Interview with Andrew McGlinchey: Vista Control (Panel) Freak

Andrew McGlinchey

If you haven’t already seen the new Windows Vista control panel, then you need your eyes checked. What used to be a skill and talent in picking the right icon to change the right configurations in Windows impressing many friends and colleagues, is about to be turned into a simple task that involves little thought and greater outcomes. A necessary but devastating change to many geeks and overpaid technicians I’m sure.

So if you want someone to blame for making Windows Vista so easy to configure and personalize, that person would be Andrew McGlinchey.

My commentary are surrounded with [square brackets] in italics.

The opinions expressed by Andrew McGlinchey herein are his own personal opinions and do not represent his employer’s views in any way. If you hold Microsoft to account for anything he says, I will personally hunt you down and make your life miserable.

Who are you, what is your shoe size and how many kids do you have?

I’m Andrew McGlinchey, my shoe size is a decidedly average 9 US, 43 in Europe. No kids, which is why I can afford shoes. [Shoes vs kids. The great life balance.]

What do you do, and have done, at Microsoft?

I’m a Program Manager, meaning I see to it that everyone on the project knows what they’re doing, why, and by when. I draw the map of where we’re going, and then pave the road ahead so the development, test and writing teams drive ahead. I also use unnecessary and strained driving metaphors wherever possible. [I'm sure you hang a lot of motivational posters around the office too.]

I’ve not been at Microsoft all that long – three and a half years now, and just about all of it on the Vista project. I’m the PM for the Vista Control Panel, and also Guided Help (which you’ve shown on this screencast very nicely!). The group I’m in is called the Natural User Interface group, and our goal is to make it so people can use computers by just stating what they want naturally (meaning speaking or typed keywords), and get it done directly. Everyone would admit we still have a long way to go! But Vista’s Speech Recognition, the search feature in the control panel, and Guided Help, are all steps along that continuum. (Oliver Scholz, PM for Speech Recognition, who you interviewed here, is in the same group). We have some incubation projects in the wings that will take those first steps a lot further in future products. We look forward to the day when you can speak or type to your computer, and it’ll just do what you want! [Start listening. Do my homework. Stop listening.]

Why did you join Microsoft and what type of educational and works experiences have you had?

Everyone at Microsoft really cares a lot about what they’re making [and I'm sure it applies financially as well], is great at what they do, and pushes hard; that’s a great environment to be a part of. Plus, the impact is humbling. So many millions of people using stuff I work on is a mix of scary and exhilarating. Scary because I know, no matter what we do, we can’t get everything right for everybody. So many users means so many requirements, and what delights one user will irritate another – designing Windows is a real balancing act. But it’s exhilarating because it’s an opportunity to do something great for so many people, so many languages and countries and businesses. [And so many idiotic bureaucracies *cough*EU*cough*]

I took Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, and worked as a developer at Nortel Networks, and then as a program manager at some smaller but exciting companies, before joining Microsoft. I’ve always tried to focus on natural language or user-interaction stuff. Flexible, semantics-driven human minds meet brittle, syntax-driven computers: that’s a rich area to play in. There is so much more we can do to make technology easier to use, better suited to our minds and ways of living.

Windows Vista brings a lot of changes. Which of those changes did you make?

My changes are mostly in the home page and category pages of the control panel. But I am just one person in a team of designers, developers, testers, writers, usability engineers, and translators who contributed to it. A lot of the same team also built and shipped Guided Help.

It’s interesting you bring up how much things change [I did?]; that’s a real tricky balance for Vista. We need to make things better, and add great new things, which of course means change. But we need things to act and work the same as before, because of the hundreds of millions of people using Windows already. It’s a classic design tradeoff, where there are contradictory requirements: change it while keeping it the same! So within those constraints, we’ve worked hard to make Vista innovative while still being a continuation of what came before. We’ve made choices that we think should delight most of the people most of the time.

If you were to sell Windows Vista with 5 dot-points under 20 words each, what would you write?

