Showcasing interactive technology with the Microsoft Lobby Experience
At Microsoft, we host nearly 400,000 guests in our corporate lobbies each year. They might be interviewees, customers, friends, or family. And, as the saying goes, we have only one chance to make a good first impression with these guests. Each guest typically spends eight minutes in our lobbies. We’re using that time to inspire our guests and share our passion with hands-on opportunities that showcase Microsoft interactive technologies.
Microsoft IT, working with Microsoft Real Estate and Facilities (RE&F), seized on an opportunity to build the company brand and showcase interactive technologies through streamlined, engaging, and unique visitor experiences that we call the Microsoft Lobby Experience. We created three distinct and accessible experiences—Arrive, Stay, and Depart—to address people, technology, and the physical environment.
Our latest Windows interactive technologies permeate the Lobby Experience. We used modern engineering design principles and agile software development methods to create an experience that is configurable, accessible, compliant, extensible, and resilient. It scales easily, is managed centrally, and can be deployed anywhere in the world.
Above all, we wanted our lobbies to reflect that Microsoft is a technology company. We wanted to showcase our own interactive technologies and help build our brand.
Arrive, Stay, and Depart—the Lobby Experience
We focused on the experience of a typical guest at Microsoft as they arrive, stay, and then depart our offices. Our Lobby Experience incorporates these three experiences, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Our redesigned lobbies focus on three parts of the guest experience: Arrive, Stay, and Depart
Our Lobby Experience includes new approaches to interactivity. We wanted to create an inviting environment—with a flavor that’s uniquely ours—to make our lobbies memorable for guests and employees.
When a guest enters a lobby and approaches the reception area, they can identify themselves in two ways: ask the lobby host for help, or enter their email address on the Arrive Surface Pro at the reception desk. When they are not working at their elevated desks, our lobby hosts come out from behind the desk to interact with and help guests. Lobby hosts can guide guests through our Arrive, Stay, and Depart process.
If a guest enters their email address in the Arrive Surface Pro and they have been to our offices before, the system auto-populates a registration form with saved information, such as their car license plate number to validate parking. The guest is asked the purpose of their visit, and whom they are here to meet.
The guest chooses an avatar for a biodegradable, temporary visitor badge—on a lanyard—and completes the check-in process. The lobby host verifies their government-issued identification, gives the guest their visitor badge, and notifies the Microsoft host that their guest has arrived.
Arrive, behind the scenes
When a guest arrives, two pieces of software are at work. One is the Windows 10 Universal Windows Platform Arrive app on the Surface Pro at the reception desk. The other is the Visitor Management System (VMS), which is used primarily by our lobby hosts. VMS can also be accessed by emergency management or security teams in case of an emergency or during investigations. VMS, the Arrive app, and their associated services are all hosted on Azure, which easily scales on demand. VMS and the Arrive app on the Surface Pro share a common security system in the background, where we can:
- Determine host availability.
- Find out if visitors are on a watch list.
- Delegate host duties.
After our guests check in, they’re encouraged to try the Stay experience area of our lobbies. We’ve enhanced the lobby environment by making it more well-lit and open, and by giving it an inviting ambiance. A kiosk with a 55-inch interactive device and modern seating are grouped in the Stay lobby area. On the kiosk, guests can explore:
- News. A variety of Microsoft news stories from the official Microsoft blog are shown on the screen. Guests can choose to send themselves a link to an article through a mobile SMS message or an email.
- History. Microsoft history is presented on a visual timeline through a selection of archives.
- Campus. A map shows the corporate campus and identifies nearby interesting buildings.
- Games. This section has jigsaw puzzles of digitized artwork from the Microsoft art collection.
Because it’s multi-touch, our guests can open a video, for example, and then resize or pause it and open other pictures. Another example of multi-touch functionality is in the game section, where multiple pieces of a digital jigsaw puzzle can be moved at the same time.
Stay, behind the scenes
We collaborated with Intuilab and Run Studios, our digital media production partner, to create the Stay experience and to make it a truly accessible digital experience. Touch-based navigation moves up, down, right, and left—with just a gesture—to move between the four areas of the interface.
For our departing guests, two 42-inch displays offer a transportation hub. On one kiosk, a touchscreen, guests can request shuttles to other Microsoft buildings and check traffic, real-time transit options, flight status, and so on. The other Depart screen shows incoming shuttles. After our guests choose their destination, they can choose a transportation option.
When a guest asks for a shuttle, the Depart experience suggests nearby campus cafes and displays current menus. They can receive an SMS message with the address of their next destination. On most mobile phones, a guest can simply click that SMS link to display the destination on a map. If the next shuttle destination is within about a mile, a “Healthy” suggestion presents a walking route to the next destination.
