"We set out to ask: What's the Windows way to do something?" says Sam Moreau, Microsoft's head of user-experience design for Windows 7. "We had to make sure that we took care of Windows as having an authentic soul." He knows you may be snickering, especially if you use Vista. "Vista tried to do a lot of things, and the places where we didn't finish the job are the places people feel," he says.
The early positive reviews suggest that Moreau has helped make Windows 7 much more satisfying to use. Engadget called it "fast, painless, and complication free," and as Gizmodo charmingly notes, "Even the Mactards will have to tone down their nasal David Spadian snide, at least a little bit."
Silencing Mac snobs is merely a side benefit of Moreau's official goal: Quiet desktop clutter and shave seconds off of daily tasks. "Windows' point of view is about adding value and solving distractions," he says.
A career Web designer, Moreau was an unlikely choice to pull this off. "I was told that was the point," he says. In turn, he amassed his own band of architects, artists, and writers who could bring fresh perspectives to Windows 7. We asked Moreau and his team to tell the tales behind six buzzed-about Windows 7 features.
1 Boot-Up Intro
Vista opened with a series of blinks and beeps that reflected the under-the-hood technical operations. With Windows 7, Moreau wanted to mask the mechanics with stirring cinema. Writer Rolf Ebeling led the design of the 105-frame sequence. "It was nerve-wracking when Sam leaned into my doorway and asked, 'How good is your animation?' " says Ebeling. He used swirling fireflies that coalesce into the Windows icon to foreshadow the operating system's use of light. "As a journalist, I knew I needed to make the point quickly, but how do you get the tone just right and make it something people want to come back to again and again?"
2 Task Bar
Windows Vista used a sheet-of-glass effect on the task bar, but Moreau and company made it more realistic. Industrial designer Stephan Hoefnagels studied physical properties of everything from Audi taillights to bioluminescent sea creatures to lava lamps, and then crafted more than 90 prototypes to make the task bar's light look "energetic and alive" and the refraction realistic. "As you hover over an application, the tile glows, but as you move, the light trails and follows you," he says. Rather than cast a monochromatic aura, Windows 7 pulls color from the application (Firefox, for example, burns orange). "The task bar is the face of Windows, but the icons are the stars of the show."
3 Desktop Wallpapers
Windows 7's wallpapers eschew placid landscapes for psychedelic anime turtles and slick Seattle streetscapes. "Choosing the safest options would have been the Microsoft default, but we wanted to provoke a strong emotional connection," says Denise Trabona, a former design director for MSNBC. She also broadened the range of photographers and illustrators, to reflect Microsoft's global reach, and added architectural pics into the mix for the first time. She says, "Our guidance to the artists was straightforward: Give us light and energy."
4 Jump Lists
A pop-up menu of application-related shortcuts, Jump Lists is a powerful feature hidden behind a right click. In one prototype, the design team indicated the feature with a button and an arrow next to each icon, but a few players balked. "There's a tremendous amount of functionality hidden behind a kitchen's cabinets and drawers," says Joey Pitt, who worked as an architect before joining Microsoft. "Rather than an immediate cacophony of labels and flashing signs on every drawer, it's better for users if the experience unfolds over time."
5 Aero Shake
Aero Shake's back-and-forth mouse motion has its roots in a feature called Aladdin, which allowed users to "rub" a window to keep it hovering temporarily in the foreground. "Aladdin was fun," designer Hoefnagels says, "but at some point, the rubbing got tiresome and it was like, Okay, let's just click over." Aladdin's on the cutting-room floor, but the gesture's whimsy became the Aero Shake. Use your mouse to vigorously "shake" an open window and watch the others fly closed. A gimmick? Maybe, but users rave about its ability to quickly declutter desktops.
Lisa Cherian, an industrial designer and design teacher, raised more than a few eyebrows when she first joined the Windows 7 team and asked nondesigners to diagram how they'd train an alien to brush his teeth. "What we need in a software environment is the concept sketch," she says. "In industrial design, you return to it again and again: 'This is what I'm making. This is what it feels like.' It's essential to your focus." Employing that industrial-design discipline, Cherian created a concept sketch for Libraries, a feature that lets users easily access and sort their pictures, music, and video no matter whether they're buried deep in a file folder or stashed on an external hard drive. Returning often to the sketch helped rein in the feature creep that threatened to choke the project.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.