One room at Microsoft’s headquarters represents everything that’s changed about its design philosophy. Inside, there are four rows of tables. In the first row is everything the company makes that’s already in stores. In the second is the next-generation of products, and in the third and fourth are the really conceptual things that Microsoft wants to try to make in the future. “If you spend enough time in this room, you see the gaps, certain light bulbs go off,” says Ralf Groene, head of Microsoft’s hardware design.
These days, Microsoft is all about looking at the big picture — not just where one product needs to go, but how an entire ecosystem of products needs to ship, evolve, and work together over the coming years. While products in the past might have been developed in secret by separate teams, and ended up looking and feeling disparate because of it, Microsoft has scrapped that approach recently. It’s now adopted a philosophy called “open design” that’s about sharing ideas across the company, integrating products, and failing faster. The hope is that it will lead to a better combination of hardware and software that looks like it came from one company and is better for it, too.
This isn’t just about improving Microsoft’s visual design, though. It’s a much deeper change meant to modernize how Microsoft ships software and competes with far more nimble startups that can aggressively go after the many businesses it’s traditionally controlled. A lot is at stake in a technology industry that’s moving faster every year.
I’ve heard and read many stories about how Microsoft’s culture has changed in recent years and how product teams are working more closely together. It’s such a vast shift at Microsoft that I wanted to see for myself how the company is doing things differently now. So I spent three days at the company’s Redmond, Washington-based headquarters earlier this month, speaking to designers and engineers, sitting in illustration planning meetings, and talking to the leaders involved in this new design approach.
One thing is clear from my visit: Microsoft has truly learned from its messy mistakes of the past. But reshaping a 44-year-old company to focus on redesigning its future isn’t going to be easy.
Every Thursday, Microsoft’s Surface, Windows, and app teams get together to discuss what they’re working on. During one of these many meetings in a sunny conference room at Microsoft’s Redmond HQ, designers sat around debating how playful Microsoft should be with its designs. What’s the tone of voice? What’s the visual representation of the personality of the product? Ultimately, how should Microsoft’s voice be expressed in the form of illustrations and design?
The meeting was attended by more than a dozen employees in person, representing products like OneNote, OneDrive, and Microsoft Teams. Everyone critiqued each other’s designs, offering opinions and ways to work to Microsoft’s color palette, illustration principles, and general voice to create products in a coherent way. This may sound like a totally normal meeting at most companies. At Microsoft, it would have been unimaginable just 10 years ago.
For its most recent design system, Fluent design, Microsoft is pulling ideas from across the company and keeping everyone in sync with an internal catalog of shared principles and guidelines. Designers can log in to see others’ work through mock-ups, concepts, and designs that have shipped to the public. “That was the first base layer step of democratizing design at Microsoft,” says Jon Friedman, corporate vice president of design and research at Microsoft.
The approach emerged out of one of Microsoft’s biggest failures: Windows Phone. For its launch, Microsoft brought together the company’s Windows, Office, and hardware teams to create a radical new “Metro” design language that made its operating system look modern. Windows Phone as a platform may have flopped, but its design really pushed Apple and Google to make better mobile operating systems.
“I think what we learned, at least on phone, is that to have a great design system, it cannot just be for one product,” says Albert Shum, head of design for Windows. “It’s how do you actually scale it out to hundreds of products serving millions of customers, in some ways, billions of customers?”
Fluent has really taken Microsoft back to the basics of design, with a much bigger focus on simplicity. Instead of bold typography and edge-to-edge content, Fluent focuses on subtle elements like light, depth, motion, and material. We’ve seen it appear in Windows with hints of motion and blur effects. It’s also appeared in Office and on the web across services like OneDrive, Office Online, and Outlook. Microsoft is gradually making Fluent the centerpiece for how the company thinks about design.
It’s a design that needs to scale across a multitude of products, and some that are used by more than a billion people across the world. Microsoft’s designers have to consider whether they’re creating art and illustrations for students, workers, or general consumers, and how those designs will be interpreted in different locations. There’s a lot to cover, and each piece of software design also has to adhere to the style of the operating systems from Microsoft, Apple, Google, and others that power the many hardware devices that run Microsoft’s software.
In one of Microsoft’s hardware workshops, I spotted an unreleased Surface Mini sitting on a hinge designer’s shelf. When I joke with Groene, the hardware design chief, about how he forgot to get his team to hide the Surface Mini, he’s more interested in discussing what comes next. “We’re a software company, and being able to design better software through hardware is always the stuff that inspires us,” he says.