Depart, behind the scenes
The Depart kiosk hosts a Windows 10 universal app. It consumes eight cloud services on Azure, including the MSN Weather API, the BING Maps API, public and private transportation APIs that are readily available and extensible, and Microsoft-internal dining APIs. It’s a web-hosted app model, so the Depart kiosk has a thin client.
Planning the Lobby Experience
The Lobby Experience project is a major investment for Microsoft. It’s a global rollout that affects Microsoft real estate holdings worldwide. The team created a charter to support the project during design and development. Extensive user research helped us define concrete goals and align stakeholder support as the project progressed.
We piloted the project in a single lobby. We received positive feedback there, so we engaged with RE&F to expand to other buildings. This dovetailed with RE&F plans to refresh some of our building interiors. When RE&F communicated with employees about building remodeling activities, we encouraged them to participate in the Lobby Experience.
Our goals when planning the Lobby Experience were:
- Create a charter to drive prioritization. We carefully created a charter over two years to help make the project a success, and to be clear about what we were building and trying to change. Merely saying that we wanted a great guest experience was not specific enough.
- Reflect technology. At the outset, we knew that we wanted our lobbies to reflect that Microsoft is a technology company. Everyone on the project understood that concept. We wanted the new lobby environment and guest experiences to be high-tech, and we wanted our lobby hosts to be approachable, engaging, and helpful.
- Visualize the solution. The team considered what people would say if we were very successful—perhaps recognized in a popular technical blog—and built backward from that vision.
- Do the research. We had to sift through lots of research to pinpoint the goal. We dove into competitor analysis, user shadowing, and user videos. Multiple research angles let us pinpoint what we were trying to change, and that grounded us.
- Understand the problem. We needed to find our pain points and understand what our competitors were doing well. We knew that when people visited Microsoft, it didn’t feel like a technology company. Our lobbies were closed-in, and they weren’t engaging. Our reception staff sat behind an imposing, tall counter, and they didn’t wear clothing that identified them as Microsoft employees. We wanted to incorporate our modern brand into our lobbies, to better reflect who we are.
- Set a planning schedule. Our research and planning process lasted six weeks. At that point, we defined our desired features and functionalities.
- Collect and prioritize requirements. We knew that we wanted to showcase the newest Microsoft technologies, including multi-touch. In line with the overall vision of Microsoft, we wanted the solution to be cloud-first and mobile-first. In addition, we wanted to digitize common functions like guest registration and conform to future-looking privacy policies by collecting the least amount of information from our guests.
- Global considerations. Because this is a global solution, we knew that it had to be secure, centralized, easy to administer, automated, and accessible.
Empowering people of all abilities
From vendors, customers, and potential employees to friends and family members, our guests are a diverse group with individual needs. We reimagined our Lobby Experience to be inclusive and accessible for everyone. When we looked at the Lobby Experience through an accessibility lens, we saw an opportunity. Our experience showed that when we designed for all guests, we could increase the reach and use of our Lobby Experience.
We worked with Intuilab to customize their product, IntuiFace, and add more accessible features to our Stay experience. We also worked closely and continuously with the Accessibility team at Microsoft to make our design inclusive and to increase guest satisfaction. For example, the Stay kiosk audibly informs guests that an accessible version is available and how to access it by touching the Accessibility button. Every possible navigation action is read aloud when a guest lands on a page. In addition, all our Stay experience videos on the 55-inch kiosk screen include closed-captions.
Personas and technologies
We focused first on people with limited vision and scenarios that would affect them because vision impairment affects the most people. We worked through a spectrum of abilities from sight through touch, hearing, and speech.
Table 1 lists these personas, along with some of the technologies that we used.
Table 1. Personas and Lobby Experience technologies
Screen readers with logically mapped navigation
Stay includes audible guidance for every screen, and speech navigation moves the guest between significant page landmarks.
Kiosks slide up and down
The Arrive and Depart devices slide up and down on the wall so guests can adjust the height of the device.
Touch gesture–based navigation
The Stay kiosk screen moves up, down, right, and left with just one finger.
Stay experience videos are closed-captioned.
All interactive Lobby Experience screens will include Cortana for voice integration.
By using the persona spectrum, our solution helps people with specific impairments that affect many people. Approaching accessibility in this holistic manner pushed our technology to the next level. We’ve learned some lessons along the way:
- Relate personas to specific scenarios. For example, if a guest has had Lasik surgery, or a procedure that may temporarily affect their vision, how would they use Stay?