That’s a tough one for me: the marketing guys will be much better at distilling the entire flavor of it into a succinct message. And it used to bother me that I couldn’t quite think of Vista as this simple thing with a simple message. But then I had this observation: the number of icons in the Vista control panel is nearly double the number in the XP control panel (don’t worry, you can search now, so finding what you want is easier, not harder!). That can be taken as a measure of how much goodness there is in this product. You need so many settings because there are so many awesome new things in Vista. So writing the definitive 5 bullet points for Vista is hard, because for each different person, there will be a different 5 bullet points. We just have to admit that the message for something as complicated as a major operating system is more complex than the message would be for an mp3 player or something. [You, very good at avoiding tricky interview questions, young one.]

Why is the Control Panel reorganized? What is wrong with the current XP control panel?

There are a bunch of improvements we had to make. One is how hard it is to find what you need in the control panel. After a while, expert users can memorize what icon / tab / button to click, but that’s frustrating. And many less-experienced users are just overwhelmed. So one huge thing is the addition of keyword search. When you open Control Panel, the keyboard focus is on the search box. Type “background”, or “mute” or “backup” or “resolution” or “defrag” and up come links to take you directly to the right UI to do that. You can search in your own words, without having to know the ‘official’ name for anything. You don’t have to know what control panel icon to find, or what sub-page it’s on.

Another thing we needed to change was how hard it often is for new users to change the setting they wanted. A lot of the Vista control panels are now redesigned in a more inductive way, meaning they’re structured by the choices you really need to make and presenting the information when you need it. A lot of older control panels from Win 95 days are designed around the technology: the user has to already have a mental model of what the thing does to make sense of the UI. But the new inductive flows frame choices in terms of what the user wants to have happen, and not so much about the technical way to accomplish those goals.

Finally, we improved the category view from XP. We know a lot of XP users stick to Classic view; they’re used to it, they’ve memorized it, and the XP Category view doesn’t really add much for them. But there are so many new things in the Control Panel in Vista that the classic view gets unmanageable. What worked as a UI in Windows 95 isn’t really scalable to Vista. So we invested in a better category view. We have sub-links under the categories and under the icons inside categories, both for efficiency and to act as a kind of ‘sub-title’ to the category. We also cross-post some things; for instance, Windows Firewall is under both Network and Internet, and under Security, because different people think of it different ways.

Your question talks about reorganizing, but actually, we’ve tried pretty hard to reorganize as little as possible [Backwards psychology!]; I have a big list of 50 top things people do with the control panel, and we’ve worked to make sure the way you did it in XP still works about the same as in Vista. Things needed to change in order to make them better, but we tried hard to minimize the churn for people who already know how to do things a certain way.

End interview

Andrew, like many other Vista Program Managers face the tough balance between innovation and legacy-support. Any insignificant change could affect the way millions of people work. But I think Andrew and his team has done a great job with both the Vista control panel and Guided Help. Both of which I love to use and evangelize to everyone.

I’d like to thank Andrew for taking time out to complete this interview, and wish his team the best for the launch of Windows Vista.

15 insightful thoughts

  1. The Control Panel in Vista is an improvement indeed. I forgot to mention the sub links in category view in my ActiveWin review.

    “It’s interesting you bring up how much things change [I did?]; that’s a real tricky balance for Vista. We need to make things better, and add great new things, which of course means change. But we need things to act and work the same as before, because of the hundreds of millions of people using Windows already.”

    I agree with this point a lot, changing things for technology sake is really a different period in Windows development, today its really about improving familar features and just making those experiences better.

    I use the Category groups similar to Mac OS X’s System Preferences, in this view Vista’s collapsable panels makes it convenient for me to show the applets I can commonly use.

  2. I will be frank:

    Some of the name changes in the vista control panel are downright idiotic!
    Windows started with a “Display” option. Now I have the same settings spread across “Appearances and Personilization”

    Calling that an improvement is insulting to the intelligence of a user.

  3. every time i change the control panel to place icons where i want them- later or the next day thier back to auto arrange? I’ve unticked this under view and ticked ONLY align to grid, just wondering if you could help!!

  4. making the control panel more harder to understand.
    what i could control and set option in XP worked
    and now in Vista it DONT make sense at all. too much of a change.
    not happy.

    and even worse is you broken up the normal boxes, so i cant check across the setting all in one
    just to make sure i ve done them right. but noooo i have to check each one.

    learn to do simple next time. like XP, other than that vista works great.

    simple dont fix what is not broken.

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