Under its new workflow, Microsoft also has designers working on seemingly disparate hardware across the company. I spoke to Chris Kujawski, an Xbox industrial designer, who told me the company’s changes mean there are more opportunities for designers now, and jobs feel less stale because designers can now work more freely together. That means someone responsible for the design of the Xbox Adaptive Controller is now working on the new Xbox console and designing a new Surface.
Xbox and Surface hardware might not look the same, but the teams responsible for its design are sitting next to each other at Microsoft now. Kait Schoeck, an industrial designer who worked on the Surface Book, says this new way of working means she’s “constantly doing new stuff” and “constantly learning something new” from fellow designers.
All of this hardware needs software to power it, though, and Microsoft doesn’t think of these as separate processes. “We always think of hardware as a stage for software,” Groene says. “Sometimes the stage can also influence the performance of the software, so there’s the back and forth of both of these elements.”
If you think back to the original Surface RT tablet, which launched alongside Windows 8, the software (Windows RT) was really far behind the hardware and it showed through incomplete apps and laggy performance. “We were intensely focusing on the hardware while the software was being developed at the same time … without really the time to influence each other too much,” Groene says. The aim for any future Surface hardware is never to make the mistake of the Surface RT situation again, and ensure the software is keeping up.
The speed of competitors has also had a massive impact on Microsoft. The company started building Surface hardware after seeing Apple’s runaway success with the MacBook Air and iPad, while Google’s regular software updates to Chrome and Android played a role in inspiring Windows 10’s nonstop iteration.
But it’s not just fellow tech giants that have given Microsoft cause for concern. There are now thousands of startups that compete for parts of its business, from Office to cloud services to Outlook.
The software landscape has changed dramatically since Microsoft first organized its workflow. Back in the day, it’d ship a new version of Windows every few years. Software, hardware, and design teams were siloed, and that didn’t make a huge difference — design was minimal, and competitors were limited.
Internally, Microsoft’s teams also used to battle against each other. “You’ve all seen the picture of all the groups pointing guns at each other at Microsoft. Certainly there’s a little bit of that,” a Windows Phone product manager told The Verge nearly seven years ago. Microsoft used to have a reputation for siloed teams that were run by bosses who would compete with other teams to make the most popular product. Co-founder Bill Gates famously held product reviews where he’d kill years of work in a single meeting, and this encouraged these fiefdoms even more as teams battled for Gates’ attention.
But over the past decade, things have changed a lot. Competitors like Google and Apple have built competing products to Microsoft — good ones. Office, a $35 billion per year business that Microsoft still dominates, is now fiercely contested by Google’s G Suite services, tools like Facebook’s Workplace, and many others.
Meanwhile, smaller startups have nipped at mere pieces of Microsoft’s huge businesses, often to great success. Dropbox and Slack were able to innovate in ways that Microsoft was slow to react to, and the company has found itself playing catch-up. Slack is now valued at $7.1 billion, and it has more than 30 million customers paying for its service. Dropbox is now a public company, and it’s valued at around $10 billion.
Some of those threats are ancillary to Microsoft’s core businesses, but some are not. As platforms outside Microsoft’s control, like iOS and Android, increasingly consume more of people’s time, Microsoft needs to make apps that compete on the merits. It’s no longer making the default software for a dominant platform within its control, it’s fighting for market share in a crowded marketplace where the app that gets it just right can take off overnight and draw users from a legacy business. Microsoft has even acquired apps like Accompli to make its leading Outlook app for the iPhone and avoid falling behind.
Later in the design meeting, illustrators debated the addition of a turtle. They’re thinking about using a turtle to help illustrate a slow connectivity page in Microsoft Teams, but first, some decisions had to be made: Should it animate slowly? Should it wear a sweatband? Will its meaning be clear across every country?
More input can lead to sharper, more inclusive work. But it can also bog a company down as it tries to please and incorporate everyone involved. I witnessed this during the design meeting when everyone was discussing an animated profile image. All of the designers were focused on how the image animated, but I was just sat there, silently wondering why the profile image wasn’t properly center aligned. It’s a massive challenge for a company as big as Microsoft to open its design process and grow from it, without slowing down or missing the basics.
For Microsoft, revising how it approaches design is also about revising how it develops products. Increasingly, the company has been happy to fail fast and test things to speed up development times: that’s meant more rapid prototyping, learning to lean on open-source communities, and shifting the core of its software business.
