Exclusive Interview: Microsoft's Jay Schmelzer

Jessica Skarzynski / Monday, June 23, 2014

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Jay Schmelzer, Director of Program Management at Microsoft. Jay shared his thoughts on why Office-inspired apps are so popular, where he sees Office in the future, and more. Read on for the full interview!

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Jay. Tell us a little bit about yourself!

Well, I’ve been at Microsoft for a little over 11 years, and I’m currently the Director of Program Management for the Visual Studio Cloud Platform Tools team. I started as a Program Manager for the Visual Basic debugger and IDE, and now I’m leading the PM team responsible for the CLR, .NET Framework, Managed programming languages (VB.NET, C#, F#), Visual Studio tools for building applications on Azure, Office 365 (SharePoint and Office) and business applications (Cloud Business Apps and LightSwitch).  Prior to Microsoft, I spent 10 years as a consultant, building custom business applications.

In your experience, why do you think people build apps that look like Microsoft Office?

In the years prior to working for Microsoft, my clients always wanted their business applications to look like Office.  Every time Office introduced a new UI paradigm, that was the model our clients wanted.  I think there were a couple factors that motivated this.  One was just the fact that it resulted in applications that had a consistent look at feel.  The menus and toolbars (now ribbons) had commands in the expected place, making them easy to find and reducing the time necessary to train the end users on the application.

Building apps that look like Office also meant that the apps looked good! I mean, let’s face it: Office apps look good. The team [that creates them] spends a lot of time thinking about the look and feel of the Office products.  So why would we not capitalize on that for our apps?

So in trying to emulate that style, what are the common mistakes that people make when targeting Office?

Of course just blindly following that UI model isn’t good either.  In my opinion, the thing the Office apps did well was identify the common tasks and workflows users would have within the app and then design around the product to make those tasks simple and productive.  If you just try to re-create the Office look and feel without spending the time to identify your users’ common tasks and workflows they’ll experience in your business applications, you’ll end up with a pretty application that doesn’t function well.

Good point. What are are some of the coolest solutions you’ve seen where a customer (or even someone internally at Microsoft) built an app that looks like Office?

Wow, there are a lot!  I think the Dynamics team actually did a really good job of applying the Office look and feel to a core business application. They really succeeded in taking advantage of that instantly familiar experience while also staying focused on the common tasks and workflow unique to their application.

What do you think Office will look and feel like in 15 years?

Well, I’m not on the Office team so I’m speaking from personal opinion here! But, I think the mobile app experiences are going to be very unique compared to the more traditional desktop experiences of the past. Great mobile apps - the ones we like using - are very task-focused and optimized for the device form factor you are on.  Rather than a single application that does everything, you find yourself moving between multiple apps that are designed for the specific task and integrate well with each other.  I expect that in the future we’ll see apps designed to take advantage of the unique input capabilities of the devices (like camera, touch, location, etc.) in really cool ways.

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