Steve Kaneko races down the stairs, apologizing for being late. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to keep you waiting. The Barcelona announcement is in a couple days, so I’m all over the place.”
I nod along, pretending I know what he’s referring to. He’s wearing a purple sweater and jeans with an open smile and friendly eyes — his casual style emblematic of leadership at Microsoft. “My office is behind biometric doors,” Steve sheepishly explains as we walk into a glass-enclosed focus room. “That’s why you couldn’t find it.”
Steve is the Partner Director of Design of Cognition, the team that produced HoloLens and Windows Mixed Reality, and HoloLens 2 is the latest effort in a list of bleeding-edge initiatives he’s helped lead. Over nearly three decades, Steve drove international PC design efforts with the world’s top OEMs, spearheaded three releases of the Zune music player that led to the company’s Metro design language, and spearheaded the effort to define careers for designers and user researchers at Microsoft.
Other notable accomplishments include being chosen as one of the 40 most influential technology design innovations in ID magazine and being inducted into the Industrial Designers Society of America’s (IDSA) Academy of Fellows. At Microsoft, he earned multiple personal recognitions along with the much-revered team award for Technical Achievement for his work aligning the company’s design language.
Oh, and he designed the world’s first ergonomic mouse, which is in the permanent design collection in the MoMA. #NBD
Turns out the Barcelona trip he’s alluding to is the HoloLens 2 reveal, the next step in what Steve considers one of the most exciting avenues for innovation. “When it comes to spatial computing, human and environmental understanding, and artificial intelligence, this is where a lot of the action is. I’m leaving Microsoft at a time when this industry is still in its infancy. And I gotta say, I love what I see.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s leaving it all behind.
Redesigning the future
For someone preparing to take a step back from the industry, Steve is incredibly excited about the work yet to come. While his most recent efforts helped reinvent the way people transcend space and time with HoloLens, his future goals might lead to redesigning the final stages of life.
Steve bears the devastating experience of watching Alzheimer’s disease rob both his father and grandfather of their memory, processing skills, and personalities. Through his parents, he’s also witnessed how getting older negatively impacts quality of life and self-esteem, because many products and professional services don’t empathize with the needs of the aging population. “We all search for the next thing, and it usually strikes you in unexpected ways. Given what my parents went through, it’s clear to me that the ability to proactively live your best life in the last trimester of life has yet to be designed; I want to apply what I do into an area that badly needs design. It badly needs people who can reframe aging and dying from an inevitable fact to a beautiful concept.”
At an industry level, Steve also wants to help reframe traditional design disciplines. “I’m seeing certain professional areas that will quickly become antiquated. Mixed reality requires a design discipline that hasn’t formally been created yet.”
Steve insists this will challenge our assumptions of reality, produce problems we can’t begin to anticipate, and create opportunities that will disrupt traditional user experiences and the way design professionals distribute their intellectual property. Product designers, for example, will no longer need financial backing to turn their ideas into reality. Instead, they will sell their products 100% digitally in an app store that enables people to use their connected products in the virtual or mixed reality world. “I see the future of architecture and the built environment being disrupted in the same way,” he mused. “The relationship between atoms and bits has forever changed.”
Fundamentally, HoloLens is a collection of sensors — sensors that track our eyes, our hands, our environment — and Steve believes the whole world may eventually be a HoloLens. As someone who spent most of his career injecting innovation into personal computers and devices, Steve finds it exhilarating and promising that we now see the world as the next personal computer, and he wants to share his passion and expertise with future designers. If we think of the world as a device, how can designers orchestrate the experience of humanity?
Building a design culture
Just like innovation itself, building a strong design culture is a decades-long process, but Steve’s always been up for the challenge. When he first started at Microsoft in 1991, there was no identity or community around being a designer in the company. There were four of five other designers embedded in different product groups who focused specifically on their daily work. Today, Microsoft employs over 1,500 designers and artists.
Steve was originally hired to redesign the “Dove bar” Microsoft Mouse to be more beautiful and less costly. Leaning into his industrial design roots, he knew the problem needed to be solved holistically. He considered everything from ergonomics and aesthetics to business and engineering constraints — but the mouse wasn’t a fully funded project yet.
So how do you begin a project that isn’t approved? Well, if you’re Steve, you rent space in a shop down the street and find some human factors experts to design a new ergonomic mouse that is not just cheaper to build but also establishes a new story for existence. Two years and one pioneering ergonomics lab later, you get the Microsoft Mouse 2.0, the first piece of hardware that aimed to reduce strain on the user’s hand. This led to ergonomic keyboards and an entire product line that defined industry standards for computer hardware everywhere. “This was the start of legitimizing design as a driver for new business in the hardware peripherals group,” he reflected.