- Put yourself in your guests’ shoes. Can software engineers use their own websites without visual cues? Testing different scenarios helped designers quickly understand accessibility nuances. For example, sites need a screen reader to help users navigate. But a screen reader that has logically mapped navigation orients guests to where they are on the site and makes navigation options more obvious. Our engineers also used voice activation to test the system without touch. We quickly realized that simple tasks can be difficult for some of our guests.
- Get information from lots of people. We had many conversations with many people with a range of abilities. We asked people to show us how they navigate a phone if they are visually impaired, and to describe how they envision a phone could work for them in the real world. Then we reverse-engineered the findings into our Lobby Experience apps.
For more information about the accessibility aspects of the Lobby Experience project, see Making the Microsoft Lobby Experience more accessible.
Modern engineering design principles and tools
For the Lobby Experience project, like other Microsoft projects, we used modern engineering principles and tools. The resulting experience is:
- Configurable. Lobby Experience features can be switched on or off at individual kiosks. By using Azure Resource Manager and SQL Azure Database, we can centrally and remotely configure kiosks. One business requirement was to build our system as modularly as possible, so that components can be used—or left out—for any locality. If we want to make specific changes to appearance and configuration, it’s easy to make changes to a web app that’s pulled into a shell. Our code is modular and, with every build, test scenarios run automatically. This modularity helped us reflect the voice of the customer. In a single sprint, we reconfigured the Arrive app and created a feedback mechanism into the process. After our guests check in, they’re asked to quickly rate their experience by selecting an intuitive emoji.
- Extensible. The transportation components of the Depart experience—campus shuttles and transit options—were designed primarily for the Puget Sound area. If a Microsoft lobby in Silicon Valley wants to use those components, we can use APIs from local transportation service providers. And if we deploy the Depart experience to a lobby in London, it can be quickly configured to show a Tube (subway) option.
- Resilient. The server-side components of the Lobby Experience are geo-distributed to multiple Azure regions. The configuration supports automated failovers and load balancing in case of regional system failures. The app itself has customized, built-in incident management that triggers automated alerts—such as emails or phone calls—to supporting engineers in the affected region.
- Data-driven. We use Application Insights to collect telemetry data, which helps us manage app features and application health. For example, feature utilization data helps us learn how to improve Stay or Depart experience features; it also helps us decide if we should consider retiring certain features.
- Secure. We implement robust security in several ways:
- We use Microsoft Azure Active Directory authentication as well as an added layer of custom token-based authentication and certificate-based authentication.
- We use assigned access, which limits access to only the Lobby Experience. Our hybrid model hosts a Windows 10 Universal Windows Platform app, and the app launches a website internally. Lobby guests can’t access anything else.
- We use representational state transfer-based services to communicate between kiosk apps, websites, and cloud storage areas. Our Lobby Experience kiosks connect securely to the Microsoft guest network.
- Centralized. Microsoft Intune deploys bits to all kiosks in different regions and geographic locations.
- Localized. Azure Resource Manager stores text strings that need to be localized. As we deploy to global lobbies, any displayed text can be translated to the local language.
- Scalable. Azure and our platform as a service (PaaS) cloud-based architecture scale easily. Lobby Experience components are deployed in multiple Azure regions to seamlessly give a high-performing experience to guests anywhere in the world.
- Modern engineering tools. We use Git for source control and Microsoft Visual Studio Team Services (VSTS) for requirements gathering, development, automated testing, continuous integration and deployment, and maintaining a feature backlog. VSTS helps us monitor sprints and delivery and contributes to agile software development.
Distributed infrastructure for global performance
Our SPA-based architecture is highly distributed, and it uses Azure Traffic Manager to ensure that pages come up quickly, no matter where they are. Lobby guests interact with a Windows 10 universal app that’s based on model-view-controller application architecture. Figure 2 shows an overview.
Figure 2. Lobby Experience architecture
Windows Intune distributes software to Arrive, Stay, and Depart kiosks, and assigns access limits functionality to the Lobby Experience. The web app and web APIs are hosted on Azure in Europe and the United States. Two instances of Azure Traffic Manager ensure a distributed architecture, and maintain connectivity. For example, if the web APIs hosted on Azure in Europe become disconnected, they can still connect to the Azure instance in North America. The system is self-healing and redundant, and it sends alerts when any node is down.
Agile software development methodologies
When we developed the Lobby Experience, we focused on learning fast and iterating. We used agile development methods, worked in two-week sprints, and developed a distributed architecture with modular code and automated app testing. Using agile methods was straightforward, but the approach meant committing to a feature backlog to prioritize feature changes or additions. The feature backlog needed true buy-in and commitment from business partners and stakeholders.
