An Angry Man's Solution for a Broken Process

Bob Cramblitt reports on Bill Buxton’s talk from Business of Software 2007. To sign up for the BoS 2008, visit

Software product development is broken, and Bill Buxton is angry.  Addressing the current process turns Buxton into a raging, slightly profane comedian with a very serious agenda.

Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, said today at the Business of Software 2007 conference that the industry is based almost entirely on N+1 products.  In its history, according to Buxton, Adobe has created just two new products in house: Acrobat and Illustrator.

The problem is that new software projects are greenlighted from day 1, before the company really knows what it is going to build, if it can be built, and how it is going to be sold. Rarely is there participation from all the important elements within the company: technical, marketing and creative.

Buxton likens the typical approach of software engineers having sole responsibility for new product development to an ice hockey team with all goalies.  No matter how good your goalies are, they aren’t going to beat even a bad team with the proper mix of players.

The Buxton approach centers on the power of sketching user experiences at the beginning of the product development period.  Sketching is quick, timely, inexpensive, disposable, and plentiful. 

There is an ambiguity in sketching: If you want to get the most out of a sketch, you need to leave big enough holes – like Swiss cheese.  There has to be enough room for the imagination.  The goal is not arriving at a design, but the best design.

One of the overriding lessons from Buxton is this: Everything is best for something, and worst for something else.  The participation of people from multiple disciplines, combined with the experimental flexibility of sketching, can determine whether a product will fly before critical resources are committed.