Change is never easy. It’s rarely popular and, depending on the nature of the change, can be scary. But sometimes change is exactly what we need. When you choose to introduce change at a place like Microsoft, you need a plan. You also need to think big.
In a company this large, how do you initiate change in a non-threatening, enjoyable way that ensures scale and impact? If you approach change as a design challenge, it becomes a bit easier to wrap your head around.
Our design challenge is that for years, Design (capital D, including Content Design, Research, Producers, Data Science, Motion, Audio, Front-End Development, Illustration, and Industrial Design) has had a specific support role. People outside of Design defined our role for us, and our purpose was to serve those stakeholders. They are our friends, they are our colleagues, and they have a unique perspective on what we have to offer. But they may not have the full picture of our potential. And that’s where our challenge begins. How do we bridge the gap between their expectations and our capabilities?
As designers, we know that the best solutions start with research. So, we stepped back and looked at our history.
Design has gone through many evolutions at Microsoft. At one point, it was about creating cleanliness, simplicity, and shine. Then it evolved into also owning interaction patterns. After that, it became a core part of our brand, as products and brand are inseparable. And today, it has become a core part of our business strategy. Over the last decade, Design has been purposefully repositioned across the company to provide even more energy to fulfill the Microsoft mission to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”
So, if Design now has a “seat at the table”, the question becomes whether we’re taking full advantage of that seat, and if not, what do we do about it? To help us all build a collective vision, this Design Day focused on where Design will need to grow to ensure real, measurable business impact.
Our hypothesis is: Design needs to develop stronger business acumen to truly showcase the value of our work and do it without losing what makes us Design. This hypothesis drove this year’s Design Day theme: Open for Business. Design Day was an interactive, cross-company, collaborative-learning extravaganza. We designed it (pun intended) to create new opportunities for Design by providing the skills we need to step more confidently into the world of business.
Design needs to develop stronger business acumen to truly showcase the value of our work and do it without losing what makes us Design.
We built the curriculum in three tracks, to move us beyond the stereotypical pixel-level show-and-tell aspects of Design. Instead, we built this internal conference to help designers be more effective at influencing business decisions. The “MBA in a Day” track featured talks on negotiation, product metrics, and the basics of business. “Tools of the Trade” celebrated and shared company-wide initiatives like Fluent, the Microsoft design language, which delivers world-class experiences across our products and services. This track also included talks on mixed reality prototyping and improved inclusivity in research processes. Lastly, “Future Forward” offered practical guidance and inspiration around hot topics like ubiquitous AI, conversational UX, and using sound to design better digital experiences. These explorations helped us examine the next big challenges on our horizon, like how we ethically and responsibly use data to enhance our customers’ experiences with technology.
Design Day was more than just setting people up for better conversations and sharing business know-how. We also took special care to open a conversation about the future of technology. Not the vision we’ve been sold for decades, though — instead, a new future that we have the power to invent. One that fosters equity, embraces the human need for empathy and connection, and is mindful of the cold, harsh realities of technology gone awry.
In preparing for the future, we invited Monika Bielskyte, our keynote speaker and futurist researcher, to join this conversation. Monika has lived as a digital nomad researching futures in over 80 countries and describes herself as a futurist with an artist’s eye and an inventor’s mind. She prototypes culturally diverse, socially and environmentally engaged designs for the entertainment industry, technology companies, and cities around the globe.
Leading up to her keynote, Monika spent time meeting with design leaders across the company. This gave her the chance to hold up a mirror to the audience and offer an outsider’s perspective on Design at Microsoft. Seeing us from the outside proved to be an invaluable experience for everyone involved, which rang true in her keynote (spoiler alert: she was pleasantly surprised).
Monika led us on a journey to explore the difference between the future that we expect and the future that humans require. She showed us a way to draw global inspiration for technology beyond our potentially limited Western lens. It was eye opening. As Designers, it made us even more excited to make the world a better place for humanity by using technology intelligently. For our business as well as for actual humans.
While Design Day inspires us to face grand challenges like this, it’s also a celebration. It was incredible to see our venue hit capacity with more than 1,000 community members within Design rooting for the customer and looking for new ways to have impact as both designers and businesspeople. As new paths unfold in front of us, I am confident and pleased that the Design community at Microsoft is ready for the challenges that new technologies are bringing to our doorstep. Nothing is too small or simple to be done right.
So, did this work? Ultimately, that’s in the hands of our extremely capable designers and that makes me very hopeful. We already know that, as Design, we can lead the way in craftsmanship, in empathy, and in more human experiences that empower people. I believe the discipline is more than ready to add new business focused thinking to the way we collaborate and align with our PM and Engineering partners, which will unlock more success for everyone. Especially our customers.
Beyond that, we’re changing the conversation. We’re looking to our designers — from our leaders to the next generation — to help move more of our product teams within Microsoft from a fixed mindset to something more open, with regards to Design. Maybe we don’t need to educate everyone on what it means to design. Maybe we just need to meet people where they are and get down to business.