A room at Microsoft's headquarters represents everything that has changed in its design philosophy. Inside there are four rows of tables. In the first line, there is everything the company does and it is already in stores. In the second is the next generation of products, and in the third and fourth are the really conceptual things that Microsoft wants to try to do in the future. "If you spend a lot of time in this room, you'll see the gaps, certain light bulbs light up," says Ralf Groene, head of Microsoft's hardware design.
Nowadays, Microsoft is all about the overview – not just where a product needs to go, but how an entire ecosystem of products needs to be launched, developed, and worked together over the next few years. While products in the past may have been developed in secret by separate teams, and have turned out to be different because of this, Microsoft has abandoned this approach recently. Now a philosophy called "open design" is being used, which is to share ideas across the enterprise, integrating products and failing more quickly. The hope is that this will lead to a better combination of hardware and software that seems to have come from a company and is also better for it.
It's not just about improving Microsoft's visual design. It's a much deeper change aimed at modernizing the way Microsoft ships software and competes with much more agile startups that can aggressively go after the many companies that are traditionally controlled. A lot is at stake in a technology industry that is moving faster every year.
I've heard and read many stories about how Microsoft's culture has changed in recent years and how product teams are working more together. It's such a big change at Microsoft that I wanted to see for myself how the company is doing things differently now. So I spent three days at the company's Redmond, Washington headquarters earlier this month, talking to designers and engineers, attending design planning meetings, and talking to leaders involved in this new design approach.
One thing is clear in my visit: Microsoft has really learned from its confusing past mistakes. But reshaping a 44-year-old company to focus on redesigning its future will not be easy.
Every Thursday, the surface teams, Windows and Microsoft applications come together to discuss what they are working on. During one of those many meetings in a sunny conference room at Microsoft's Redmond HQ, the designers sat down debating how Microsoft should be fun with their designs. What is the tone of voice? What is the visual representation of the personality of the product? Finally, how should Microsoft's voice be expressed in the form of illustrations and design?
The meeting was attended by more than a dozen employees in person, representing products such as OneNote, OneDrive and Microsoft Teams. Everyone criticized each other's designs, offering opinions and ways of working with the color palette, the principles of illustration, and the general voice of Microsoft to consistently create products. This may sound like a totally normal meeting in most companies. At Microsoft, it would have been unimaginable just 10 years ago.
For its latest design system, Fluent Design, Microsoft is pulling ideas across the company and keeping everyone in sync with an internal catalog of shared principles and guidelines. Designers can log in to see the work of others through templates, concepts and designs submitted to the public. "This was the first step in the basic layer of democratizing design at Microsoft," said Jon Friedman, corporate vice president of design and research at Microsoft.
The approach came from one of Microsoft's biggest failures: Windows Phone. For its launch, Microsoft brought together the Windows, Office and hardware teams of the company to create a radical new "Metro" design language that made its operating system look modern. Windows Phone as a platform may have failed, but its design actually led Apple and Google to create better mobile operating systems.
"I think what we've learned, at least on the phone, is that to have a great design system, it can not be just for a product," says Albert Shum, chief designer of Windows. "Is it how you really scale hundreds of products serving millions of customers, in some ways, billions of customers?"
Fluent really drove Microsoft back to the basics of design, with a much greater focus on simplicity. Instead of bold typography and end-to-end content, Fluent focuses on subtle elements such as light, depth, movement, and material. We have seen that it appears in Windows with suggestions for motion and blur effects. It also displays in Office and the Web in services such as OneDrive, Office Online, and Outlook. Microsoft is gradually making Fluent the centerpiece of how the company thinks about design.
It is a design that needs to be scaled in various products and some that are used by more than one billion people worldwide. Microsoft designers need to consider whether they are creating art and illustrations for students, employees, or consumers in general, and how those designs will be interpreted in different locations. There is a lot to cover, and every software design also has to adhere to the style of Microsoft, Apple, Google and other operating systems that power the many hardware devices that run Microsoft software.
In one of Microsoft's hardware workshops, I saw an unreleased Surface Mini on a designer's shelf. When I play with Groene, the head of hardware design, about how he forgot to get his team to hide the Surface Mini, he's more interested in discussing what comes next. "We are a software company and being able to design better software through hardware is always what inspires us," he says.
