Microsoft’s approach to Conway’s Law

Albert Shum
May 3, 2018 · 4 min read

What makes a Microsoft product Microsoft? What is that product ethos, guiding our design ideals?

These are the types of existential questions I recently sat with, flying at 30,000 feet across 10 time zones. Destination: Tel Aviv, to take part in Microsoft Israel Development Center’s Design Day. An enlightening opportunity to connect our design teams and try to get at the heart of these questions. As designers, what’s our purpose, our responsibility to people all over the world who trust Microsoft?

As the CVP of the Windows Design team, it’s essential to be thoughtful about the role of design in technology. That means continually collaborating with cross-company leaders and partners to cultivate the greater Microsoft Design identity. Recently, Microsoft announced an important investment in intelligent cloud and intelligent edge. It’s a thrilling opportunity to connect our teams even more and create a synchronous voice that informs our products and reaches our customers. In our continued journey as One Microsoft, our product ethos is essential, and design’s influence will matter more than ever here and across the industry.

As we define that future, I want to invite you along and ask for your insights. This will be a series of conversations and discovery as we continue our always-exhilarating journey.

Design Culture, Our Guiding Light

At Design Day in Tel Aviv, I was asked to present on the history of Microsoft Design — more than a little daunting. How do you catalog all the amazing design work that’s happened over 30 years? I came back to this article by one of our designers, a collection of our history. I reached out to folks all over the company and found a trove of product work, inspired by a legacy of breakthroughs and innovations, challenges and learnings.

We design experiences that take advantage of the technology around us, to serve new or unmet needs. There’s a certain amount of tech trendiness that we can predict, but in this moment, those trends are moving quickly and it’s the role of design to see the need, adapt, and keep delivering coherent, usable experiences to customers. Think about the relatively speedy evolution from PC command line, to GUI with keyboard and mouse, to touch, to ink & pen on tablets, mobile, ubiquitous devices, large screens, mixed reality, to zero UI. We’re at the intersection of these technologies, with multiple inputs and shifting contexts. The challenge now is to simplify using ambient computing, conversational UI, and intelligence embedded on the “edge,” always connected through the cloud. This is the future we’re investing in.

But what does that really mean, in our product design work at Microsoft? How do you evoke a feeling? What values do our products express? Trust? Empowerment? Inclusivity?

To answer that, we usually look to brand, identity, design language — constructs that let us create a shared set of values. But the key part that influences identity is the sense of culturearound how we design together. How do people at Microsoft work and behave? What do they believe in, and how do those beliefs manifest in the experiences we bring to the world? In tech, the tendency is to look to the individual — the myth of the lone designer, creator, or visionary — one person with creativity spark to drive a product design forward. And while there are inspiring creatives to be celebrated, the risk is in reinforcing the individual hero, the alpha, the power of singular genius to create their vision for the world. The principles of design thinking — empathy, learning, iteration, co-creation, collaboration, open-mindedness, exploration — don’t work in a hero culture. In practice, product design is the collective work of many disciplines coming together to create better solutions for our customers, not ourselves.

And this is why Satya has challenged us at Microsoft to be the elixir to Conway’s Law. We need to have a holistic product view that looks at the end-to-end customer experience, removing seams and boundaries along the way. Any design system we create should harness the creative power of the collective to incubate, iterate, and co-create inside Microsoft and alongside our external ecosystem, with openness. We need to bring in a broad range of perspectives, designers with different backgrounds, genders, race, expertise, and worldviews. To truly empower everyone, we need an inclusive culture that fosters inclusive products. Our product design culture needs to be that of strong beliefs loosely held — seeking to learn through each other’s work and every customer’s journey. We need trust, candor, openness, and the ability to challenge our work with respect and dignity. Space for creativity. An environment that reflects our cultural values. It all matters as we move into a new paradigm of computational design — keeping our distinct humanness as part of our Microsoft product ethos.

What are your thoughts on compelling design culture? Share your feedback in the comments. Or, come talk to me on Twitter.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

Albert Shum

Written by

CVP of Design at Microsoft. Leads a collaborative team creating the future of Windows computing. Views are my own.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

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