Inclusive Design Thinking at Microsoft

How an inclusive process creates more accessible and ethical products

How radical empathy defines our product ethos

If design culture is the spirit of how we design at Microsoft, then design thinking is the manifestation of that culture. It’s the way we seek meaning in our work to make the impact we want. There are lots of ways to approach design thinking, but in the end every method comes down to the spirit of your organization — the values you honor and the way your design team shows up.

“Design Thinking” sometimes get short-changed as a sticky-note session, solving the world’s problems one sketch at a time. Some have been critical of design thinking as common sense techniques — but I’m not sure that’s fair. Design thinking is a set of co-creative tools, a means to build empathy with your customers, to understand the why before you get to the what, to expand and consider different perspectives. It’s about including others in the process, converging your ideas by creating, making, and experimenting. It brings energy and clarity to the opportunity. Is it really that common?

On our Microsoft Design teams, we’ve started to apply design thinking with a lens for the who. Our mission statement is to empower every person on the planet. When you design for millions, who are you really designing for? How do we design products and services inclusive to everyone? Our Inclusive Design ethos is how we create; how we approach design thinking to build products that reach the greatest number of people.

The case for inclusive design thinking

It’s tempting to jump right into product development. You know what you want to make, the new technology and capabilities support it, and your gut says go for it.

The challenge is to slow down and consider who you’re creating for. When millions of customers depend on your products or services, you’re inevitably making assumptions about what might work for everyone. With an Inclusive Design method, we re-frame the opportunity to understand who’s being excluded and then build insights that can be used throughout the product development process (you can check out our Inclusive Design work here). Inclusive Design is a method of design thinking; one that invites more people into our experiences. It’s the core of responsible creation.

We’re continuing to evolve our Inclusive Design practices. As we move deeper into a world of ambient computing, the value of design thinking is higher than ever. We interact with information all around us, through changing contexts embedded with intelligence. There’s a lot at stake. As designers, we need to think about how people will use our products and the real-world consequences of our intentions.

The value of ethics in product design

A key product ethos that’s emerging for us is design ethics. As designers, we need to define our obligation to the world around us and claim responsibility for the experiences we create. There’s an opportunity to bring mindfulness into our product ethos; to level-set and create designs that earn trust. We move and create at such a rapid pace, sometimes launching new features daily. How can we balance that rapid pace against the “move fast and break things” approach?

Starting with an inclusive ethos can improve the long-term impact of what we create — delivering new value and new solutions with radical empathy at their core. Design thinking throughout, always human-led. It’s our responsibility as designers to account for the impact each feature release has on our customers’ lives. The world is fundamentally shifting, and for us, leading the industry means leading with empathy.

Consider the philosophy behind the Iron Ring ritual that takes place across Canadian engineering universities (yes, I have one):

The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer has a very simple purpose: To direct the newly qualified engineer toward a consciousness of the profession and its social significance.

Designers have the same weighty responsibilities. Maybe it’s time for The Ritual of the Calling of a Designer — a call for radical empathy around our design ethics.

How do you approach design thinking? Talk to me here in the comments, or on Twitter.


To stay in-the-know with what’s new in at Microsoft Design, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or join our Windows Insider program.