Under its new workflow, Microsoft also has designers working on seemingly different hardware across the enterprise. I spoke with Chris Kujawski, an Xbox industrial designer, who told me that company changes mean that there are now more opportunities for designers and that jobs look less old because designers can now work together more freely. This means that someone in charge of the Xbox Adaptive Controller design is working on the new Xbox console and designing a new Surface.
The Xbox and Surface hardware may not look the same, but the teams responsible for their design are sitting side by side in Microsoft now. Kait Schoeck, an industrial designer who worked on the Surface Book, says this new way of working means she is "constantly doing new things" and "constantly learning something new" with other designers.
All that hardware needs software to activate it, and Microsoft does not think of them as separate processes. "We always think of hardware as a stage for software," says Groene. "Sometimes the stage can also influence the performance of the software, so there is the back and sides of both elements."
If you go back to the original tablet of Surface RT, which was released along with Windows 8, the software (Windows RT) lagged behind the hardware and was displayed through incomplete applications and slow performance. "We were focusing intensely on the hardware while the software was being developed at the same time … without actually having time to influence one another too much," says Groene. The goal of any future surface hardware is to never make the error of the Surface RT situation again, and ensure that the software is being maintained.
The speed of competitors also had a huge impact on Microsoft. The company started building Surface hardware after seeing Apple's big success with MacBook Air and iPad, while regular software updates from Google for Chrome and Android played a key role in inspiring the continuous iteration of Windows 10.
But it's not just tech giants that have worried Microsoft. There are now thousands of startups competing for parts of their business, Office to cloud services, and Outlook.
The software landscape has changed dramatically since Microsoft organized its workflow. Back in the day, it would send a new version of Windows every few years. Software, hardware, and design teams were isolated, and that did not make much difference – the design was minimal and competitors were limited.
Internally, Microsoft teams also used to fight each other. "You all saw the photo of all the groups pointing weapons at each other at Microsoft. There's certainly a bit of that," said a Windows Phone product manager The Verge almost seven years ago. Microsoft used to have a reputation for silo teams that were managed by bosses who competed with other teams to create the most popular product. Co-founder Bill Gates famously conducted product reviews where he killed years of work in a single meeting, and this encouraged these feuds even more as the teams struggled for Gates' attention.
But in the last decade, things have changed a lot. Competitors like Google and Apple built competing products for Microsoft – good. Office, a $ 35 billion-a-year deal that Microsoft still dominates, is now fiercely contested by Google's G Suite services, tools like Facebook Workplace and many others.
Meanwhile, smaller startups have cut out mere parts of Microsoft's big business, often with great success. Dropbox and Slack were able to innovate in ways that Microsoft was slow to react to, and the company found itself at a disadvantage. Slack is now valued at $ 7.1 billion, and has more than 30 million customers paying for its service. Dropbox is now a public company and is valued at about $ 10 billion.
Some of these threats are complementary to Microsoft's core business, but some are not. As platforms outside of Microsoft's control, such as iOS and Android, are increasingly consuming people's time, Microsoft needs to create applications that merit merit. It is no longer turning the default software into a dominant platform in its control. It is struggling for market share in a crowded market where the app that works properly can take off overnight and entice users to a legacy company. Microsoft has already acquired applications such as Accompli to make its main Outlook application for the iPhone and avoid being left behind.
Later, at the design meeting, the illustrators debated the addition of a turtle. They are thinking of using a turtle to help illustrate a slow connectivity page in Microsoft Teams, but first, some decisions had to be made: should it be animated slowly? Must wear a sweatband? Will its meaning be clear in all countries?
More input can lead to clearer and more inclusive work. But it can also disrupt a company while trying to please and incorporate everyone involved. I witnessed this during the design meeting, when everyone was discussing an animated profile image. All the designers were focused on how the image was animated, but I sat there wondering silently why the profile image was not aligned correctly to the center. It's a big challenge for a company as big as Microsoft to open up their design process and grow from it without lowering or losing the basics.
For Microsoft, reviewing how it approaches design is also reviewing how it develops products. Increasingly, the company has been pleased to quickly fail and test things to accelerate development times: this means faster prototyping, learning to rely on open source communities, and changing the core of its software business.
