MICROSOFT'S SOFTWARE SNOOPS Scientists study regular folks to see how they really use their PCs From the diary of anthropologist Anne Cohen Kiel; day seven, observation of the Goodell clan of Phoenix, Ariz.: The family's evening activities continue to revolve around the computer in their den. The youngest child, Brittany, 13, has taken to spending four hours each night chatting with her friends on instant messenger. Sarah, 14, gets her turn on the computer only when her sister goes to bed. Lately, she seems to favor online trivia games. Don, her dad, is a nocturnal user. Curiously, he appears smitten by the automated female voice that welcomes him every time he logs on to the Net. His wife, Noreen, wonders why there isn't a male voice that welcomes her. This merits further study.... OK, we made that diary entry up. But here's the point: like an increasing number of high-tech companies, software giant Microsoft is moving beyond the concept of "usability engineers," the researchers who typically sit in cloistered labs behind one-way mirrors watching consumers grapple with new software. Today, Microsoft has a small team of real, trained anthropologists who visit the homes of regular people and study them at their computers, just as they would an indigenous tribe in the Australian outback. Afterward, they report their findings back to the company, which combines the data with results from focus groups, phone surveys and Microsoft's own usability labs. "My job is to get the larger picture about how people use software," says Kiel, 41, a mother of two who speaks seven languages. The involvement of social scientists in software and hardware design is not new. Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center in California is credited with starting the trend back in 1979, when an anthropology graduate student persuaded the company to put a simple green copy button on each machine. Today, newly minted anthropologists head to companies such as Motorola, Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Intel. Earlier this month, Kiel flew to Phoenix to visit the Goodells, one of 40 families she's currently following (all were randomly selected by a focus group service and are visited up to a dozen times). For the past week they were using MSN 8, the new version of the company's online service, which will be released later this month backed by a $150 million-plus marketing campaign. The Goodells treat Kiel like an old friend, greeting her with homemade signs and offers of coffee and pie. Then, one by one, family members sit down in front of the computer and access MSN 8, with Kiel kneeling next to them, observing and asking the occasional, nonleading question. She wants to know not only if the family uses and enjoys various MSN functions, but also what they call them--"not everyone speaks our lingo," she says. Case in point: Brittany, the youngest, calls Microsoft's prized "dashboard"--an informational window that covers the left side of the screen--a "thingamobile," and has tried to remove it from her screen. Kiel asks one of her colleagues, who's filming the session, to note the time stamp on the video camera. Back in Redmond, that clip will break some techie's heart. Things improve when it comes to MSN's new parental controls. Predictably, the kids don't like them. The service now generates e-mail to parents whenever kids try to access an unauthorized site. The kids complain that Mom's not always available to authorize their Web travels. But Don and Noreen think the new controls put them back in charge of their kids' online activities. Ultimately, Sarah concedes that parental controls "are keeping us safe." Kiel will report all this back to Redmond, Wash., and then spend the next several weeks championing her recommendations for the final version of MSN 8--and for next year's MSN 9. But for now, she's finished with what she calls the best part of the job--watching real people as they integrate new software into their daily lives.