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Dave Nelson: On Making Design Front and Center at Microsoft

The company's principal creative director on how the small-team model works inside a big company with such a global reach and why the team's ultimate goal is bona fide, possibly-quantifiable user love.  

When you think of design-driven software companies, Microsoft won’t likely be the first that comes to mind. You might want to reassess your biases, though, because it turns out that Microsoft has been picking up some of the best design talent in the game for several years now, and its design-forward attitude shows no signs of abating.

Dave Nelson, Microsoft’s principal creative director, is one of the design team’s brightest stars and is a key player in this seismic shift. Training in calligraphy at the age of 12 made Nelson realize that he would one day work in design. He studied under former students of luminaries Paul Rand and Katherine McCoy, receiving a rigorous design foundation before breaking into the commercial world. Nelson has been a catalyst for change at Microsoft by adopting a small and agile team model that not only forces designers and developers to collaborate, but also requires that every team member interact directly with customers in the field so they can witness how their products work in the real world.

By moving toward these small customer-centric teams, Microsoft has been changing the way it approaches product development. Having learned from past mistakes, the team has also reprised its design system Metro; it recently announced the launch of its successor, Fluent, which it created with the intention of adapting to today’s world, including the introduction of 2-D and 3-D capabilities for AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) interaction.

99U Contributing Editor Dave Benton recently sat down with Nelson to find out why curiosity is the number one prerequisite for his staff, how the small-team model works within a big company with such a global reach, and why the team’s ultimate goal is bona fide, possibly-quantifiable user love.  

When did you realize design was in your blood?

I always knew I wanted to be a designer. My grandmother got me into calligraphy in middle school, and it got me hooked on the graphic quality of type in communication. This led to the idea of advertising and commercial design, and then I knew I wanted to go to design school. My academic design career in college was extremely rigorous and very traditional. One of my teachers studied under Paul Rand and the other studied under Katherine McCoy.

You started your career as a Flash developer and designer. How has that influenced what you did later?

I stumbled into the Flash thing out of curiosity. In fact, curiosity is probably the one thing that has tied my career together. Insatiable levels of curiosity are key to me and my teams. Stepping into something you don’t know and trying something new – that’s important to me. When I got into Flash, it was a real do-it-yourself time in digital design. Through Flash I built a strong technical understanding that I now use on a daily basis. I learned how to push design with code, and gained the ability to talk to more technical people and bridge the gap between ideas and execution. Look at Charles Eames: He had to sit down with manufacturers to see how far they could bend plywood. Great print designers work the same way. Flash really helped me to fully understand materials and how to flex things as much as possible. I got interested in type and image and motion, but the kinetic quality of Flash is what drew me in. It allowed me to make things come alive and get rich feedback from screens, which were traditionally hard to interact with.

Do you feel that in-house designers are getting their seat at the table, whereas agency designers are still left outside?

When you’re a hired gun, you just have a piece of the journey and don’t have the same skin in the game to fully see a product through. When you build something and stay on track to make sure a product works the way it should, you are earning your seat at the table. Design has typically sat closer to the top of the iceberg, but we are now deep into the bottom, as there is a lot involved in making a successful product at scale: It’s the long game. A designer from an ad agency has their metaphorical muscles built as a sprinter, but here you have to slow down and work out that the impact of what you do today will come several months down the line. You have to be a marathon runner to work on product.

What are the unique issues and opportunities of designing for three-plus billion people?

Tactically, my team struggles with the localization of interfaces. It’s hard enough to describe a great experience in English on one platform. Mix two different platforms and multiply it by hundreds of languages – these are our current struggles. We need to make sure we are designing with a very focused perspective while keeping a universal one at the same time. Most recently I have been working with non–information workers. This forced us to get out of our comfort zone and hang out with people. We spent a lot of time trying to learn about people who don’t stand in front of a computer all day long.

