The inside story of how Microsoft’s most important product made it to the phone

Microsoft Office is, after Windows, the most important product the company makes. Every three months, the “productivity” section of the company’s business, which is dominated by Office, brings in around $6.7 billion.

Last quarter, which was the three months leading up to January, Wall Street analysts were excited to note that Microsoft was selling more Office 365 licenses than ever more to more businesses, many of them with thousands of employees.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella estimated that hiking the price of Office 365 for high-end users, many of whom have no other option but to use it, would generate another $50 billion in revenue for the company.

It’s safe to say that Office is a big deal.

However, the company struggled to shift Office onto mobile from the desktop, where it was created and where it rules.

The mammoth task, according to a long blog post by Jon Bell of UX Launchpad, was intense and required a lot of work by multiple teams across Microsoft, many of which had never worked together before.

“Office Mobile actually refers to multiple apps on multiple platforms,” Bell writes. “I was tasked with leading the design on PowerPoint, Word, and Excel on Windows Phone.”

At the time, according to Bell, Windows Phone was seen as the next big thing, and Office needed to be on it so that users, many of whom were die-hard Microsoft fans, could do what they wanted on it.

“[W]e needed to figure out how much to align with Windows Phone’s traditional ‘Metro’ look and feel versus how much to align to Office’s own look and feel,” says Bell. This problem was classified as “Brand vs. Platform,” according to Bell.

“Every company that ships software struggles to find the balance between Brand and Platform,” Bell writes, “and it’s not the kind of thing you debate once and resolve. In my experience every team, building every feature, for every release, always has this tension on their mind.”

The next problem was decided what kind of look and feel Office would have, especially on the iPhone or Android devices.

“Even after finding that perfect balance between app branding and platform conventions, you have to figure out how you’re going to port to other platforms,” says Bell.

According to Bell, “most companies decide to reuse the same iOS design,” but this comes with its own problems. For example, many Android phones have a physical back button and the design guidelines for iOS encourage different ideas than Google’s, such as the way menus work.

All of these decisions also had to be made on the dual backdrop of Steve Ballmer’s decree that apps were “first and best on Windows” and the thoughts of “stakeholders” — the word Bell uses to describe interested parties — who wanted the app to work a certain way.

“In our case, we needed to work closely with the product manager leads from Word, Excel, and PowerPoint,” says Bell. “Since they were leads, they had PMs reporting to them. And each of those teams had developers.” These levels of input created problems for the team.

The team tried various approaches with various different looks, including a circular menu that housed all of the options for Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. In the end, the team combined aspects from all the prototypes. The teams for iOS and Android took note, but thought that some aspects were “too Windows Phone.”

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Android moves the most units, iOS makes the most money, and Windows Phone is Microsoft’s own OS”[/pullquote]

However, “no team had veto power over any other,” Bell writes. “Android moves the most units, iOS makes the most money, and Windows Phone is Microsoft’s own OS.”

The team that made Office on Windows, called “Big Windows,” also had say in the eventual design, too. “The teams spent a lot of time sharing notes,” Bell says.

In the end, Bell says, Microsoft delayed the release of Office on Windows Phone. The reasons, according to Bell, were mixed, but mainly focused around the timing of the announcement. Office for iPad, which launched just after Nadella got the top job, was already ready, says Bell, but Ballmer didn’t want it to launch before the Windows Phone version.

The three versions — on Windows Phone, iOS, and Android — all ended up having a common theme and the experience was similar to that of Office on a PC, according to Bell.

The big takeaway is just how hard it can be for a big company like Microsoft to build, test, and deploy a key piece of software across multiple platforms and get it just right, especially when the clock is ticking.

It’s well worth reading Bell’s full post on Medium, if you haven’t already done so.

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