Q&A: Microsoft Hardware Design -- The Art of Innovation
April 26, 2004
The design group director for Microsoft Hardware talks about the critical role design excellence plays in the company's line of mice and keyboard products.

REDMOND, Wash., April 26, 2004 — The age of industrial design has arrived on the desktop. In the last couple years, mice and keyboard designs have reached new levels of style and function.

Microsoft is leading this trend by continually introducing mice and keyboards featuring original colors, graphics and even textures combined with unprecedented performance and comfort. The company has focused on creating first-rate designs of its mouse and keyboard products for more than a decade. Over the years, Microsoft Hardware has added seven industrial designers to its staff, dedicated to creating products that are as beautiful as they are functional.

Ken Fry , design group director for Microsoft Hardware, has worked at the company for nearly a decade and has personally overseen the design of more than 20 mice and keyboards. PressPass spoke with Fry to learn more about the aesthetic vision of the Hardware group and how design is influencing the look and feel of mice and keyboards in ways both noticeable and unseen.

Ken Fry, Design Group Director, Microsoft Hardware.  Click image for high-res version.
Ken Fry, Design Group Director, Microsoft Hardware. Click image for high-res version.
Image: Page | Print

PressPass: Why do you think people are so fascinated with design?

Fry: There are probably countless reasons why design is being appreciated more than ever. However I believe the primary reason people are interested in design is because it sets things apart. When we come across a product that looks as good as it works, it creates an emotional response or a connection that often just can't be explained in rational terms. We often find that we like something or feel drawn to it because it triggers a positive response. Just as we are drawn to certain colors, we are also drawn to certain designs. Our design team tries to create products that are both functionally excellent and aesthetically pleasing, with variety of styles to give people the chance to find just the right product for them.

PressPass: Why is design important to Microsoft?

Fry: Our design team increasingly hears from people that, as they use their computers more often and in more ways than ever before, they want products that look and feel good. As technology products become a larger part of everyday routine, people want options in comfort and style essentially, something identifiable with their unique preferences and personality.

We are committed to continually offering consumers more choices to personalize their desktops. A good example is our new special edition mice, featuring three new finishes available for a limited time only. With three new colorful designs, adding to our existing lineup of stylish products, people have more options now than ever before. In fact, we're encouraging design-conscious consumers to vote for future special edition finishes at www.microsoft.com/hardware/personality .

The new Microsoft special edition mice. High-res images available in the
The new Microsoft special edition mice. High-res images available in the
Image: Page

PressPass: How long have industrial designers worked at Microsoft Hardware?

Fry: The first industrial designer at Microsoft Hardware started more than a decade ago, and created Microsoft Mouse 2.0, an entirely new mouse concept based on ergonomics. Unlike others, this mouse was comfortable in either hand and encouraged a neutral hand position to reduce wrist and forearm strain. Since then, our design team has expanded to one of the largest in the industry, with seven industrial designers specifically focused on developing mice and keyboards with exceptional performance, comfort and style.

PressPass: What steps does your design team take in creating the mice and keyboards?

Fry: Our process is actually unique, since we work so closely with Microsoft software and hardware engineers, as well as in-house ergonomists. Additionally, we are involved in product development from the beginning to end, making sure the products deliver the highest level of style and comfort for consumers.

We always begin by researching how consumers work and live, to see how we can help make the computing experience more comfortable, efficient and enjoyable. This research forms the foundation for our design teams, who in turn brainstorm new product solutions. After testing these early ideas to gauge people's reactions, we sketch out concepts in the Industrial Design Studio and run them by product engineers to make sure they will work. The concepts with the most potential are then created in our onsite Model Shop with foam and tested with consumers worldwide.

The favorite forms are then refined further by the hardware and software engineers, resulting in a near-complete product for usability testing. Our design team completes the product with desired finishes and final detailing making it ready for production. To get a better inside look into our design processes and products, take a look at our Design Primer.

PressPass: How does Microsoft Hardware choose the colors for their products?

Fry: Last year, we completely revamped our color palette and added new materials and patterns to our products. We will not design the "one-size-fits-all" product any longer. Our team of industrial designers, as well as our color experts internally and externally, leads the process. We use research on which colors people like and what styles they are drawn to. We test hundreds of colors, patterns and textures globally to find out what people find most appealing. In the last year, we've already introduced mice featuring some of the top design choices, and we look forward to continually expanding our line with more stylish options.

Carving a model mouse in the Microsoft Hardware design studio.  Click image for high-res version.
Carving a model mouse in the Microsoft Hardware design studio. Click image for high-res version.
Image: Page | Print

PressPass: What does Microsoft do differently in terms of design?

Fry: Great hardware products don't happen by chance. It takes a dedicated team of specialists and our approach to design is unique in the peripheral industry, for numerous reasons. First of all, we base all of our products -- from features to forms to styles -- on extensive, worldwide research. We would not be able to create the quality of products we do without knowing what people want in their hands and on their desktops.

With one of the largest design teams in the industry, we have more professional designers approaching each product problem and opportunity giving us a wide range of ideas and possibilities. Additionally, all of our sketching and model creation takes place in our design studios at Microsoft -- all under one roof, in fact -- so we are able to quickly provide people with a variety of products. We are also able to capitalize on having ergonomists as well as software and hardware engineers at hand to discuss and try product solutions. All these add up to products that not only look great, but that will provide people with a high level of comfort, performance and style.

Our design group is renowned in the design community for products that combine innovative forms and functions. We have won numerous design awards worldwide for our hardware designs, from organizations such as the Design Zentrum Red Dot in Germany to the IDSA/BusinessWeek Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) in the United States. In addition, Microsoft Mouse 2.0 is in the permanent collection of MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which also featured Microsoft Trackball Optical and IntelliMouse Optical in its 2001 "Worksphere" exhibition on the changing nature of the workplace and the role of design in creating effective solutions.

PressPass: What product design is your group most proud of?

Fry: We are proud of our product designs for different reasons. Just like the people who are drawn to the different products, each is unique in process and final design. Two of my favorites are the latest Wireless Optical Mouse and Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer, because of the challenge of their feature designs and the opportunities of adding original finishes. We went through literally hundreds of color, patterns and even textures before choosing the latest styles introduced in the last year including Steel Blue, Metallic Red, Blue Moon, Black Leather, Periwinkle, Metallic Blue, Groovy, Platinum, Night Vision and Immersion. And this is just the beginning. We are proud of the variety we designed and excited to continue creating more stylish options for people to personalize their desktops.

PressPass: What new product designs can we expect to see coming down the line?

Fry: We're continually delivering products to enhance the computing experience, regardless of the device used. Right now, we're hearing people ask for more choices in styles to personalize their desktops which is why we are expanding our line of mice and keyboards with more colors, textures and graphics than ever before. The more options people have the greater chance of appealing to a variety of tastes. In the future, whether technology moves toward voice command, motion-sensing or devices unimaginable at this time, we look forward to exploring new ways to advance how people interact with their computers.

Read More: