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The Big Idea

Microsoft's Radical Bet On A New Type Of Design Thinking

By studying underserved communities, the tech giant hopes to improve the user experience for everyone.

Design, unbound: Xbox’s August de los Reyes came to a new understanding of design after thinking about disability.

[Photos: Chloe Aftel]

On one otherwise unremarkable day in May 2013, August de los Reyes fell out of bed and hurt his back. Forty-two years old at the time, he was just six months into his dream job at Microsoft: running design for Xbox and righting a franchise that was drifting due to mission creep. At first, de los Reyes was worried that the fall was serious; he went to the ER and was assured that he was fine. Yet several hospital trips later, he found himself undergoing emergency surgery. His spine had been fractured all along. His spinal cord had been damaged. With breathtaking quickness, he was unable to walk ever again.

De los Reyes has the reassuring smile and steady calm of a high-school guidance counselor, and an almost-spiritual attachment to video games. He likes to tell people that the universe is play, and that we all have a moral imperative to play. And he believes, wholeheartedly, that video games will change the fabric of our storytelling, just like movies did. After the accident, de los Reyes wondered what would become of that sprawling dreamscape. Nothing felt right anymore. He barely even felt like himself. Then, after months having not checked his email or used his cellphone, his sister brought him a laptop. He checked his email. He checked his voicemail. Among the hundreds of messages, there were dozens from a romantic interest, baffled at his sudden and total disappearance. The outlines of his former life began to return. He knew that to feel right again, he had to go back to work. Within three months, he did.

The return was bracing, but not in the way de los Reyes expected. Being back in the office was actually a balm, because the workplace had been fastidiously designed to accommodate wheelchairs, with wide halls and low elevator buttons. The problem was the rest of his life. De los Reyes, despite his mild demeanor, has never been content to let things happen slowly when they could happen fast. After the accident, he had methodically set about trying to do as many things as he’d ever done. Yet the limitations soon become obvious. He’d try to meet friends at a favorite restaurant, only to discover that he couldn’t quite get inside because of one tiny curb that some contractor had overlooked. He’d be steering his wheelchair down the sidewalk, only to be met with a tipped-over garbage can, which would force him to circumnavigate an entire block.

To de los Reyes, these myriad frustrations shared one thing: They didn’t actually speak to his own limitations. They spoke instead to the thoughtlessness all around him. As he began to see it, disability wasn’t a limitation of his, but rather a mismatch between his own abilities and the world around him. Disability was a design problem. As we spoke in his office, secluded in a quiet corner of a colorful new design studio built on Microsoft’s sprawling Redmond, Wash., campus, de los Reyes’s eyes widened: "That's what radicalized me." The question was: Radicalized him to do what?


A Brief History Of Design For All

  1. 01/10
    1808: Pellegrino Turri invents the working typewriter to help a blind friend write legibly.
  2. 02/10
    1876: The telephone emerges from Alexander Graham Bell’s many attempts to create technologies to help the disabled.
  3. 03/10
    1937: Joseph Friedman creates the flexible drinking straw so his young daughter can drink from her cup more easily at the table.
  4. 04/10
    1948: The transistor is invented to power smaller hearing aids.
  5. 05/10
    1960s: Icon-based keyboards, now ubiquitous, are first developed to assist those who are unable to speak to use speech synthesizers.
  6. 06/10
    1973: Vint Cerf, who is hard of hearing, develops email, in part because it’s an easy way to communicate with his wife, who is deaf.
  7. 07/10
    1978: Ray Kurzweil creates machine-scannable fonts and the first image scanner, to help the blind.
  8. 08/10
    1990: Sam Farber founds Oxo, dedicated to making easy-to-grip kitchen tools, inspired by people with arthritis.
  9. 09/10
    1994: Originally begun by Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick as a research product to create seating that wouldn’t cause bedsores in the elderly, the Aeron chair is released.
  10. 10/10
    1990s: Working on making emerging technologies accessible for people with disabilities, Jutta Treviranus develops the Inclusive Design Toolkit, which Microsoft later adapts.

Corbis (1808); SSPL/Getty Images (1876, 1948); LeighSmithImages/Alamy (1937); Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis (1960s); Shepard Sherbell/Corbis (1973); Bettmann/Corbis (1978); courtesy of Oxo (1990); courtesy of Herman Miller (1994); Larry Morris/The Washington Post/Getty Images (1990s)

The Rise Of Industrial Empathy

Perhaps you’re sitting here, reading this on your phone, absently checking your email whenever your attention drifts, tapping text messages to the friend you’re meeting tonight for dinner. You stand at the end of a long line of inventions, which might have never existed, but for the disabled. The keyboard on your phone, the telecommunications lines it connects with, the inner workings of email: In 1808, Pellegrino Turri built the first typewriter, so that his blind lover, Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano, could write letters more legibly. In 1872, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone to support his work helping the deaf. And, in 1972, Vint Cerf programmed the first email protocols for the nascent Internet. He believed fervently in the power of electronic letters. His proof was his own experience: Electronic messaging was the only seamless way to communicate with his wife, who was deaf, while he was at work.

One day someone will write a history of the Internet, in which that great series of tubes will emerge as one long chain of inventions not just geared to helping people connect in more ways, but rather, to help more and more types of people communicate just as nimbly as anyone else. But for the story here, the most crucial piece in the puzzle is this: Disability is an engine of innovation simply because no matter what their limitations, humans have such a relentless drive to communicate that they’ll invent new ways to do so, in spite of everything.

You could describe this in that old cliche that necessity breeds invention. But a more accurate interpretation is that in empathizing with others, we create things that we might never have created ourselves. We see past the specifics of what we know, to experiences that might actually be universal. So it’s all the more puzzling that design, as a discipline, has so often tended to focus on a mythical idea of the average consumer.

A competing idea began to emerge in the 1970s, when Pat Moore arrived in New York, ready for her first job as a designer. She was fresh out of college, having landed a job with the great industrial designer Raymond Loewy. She was, by nature, an outsider. The Mad Men era was alive, even if mores were changing. When Loewy was out of the office, all the managers went out for three-martini lunches and came back too drunk to be useful. In an office filled with female secretaries, Moore was one of the few female designers on a staff filled with living fossils. "I remember the chief model maker used to wear a cobbler’s apron and had a stogie in his mouth all day long. He used to spit in his trash can," says Moore, over dinner in Phoenix, where she’s worked for years. "He used to tell me, 'We don’t need no fuckin' broads here.'"

In fact, they did. The Cold War had thawed just slightly and the United States was finagling new ways into the hearts and minds of everyday Russians. And so the State Department began paying American designers to work for Russian companies. There was no design firm more American than Loewy Associates, which had defined the sinuous chrome aesthetic of the American Post-War boom. But the State Department wanted more women on their work staff. Loewy finally found Moore, and won the commission.

Moore’s first task was work with a Russian manufacturing company, to create the interior of a family car and then the interior of a hydrofoil. It depressed her, but not because of what she was doing. It was because of what she was seeing. She would ride the bus in Moscow, seeing elderly people struggling along the sidewalk as the young whizzed around them, flustered. She realized how often she’d seen the same thing in America. But something about Russia, the foreignness of it, made her actually see with fresh eyes something as familiar as the people crossing the street.

As soon as she was back in New York, Moore floated a memo to Loewy, suggesting that designers were failing their duty to make lives better, simply by focusing only on the average person, with average needs and average expectations. What about the elderly? To design for them, unmoored on the street, you had to know what they went through. You had to know what it was like to be them. And so Moore, with Loewy’s blessing, went about creating a costume that would simulate what it was like to be 80 to 85*—complete with bindings on her joints to limit their movements, and a girdle to simulate a balky back. She went on to wear that suit in hundreds of cities over three years.

