Learning by Doing and Other Design Lessons

Microsoft Design’s Steve Kaneko on revolutions, Mars shots, flow state, and ZUI

Steve Kaneko on Microsoft Campus, April, 2017

After arriving at the University of Washington with math and drafting skills, an affinity for art, and an intention to study architecture, Steve Kaneko pivoted into industrial design on this tip from a friend. “It’s like architecture, but you’re doing architecture for a product.” 25+ years later, Steve has become what some regard as the spiritual leader of Microsoft Design. “That’s probably because I’ve been here so long,” is Steve’s modest response.

Here are excerpts from our conversation about the future of design and tech, teams, beauty, and change.


Design’s role in the revolution

David Betz: We’re entering what’s been called The Fourth Industrial Revolution, where technology involving AI, mixed reality, biomimicry, nanotechnology, cloud, and mobility are taking off at an exponential rate. How does design factor into that mix?

Steve Kaneko: That’s the big question, right? I’ll start with the tried and true first. In my experience, the mediums change, but designers’ thinking and role haven’t changed. The medium of design will continue to change with new technologies, whether it’s the Web, apps, things in the cloud, artificial intelligence, product design or mixed reality.

As designers, it’s still our role to understand what makes people tick. It’s still our role to give form and shape to experiences that are tangible, beautiful, and relevant, and accommodating to what people do naturally.

Doing all that is not easy. I like to think we give form to business strategy, so people can see it, feel it, and appreciate it.

Next is how people respond to aesthetics: composition, color, line, contrast, and balance — they are all fairly constant. We human beings respond to all those things in very basic ways that don’t change much. So, the aesthetic techniques that we use to affect different emotions haven’t changed since we began making things.

This relates to human factors: physiology, biomechanics, and psychology. We’re the same people we have been for thousands of years. Our ability to process information may change slightly because of the amount of access to information that we have today, but fundamentally, people still need to focus—and multitasking isn’t quite multitasking, as most people think. Media types and materials and processes change, but the effect on people and the principles behind them are the same, in many ways.

Finally, the process of design is essentially the same except that both distribution and feedback are much more accelerated. This encourages us as designers to spend less time making products and services perfect because we can always update them tomorrow. I believe we are at a fun juncture where purists like me are challenged to let go, and to let “design” happen in the marketplace instead of striving for perfection from day one.

DB: Adapting design principles for enduring human qualities in an ever-changing world is very interesting. Does the proliferation of intelligent and connected devices offer any new challenges?

SK: Definitely. It’s a world where intelligence is going to be everywhere around us. Every device, every building, everything around us will be connected in some fashion, and there will be a degree of intelligence built in. We hope that that this intelligence is now working to our advantage as human beings, because somehow we are interacting in a world that understands us, what we like, and what our preferences are.

I think a designer’s role, or at least a design problem that’s going to be really interesting that’s already upon us is: What is the relationship and the logic between all these different endpoints and things? What’s it like not just as an individual but when you have many individuals in a space? It continues to be a problem of relationship design, or the logic between and roles of people, places, and things — and it’s a problem that will become more complex.

There needs to be some kind of order and rationale for how these things behave and what roles they play relative to the roles we as humans play. This may sound very strange but as a designer or developer, we have to think about this situation of people and things as a peer relationship to truly get the most out of what we can do with technology. Technology can and should do the things we as humans should not bother with.

I think to make a difference, you have to decide: Do you believe in the promise of intelligent entities or do you fear what they can do? My colleagues and I choose the former but at the same time—are not kidding ourselves. We have to design trust into this future.

DB: What do you find interesting or inspiring, among all these constants?

SK: I find the human constant to be the most inspiring. It’s comforting to me to know that no matter what generation or culture one is from, that there are shared basic needs like wanting to feel happy, or to achieve a sense of accomplishment. I also love that in field research reveals we all perceive, learn, and respond to things in ways that are more similar than different. This may sound simplistic, but these constants are what I hold on to when facing the challenges of creating experiences that resonate with such vast numbers of people around the world.

From NUI to ZUI

DB: If people physiologically and psychologically remain the same, but the tech and environments become smarter and more pervasive, how do you see UX and NUI evolving?

SK: Natural user interface (NUI) is a term that gets overused. Almost nothing is truly natural. Although I would say there are some physiological and biomechanical designs that feel natural (e.g. ergonomic hardware), there are few examples in software that can claim to be truly natural. There is assimilated behavior that feels like a reflex like a right mouse click or an Xbox controller, but you have learned what these buttons do certain things and they have been hard coded into your brain to feel “natural” but they are not. This is OK but it puts emphasis on the tech industry to agree on standards—so that people don’t face a wrath of different usage models.

