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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?

Add New Comment


  • Matias Romero Ausejo

    If you're going to write an interesting eye-catching title, I think you should also write an interesting article. At least one that is related to the question you're making. It's funny how so many bloggers try to second guess successful companies business strategies. They should wonder why they are writing about them and not working on them.

  • Reza

    I'm an exclusive Mac/iOS user from the original Mac SE.  But, I'm intrigued by WP8 and Metro.  I really like the idea of live tiles, especially as a "command center" for my home.  I think I will try it out.

    Also, I am noticing a humility in Microsoft that is refreshing.  It appears they are really listening to customers.

  • A. C

    Well, whoever is in charge of design at Microsoft is alive. Does it matter if we place a face on the Metro UI ? don't know if it'll a deal breaker for a prospective WP buyer. 

  • Shane Guymon

    You failed to deliver on your headline. You said "heres why it doesn't even matter" yet you never actually say why it doesn't even matter. Through assumption I can make an educated guess that you feel the reason is because they don't have a "design czar" but you don't really offer up any proof as to why this hypotheses carries any weight. Especially since you said Google also suffers from this. Yet Google's products DO matter. So I am left with a huge "?" after reading this post. If your headline is going to say, "here's why it doesn't matter" I am expecting to read an article proving why it doesn't matter. Instead you basically tell a story about an interview you had with Joe Belfiore.

  • m0g

    I'm really glad MS are bringing it to Apple and getting recognised for it. I may buy Apple products exclusively, bu that's why I'm relying on WP7 to keep Apple honest by competing hard. Android is certainly competing on numbers, but not necessarily on qualitative experience. At least, I'm not sure how seriously Apple takes Android on that front.

  • Bimma

    This is looks like "my first mobile phone" which I should be buying for my kids. Big fonts?! What's that about? I understand they're trying to make it look simple and easy to use but they've gone over the top with it.

  • frankwick

    Disagree...  I am an iOS to Windows Phone convert and the daily experience is just so much more "refreshing."  I wasn't sure what word to use there but that seemed to sum it up.  The fonts aren't really big, but the icons have now become LIVE tiles that are actually part of the app itself and not simply a means to open the app. With a look at the phone I can tell who twteeted me, posted on my facebook, see the temp, and today's groupon without even touching the screen. You would think this would be a jumbled mess of crap, but it is really clean and amazingly simple.  It's not what we're used, but I find it better and refreshing.

  • Leong Lim

    We are missing the point here. UI is not the competition. This train has already left the station. Apps are. Building the ecosystem like App Store is the key to sustainable product and brand. If MS do not engage developers to develop apps for it, it will only be a one hit wonder, if its a hit at all.

  • Ed Podowski

    Toddjonson said it well.  the graphics look like what we would have designed in the early days of the Internet.  The UI functionality is a great idea, but the look is poor at best.  Designers are graphic artist and graphic artist are not designers.  Change the graphics and this UI will be as exciting as the functionality.

  • Whosaysgraphics?

    Anyone who says graphics when talking UI discredits their comment altogether.

  • Markus

    The Author is using a simple journalistic trick of hiding a positive article under "negative" title end which starts positive - attracts all parties. 
    After the last years announcements of  the joint MSFT-Nokia $200M marketing push I am not surprised to see this January post-CES avalanche of positive or semi-positive articles about WinPhone 7 / Metro "coolness". Part of the MasterPlan. Some authors moved to the point that Microsoft and Ballmer looks or even ARE cool again (See Bloomberg's BusinessWeek). All this ado without actual sales numbers and loud analysts noise that Nokia can (sic) sell more more WP7 phones than Apple in the next or next after next Quarter or that iPhone is only a US phenomena (obviously neglecting iPhone shortage/long lines in China e.g.). It does not matter if new UI is top down or bottom up approach at Microsoft. Newness and Coolness does not always equals Sales or better functionality and user acceptance ask Steve Jobs during NeXT period. Why call Metro design innovative, it is different - yes, but is it more efficient to do tasks which makes your phone part of you? Search YouTube or Behance and you can find half a dozen innovative UI concepts. Brand experience is not UI only...         

  • Peter Jones

    Apple is a single-leader cult and that's why the "design ethos" is also a tyranny.  A fanatical leader can lead an aesthetic, but it is the immaturity fo the design profession that suggest that is so important in the scheme of things. After all, aren't you glorifying the unity of branding values, which was a hallmark of the 1930's fascist design period? Read Apple's TOS and agreements and then tell me that you actually trust this super-unified aesthetic. The iBook is total fascistic. Software designers are libertarian, and often hate Apple for their closed system. Consumers - well - that's who loves Apple without critical reflection.

    Another aesthetic is possible. If multiple product lines cam build on the Metro platform, they can improve it. There are hundreds of human factors bugs in Mac OS and iOS. Hundreds, the error handling alone is a deal-killer for me. Microsoft has the human factors down, and now the visual design is breaking through.

    Microsoft's loosely-coupled organization is resilient (they are a long term winner without Apple's ups and downs). Do you think they are going awaya any time soon? Microsoft's research group is best in the world. Apple doesn't even do research, they design and build things.  Their strategy may not be as enduring as you think, consumer lock-in is not as sustainable as corporate lock-in (Microsoft).

  • Toddjonson

    Metro UI -- clearly designed by a bunch of kindergartners.  A bunch of plain boxes on a black background?!  Microsoft has clearly innovated UI design 20 years in the reverse direction.

    It's amazing to me that they actually wonder why no one is buying their phones.  Just look at your UI, Microsoft!!  What about gradients, rounded borders, 3D??  That's what people like nowadays.  I would NEVER buy a device with Metro UI, and I'm a Microsoft fanboy.

    It would be so easy to fix the problem too.  That's why its so sad to watch Microsoft flail cluelessly about...

  • Jwdesigncenter

    Wow - you obviously need to get your hands on one of these phones because you are misunderstanding what's going on.  I love the WP7 - it's UI is easy, super efficient and GORGEOUS.  Metro has been so refreshing and as a designer - a LOT of fun to design for.

  • A. C

    Well don't. Simple. Maybe they'll realize their mistake, and adopt more Apple-esque (the de facto standard) grid based home-screen setup (of-course the comment is marinated in sarcasm) and look like everyone else. So mediocrity will exist across the whole range of manufacturers. I'm sure if it was an Apple-based UI it'll be the coolest thing. 

  • sundaylineup

    "What about gradients, rounded borders, 3D??"  - is this supposed to be ironic? I can't think of anything more wildly dated than those three things.

  • gadgety

    Humans want leaders with a big L to tell them? Possibly, but in a way If ind the MS approach refreshing. It seems though, that they are going to be working on the same backbone/platform, and that will enable them to paint as they please, they are still on the same canvas.

  • Inspired Richard

    Ballmer made it very clear in his CES keynote that Metro will be everywhere. If it wasn't a mandate before, then his concluding "Metro, Metro, Metro" chant likely established one.

  • Sergio Iacobucci

    Sorry don't agree...everything will end up Metro UI where it needs to be Metro....