Microsoft's old approach was to write all the lines of code. Modern startups, says Friedman, write about 5% of their code, relying on open source tools for the rest. "There's all this great open source stuff that other companies build and build and we're starting to share more openly," says Friedman. "For us, it's just embracing open source in design and engineering."
Microsoft has also created a new way to prototype future products, both hardware and software, that reduce the time to build a prototype of hours or days to minutes. It started out as a tool to test changes to Office on the Web before Microsoft designers refactored the code to make it open source and started prototyping things like Microsoft's new search interface, an emerging way to generate search results in Office , Windows and others.
The prototype tool is essentially a web version of Windows and Office, where designers can adjust the appearance of things instantly. Now, Windows, Office, and Microsoft Edge designers are using this tool to test product changes. "This allows us to visualize new hardware, screenless hardware, screened hardware, all sorts of different material to find out if there is real human value there before investing in the production of a real product," says Friedman.
Product manufacturers are also using this new prototype tool to get a better idea of what software changes will be needed for the hardware in the future. Thanks to this new prototype tool, Microsoft's hardware designers can now try to conceptualize future hardware with or without monitors. Some of this future hardware may involve dual displays or even devices with foldable screens. Microsoft has been working to support this kind of hardware, but it's clearly waiting for the right opportunity to launch something radically different.
Investing in products, whether hardware or software, used to involve large Microsoft bets that did not always work. "When we used to send software, client software, every two or three years, we had to figure out what would happen two years from now in the industry and be right about a solution," says Friedman. "This is very complicated because the industry continues to move faster and faster."
Now, Microsoft teams must work on a series of shorter sprints to create prototypes or complete designs. Instead of everyone working toward a specific date, months or years later, a simplistic version of the work is built and then extras are added at the top.
Think of this more agile approach, how to make a pretty basic pizza, and then add more extravagant toppings each time. The value of a project, or lack of it, is seen much earlier and well before it even ends. Microsoft's "open design" philosophy applies the same set of design rules across the enterprise and allows a design piece created for one product to be easily incorporated into another. All products do not need their own chat bubble or search bar. Instead, common design elements are like covers. They are centralized and reused.
This new focus on speed and adoption of open source has changed the way Microsoft thinks about how products come to market. "I think our new cultural philosophy is about really trying things … and if they fail, and we cut them off, then it's an incredible learning that we apply to the next thing," says Friedman. "More and more Microsoft people are being rewarded for trying things by learning and applying learning. Because what we are investing in is a culture of growth. "
If Microsoft's new design approach works, the company must be well positioned to respond to software and hardware changes in the coming years. But nothing like that is easy. For a company as big as Microsoft, this seems like a change of several years, and there is no guarantee of success. Microsoft has spent $ 7.5 billion to acquire GitHub and allow its own developers to share and collaborate even more. The challenge now is to really get everyone to embrace this new approach and completely reform Microsoft's internal culture.
Microsoft's embrace of open source, its move to Chromium for its Edge browser and this new open design give clear insight into how the company is redesigning its future. "I hope that everyone can build parts of Microsoft's experience 10 years from now. I hope product names disappear completely in the future, "explains Friedman.
In addition to open source and Windows, Microsoft's future design history seems increasingly inclusive and listening to the humans who actually use their products. We saw this recently with the Xbox Adaptive Controller and we began to see Surface moving to more personal areas such as headphones. This is an approach we first saw with the Windows feedback program, and now the company is increasingly looking for the voice of its customers to influence their design decisions.
That customer voice should mean better hardware and software, but Microsoft's centralized design means the company may be preparing to fail. A unified design increases the stakes. If one thing fails, everything fails. But if Microsoft is really listening to its customers, this new agile approach should allow the company to fix things quickly.
Microsoft has clearly learned from its past, and this new design change is a smart bet for its future. The challenge now is to combine all of Microsoft's ideas from its more than 100,000 employees into a single design that is scalable to look consistent with the billion people who use products like Office or Windows.
The challenge is also not to be too early for new products or to be too late, which is a delicate balance that will prevent Microsoft from launching things and killing them in a few months. Otherwise, if this open design does not work, we may be seeing well-designed hardware and software that reminds us of what might have been.