Several years ago, David Nelson got a message from a recruiter asking if he’d be interested in a design job at Microsoft. “I don’t think so,” was his initial reaction—he assumed the company didn’t take design seriously.
But out of curiosity—and for the free trip to Seattle—David wound up going to the interview and realizing that Microsoft was positioned to become one of the most design-forward companies in the Fortune 500. Now a Principal Creative Director at Microsoft, David leads a team in Silicon Valley that focuses on making life easier for 500 million firstline workers.
Read on for what David had to say about the ascent of design at Microsoft, the problems they’re tackling, and some of the practices they’re incorporating as design takes on a more prominent role at the organization.
What’s your view of Microsoft Design and its future?
For the future of Microsoft Design, we should look at how it’s grown. There have been 3 very distinct growth stages when it comes to how design fits into the company:
The first stage reflects the way design is still seen in much of the computing world: design is there to make things pretty. Designers are hired to draw icons, buttons, and do UI.
The second stage was focused on building Design studios. We created these centralized cores of design to attract better designers and grow design. That was fantastic—it really got us to the level and quality of people that we have today. But after reflection, we found that the studio system limited the impact design can have in product.“Designers should influence, impact, design, and own their project decisions.”
In this current stage, we’re focused on being product people, not a UX or design studio that operates on a service model. In my group, we’re seating designers directly with engineers because we want designers to influence, impact, design, and own their project decisions. It’s partnering with product and engineering and leading design through collaboration. It’s being part of the team, not shouting from an ivory tower to other teams about what they should be doing.
This reflects how we’re changing our product process: small teams of people working together to build a product, not larger central teams with people separated out.
This has even enabled us to widen our aperture and tackle some of the bigger problems. Not how you make better buttons or even how you make delightful experiences, but things like “What is the impact that we really have on people?” When we have scale of hundreds of millions or a billion people, what could we do to make those people happier and healthier?
So what’s your team working on?
My team is dedicated to a space we’ve been calling the firstline workforce.
Conservatively, there are an estimated 500 million firstline workers around the world—employees whose job requires them to be on their feet or on the go. Examples include baristas, hair stylists, nurses, and bus drivers.
As part of a customer advisory program, our design and research team spent the last year working directly with hundreds of firstline workers to truly understand their needs and challenges while identifying a new way for Office 365 to empower this traditionally underserved group to achieve more.“We run everything through InVision.”
We learned that these employees typically don’t have their own office, desk, or computer. They rely on manual processes and outdated tools—cumbersome creation and printing of paper schedules, bulletin boards crammed with notes, and a flurry of phone calls and text messages to cover shifts.
The largest insight uncovered was that firstline workers end up using a mix of consumer communication tools, such as e-mail, SMS, Facebook, and WhatsApp, to communicate and swap shifts. Most surprisingly, this has been consistent across all geographies we’ve worked with—including China—through WeChat.
How did your team move forward with that?
Our product team spent countless hours interacting with customers—staff workers, managers, IT, and business decision makers—on site, making sure we had a deep understanding of their needs, scenarios, challenges, and requirements and developed Microsoft StaffHub to be the one-stop app for firstline workers.
A few interesting points about the approach we took to develop StaffHub for this new audience:
- We’ve created StaffHub to avoid IT deployment friction for streamlined adoption and usage
- We designed StaffHub from the ground up as an authentically mobile solution, specific to firstline workers’ needs and behaviors
- 100% of the product team (engineering, product managers, design and research) has met and worked with our customers in the wild—often several times
- 5 months after forming the team, we began piloting with enterprise customers (such Accor Hotels, Louis Vuitton, Jackson Family Wines, Emirates Airlines) who immediately began relying on our service for their daily work
Can you share any takeaways from that?
Our story is a re-articulation of why textbook design thinking really matters. Great things happen when you pair creative problem-solving with an authentic understanding of the condition and perspective of your audience. The differences in our customer needs and the product teams’ experiences forced us to challenge our assumptions, expectations, and learnings we would have typically applied in our work.
Bringing in new and diverse perspectives is something I feel designers can take for granted and sometimes not fully embrace in their day-to-day work. Continuously challenge assumptions with insights from your customers—that’s core to design thinking and making things for people.
“Great things happen when you pair creative thinking with an authentic understanding of the condition and perspective of your audience.”
What does your design process look like, and what groups are involved? Do you have handoffs?
We decided to make a fully open, fully transparent design world. Everyone in our product team is added to every prototype and every Board, and they’re allowed full access to view comments and see everything. This has become super important to just let people see what we’re doing.“For my design team at Microsoft, InVision and Sketch are our core tools.”
It’s not a forced thing where everyone has to go and comment, but it gives us easy access to see everything that we’re doing at all times, and that has been the absolute key. So, if we’re bringing in other groups and roles, everything is run through InVision.
My philosophy is that the less we can draw things and the more we can build things, the better. So tools that are common between design and engineering are that Holy Grail we’re after.
Once we open up the floodgates and show everyone all the work, Workflow is the thing that clarifies what level of “finish” it is. It serves as a system for quality control. So, these changes have really stopped the majority of our handoffs. We just design things, then we put them up in InVision.
The next step would be to not have to draw things directly in code. We’ll figure out how to get there!
What effects have you seen from this radical transparency?
People freak out less. That’s the core reason we did it, and it was successful at addressing that. I think it’s fairly common for designers to not be connected to the impact of their work when it gets into code. So it’s like, “Oh, I can move this thing over 10 pixels, right?” But that sort of change can have a huge impact.
If you go dark and you’re not sharing things frequently, it either builds up angst or just kind of goes out of sight and out of mind. And then when people see things, they see the big deltas rather than the small changes.“Using tools common between design and engineering—like InVision—is key.”
So this transparency has reduced freak-outs about the design changes. It’s gotten earlier feedback, earlier suggestions, earlier perspectives of what would work or what things we need to figure out how to address. But it’s also a lot of the angry, hairy issues that you typically see in the last mile—things that are typically pushed way, way earlier and just become less intense.
Happier people. That helps.
Where do you see design headed, and how can designers prepare for it?
As artificial intelligence comes into the mainstream, we’re going to see the need for systems and products to become more empathetic and adaptable to the people using them. Today we tend to think about people being computer-literate. Tomorrow, computers will be human-literate.
I think we’re already starting to see a shift with service design methodologies becoming more commonplace across design, particularly with digital experiences. Our focus on getting interfaces right will likely need shift to better understanding the range of emotions people carry through interactions, where individuals translate to systems of people, and the impact of time on the moments we want to influence.
Photos by Peter Prato.