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Microsoft's guru of 'design matters'

Bill Buxton is a technologist, designer, musician, an author and more who has been tasked with spreading the importance of design to engineers at the software giant.

March 29, 2011|By Sharon Pian Cha

Reporting from Seattle — Bill Buxton is multiplatform the way Leonardo da Vinci was multiplatform.

The Microsoft Corp. researcher is a technologist, designer, musician, an author, outdoorsman and a nationally ranked equestrian.

He has spent decades working on the future of tech, but he paddled the rivers of Saskatchewan, Canada, last summer in 1,000-year-old technology: a birch-bark canoe sealed with tree sap and bear fat.

At Microsoft, Buxton is a researcher who also has been charged with spreading the "design matters" message to engineers.

Design matters to Microsoft's bottom line, as Apple leapfrogs the company in market share and market capitalization with the elegant iPhone and iPad.

Microsoft has shown pockets of more sophisticated design with the Windows Phone 7 interface and the Arc Touch mouse, but it has a long way to go. The company remains synonymous with the boxy personal computer, a cutting-edge device in the 1980s that now has the sex appeal of mom jeans.

Hired in 2005 with the assignment to "go make a difference," Buxton is trying to spark a design-naissance inside Microsoft.

He summed up his goal in a meeting with Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer a few years ago.

"We need to have equal competence, which would be design, experience and technology," Buxton recalls telling Ballmer. "Every project needs to have equal status at the table on each of the three disciplines."

He is upfront about the challenge.

"My job is to be frustrated," he said via phone from Revelstoke, Canada, about to disappear for a few days on a backcountry ski trip.

Buxton, a human-computer interaction expert, is one of 850 researchers that Microsoft hires to conduct scholarly research on technology and to publish reports in academic journals. What they work on may or may not ever become part of a commercial product.

Microsoft annually spends more than $9 billion on research and development. Although the number includes money spent on developing commercial products, the amount remains staggering. The National Science Foundation, in comparison, received $6.9 billion in federal funding in 2010.

With his silver head of '70s rocker hair, many compare Buxton to Doc Brown, the inventor in the "Back to the Future" film series.

But Buxton has more artist and jock in him than mad scientist. He has the ability to speak about technology without actually talking about technology.

His 2007 book on design, "Sketching User Experiences," flits from the design of the iPod to "The Wizard of Oz," the book "Black Like Me" and the plays of Bertolt Brecht. At the Microsoft MIX conference in Las Vegas last year, he played a digital saxophone and exhorted the developers to soyez un luthier — be a lute builder.

The moral was that, instead of dismissing the computer mouse as a utilitarian $15 pointing device, think of it as a violin bow that starving musicians purchase for $10,000.

"I don't know so many Renaissance people who have all these multiple and intersecting lives," said Henry Hong-Yiu Cheng, a friend at design firm IDEO. "He's multidimensional, whereas most technologists are much more unidimensional."

Rather than a blind worship of the divine in the machine, Buxton espouses a humble respect for the man and the machine.

He posits in his book: What would you use to guide you if you were paddling along the coast of Greenland? Your mobile phone? You wouldn't have cell coverage. Even if you did, it would be so cold the battery would freeze. And if your battery would work, you wouldn't want to take your mittens off to operate the phone. Also, it would sink if it fell into the water.

Using a paper map also would mean removing your mittens. If it got wet, it would be useless.

The best tool, he wrote, is a three-dimensional carved wooden map, which the Inuit have used for centuries. It floats, can be read with a mitten on and can be read by touch during the six months of the year when it's dark.

"In order to design a tool, we must make our best efforts to understand the larger social and physical context within which it is intended to function," he wrote.

A Canadian son of a preacher, Buxton spent his childhood living all over Germany and Canada after his dad became an army chaplain. Buxton studied music — the tenor saxophone, specifically — for his bachelor's degree at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, and worked as a professional musician for more than a decade.

Frustrated by digital-music instruments available in the 1970s, he wrote to a computer-science professor at the University of Toronto and asked for advice. He became an artist-in-residence at the university, raised a $250,000 grant to build a digital instrument and earned a master's degree in computer science. They called the musical instrument a Structured Synthesizer Sound Project so it would appeal to scientists.

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