Sometimes our business owners didn’t realize what a function would look like until they saw a demo. After they touched and interacted with a feature, they understood the guest experience. Our business and development teams worked together continuously, evaluated feature and functionality iterations, and determined what changes were needed for a quality product.
The Lobby Experience is fast, extensible, and flexible. We can quickly respond to change requests from internal business owners or guests. We integrated Microsoft technologies and products wherever possible. We also committed to ensuring that the product is accessible. We monitor accessibility monthly and adjust accordingly.
Initially, the engineering team administered Lobby Experience device configurations, but now our support team manages them. We created self-configuring devices and tools, like a management website and Power BI dashboards. And we’re moving toward a DevOps model, where our developers will take ownership of operations and automate software delivery and infrastructure changes. This will help improve the quality of the Lobby Experience, help ensure faster response times to faults in services, and improve global support.
Privacy and compliance by design
The Lobby Experience design helps us maintain compliance with privacy requirements in different countries or regions. Azure Traffic Manager detects location information, and routes information in a way that maintains compliance and privacy standards. For example, if a guest uses the Arrive experience in Germany, Traffic Manager decides—based on where the request originated—to send the information to a server in the European Union.
The Lobby Experience was driven by a clear vision and backed up with a solid charter and user research. The team quickly developed functionality and made fast decisions. Stakeholder engagement was key, and a deep knowledge of our data was a must. Specific best practices include:
- Research pays off. By doing user and competitor research thoroughly and up front, we reduced project churn. Shadowing and videotaping guests provided clear goals for the team.
- Define the problem first. We spent a lot of time defining the problem before jumping to the solution. Focusing on what we wanted success to look like let us work backward, clearly define the experience, and then build it.
- Identify true stakeholders early. Administrators and receptionists became key stakeholders for us. Originally, they were on the periphery, and they should have been involved in the project earlier.
- Create quick and early feedback. A low-tech approach worked for us when we first designed the Lobby Experience. We printed out Depart and Arrive experience screens, took them to a Microsoft building with a lot of foot traffic, and asked our colleagues for feedback. We met people face-to-face to see their reactions and quickly understand what they thought.
- Simulate for faster decision making. The faster and better that we simulated features, the faster that decision-makers could see and interact with them. We found that prototypes are only partially effective. By asking our stakeholders to do a task themselves, golden nuggets of true feedback came out.
- Don’t plan too far ahead. With multiple, fast sprints, stakeholders need to know that things will change, and that it’s difficult to plan a year ahead. In reality, we could plan a quarter ahead.
- Know your data. Working in our fast-paced model meant that we needed to know our data—and compliance and privacy rules in a variety of countries/regions—to create functionality in two weeks. We needed to dig in and do our own research to know where our data was at rest, where data touchpoints are, and so on. Globalization issues are complex and sometimes unique to geographies, regions, and languages.
- Early telemetry is useful. We built telemetry into the Lobby Experience at a pilot stage. That data helped the business make solid decisions about features. For example, if people aren’t using the bus option in the Depart experience, why include it or continue to support it?
Going forward, we want to refine the Lobby Experience even further. Here’s what we’re planning:
- Preregistration. A preregistration option will allow our guests to check in before they even reach Microsoft.
- Localization. We’re translating the Lobby Experience to remove any adoption hurdles. That includes email communication with guests, and the Arrive app itself—where people will be able to toggle between one or more local languages and English.
- Conforming to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Stricter privacy rules are on the way, and we know that we need to comply with them. We will proactively address privacy by giving control of data to guests and employees. We’ll make sure that guests have a way to edit or delete their history.
- App refinements. We’ll be changing the look of the Arrive app, and simplifying the flow based on feedback and telemetry data that we’ve collected.
- Better support tools. Our support team will soon manage more than 1,000 devices at about 400 locations. We’re creating tools to help them better manage these devices with a status dashboard.
- Visitor Management System refinements. We’ll be iterating and improving VMS because almost every new Arrive app feature needs a corresponding change for lobby hosts.
- Cortana integration. We’ve integrated Cortana into the Depart experience, but we can improve the experience to make it more seamless and natural. We want to enhance the feature by incorporating natural language detection using Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS) or Microsoft Cognitive Services.
Microsoft IT reimagined the Microsoft Lobby Experience with inclusivity in mind. We’ve created a unique experience that reinforces our cloud-first, mobile-first approach to technology. At Microsoft, we believe that there are no limits to what people can achieve when technology reflects the diversity of everyone who uses it. With more than 1 billion people with disabilities in the world, we are passionate about creating products and services that are designed for people of all abilities. Together, we can create a more inclusive and diverse world.
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