Of course, designers today don’t all dress up and try to pretend to be the ones they’re designing for. The more consequential thing that Moore was wrestling with was that designers should get close to real people, learn from them, and take them as they are. And that idea would be taken up by the design agencies that came to invent "design thinking"—notably Smart Design, which was co-founded by Dan Formosa, Moore’s husband at the time, and Ideo, where Jane Fulton Suri helped reinvent the process of design research. (Smart Design of course made its name by designing kitchen tools for OXO, with the arthritic in mind.) They were all dedicated to finding new ways to understand the foibles and lived experience of real users, as opposed to surveying a great many people and averaging all of their measurements, as had been so common to human-factors research.

This great chain of influence, from Alphonse Chapanis to Raymond Loewy to Pat Moore to Ideo, finally draws us close to August de los Reyes, Microsoft, a new cast of characters, and a pileup of ideas that, through sheer chance, ended up changing the entire company.

Forward looking: Kat Holmes, Microsoft’s principal design director, is helping to lead the company’s push into inclusive design.

Connecting The Dots Between Wheelchair Ramps And Sci-Fi

Recovering from his accident, de los Reyes happened to return to work at a decisive moment for Microsoft. Satya Nadella, who until then had run Microsoft’s cloud computing business, had just been appointed CEO. He lit a fuse that snaked through the company’s machinery. Among the first changes to happen was that Albert Shum, who’d become famous inside of Microsoft for leading the ambitious, brazenly "flat" design of Windows Mobile, was appointed to head up design for nearly all of Microsoft.

Shum mulled over what "design at Microsoft" even meant. After all, this was a company with 120,000 employees, countless product groups, and enough internal feuding to exhaust the Hatfields and the McCoys. This was a company so large that surely its design approach differed from that of either Apple or Google. But it was also a company so large that finding a clear point of view seemed a little absurd. What did "design at Microsoft" even mean? Like any canny manager, Shum told his deputies to figure it out, and to bring their ideas to a marathon meeting-cum-vision quest.

De los Reyes spied an opportunity, albeit hazily. He is a consummate design geek, steeped in dusty monographs and the drinking stories designers tell each other about the greats. He knew the concept of universal design—first articulated by Ronald Mace and Pat Moore. The idea is that by designing with the disabled in mind—designing so that the disabled can have universal access—we can create products better for everyone else. After his accident, de los Reyes now had no choice but to think about one classic example of universal design: the curb cut, those low concrete ramps that allow wheelchair users to mount a sidewalk, but which also help everyone from the elderly crossing the street to kids toting their bicycles.

De los Reyes wasn’t proposing that Microsoft become a sidewalk company. He was proposing a metaphor. He was hoping to find the digital world’s equivalent of the curb cut, something elegant that let everyone live a little easier. At a meeting of Shum’s top deputies, de los Reyes mooted this idea of making Microsoft’s design accessible to all. On its face, this idea flattered Microsoft’s culture. Remember how Windows famously let you adjust the setting on almost anything you wanted, while Apple didn’t? That wasn’t an accident, but rather the perfect expression of Microsoft’s abiding belief, descended from the great garage-hacker Bill Gates, that users should be able to adjust everything they touched as they saw fit. So for Microsofties, it was only natural to think that users, including the disabled, should have as many settings as they wanted. But de los Reyes was after something more ambitious. Kat Holmes, there at the meeting with Shum, supplied another puzzle piece.

Though neither of them would say it like this, Holmes is de los Reyes’s work wife. They parry ideas, they gossip, they cajole and poke, they egg each other on. Where de los Reyes is action-oriented, concrete, ready to figure out exactly what to do, Holmes—who has a smattering of freckles across her nose, and, as of this writing, a shock of spiky bleach-blond hair— swims in lofty ideas. When de los Reyes made his suggestion about universal design, Holmes had just spent a year trying to figure out how Microsoft’s virtual personal assistant, Cortana, should behave.

Cortana, on the one hand, was simply Microsoft’s own version of Siri, an iPhone feature that lets you ask questions out loud and get answers in kind from a disembodied female helper. But Siri has always felt oddly ill-defined. Though she offers coy jokes when stumped by a question—"Siri, what are you wearing?" "I can’t answer that, but it doesn’t come off"—those quips simply dance around the fact that Apple has never explained just what is this thing called Siri. Holmes, thinking about Cortana, put it another way. "We started to ask questions like, 'How human is it?' and ‘What are the other options?'"