With that context, our aspiration of what we should be doing in design is to have zero UI. We should not have to require some type of affordance that’s an intermediary between us and the computer, because that’s what user interfaces do. They help to disambiguate our intentions to a computer. So, what we talk about in HoloLens, et cetera, are machines that are capable of perceiving. They perceive through sensors.

Because of this we are better able to create worlds and interfaces that are predictive of what you want to do. The goal is not to be predictive in itself; the goal is to actually create a situation where you don’t have to think about user interface. In that world, we call it zero UI. That is the ultimate of NUI. That’s why it’s important for us as designers to understand the context (there’s physical context, and there’s also human context) to better inform the machine and software.

DB: Design and engineering will be creating hardware and software that will become more ambient, less visible?

SK: Yeah.

I think we’ve moved into the perspective that, no, design is not in service of software or hardware; it’s only in service of people, right?

Ultimately, I think the success for design is that you and I as humans are in our life flow, where we are doing things that we love to do with the right kind of tools that surface at the right time but keep us in this right mental state, so we’re focused and really present. That could be one-to-one communications, or it could be a task. It’s that flow state that psychologists call the optimum experience that hold onto as an ideal. That doesn’t mean you’re slacking. It’s actually just the opposite.

You’re actually working really hard, but you’re very satisfied, because there is no friction between you and your intentions. In fact, the task could be very hard, but you’re skill is there at the right moment. In that flow space, actually, everything goes away. Where you don’t believe there is anyone designing for you anymore. In fact, there is no interface. There is no environment. There is no device. It’s just you and what you want to do.

So, is our future in design invisible? Whether or not that’s the right term… Success will be that we weren’t seen, that no one knew a designer was involved, an engineer was involved, that a user will feel — I just did it on my own, and I am happy about it.

The Mars shot: HoloLens

The bright colors of HoloLens HQ

DB: You’ve been part of what might be called a Mars shot, the HoloLens project, and you’ve lived to talk about it. It’s still relatively early days, but looking back on that effort, what was the hardest part of the mission for you personally?

SK: There are a few things. I don’t know if there’s one hardest part. The first hardest part was, unlike other mediums that one could get up to speed with fairly quickly whether it’s digital, physical, et cetera, Holographic computing was being invented. So much so that we didn’t even have a lot of devices that were even capable of seeing things, so you’re inventing while designing at the same time while learning a whole new medium. There are people here that struggled with this for a few years even before I joined the team. So, not being able to see or feel at scale in completely accurate context is really hard for design, because the feedback loop is so slow and sometimes abstracted.

DB: And the other hardest parts?

SK: The new tools, the new technology, the mixed medium, and new interface problems — very difficult. The second is I have never been a part of such an amazing and diverse team of creative individuals that come from so many different backgrounds. This also made us possibly the company’s most non-traditional user experience team. This studio is a mix of folks from transitional UI/UX combined with film, visual effects, broadcast, computer science and vision, linguistics, gaming, neuroscience, psychology and the fine arts. We have engineers and designers that really get insulted if you call them either instead of both, because of course, they’re both. Designing in this new world requires both the right and left sides of the brain along with those skilled in both the sciences and the arts.

DB: What was your most rewarding part of the Mars shot mission?

SK: That’s hard to answer, because I feel like we’re still on the journey. 
I don’t think any of us feel we’re finished with anything. Certainly, we got the HoloLens out as a dev kit. There is a growing developer community out there that we need to empower and support as they create great experiences for all of our customers. We’re not in a place where it feels like there’s any time for reflection. Right now, we’re still in the throes of it, which is awesome. So far, the response has been amazing.

DB: If not HoloLens, are there other reflections on your time as a designer?

SK: It’s OK and sort of natural to be impatient and ambitious, but design takes some time, you know?

And the beauty of it is that is does take some time. Everything keeps unfolding, and you realize that, I think, the secret is that it will never end.

You’re never going to get it. The further I get into my career, the more I realize, boy, if I’m not uncomfortable and learning something every day, I not only stop growing as a designer, but I stop growing as a person.


Have a question for Steve? Drop it in the comments, please.

Steve Kaneko is Partner, Director of Design for Analog, Windows Device Group
Photography: Nitish Meena
Microsoft Design is hiring

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