We are talking about the front-line workforce that doesn’t sit in an office; we call them desk-less workers. These are the baristas in a coffee shop, construction workers, health care industry workers. People who are on the go and working from multiple locations and are on their feet all day long. People interacting human to human. So you are building experiences to connect people and bring them closer together while they are working to be happier and healthier and more focused on what they are doing at work.

Finding the balance to go broad enough and serve the needs of lots of people is always a challenge. You have to find the balance of designing for a human versus designing for a system of people. Take the coffee shop barista. You are looking at a system: a group of people working together. We are essentially working on solving for the hive and how people work together collectively. It means you can have a huge level of impact on how you are changing the workforce. This is a sector that has been ignored to date, and much of their work is done on paper, so I also get excited about the potential reduction of waste. We are going to be able to reduce a lot of paperwork globally. One of our pilot customers became an early fan because the scheduling tools we built for her team have taken away 25 percent of the time she spent on creating schedules.

What is the biggest change you have seen at Microsoft in the five years you have worked there? 

When I first came in, the design team was ahead of its time. The team of inspiring designers here at Microsoft was one of the drivers of why I came here. We have worked through three phases of design as a company.  Phase one was “design as a service,” and it predated me. It focused on icon development and interfaces. Phase two was “design as a discipline.” This is the place where we started building studios and stronger thought leadership in the groups. Phase three is now. We’ve realized engineering and planning can’t do this alone, and so design is now at the center of the product teams. This has been a big shift!

Design used to sit in this ivory tower and yell at everyone to make things better, but now we are in this new state where we situate ourselves at the core of the product teams. We are all after the same end goal, and we are closing the gaps between concept and code. The second big change Microsoft learned from Windows 8 was to become more agile and more precise around how to execute. We’ve learned to push things out even if they aren’t perfect. Perfect is a good striving point, but it’s impossible to get to. Sometimes you have to just put it out there and get feedback so you can iterate. Embracing change is one of the core tenets of our culture. We promote the growth mind-set and try new things without being afraid to fail.

With the expansion of design and the growing recognition of its importance at Microsoft, how has that affected the company’s product and culture? 

A common focus for designers is the human condition. It’s about humans and experiences and finding ways to make things better. It’s about people. At Microsoft, our focus has been to make a difference in people’s lives. Our approach is different now as we start seeing successes from the inside out. We are starting to elevate discussions by looking at how we can get the computer to be more human-literate rather than making people more computer-literate. We are at the forefront of artificial intelligence, and the amount of data we are able to gather is really opening up a lot of opportunities to have products less in your face, and to have interactions that have no interface.

There is a global design trend focused on functionality and clarity. How has Microsoft recognized and adapted to this?

We think about systems in a couple of different ways. Metro was our first step into building a design language, but early on we saw the disconnect in the seams between our products. Each product group had its own aesthetic and process, but many of our products cross over. We really wanted to connect and build a more fluid system that could interact across the board. We also wanted to increase our efficiency – this was the drive behind Metro.

We quickly learned that Metro was hard to do, and that it required a graphic designer to make a Metro design feel right. We saw the need for increased flexibility and began planning Fluent, which started in Windows. Additionally, we had a need for a 2-D and a 3-D version of Windows. Are there ways that design patterns can affect the how data is presented? How do we interrupt people at the right times? These are some of the things we are looking at with Fluent.

We moved translating from 2-D to 3-D but we’re also looking at how these things fit in across time. We also have the rise of 0-D. There are new technologies, and we are pushing the boundaries of what they can do. Voice is now commonplace with features like Siri and Alexa. We have engineering systems that can recognize human voices, and bots are getting more intelligent. More conversational UI is becoming a reality at the consumer level. We are excited to see how voice-activated computing gets into this. We need to build more intelligent human systems that can adapt to you and become smart. Take scheduling a meeting with someone: It’s tedious and requires a lot of time and effort and human management. These are things that our systems should be able to do for us to some degree. Computers have caught up in a way that allows us to reimagine productivity.

How hard is it to manage one universal design language across Microsoft’s hundreds of product teams and rollout cycles? 