Microsoft’s old approach was to write every line of code. Modern startups, Friedman says, write around 5 percent of their code, relying on open-source tools for the rest. “There’s all this great open-source stuff that other companies build and that we build that we’re starting to share with each other more openly,” says Friedman. “For us, it’s just about embracing open source in design and engineering.”
Microsoft has also created a new way to prototype future products, both hardware and software, that cuts the time to build a prototype from hours or days to minutes. It started as a tool to test changes to Office on the web before Microsoft designers refactored the code to make it open source and started prototyping things like the company’s new Microsoft Search interface, an emerging way to power search results across Office, Windows, and more.
The prototype tool is essentially a web version of Windows and Office where designers can tweak the look and feel of things instantly. Windows, Office, and Microsoft Edge designers are all now using this tool to test changes to products. “It’s enabling us to envision new hardware, hardware without screens, hardware with screens, all sorts of different stuff to find out if there’s actual human value there before we go invest in making an actual product,” Friedman says.
Product makers are also using this new prototype tool to get a better idea of what software changes will be needed for hardware in the future. Thanks to this new prototype tool, Microsoft’s hardware designers can now try and conceptualize future hardware with or without displays. Some of that future hardware might involve dual screens or even devices with foldable displays. Microsoft has been working to support this type of hardware, but it’s clearly waiting for the right opportunity to launch anything radically different.
Investing in products, whether they’re hardware or software, used to involve big bets for Microsoft that didn’t always work out. “Back when we used to ship software, client software, every two to three years, we had to imagine what was going to happen two years from now in the industry and be right about a solution,” Friedman says. “That’s really tricky because the industry keeps moving faster and faster.”
Teams within Microsoft are now supposed to work in a series of shorter sprints to prototype or complete designs. Instead of everyone working toward a particular date months or years down the line, a simplistic version of the work is built, and then extras are added on top.
Think of this more agile approach like making a very basic pizza, then adding more fancy toppings each time. The value of a project, or lack thereof, is seen much sooner and well before it’s even finished. Microsoft’s “open design” philosophy applies that same set of design rules across the entire company and allows a design piece built for one product to easily be incorporated into another. Every product doesn’t need its own chat bubble or search bar. Instead, common design elements are like the toppings. They are centralized and reused.
This new focus on speed and the embrace of open source has changed the way Microsoft thinks about how products come to market. “I think our new cultural philosophy is around actually trying things… and if they fail, and we cut them, then that’s awesome learning that we then apply to the next thing,” says Friedman. “More and more people at Microsoft are being rewarded for trying things, learning and then applying learnings forward. Because what we’re investing in is a culture of growth.”
If this new approach to design at Microsoft works, then the company should be well-positioned to respond to software and hardware changes in the years ahead. But nothing like this is ever easy. For a company as big as Microsoft, this sounds like a multiyear change, and there’s no guarantee it will be successful. Microsoft has spent $7.5 billion to acquire GitHub and allow its own developers to share and collaborate even closer. The challenge now is to really make everyone buy into this new approach and completely overhaul Microsoft’s internal culture.
Microsoft’s embrace of open source, its switch to Chromium for its Edge browser, and this new open design give clear hints at how the company is redesigning its future. “I would hope that everyone can build parts of the Microsoft experience 10 years from now. I would hope that product names go away entirely in the future,” explains Friedman.
Beyond open source and Windows, Microsoft’s future design story looks increasingly inclusive and about listening to the humans who actually use its products. We’ve seen this recently with the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and we’re starting to see Surface move into more personal areas like headphones. It’s an approach we first saw with the Windows feedback program, and now the company is increasingly looking to the voice of its customers to influence its design decisions.
This customer voice should hopefully mean better hardware and software, but Microsoft’s centralized design does mean the company could be setting itself up to fail. A unified design raises the stakes. If one thing fails, everything fails. But if Microsoft is truly listening to its customers, then this new agile approach should allow the company to fix things quickly.
Microsoft has clearly learned from its past, and this new design shift is a smart bet for its future. The challenge now is to combine all of Microsoft’s ideas from its more than 100,000 employees into a single design that scales to look and feel coherent to the billion people who use products like Office or Windows.
The challenge is also to not be too early to new products or too late, which is a delicate balance that will prevent Microsoft from launching things and killing them off within months. Otherwise, if this open design doesn’t really work out, we could be looking at well-designed hardware and software that reminds us of what could have been.