www.officelabs.com and Garage: How Microsoft Supports Grassroots Innovation

This post was originally aimed for Microsoft employees who also have a side project, or a hobby project. It turns out, we have a nice internal thing called “The Garage” that is aimed to specifically support and foster such “evenings- and weekends projects” by Microsoft employees.

Garage: What they do
I own a side project (plug: http://livegeometry.codeplex.com) and Garage did a free usability study for it, which was really awesome. They organized everything (including free food), invited participants, prepared the task lists and helped to actually conduct the usability study. This was a great experience – I actually watched three MS employees work with Live Geometry and listen to their feedback, thoughts, comments as they discover and use the software.

Usability study

I realized that Live Geometry is still far from being intuitive and there are a lot of things that I can improve. I’ve gathered a lot of valuable information which I was able to convert to more than 50 actionable bugs! Another useful experience that I gained is how to conduct a good usability study. I've learned the following:

  • Be friendly and thankful for the participant's time. They're doing you a favor.
  • It's not a test for the participant's skills, it's a test for the usability of the software.
  • Don't talk, don't reveal how things work, don't answer questions too early.
  • Don't let them struggle too much, help them out when they're really stuck.
  • The participant is always right and your software is always wrong :)
  • Whatever feedback they give is good feedback.
  • Don't forget to write things down.
  • Show them how it's supposed to work at the end, it's likely you'll be rewarded with a "wow" :)

Other Garage events

Garage organizes a range of other events: Stay Late and Code (pizza provided), Improve a Project (where they demo projects and gather user feedback), Speed-dating for innovators (they bring together the folks who need help on a project and folks who would like to participate in a project or help out), help with hosting a project, etc.

Productivity Science Fair

Also recently I participated in a semi-annual company-wide exhibition called the Productivity Science Fair. It generated a lot of interest and was very crowded (actually, a lot of people stopped by my booth, wanted to learn more about my project and left their contact info - I ended up collecting more than 50 e-mail addresses of those who were interested!). I literally never spend more than one minute without someone stopping by, almost lost my voice at the end of the day. But it was so much fun!

So, if you’re a Softee AND have a side project or projects, do check out http://garage and/or add yourself to the ‘garage’. At this point – huge thanks to Quinn Hawkins and Jennifer Michelstein for their engagement!

What’s there for non-Microsofties? www.officelabs.com

I wouldn’t blog about this at all if there wasn’t some goodness for folks external to Microsoft. Well, guess what, some of those side projects eventually become external so you can benefit too! Check out http://www.officelabs.com, especially the Grassroots Innovation projects: http://www.officelabs.com/Pages/Grassroots.aspx?category=grassroots for a sample of several projects already out there. Garage is actually sponsored by Office Labs and it's nice to see innovation being fostered both internally and externally.

Microsoft Education Labs - www.educationlabs.com

One other thing Quinn from the Garage team was helping me with is getting in touch with folks from Microsoft Education. I didn't know it, but there is a site called www.educationlabs.com, which is similar to the Office Labs innovation site, but specifically aimed at educational software and products for students and teachers. I might be working with these guys to see if we can collaborate to release Live Geometry as educational software for schools. That would be really cool!

Semblio - digital learning from Microsoft

Last, but not least, at the Productivity Science Fair I've met folks from Semblio, which is a really interesting product I didn't know about. Here's a quote (read more here):

Now you can make your instructional materials even more valuable. Microsoft Semblio provides easy access to the power of Microsoft .NET and Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) by tailoring the Microsoft development platform specifically to the education market. Get ready to create an immersive education content experience.

Essentially, they leverage WPF to create rich interactive learning materials. We've met with the Semblio team and they were really excited to learn about Live Geometry. They were particularly happy that it's easy to create a WPF User Control hosting a geometry drawing and that I use XML as the serialization format, because this way it's super easy to integrate Live Geometry content with the Semblio framework.