To her point of view, a digital personal assistant shouldn’t try to ape being human. Doing so wasn’t simply dishonest, it was bad design. One of the most important ideas brought about by modernist designers of the 20th century was that no material, and no product, should behave like something it is not. Metal should do what metal does best; it should curve and bend and shine, but it shouldn’t be made to look like wood. In a digital context, a calendar app shouldn’t be made to look like some old-fashioned leather calendar that would sit on your desk. "Making Cortana behave like a human would be like the new skeuomorphism," says Holmes, evoking the design nerd’s term of art for dishonesty in materials. So how much human behavior should a computer have, if it's to be helpful to humans?

One of Holmes’ first insights was that she didn’t have to figure out all these problems on her own. Other people already had. After all, real personal assistants think every day about getting their clients to trust them, providing the right information at the right time, being helpful before you’ve been asked. So Holmes sought them out. She found real personal assistants who’d served demanding clients ranging from celebrities to billionaires. By studying how they delicately cultivated trust, Holmes was able to recommend a series of behaviors for Cortana. The best personal assistants have logs about client preferences, but they’re also transparent about why they’re recommending certain things. Thus, Cortana, unlike Siri or Google Now, has a log of all the preference data that it has extrapolated about you, which users can edit. Cortana also behaves like a human would, though she doesn’t quite have a personality: Instead of simply giving you a flippant joke when befuddled by a question, like Siri does, Cortana admits to what she does and doesn’t know. She asks you to teach her, just like a trustworthy personal assistant would.

The point wasn’t simply to copy what those personal assistants did, it was to figure out why they were doing what they did. Instead of tackling a thorny problem head on, Holmes had found an analogue to give structure to what she was doing, to provide a framework for the endeavor.

And then Holmes saw the movie Her, a visionary sci-fi film in which a love-lorn everyman played by Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a digital assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Holmes wangled her way into a connection with the movie’s production designer, K.K. Barrett, and asked him how he’d come up with such a credible-looking vision of the future—one which, in fact, she’d been working on even as the movie was being shot. Barrett answered with a curveball: He said that to make the technology look futuristic, he’d taken everything out that was technology. His approach was to simply let the director Spike Jonze focus only on what was human. All at once, Holmes saw it: She figured that in trying to understand how computers should interact with humans, the best guide was how humans interacted with humans.

That buzzy meeting about the future of design at Microsoft came soon after. And when Holmes heard de los Reyes talking about this idea that Microsoft should be aspiring toward universal design, she thought to herself, maybe there’s a role for everyone to play—even those who’ve been pushed to the margins as countless engineers and designers like herself have been rushing to invent whatever’s new.

Discovering A New Design Process

De los Reyes and Holmes, with the help of design experts including Allen Sayegh at Harvard and Jutta Treviranus at the Ontario College of Art and Design, eventually hit upon a vein of design thinking descended from Pat Moore, and universal design. Dubbed inclusive design, it begins with studying overlooked communities, ranging from dyslexics to the deaf. By learning about how they adapt to their world, the hope is that you can actually build better new products for everyone else.

What’s more, by finding more analogues between tribes of people outside the mainstream and situations that we’ve all found ourselves in, you can come up with all kinds of new products. The big idea is that in order to build machines that adapt to humans better, there needs to be a more robust process for watching how humans adapt to each other, and to their world. "The point isn’t to solve for a problem," such as typing when you’re blind, said Holmes. "We're flipping it." They are finding the expertise and ingenuity that arises naturally, when people are forced to live a life differently from most.

Let's say you'd like to build a phone that's easier to interact with while you're driving. You could just try to study people driving with their phones. Or you could actually study how the blind use their phones. How do they know when their phones are paired with another device? What aural feedback do apps need to provide, when opened? You could build those features into a phone, so that by serving someone disabled, you serve everyone else better. Holmes put it more succinctly: "We're reframing disability as an opportunity."

