Lessons in usability from Microsoft?

There’s an interesting story in the business section of this morning’s LA Times, “Microsoft views family input as key to its Vista: Ordinary users served as beta testers of the new operating system, which the company touts as easier to use.” As a disclaimer, people who know me well know that I swore off Microsoft products long ago, preferring either Linux or the Mac OS. But this article had an interesting tidbit about the testing, which made me think about how voting system vendors could improve their usability testing:

To better understand how people use computers in their lives, Microsoft found 50 families from around the world who, over two years, lived with Vista from its early test phase, known as Beta 1. Microsoft created a way for these families to offer daily feedback — by sending smiles or frowns — and company executives periodically dropped by to observe people using the operating system.

This group of beta testers sent 5,000 comments and identified 800 bugs that no one else had found.

Microsoft said the only compensation they received was a new computer, monitor and printer — and the occasional pizza. Regan and her family also joined company Chairman Bill Gates and Chief Executive Steve Ballmer on stage at the Nokia Theatre in New York’s Times Square to launch Vista.

Trish Miner, research manager for the Life with Windows Vista family feedback program, said the program offered surprising insights: including how changes to the Web browsing experience had some unintended consequences.

“We had changed the scroll bar, we had kind of made it disappear,” Miner said. “You would think we might have caught that ourselves.”

Now I’ve not seen Vista, and don’t have a clue as to how successful this usability testing was in the development of Vista. But I do wonder how much more usable voting machines would be if they were subjected to similar testing.