10 questions for the “queen” of copy and paste

Many people have closely followed the rollout of software updates these last few months, but few with as much personal interest as Priyanka Singhal. Singhal’s official title is program manager on the Windows Phone engineering team. Unofficially, she’s the “queen of copy and paste,” as some of her co-workers good-naturedly call her. It was Singhal who led the team that created this feature, the highlight of the March update.

In some ways helping create copy and paste for Windows Phone was Singhal’s destiny. When she arrived at Microsoft from her native India in 2004, she landed in the Macintosh Business Unit, the group responsible for Office for Mac. Her first job was working on the word processor’s editing features, and over the years she’s spent a lot of hours shuffling words around a screen—and pondering better ways to do it. I sat down with Singhal recently near her office in Studio F on the Microsoft campus to talk about what it was like to create one of the most anticipated phone features of the last few months. –MS

Q: First, I have a confession: copy and paste isn’t a phone feature I use much. But I know many folks are passionate about it. What am I missing?

A: Let’s say your wife sends you an appointment to your daughter’s piano recital, and now you want to save that address in your address book. Or you find something on the web that’s really cool and want to send it to a friend in an email. Or you get an email and you want to quote it in an SMS. Or you want to look up a tracking number—basically anything you want to save or share but don’t want to type again. Your phone should be able to take that burden away from you.

Q: In your previous job, you worked on text editing features like copy and paste on the desktop. How is a phone different?

A: On your desktop you can do things like Paste Special, Select All, Cut. On a phone, more options means more complexity, so you need software that can make the best choice for you. Which means you need to understand your users better and not just say, “Here’s a bunch of choices.” The phone should take away the complexity and make life as simple as possible.

Priyanka Singhal and part of the team that created the copy and paste feature for Windows Phone. (from left) Singhal, Adam Swank, Nataliya Starikova, Ben Carter, Nagaraj S Patil, and Uday Kumar Bandaru

Copycats: Priyanka Singhal and part of the team that created the copy and paste feature for Windows Phone. (From left) Singhal, Adam Swank, Nataliya Starikova, Ben Carter, Nagaraj S Patil, and Uday Kumar Bandaru.

Q: So you’re saying that behind the scenes copying and pasting isn’t as simple as it looks.

A: It is complex. To someone using the phone, it just works. But to make it “just work” you have to make sure that all applications on the phone support the same functionality. That takes a large amount of coordination. Creating copy and paste involved how many teams? Probably 9 to 10 from inception to shipping. A lot of people have a stake and a lot of people have opinions. Making sure that everybody shares your thoughts, understands your vision—that’s the most challenging and most rewarding part of this job.

Q: How did you develop the feature?

A: Our initial design was a floating toolbar with options to cut, copy, and paste. So you select something, you tap on an icon to show the toolbar, then you get more options. But it just felt too heavy. We thought we could be smarter. We wanted the feature to be immediately available when users need it, and just go away when they don’t.

Q: So what then?

A: We noticed that a user is either copying or pasting— not doing both at the same time. If they’re selecting text, most likely they’re going to copy. If they just placed a caret, most likely they’re going to paste. We said, wouldn’t it make more sense to have either copy or paste come up based on what someone is doing?

So our phone contextually knows what your next action is going to be. Just taking away that one step—choosing options from a toolbar menu—made it a lot simpler.

Q: What problems or challenges did you encounter along the way?

A: Interestingly, we found people usually call this feature “cut and paste”. And initially we did get feedback from teams who said, “What about cut?”

But [our research showed that] people usually don’t cut. They almost always copy, especially on a mobile device. So then we said, Do we really need cut? For the “90 percent” scenario, if you don’t need cut, then you can get rid of it. Up till now we’ve been proven right. People still call the feature “cut and paste,” but they’re happy with copy and paste. If someone really wants to cut, they can still hit backspace after copying and the selected text goes away.

Q: What’s the toughest part of your job?

A: Understanding what users want when I can’t really go and talk to each one of those people. You really have to keep your eyes open for clues.

Says Singhal: “The best part is that I can tell my mom, ‘This thing that you see on this phone, I did that!’”

Says Singhal: “The best part is that I can tell my mom, ‘This thing that you see on this phone, I did that!’”

Q: Any examples?

A: Multiple paste. From looking at posts on blogs and listening to the feedback from our internal testers, we found people want to be able to copy once and paste multiple times. I would never have imagined. I was thinking we’d make it possible to paste once and then we’re done.

So then you have to go and ask those people: What were you doing, Sir, when you wanted to paste again? It was really eye opening for me. It wasn’t the 90 percent scenario, but it still wasn’t something we could live without. And so we support multiple paste. People don’t always tell you everything they’re thinking. Sometimes you have to go and chase down what they’re really trying to do.

Q: Will copy and paste change for Mango?

A: There are subtle improvements here and there to make the experience smoother. In Mango, when you tap on copy you get a sound, so that people get more sense of success. We’re tweaking the look and feel of the buttons and making some UI [user interface] improvements to make sure it’s more clear that multiple paste is possible.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: It would have been so easy to do the exact same thing as everybody else. It’s always more work to solve even one problem scenario that others have ignored. But we’re not just another phone. The best part is that I can tell my mom, “This thing that you see on the phone? I did that!”