Maybe you've seen the ads for Windows 7, where users come up with "ideas" like "make my PC simpler" and take credit for the new operating system. But are there users who really do help Microsoft determine what functionality should be added to their software and how it should work in detail? Yes, and some of them are right here in the iSchool.
Informatics students are taught to understand the connections between usability and design, and nearly every class in their major includes one or more group projects. So when Microsoft wanted to research how students would use collaborative tools for students that they were considering for the next version of Office, Informatics students were the logical source for feedback. But in fact, they provided much more than that.
Last fall, 41 Informatics majors participated in a unique product planning internship class, honing their research, analysis and presentation skills with program managers, designers, engineers and executives from Microsoft who would be involved in the collaborative tools for the next generation of the Office Suite.
"We had called on Scott [Barker, Chair of the Informatics program] in the past, as a member of the Microsoft Business Division Customer Advisory Council. Over the summer we discussed how to bring students more into the product planning process," said Pete Card, a Product Planner in the Microsoft Business Division at Microsoft Corporation and the company's point person for the internship. "We imagined the students would do research, and help us get candid responses. When students talk to their peers there's more of an instant rapport."
Card worked with the iSchool to develop a structure. For 10 weeks, groups of four or five students would conduct a condensed version of the product planning cycle: developing hypotheses, conducting qualitative and quantitative research, addressing gaps through usability and concept tests and providing final recommendations. During the quarter, students were asked to draw upon their experience working in groups and solving concrete development challenges. In addition to presentations to Microsoft employees during the internship, the strongest three teams would present their findings to a team of executives, including two VPs, at the Microsoft campus at the end of the quarter.
Throughout the quarter, students heard from guest speakers representing the different roles within the Microsoft product development teams. As they developed their concepts, students were expected to evaluate features, conduct research with their peers (the target users), and incorporate feedback from the guest speakers along the way.
"The stakes felt a lot higher knowing that the top three teams would present to Microsoft employees," said Emily Boushey, an Informatics student. "The guest speakers would talk about what they did to give us an idea of opportunities in the field, and we also learned how Microsoft handles those processes." This provided added exposure to the types of professionals that graduates work with in a program manager or product manager role.
"Students were asked to thoroughly understand the requirements of their target users," said Card. "By the end, some teams had 100 survey completes and had conducted between 30 and 50 interviews. We also challenged the class to present concepts with conviction and passion and this was reflected in the quality and polish of final presentations, which in some cases incorporated a movie or Flash demonstrations -- I was impressed with [the students'] creativity and the different approaches to the project."
Like Boushey, Kevin Li was in one of the three groups to present on the Microsoft campus. "We worked hard to make sure that all of the feedback we had gotten we incorporated and addressed. At the end, there was a great sense of accomplishment, having worked so hard all quarter to finally make it to that last step and present the culmination of our work. We were ecstatic that we had managed to come together and not let the pressure overwhelm us."
Boushey and Li both mentioned the difficulty of having to include accommodation for different operating systems, the sheer number of tools their peers currently use for collaboration and communication, and limited access to desktop clients. "We received questions about technical implementation -- would [the product] be more bloated, or slow down. We aimed for a high-level approach based on what students wanted," said Li. "It was everything we've learned in Informatics."
"It was a little different than a typical class, where you're expected to meet very explicit expectations," said Boushey. "Pete gave us very specific examples of things that he liked and didn't like. At the end, we also received all of the feedback from the Microsoft program managers, which is what most of our changes were based on. For the presentation, everything they were confused by, we fixed, as much as possible."
"Although this is something we hadn't tried before, we were glad to be able to provide this type of opportunity to our students," said Barker. "The success of the internship reflects well on the enormous strength of our students and the willingness of Pete Card and other program managers at Microsoft to share their knowledge and expertise with those students. The value of this exposure to the product planning processes used by an industry leader like Microsoft cannot be overestimated as students prepare to enter the job market."
Card was pleased that students found the course challenging and yet were able to flourish. "Microsoft is a competitive place, good grades don't come easy. We wanted the students to understand there is no throwaway work. And the [Microsoft] team felt great about what they saw."