When your users are your coworkers
“Why would you move to IT?” they asked. “What can a UX professional do there?”
People asked questions like this when I moved from a design manager role in Microsoft Office to a new role at what had been Microsoft IT. I understood these misgivings, because what we were planning — building a UX Studio at scale inside IT — was completely new.
UX professionals aren’t usually an integral part of IT departments. One or two UXers might work throughout the various groups, but you don’t typically find a cohesive team of design experts involved in IT experiences from beginning to end. Organizations often consider IT as a service, responding to needs from other business areas and keeping things up and running. While IT teams are good at this, their business models aren’t necessarily led by their own vision and priorities.
But in July 2017, right before I made my move, big changes came to Microsoft IT. Under the new leadership of EVP Kurt DelBene, Microsoft IT and Operations joined together to form Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO). One of the most significant changes, among many, was that the organization would be led by a new vision and established priorities.
Because of this new landscape, Microsoft built a UX Studio to help realize this vision and further our customer obsession.
I was hesitant to lead this team at first because of my experience as a tenured, externally facing product person. But the vision and opportunity to embark on something new excited me. It felt like the right fit, because for me, when it comes to good design, the most important factor is always the human.
When a product team simply tacks on design at the end of development, people feel it. From an IT perspective, this meant Microsoft employees using tools that weren’t always seamless or accessible to our diverse teams around the world. Our evolving workforce deserved better than what they were getting, and I wanted to be part of creating that for them.
We have a long way to go and a lot to learn. Still, I’ve discovered strategies to help other companies find the value of bringing UX to IT and building the right teams to do it well.
1. Start with empathy
To improve our internal experiences, we first needed to know what tools and services existed, what problems they were solving, which internal groups used them, and the pain points and gaps those users faced.
It’s essential to apply human-centered design thinking to internal experiences just like you would with external products or services. With qualitative and quantitative methods from our UX research toolkit, such as ethnography, diary studies, heuristic evaluations, and surveys, we developed a deeper understanding of our employees’ unarticulated needs and stated desires. We created a simple UX hierarchy of needs chart to communicate with our internal partners and to help us prioritize what to experiment with next.
Today, research informs much of what we do within the UX Studio. We’re improving experiences for our employees, because design is better informed. It’s an essential piece of our Microsoft culture.
Lesson learned — Be obsessed with keeping your user’ needs at the center of the work, and shape priorities around them.
2. Hire well
When building a new team across disciplines, it’s important to have leaders who can attract the right level of talent.
We sought a research director with a strong background in multi-methods research. The right candidate would synthesize complex findings and work with the design manager to create actionable solutions and lead a diverse team.
We also needed a team of designers and front-end developers to implement a coherent design system. This team would build off the Microsoft Fluent Design System, adapting it to IT-specific needs.
From there, we continued to hire other strong talent in design, research, and accessibility in both management and individual contributor roles.
Lesson learned — the people you hire are essential to implementing your plans.
3. Become laser-focused
Prioritization was key. This may seem obvious, but when you build products, services, and infrastructure to run a company like Microsoft, it’s easy to get pulled in many directions. Everything feels important. Often, everything really is important.
Instead of working on hundreds of siloed projects, we strategized. We became ruthless about researching and targeting our efforts to top employee needs and organizational initiatives. We organized teams of designers and researchers to go deep into these problem areas.
This wasn’t the most popular decision, because many leaders across the organization wanted us to focus on their teams’ top priorities, but we kept firm. We knew spreading ourselves thin across the organization would not have the impact our employees deserved.
Lesson learned — be unwavering in the focus areas that you’ve created based on research and vision.
4. Implement the quad model and act like it already exists
Instead of having one product owner making all the decisions for the development of a product, we used a quad model: a researcher, designer, PM, and engineer all working together and sharing ownership. This inclusive way of working gives each discipline accountability and support in the product-making process. With four experts in four specialties, our products have a greater chance of success, because now, the user and the experience are at the forefront of the work.
We received some push back on the quad model at first. Even my boss had some doubts. But instead of defending or explaining it to people, we just started talking about it like it was already a thing and formed teams around it.
People quickly saw how effective this model was. Before long, no one was explaining it or asking what it meant. Leaders referenced the model as if it were a long-established process. We have work to do across the organization to implement the quad model on all teams, but we’re making progress.
Lesson learned — implementing great ideas that your team can get behind and own will eventually yield a reward for everyone.
The new IT
Today, at Microsoft, we’re seeing real benefits of building a UX Studio within IT, and we can’t wait to share some of our new experiences. We’re still learning a lot, and today, my friends no longer ask what a UX pro can do in IT.