Data centers, agricultural farms, and corporate buildings all share a similar creative challenge: How do you design ethically and sustainably?
To answer this question, we partnered with the Seattle Design Festival to discuss finding balance and living in harmony with the things we create. Jonah Sterling, design leader for Microsoft Cloud + AI, led a panel exploring the future of design and how technology we develop today will impact humanity. The panel featured a variety of Microsoft voices, including Michael Harnisch, who leads the Mixed Reality team, Keith Donovan, who leads the campus refresh project, and Ranveer Chandra from FarmBeats, a program that uses data to increase accuracy and productivity in farming.
“All of these different technologies or touchpoints are about the human’s need,” said Jonah. “Whether it is the humans in their space, the humans in virtual space, or the humans actually being fed.” These interactions present opportunities for people to experience technology, for better or worse. As designers, we must anticipate imbalance, explore the unknowns, and build harmonious solutions.
The balancing act: business vs. humanity
Throughout the years of media portraying the future as robots taking over the world and machinery replacing human jobs, visionaries have felt a duty to create a safe, secure place for humanity. In projects like FarmBeats, Mixed Reality at Work, and Real Estate & Security, design focuses on balancing business and human needs.
FarmBeats, for example, was designed to assist farmers, not replace them. To improve and empower, not conquer. Ranveer, the lead design researcher, explained his innovative use of TV whitespaces. “We built a way to take a Wi-Fi signal and put it in those noisy TV channels so it doesn’t interfere with your TV reception in an adjacent channel,” he said. With his groundbreaking approach, farmers can avoid overspending on wireless signals and installing numerous expensive routers to use FarmBeats. Using IoT, Ranveer and his team continue to make strides in features and updates that improve the role of the farmer and their farms.
This desire to supplement, not replace, human efforts is also true with the Real Estate & Security group. This team used internal products, like HoloLens, to develop a campus that’s connected and secure yet accessible and sustainable.
HoloLens allows makers of all kinds to create a physical vision for clarity with their projects. Keith shared a story of a 40-year veteran construction worker, Vinny, who joined a group of executives in a walkthrough of what would become a Microsoft store in London. After Keith and the team were finished using HoloLens to view an empty, unfinished building into a fully rendered, interactive space they were planning to create, Vinny wanted to see. Keith ran him through the same presentation, and Vinny was blown away. He could literally envision the space like never before.
“It’s not about replacing what he did, it’s about supplementing what he did in his day-to-day job,” explained Keith. Michael added, “Mixed Reality is really this place where we can give capabilities to people.”
Emotional design based on research
Even throughout vastly different areas at Microsoft, the design process remains constant, because research is power and proof for our customers. When we face a design challenge, especially in regards to designing with the customer in mind, problem solving through research and data is key.
“Research drives to insights,” Michael said. “We prototype to validate things we researched and then execute based on our prototype. It’s not a linear process.” However, the end goal stays constant. Create a positive emotional response for our customers.
Ranveer and his team use FarmBeats to create an emotionally balanced product for both businesses and consumers. It encourages sustainable, ethically responsible agriculture for our world. Microsoft Real Estate & Security is building workplaces for employees to create a positive emotional response during their day to day. Design research hopes to ensure that anyone who enters a Microsoft building on main campus feels both safe and productive. In “Fragments,” a game the HoloLens team created, players act as the detective at crime scenes to solve mysteries. These games invoke an emotional response, a sense of thrills and catharsis when people come home from a long day at work.
“It comes down to research, it comes down to listening, it comes down to understanding who your audience is and what they actually are desiring and then being able to elicit that,” Jonah said.
Designing an ethical future
As designers, we’re in a position of innovation, creation, and power. What we do with that power matters. We should all take steps to keep ethics paramount to our designs. As an enterprise that moves at startup speeds, it’s easy to focus exclusively on getting a product to market quickly. But it’s important for design to balance the drive for speed with ethical decision making.
The AI and Ethics in Engineering and Research (AETHER) committee represents another way that Microsoft ensures our future with AI is bright and safe. Members from across the company detect, analyze, and suggest best practices, policies, and procedures to keep AI usage ethical. This allows us to establish precedents for decision making. While it may take a long time to reach cross-company conclusions and consistency around AI, over time we will be more confident and consistent in making the right calls for both the business and for humans. It’s a high bar, but one we believe we can reach.
Design leaders must think outside the box to ensure data dignity and prevent misuse. Microsoft leverages tools already in place to empower designers with the toolkits and knowledge to create human-centric, emotional designs that better our future.
The ethical implications of technology will only become more relevant as we move forward. As Jonah puts it, “We should never lose the human aspect of what keeps us safe, secure and comfortable with technology as it continues to progress.” It’s all about balance.