This borderline-fanatic level of determination and dedication to breaking down silos in pursuit of doing what’s right for the consumer, the product, and the business sets Steve apart. And it’s likely why he became the first designer to move between hardware and software and the first design partner at Microsoft. His ability to move beyond his industrial design specialization and examine all pillars of design, including content and human factors, bolstered the current design culture in the company.
“Today, the culture is as healthy as it’s ever been,” he said. “We have an engineering culture that is also focused on human-centered design. On the Cognition team, we’re trying to build an organization that doesn’t separate design and human factors from engineering, or art from science. It is the best mix of dreamers and idealists combined with the pragmatists and implementers. This is how you change the world.”
But make no mistake — Steve isn’t a rosy-eyed optimist. He readily recognizes engineering as Microsoft’s core competence and knows it’d be foolish to think otherwise. But moving forward, Steve insists Microsoft can’t wait ten years before design gets involved in a product’s lifecycle. “The time frame between feasible science fiction to science fact is faster than ever, so the products need to be usable today. So, I hope that designers stop asking for permission to lead and instead just do it.”
Defining “design” differently
While Steve wants to be remembered as a designer’s designer who helped build Microsoft Design as we know it today, he’s quick to point out a strong foundation already existed. “Microsoft has always been a design company. We just define ‘design’ a little differently.”
At Microsoft, design is more than pretty UI. “We need to decide how much load you put on software, hardware, or the end user. It’s that mix that a product designer has to calculate.” This level of care and coherence hinges on maintaining a delicate equilibrium between physical interaction, digital interaction, and humans. “Our turning point occurred when we embraced our history as a technical company and amplified that competency with design.”
Despite the work that goes into it, successfully striving for that ideal mix means people might not notice the design at all. “So, the goal with the mouse is to actually disappear. The goal of an interface is to disappear,” he explained. In the end, the concept of user interfaces only shows how we haven’t yet perfected our ability to predict or understand people’s intentions.
Steve believes a key priority moving forward needs to be designing trust into the experiences. “We need to continue instilling trust in our products and services, especially in a world with AI.” Steve noted. “As an industry, this might be the hardest and most important design problem we face, and it’s one where we win — and lose — together.”
Designing legacy and leadership
And designers are a key part of continuing to earn that trust. Steve notes that the scale and mission of far-reaching products like Windows, Microsoft Office, and Microsoft Cloud and AI, along with the human-focused community of designers behind them, has made Microsoft a design leader that doesn’t prioritize looking cool.
“We hire people who are genuinely interested in changing the world. These are the people fighting to make a difference in this world, because Microsoft is the company where what you do is going to affect millions.”
Doing the most good for the most people has been both a theme in Steve’s career and a continued goal for the company. As Microsoft continues to expand into uncharted territory, and as its design culture evolves internally, Steve has lived the challenge and impact of staying centered on solving real problems for real people.
This challenge includes advocating for the people who use our products — and the people who design them as well. Overall, Steve hopes fellow designers remember him as an advocate.
“I don’t want anyone to say, ‘Well, he was just kind of a manager of people who was around design.’ Instead, ‘Steve was the designer that was actually making us better as a designer, both in technique and intention.’ I would take pride in that.”
Focusing on the people
So yes, holograms are awesome, but at the end of the day, they must deliver real human value that helps people be more productive in life — just like Excel, just like a PC, just like a mouse.
And designers will always play an integral role in delivering that value. Steve noted that throughout all the teams he’s worked on, the biggest constants were the imperative to bring coherence and balance to experiences with technology and the genuine interest in people that makes a great designer.
“You have to become students of humans, in every aspect,” he urged.
For emerging designers, Steve’s career exemplifies putting these sentiments into action. Today, amid tech that’s advancing faster than ever, we face even more opportunities to improve lives through staying focused on the people behind the interface.
“Delighting customers and solving real human problems requires hard work and diligence to stay principled in what we’re doing,” he noted, “and not be so caught up in tech that we lose sight of just making something work.” Beauty, he believes, is uncovering simplicity in function.
As for his own trajectory, Steve’s keeping an open mind. “A friend told me that Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t build Fallingwater until he was 67, and I’m only 56,” he laughed. “I need to be able to put these thoughts down, and then I’ll wait for the universe to help me decide what’s next.”
If anyone else had said this, it’d seem like more of a rite of passage than anything, the kind of thing you’re supposed to say as you leave a significant phase of your life. But coming from Steve, whose career has danced along the boundary of what is and what could be, he means this pretty literally. The universe is going to have more of a voice than ever — and he’s going to listen.