Designing for the Microsoft Surface Duo

Our early journey in crafting dual-screen experiences

Jon Friedman
Aug 12, 2020 · 8 min read

Over the last few decades, product makers have continuously adapted devices to meet a dynamic array of ever-changing human needs. We’ve made things smaller, lighter, more responsive, more inclusive. We’ve integrated sensory inputs and designed intelligent programs to support your ability to achieve with efficiency and elegance.

As both the rhythms of daily life and notions of productivity continue to change, we’ve been asking ourselves: How can we empower people to more fluidly navigate between creation and consumption, professional and personal?

Today’s release of the Microsoft Surface Duo — a dual-screen mobile device with experiences crafted specifically for this form factor — is one way we’re exploring these questions.

For a designer, such an opportunity is rare and exciting. It’s like discovering a new room in the house you’ve lived in for decades. What passageways will open? What creative ideas will be sparked by a different view or new furniture arrangements? Similarly, with the Surface Duo, we asked what new workflows could be enabled by two screens, and how the seam could simplify tasks and reduce cognitive burden.

Informed by years of rigorous user research and developed via a tight partnership between hardware and software, the Surface Duo unlocks new modes of expression and efficiency. You can be on a video call and have a document open side by side, on a device that still fits in your pocket.

The Surface Duo — as a device and as a category — is in its infancy. We know there will be kinks to iron out. Which is why we’re inviting you into our creative process so we can shape its future together.

For more insight into our design journey, I sat down with Deepak Menon, who leads the design team for the Office app. We talked about some of the research behind our design choices, how we’ve been using the Surface Duo in our own lives, and our hope that all of you will take these ideas and run with them.

Jon: Thanks for chatting with me, Deepak. I know we’ve both been using the Surface Duo for the last few months —

Deepak: I’ve actually been using it as my main device. I’m not sure I need anything else!

Jon: And of course, we’ll say that, because we designed it. 😉 But I think it’s a genuine testament to the work that went into understanding what people need and how dual-screen experiences can expand what’s possible with mobile devices.

Deepak: Right. It isn’t just the “smartphone experience” with two screens. It’s not just a “folded tablet.” It’s something new, with experiences that are made possible because of the seam, not in spite of it.

Jon: When we approached the Surface Duo we started with the question: What are the unmet human needs? What are the gaps between what people are trying to accomplish and the tools that are available to them? And then how do we fill those gaps? The form factor of dual-screen device let us deeply engage with the idea of productivity.

Deepak: Mobile productivity especially.

Easily sign a PDF using the Office app before dragging the file into Outlook on your other screen — voila, contract complete.

Jon: Yes — really deeply rooted in the research your team has done in mobile-first countries like India and China.

Deepak: We know people want to start and finish a task on the same device — they want to get in and get out quickly. And businesses are relying on things we used to think of as “entertainment” — voice and video and photos — for essential collaboration and operations.

Jon: We’re seeing these patterns a lot. Productivity used to be exclusively quantitative — churning out more widgets per second. Today, productivity is creative. It’s as much about your state of mind as it is about your output. We’re constantly switching between consumption and creation, reflection and action. There’s this “lean back” mode where you’re consuming and processing information, and there’s this “lean forward” mode when connections suddenly spark in your mind or you need to get something done.

Historically our devices have been designed to fit one of these modes at a time. The beauty of the Surface Duo is that it lets you traverse the spectrum from reflection to action, back and forth — but it still fits in your pocket.

The Surface Duo in landscape mode lets you read Word documents as you would a physical book.

Deepak: It certainly takes content consumption to the next level — it’s straight up a better experience when there’s more real estate. In Outlook, you can view the details of your entire week at a quick glance, and in Word, you can turn pages like a book or look at them side by side. The average document is less than two pages long, so with the Surface Duo you can see the entire document without scrolling.

Creation activities are enhanced too. With PowerPoint, I like having the slide on one screen and the thumbnail view on the other, so I can stay focused but also keep a sense of the bigger picture. Alternatively, I’ll have multiple apps open and work across screens.

Having Teams and PowerPoint side-by-side allows you to view content while still engaging with call participants.

Jon: That’s one of my favorite scenarios. I’ll be in a Teams meeting, using dual landscape mode, with the video on top while referencing a document on the bottom.

Deepak: Or put the baby monitor on the other screen! 😅 With COVID-19, we’ve seen more intermingling of work and home, and the Surface Duo can help you balance both.

Jon: You would think that during the pandemic, with so many people at home, mobile device usage might shrink — but there’s a lot of the data suggesting the opposite (from early February to late March alone, the number of weekly mobile Teams users grew more than 300%). Personally, I don’t want to be in one room or stare at one screen all the time. Other people also talk about needing to move around or work outside. When I started using the Surface Duo, I could bring a much more powerful, productive experience with me.

It also handles window management elegantly. Having multiple windows open is a common PC experience, but it doesn’t translate to single-screen mobile devices.

Extra real estate in Outlook lets you see the details of your Inbox or Calendar at a quick glance

Deepak: There’s been great research around how people use windows for productivity, and the seam between the screens reduces the cognitive burden of managing windows manually. In some cases, the seam separates two apps. In others, it creates panels where you can do separate actions or switch back and forth between those consumption and creation micro-moments more smoothly. Again, this comes from seeing the seam as an opportunity, not as a constraint.

Jon: One thing I love about the Surface hardware and software teams is that they always push each other in this amazing symbiotic way. With the Surface Duo, you have more screen space, a seam, and new ways of holding a device in different postures. It needs to adapt to multiple types of content and activities. The only way we could flexibly solve for this was by simultaneously designing the details of how hardware and software could work together.

I want to go back to what you said earlier about photos, videos, voice — these inputs that have become critical to collaboration and creation.

Deepak: Yeah, the camera and microphone are essential on a mobile device. We wanted to maximize how the Office app uses those sensors to enable many kinds of scenarios on the go. How can you quickly approve an expense report in between helping your child with homework? Or participate in an interactive online class while riding the bus?

Drag and drop content from your media gallery right into your PowerPoint.

Jon: I love the inclusivity of this approach. People have very different learning styles and modes of working. These adaptive input models help people of varying abilities accomplish what they need to.

Deepak: When we pair new input models with intelligence — that’s when things really light up. We’ve barely scratched the surface on the creation side. There are so many opportunities to help people express themselves more easily, more clearly, and more compellingly. We can do more with templates, for example — turning a Word outline into a beautifully designed PowerPoint presentation.

Jon: There’s so much in the physical world — how do we translate more of the analog to digital?

Deepak: And then how do we empower people to do more with the results? Coupling intelligence with mobile sensors and inputs — there are so many ways to enhance productivity, family safety, peace of mind. I think we’re going to see third-party developers take these ideas way further.

Jon: We’ve already started to see some super clever things. During the Microsoft Hackathon someone came up with a game for the Surface Duo that uses a new posture we hadn’t even thought of — two people playing a game can flip over their second screens to face each other. They’d be standing at least six feet apart, of course.

Deepak: Of course.

Jon: We’re excited to get the Surface Duo into people’s hands to see what they do with it — what creative uses they’ll find. What innovative software they’ll build. We’ll learn about what’s not working and how we can make it better.

Deepak: There’s so much to look forward to — this is really just the beginning!

The Surface Duo is a first-generation device, and we’re still in the early stages of exploring where it might go next. We can’t do that without you.

So, let us know: What feels weird? What feels great? What do you want to use it for that isn’t quite there yet? Demand that the design adapts to you. That’s our goal, too.

As Deepak says: This is the beginning. Where will you take us next?

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