Microsoft has struggled playing catch-up to Google when it comes to search, but I actually preferred their map service. The killer feature for me, as a runner, was the ability to easily draw routes on a map and calculate the exact distance. This let me easily plan new runs from any computer without a lot of hassle. I’ve never found a way to do the equivalent on any other service. The feature was implemented well, required no special plug-ins and I was only beginning to learn about how much it could do.
There was one big missing feature in Microsoft’s map service (Virtual Earth, Live Local, Live Maps, Bing Maps, whatever you want to call it); there was no way to save a default location. With Google Maps, you can choose a default location from the main page and it stores it as a cookie on your machine. The next time you visit the site, the map centers on the location you chose. Microsoft’s product didn’t offer this feature. Instead, they touted the ability to automatically determine your location via IP address. That feature worked great in the demos that the maps team shared with us (I was a blue badge at the time), easily zooming in on the Redmond Campus or locations in Seattle. The feature never worked for me.
You see, in Seattle a map centered on a ten mile radius may work fine. People drive to things. A four mile trip to a restaurant isn’t a big deal. New York City isn’t a driving town. I personally spend the vast majority of my time within maybe a three mile radius. If I’m looking for a new pizza place, I’m looking for a place that I can walk to. A listing in Elizabeth, New Jersey might as well be in Timbuktu. Google’s default location feature allows me to customize the site so that it works for me.
At least 90% of the time when searching for something with Google Maps I just:
1. Open the site.
2. Type in what I’m looking for.
Compare with the Microsoft Map site:
1. Open the site
2. Search for my apartment.
3. Type in what I’m looking for.
I have to do that second additional step, adjusting the map so that it’s frame of reference works for me, every single time. Why would I bother?
I tried to share that feedback with the DL that was setup to receive internal feedback on the Live Maps and they responded with the ability to create collections. That was a really powerful feature that allowed you to store your own maps with custom pushbuttons, paths and other cool information. It really was a cool feature, but it didn’t address my scenario at all. In fact, it made it harder:
1. Open the site.
2. Sign in with my passport.
3. Open the correct collection.
4. Zoom in on the pushpin placed on my apartment.
That’s not even easier than just searching for my apartment.
The thing that makes this oversight even more annoying is that, as a developer, I know just how easy this feature would be to implement. It’s a cookie. In fact, it would probably take me five minutes to write a wrapper for the Live Maps service myself that would do this. But, why should I when I can just use Google? So, even though I considered myself a loyal ‘softee, that’s what I did. I just gave up and used Google Maps. Of course, that made it pretty silly to continue using Live/Bing/Next Code Name Search. So, I went back to using Google for search, too.
A few months later, a message was sent out announcing several great new Live Maps features. I replied, in a snarky tone I admit, that none of those features would convince me to switch as long as they were unwilling to address the default location problem. I was unsurprisingly flamed by the team and other employees on the DL. That didn’t bother me. What did bother me was, no one addressed my underlying concern! That’s something I learned from this whole process. Making a good product, any kind of product, means actively looking for good feedback and usage scenarios, even if the information isn’t delivered in the kind and friendly way you would prefer. There will always be a way to downplay negative feedback because the person who gives it is snarky, or used incorrect grammar, etc. In the end, is the feedback relevant? They chose to ignore my feedback, which meant losing me and anyone whose usage patterns were similar to my own as a customer.
Criticism should be sought relentlessly, especially criticism that casts doubts on the basic assumptions that you make during the planning of your products features. If you aren’t willing to dive into the mud to dig out the truffles, rest assured there is a competitor out there who will be. That snarky customer who shared the feedback you didn’t want to hear may just be the noisiest of many other customers who will just silently switch to your competitor’s products.
Part of the MSFT culture is a focus on eating your own dog food. That means using the products that you work on so that you can understand the product as an end user. Unfortunately, there isn’t as big a focus on being open and accepting of criticism, especially criticism that comes from outside of a given product team. Without the latter, the former is really just a lot of empty hot air.
Despite that, I still occasionally used Live Maps for their cool drawing feature. It really was simple, powerful and met my needs exactly. I haven’t used it for a while, though, as I haven’t really had the desire to plot a new running path. I actually thought about using it a few times, but I had a little trouble figuring out how to do so using the new whiz bang Silverlight based Bing Maps interface. This morning, I decided to take a few moments to figure out how to use the feature and for the life of me, I can’t. I think they actually removed the feature. Unbelievable. They have finally convinced me to only use Google Maps.
A Google Search brings back nothing but developer information. As a developer, it’s exciting to see how much information is out there about using their API. As an end user, that’s incredibly disappointing. Why would I even bother to do further research, when I can just use the default selection that everyone else uses, namely Google Maps?
Now, I’m sure that Microsoft did a usage study and determined that only 5% (brown number) or whatever of users took advantage of this feature. Hopefully they actually did a study, maybe someone on the team just said “oh, no one uses that”. Regardless, eliminating this feature eliminates any interest I have in their product. Even more, this makes me less likely to try any of their other products. Do they care? Probably not. Maybe they should. I’m a pretty influential person when it comes to technology. Lots of my friends are interested to hear what services I use.
So many of these decisions, like the decision to remove Find In Library from the Windows Media Player 12 playlist area, make me less likely to use Microsoft products. I don’t have any inside knowledge about how they make decisions, but they definitely smell like decisions by committee made by people who don’t actually use their own products. They result in products with lots of shiny features that look great on a whiteboard in a room in Redmond and on powerpoint slides, but they don’t delight the actual users. Isn’t that supposed to be the point?
Anyway, I get the hint Microsoft. I’ll stick to Google Maps from now on.
Windows 7 still rocks, though.