Today, Holmes's mandate, handed down from both Shum and Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft's recently anointed chief experience officer, is to use inclusive design to address as many design problems as Microsoft can dream up. There have already been dozens of projects completed, and Microsoft convenes two to three inclusive design projects every month. One, likely to debut soon, yielded a font and system of text wrapping that makes reading easier for dyslexics—but also faster for those without dyslexia. Another, in the late stages of user testing right now, is a subtle rethinking of how directions are given on Bing. Right now, almost every wayfinding app gives directions according to cardinal direction, distance, and street: "Go north for 1.5 miles, then turn left on Elm St." But academic researchers have consistently shown that women navigate by landmarks and visual cues. So Microsoft built a nuanced version of Bing that provides directions with cues that are more gender neutral: "Go north for 1.5 miles, then turn left at the McDonald's. Now you’re on Elm St." By paying attention to how women are different from men, Microsoft identified an improvement that benefits everyone—from those with a poor sense of direction to anyone who doesn’t quite know how long it takes to walk 300 feet.

In Redmond, de los Reyes and I watch behind a two-way mirror as the inclusive design process unfolds on yet another project. I can hear de los Reyes tweaking the motors of his wheelchair constantly, adjusting his posture—his equivalent to pacing, and a necessity to keep his circulation healthy. On the other side of the glass, a tweedy young grad student with a scruffy beard was describing why he, as a deaf gamer, stuck to playing World of Warcraft on a PC, even though he would love to play Destiny on an Xbox One: The PC’s keyboard lets him chat with teammates in a way that simply isn’t possible on the Xbox, where players exchange strategy and advice over headsets. "A keyboard means I can lead my team [on a raid]; a controller means I have to follow," the gamer says, his frustration rising. The solution seems obvious: better keyboards for gamers on the Xbox.

But as the researcher in the room keeps prodding, de los Reyes perks up and smiles. He starts thinking beyond keyboards, asking me to imagine something akin to a huddle before a raid starts, which would allow deaf players to strategize with their teammates in advance. And what if, in creating these pregame strategy sessions, you made it easier not only for deaf gamers but for all players to kick more butt?

The Bigger Idea

As promising as these smaller projects might be, Holmes and de los Reyes believe there is a bigger opportunity. Today, we are drowning in interactions with smartphones and devices, such as our cars and homes—all of which suddenly want to talk to our phones as well. We live in a world of countless transitions. Instead of one device, there is actually an infinite number of hands-off between devices. There needs to be a new kind of design process to manage those seams. "The assumptions about computing are that our devices are one-on-one with visual interactions," Holmes points out. "The design discipline is built around those assumptions. They assume that we’re one person all the time."

Holmes believes that inclusive design, by bringing a diverse set of users into a design process that typically strips away differences and abstracts them into what seems user-friendly to the maximum number of people, can actually help with the fact that our capabilities change throughout the day. We don’t simply have a persona, fixed in time and plastered on a storyboard, like most design processes would have it. We have a persona spectrum. When you’re a parent with a sprained wrist, or you’re reaching for your phone while holding your groceries, you share a world, albeit briefly, with someone who has only ever been able to use one hand. "There is no such thing as a normal human," Holmes says. "Our capabilities are always changing."

The hope is that in seeking out new people to include in the design process, we can smooth away the gaps that bedevil our digital lives. Which brings to mind Pellegrino Turri and his typewriter, Alexander Graham Bell with his telephone, and Vint Cerf and email—these were inventors who all started with the disabled in mind but eventually helped everyone else. The difference is that while each of those inventors stumbled upon an analogue that helped them invent something that everyone else could use, Microsoft is starting with the analogues. They're seeking out the disabled and the different, confident that they've already invented exactly the solutions that the rest of us need.

For de los Reyes, the promise of this new design process isn't in just a better Microsoft: "If we're successful, we're going to change the way products are designed across the industry. Period. That's my vision."

Correction: This article originally stated that Pattie Moore's designed suits to simulate the experience of being 70 years old, rather than 80 to 85. It has been updated to reflect that change.

Related: The Brand Evolution of Microsoft (In Three Minutes)

A version of this article appeared in the February 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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