunch of oth­er doomed prod­ucts, which have in com­mon with their an­ces­tors the fact that they com­plete­ly mis­un­der­stand the lim­i­ta­tions of metaphors in in­ter­faces. As Alan Coop­er ex­plained in About Face 3, page 272:

By re­flect­ing the phys­i­cal world of mech­a­nisms, most metaphors firm­ly nail our con­cep­tu­al feet to the ground, for­ev­er lim­it­ing the pow­er of our soft­ware. [...] [t]hey tie our in­ter­faces to the Me­chan­i­cal Age ar­ti­facts. [...] Why not aban­don this slav­ish de­vo­tion to metaphor and give the user easy ac­cess to func­tions?

Now wouldn't it be ex­cit­ing to reuse an ex­am­ple of a to­tal fail­ure twen­ty years lat­er, in or­der to fail once again? This is ex­act­ly what one of the mov­ing com­pa­nies did on their web­site. The prob­lem they tried to solve is sim­ple: most forms ask to en­ter the vol­ume of the fur­ni­ture, but users may not nec­es­sar­i­ly be able to mea­sure this vol­ume eas­i­ly them­selves: it would be much eas­i­er to let them se­lect the el­e­ments from the list of fur­ni­ture, and the on­line tool will get the re­sult mag­i­cal­ly. Good idea. Ex­cept that they did it this way:

The screenshot of the website

In­stead of giv­ing the damn list with the cor­re­spond­ing vol­ume, they de­cid­ed to do a 3D mod­el of a house. The user nav­i­gates from room to room, and se­lects the fur­ni­ture to be added to a list by click­ing on it. I sup­pose I don't have to men­tion that the 3D nav­i­ga­tion as clunky as it could pos­si­bly be.

Now imag­ine you have to move a pi­ano. What room should you se­lect? Prob­a­bly a liv­ing room. You go there, you turn around (be­ware of sea­sick­ness), and you see no pi­ano. Maybe in par­ent's room? Nope. By look­ing room af­ter room, you end up find­ing it in... the hall­way. That's right. At least they didn't put it in the clos­et.

Now imag­ine what would hap­pen if any­one could have any sense when de­sign­ing the in­ter­face? You would have a sim­ple flat list of fur­ni­ture with a fil­ter box. You'll type “pi,” and the list would show:

All it takes is two key­strokes and a click of a mouse (or four key­strokes), not five min­utes of 3D nav­i­ga­tion which makes you want to throw up.

The worst part is that they achieved to fail at every pos­si­ble lev­el. Their tool couldn't even tell the vol­ume of in­di­vid­ual fur­ni­ture items, but only the sum. This means that if you need to do ad­just­ments (such as “my table looks like this one, but it's slight­ly big­ger, so I may be adding 0.5 m³ just to be sure”), you have no oth­er choice than adding those el­e­ments one by one and com­put­ing the sum your­self.


Such in­ter­faces are not only harm­ful in terms of com­pa­ny im­age, giv­ing the im­pres­sion of am­a­teur­ish com­pa­ny which finds that the time of their cus­tomers is val­ue­less. They also in­di­cate that the com­pa­ny de­cid­ed to spend thou­sands of dol­lars de­vel­op­ing some crap in­stead of spend­ing much less to hire a de­cent in­ter­ac­tion de­sign­er. The mon­ey they wast­ed is the mon­ey the cus­tomers will pay, and I don't want to be that cus­tomer.

Such des­per­ate de­sign could been eas­i­ly avoid­ed by ap­ply­ing the fol­low­ing ba­sic prin­ci­ples:

And, nat­u­ral­ly, reusing a twen­ty years old in­ter­face of a prod­uct which mis­er­ably failed specif­i­cal­ly be­cause of its in­ter­face won't lead to a suc­cess­ful prod­uct. Es­pe­cial­ly when done by clue­less peo­ple who un­der­stand noth­ing about in­ter­ac­tion de­sign.