I think it’s impossible. Metro had all these guidelines and examples and lots of instructions, but it was easy to break and hard to police. I feel we’ve now embraced the fluidity and have more guidelines than laws. When you look at third-party developers, you see it clearly. Everybody has the same grid system in all the work we do. And we have one centralized icon group and put all our icons into a single font, which stops people from creating new icons for everything; it gets updated every two to three weeks. It’s a continual process that involves continual communication.

Users now expect consistent experiences across devices and in the cloud. How does this affect how you approach product development?

The cloud is our foundational starting point; knowing that devices are connected at all times is a given in all our planning and all our work. We also tend to look at the substrate – our central intelligence system. It’s a document graph. The cloud enables connectivity, but we have a level of intelligence and network connection that we follow through with. When we get to product planning and building, we all start with a core infrastructure built specifically for us that feels like Microsoft. But we also exist in worlds that aren’t Windows, and have products that have to live and breathe in IOS and Android, which are two very different platforms. How do we maintain our systems, and how do we fit into these platforms? We want to be really good guests at a party!

The common foundation is the thing that connects the dots. Each product then gets its own living layer that is specific to that product and allows it to shine specific to its audience. You start with the device and you go from there. Context is one of the principles we think about, and building systems that are contextually aware. The data and experience may be different, but everything comes down to that end touchpoint.  

You work on a small team unit at Microsoft. How does the size of a team affect product? 

We’ve grown the team from scratch over the last two years. Today we have an approximately 50-person centralized product team. It’s a mix of product, design, research, engineering, and marketing. About 15 of our people are working on design research. We had one or two researchers and one designer two years ago. What’s unique to us is that we are based in Silicon Valley, which is not Microsoft. Hotmail is really the only thing that was run autonomously here. Everything else here has been more of a technical center of excellence rather than product.

We have a program we’ve been running for a while called Compass, which was the catalyst that built our team. It might be one of the first design-driven products Microsoft has ever built. It’s a consumer advisory board, and we meet with our large-scale enterprise customers on a periodic basis and show them some of the work we are doing.

Two years ago we ended up finding an accidental insight through some of these customers, as they have a larger audience base than the typical IT business. We saw that the audiences we hadn’t talked to were actually larger than the audiences we had talked to. This led to a huge business insight and allowed us to prototype a few things out with a light tech team, and this in turn led to a pilot. They wanted to drive the way they were running their processes internally, so we promised a two-month-turnaround pilot, which involved us onboarding a small engineering team to get there. Luckily our campus doesn’t focus on a lot of other things, so it allowed us to get a team together to work on this tight timeline. We were scrappy and sent some engineers on-site directly to get the networks set up – essentially a “white glove” delivery of a really rough project. The engineers saw firsthand the range of emotions that real people had while working with their product. They saw the setup, the trepidation of trying to get in, the pain points, and the joy. The engineers were very energized by the experience. This became the central turning point for our culture today. Now every single person in the team has gone on-site and spent time with our early customers. This had never happened before at Microsoft. The change in perspective for engineers and other personnel has been huge. It has now become a regular part of our process to send people out into the field to spend time with customers and work through things with them, and it has put people at the forefront of our processes.

How has working in the field affected how you work on projects? 

We are now at the point of trying to find ways to measure user love. Utility is at the core of what we look at, and we had real people to talk to this time. Usability is the next component, and seeing people with different experiences use the product was useful. There’s no way to measure how much someone loves your product, so we are trying to measure the foundational leverage we have across our products. By having a small team, we were able to interact better with real people, but it also affected the way our teams interacted internally in a positive way. We are also running a program I’ve been calling the “Love Project,” where we are scientifically trying to find ways to quantify what user and customer love is, and how it drives usage and productivity. It’s exciting putting some science behind it.    

Dave Benton

With a life mission to create exceptional experience Dave founded interactive design firm metajive in 1999. Focused on collaborating with his clients and team Dave is always looking for new opportunities to disrupt. When Dave isn’t working he’s trying to catch a few waves.

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