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Sometimes, Microsoft Designs Great Things. Here's Why It Doesn't Ever Matter

Microsoft’s alluring new Windows Phone 7.5 is an object lesson in why some companies can’t turn single hits into an overarching ethos, a la Apple.

I can’t find Joe Belfiore. It’s November, and I’m at a Windows Phone event in New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom, where the lobby walls are caked in banners of pink and blue, colorful hues that Microsoft’s mobile software has become known for. But Belfiore is nowhere to be found. He’s hidden himself behind a set of side doors, where he’s crouched down on a dark staircase, munching on a sandwich.


Belfiore, 43, oversees software design for Windows Phone, and is tasked with the unenviable job of making customers think different about Microsoft. The company has lagged far behind Google and Apple in the mobile space, where tablets and smartphones running its once-mighty Windows operating system have a minuscule market share. But Microsoft’s latest offering, Windows Phone 7.5 Mango, has been a hit among critics from The New York Times to Gizmodo to TechCrunch, who’ve gushed over its slick, playful user experience. Now, the company hopes to breathe this software’s newfound design aesthetic into many of its products, from Windows 8 to Xbox 360, and to do so, Microsoft is taking a democratized approach to design that focuses on collaboration rather than top-down decrees.

"We’re at a point in our history where the product groups, by and large, operate independently—they make decisions that they think are best for their customers and users," Belfiore says. "It’s not a case where there’s a top-down mandate: everyone go do this…There are few cases where senior management says, 'Everyone is going to do this.' Those [instances] are the exceptions rather than the rule."

To hear Belfiore tell it, not even Metro, the tiled UI that’s being pushed across many Microsoft products, is being rolled out in any uniform way. Collaboration between these independent product groups, as he describes, almost happens serendipitously. "To the extent that we’ve found something that people like, it’s easy for us to jointly adopt it," he explains. "To the extent that the Bing team does something really good on Xbox, I want it on my phone." Belfiore cites the Windows Phone team’s use of avatars as another example of cross-pollination in design. "We didn’t invent the avatar," he says. "The Xbox team built the [animated 3D] avatar. They popularized it. They made it a part of what their service is about, and we came along and said, 'That’s a good idea. People like it. We like it.' And then we collaborate."

I asked Belfiore how such a democratized-design approach could work at a company of roughly 90,000 employees.

"Are you saying what I’m saying feels unlikely?" Belfiore responds, with a smile. "On the one hand, it seems in a way you’re saying it seems unlikely, but it’s very rational."

So who is driving that collaboration across Microsoft?

"Why do you assume someone has to be driving that?" Belfiore wonders, laughing.

So it’s just happening naturally?

"Yes, yes," he beams.

At this point, John Hipsher, a PR rep for Windows Phone, piped in. "It’s unbelievably collegial," Hipsher says, describing the collaborative atmosphere. "For instance, the Xbox team sees a good idea like Metro, and they adapt it to Xbox."

So there’s not someone at Microsoft saying we should unite all these products around Metro tiles?

"No," says Belfiore.

What if Xbox said it didn’t want to use Metro tiles?

"Then they would not have tiles," Belfiore says. "Microsoft doesn’t work that way….We all use each other’s products, and we are all aware of what everybody is doing. When there’s an idea that’s good, you’re motivated to deliver it to your customers to make it part of your product."

"There isn’t a UI czar at the company saying, 'Thou shalt do Metro,'" adds Hipsher.

It’s a unique if not risky approach to design, especially given the endless array of products on Microsoft’s shelf: Office, Explorer, Bing, Xbox, Hotmail, Sharepoint, Outlook, and soon Skype, as well as the Windows operating system in various shades for PCs, tablets, and smartphones. Even the Windows Phone, Belfiore says, has taken recycled elements of Microsoft’s Windows Media Center, Zune, discontinued Kin, Xbox, and Internet Explorer—a collaboration of design, talent, and ideas, he believes.

But the question remains whether such a loose, bottom-up design approach will work for Microsoft, a company traditionally known for its engineering focus and disregard for aesthetic. ("Now, instead of 80 percent of its efforts being unenlightened, just 20 percent are unenlightened," Bill Flora, one of the designers of Windows Phone, said recently.) After all, democratized design has its downsides—just look at Google’s many UI hiccups.

And that’s not to mention how Microsoft’s democratized approach is the antithesis of the formula perfected by Apple, which meticulously manages all aspects of its product designs, from the hardware and software down to the typography and pixels. It’s a top-down approach that provides a visual thread to Apple’s UI across iPhones, iPads, and Macs, uniting the devices into one accessible family of products for consumers. Each one sells the other, with the promise of a similar look and user experience.

At Apple, Steve Jobs was the design czar. At Microsoft, who’s in charge?