Transparency in the design process

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We have been looking at various options to ensure that the design of Astoria truly reflects the requirements of the day to day challenges that our developer community faces when building real-world web applications and services. We would like to start by being as transparent as possible in the design process. I wanted to briefly describe how we’ll go about it so you know exactly what you are looking at when reading one of our design-related posts.

How did we get here? We shipped the first Astoria  CTP last May 2007. That CTP was the result of an incubation effort. During the incubation phase we typically focus on the vision, and the actual implementation details are secondary. We built something that was good enough to illustrate our thinking and get feedback from both internal and external sources. Now that we have gotten strong support from the development community we have decided to fund the Astoria project as a full-on project, not an incubation effort anymore.

Where are we now? The Astoria team is staffed and the engineering effort to build the real product has been kicked-off. What this means in practice is that we have a team with developers, testers, program managers, etc., that we have regular design meetings, and that we have a timeline (or more accurately, that we’re required to have a timeline but we’re still working on it :).

Transparency in the design? Over the years Microsoft has been opening up the engineering processes incrementally. Long ago there were only betas, and that was the only chance to see and give feedback about a product before it shipped. Then we started to do Community Tech Previews (CTPs). CTPs enabled us to provide bits more often and gather feedback frequently. The goal with increasing the transparency of design is to take this one step further: we would like to enable folks that are interested in Astoria to follow the design topics as we discuss them, and have the opportunity to provide feedback right during the time where we are actively discussing a certain aspect and haven’t made a decision yet.

What exactly would we make visible? In short, our design process. To be more concrete, I’m not talking about some fancy set of specifications. What I mean is that as we go through the detailed design of the various aspects of Astoria, we would post in this blog a) the meeting notes from our design meetings (the Astoria team has a design meeting twice a week, plus a lot of impromptu hallway chats), and b) deeper write-ups of specific design challenges where we’d like folks to understand how we’re seeing a problem and provide a channel for deep, detailed feedback.

How transparent is transparent? I want to be completely clear about the scope of the information we are sharing. One of the things we need to learn both from the Microsoft side and from the community side is whether the model works within a practical set of restrictions. We would post as much of our discussions as it is practically possible. However, we have to make sure we don’t compromise the interests of Microsoft as a company. There are certain things that can range from ideas to specific implementation details that we could consider trade secrets, high-value Microsoft intellectual property or something along those lines. It *will* happen that in some cases we will not discuss a topic publicly, either for a certain term (e.g. until a proper IP protection mechanism is in place) or until we ship or ever. This is nothing new, but I haven’t seen folks from large companies discuss this explicitly before, so I wanted to make sure it is clear here.

About your feedback: We would love to hear your thoughts, be it comments, suggestions, ideas or anything else. However, in the end we are designing a commercial Microsoft product. So we’ll happily take your feedback but you need to understand that by providing us feedback in any form you are agreeing that we may use it to develop our product, that others may use it in connection with the product and that you will not be compensated for any of these things. We may incorporate ideas or make changes based on comments you make, or we may make changes to the product that are indirectly influenced by discussions that we have with you and other folks in the community. Again, this is nothing new, but instead of having some fancy statement written in legal lingo I wanted to be upfront about this here in this first post on the topic. Of course our legal folks looked at this, and they were cool enough to understand that the informal nature of the process is what makes it work, and they let us get away with this statement in which I think we clearly delineate what will happen with whatever feedback you send our way.

So, what do folks think? Is this a good idea? Does it sound useful/practical? We will start posting design notes and challenges soon and tweak the process as we go.

Pablo Castro
Technical Lead
Microsoft Corporation


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