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Paving a path to human-centered design in the heart of Microsoft

Tricia Fejfar, the leader of the CSEO Studio Team, collaborates with Mary Gansallo, one of the designers on the team, at a wall with a series of design posters glued to a white wall. They are looking at posters that show a design calendar and project mock-ups

Tricia Fejfar (at right), the leader of the Studio Team in Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO), walks through a storyboard with Mary Gansallo, a design developer on the Studio Team. (Photo by Jim Adams | Showcase)

August 30, 2018

Thousands of hurried feet create a well-worn path deep in the grass, exposing the earth below, which reflects the gap in how Microsoft designs experiences for the employees who use its products and services internally.

Nearby, a perfectly paved concrete walkway goes untouched.

“Why aren’t people walking on the sidewalk,” asks Sheri Panabaker, a principal research manager in Microsoft Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO). “Why aren’t they doing what we expected?”

Human nature.

“People don’t always do exactly what we think they’re going to do,” Panabaker says. “We need to make sure we’re designing a user experience with this in mind.”

Just as architects and urban planners should think about what people want in their new local park, a new research and design team inside of CSEO (formerly Microsoft IT) has been tasked with getting the organization to build tools that 130,000 Microsoft employees are more inclined to use.

Illustration of the day-to-day experience of a Microsoft employee including commuting to work, scanning a badge, attending meetings, and buying lunch. Icons that represent each task are located along a twisty road that employees are urged to follow

The Studio Team is encouraging the larger CSEO organization to make sure it builds experiences for Microsoft employees that are connected and built in ways that they expect and want. Otherwise, employees will follow their own path.

“Changing our approach to building tools is a cultural transformation for a lot of teams here,” says Tricia Fejfar, the leader of CSEO’s Studio Team. “It’s hard to change a process that has worked well for a long time, but the environment, the world, and our employees’ expectations have changed.”

This move to a user-centered design ethos is fueled by a new vision that Microsoft Chief Digital Officer Kurt DelBene mapped out for all CSEO. That vision calls for building a cohesive experience across all the products and services that CSEO provides, Fejfar says. It helps that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella fully supports this call for transformation.

“Digital transformation is hard, and it’s all about getting alignment at the leadership level,” says Rex Foxford, a senior design researcher on the Studio Team. “Once you have trust and transparency, great things happen.”

Connecting the disconnected

Like other IT organizations, CSEO enables Microsoft groups such as Human Resources, Finance, and Sales to better support their customers, who are Microsoft employees. It creates the tools that 25,000 sales professionals use to sell the company’s many offerings. It also builds applications that employees use to run meetings, book travel, record time off, check café menus, book a shuttle, or find a colleague’s office.

In the past, these tools were handcrafted by engineers in CSEO. The final products that they produced were based on the IT team’s skill set and the business requirements they gleaned from talking with leaders in the business groups they supported. Typically, the CSEO team would come back a few months later with a tool that was designed with good intentions but didn’t necessarily take the end user’s experience into account.

“Generally, design decisions were made without involving users, designers, and user researchers,” says Marcus Wheeler, a principal design manager on the Studio Team. The result, in some cases, was a tool that wasn’t necessarily relevant to users, and was difficult to use and possibly difficult to find.

The other issue was that the applications weren’t interconnected because they were developed independently. There are currently more than 1,600 tools in use throughout Microsoft built on many different user experiences.

In a sense, one of the positive attributes of CSEO engineers became part of the problem.

"Microsoft people are problem solvers,” says Dawn Lee, a principal user researcher on the Studio Team. “That’s what we’re good at, so it’s easy for people to jump to building solutions instead of spending time to deeply understand who they were designing for.”

The varied and sometimes conflicting user experiences sometimes made it hard for Microsoft employees to do innovative work.

So how is CSEO working to solve these challenges?

The Studio Team is asking CSEO engineers to find out what employees really need out of their tools before building them. Transitioning to using a human-centered, agile approach to design the core experiences that employees have when doing their day-to-day work is challenging but important, Panabaker explains. “We call it a hierarchy of needs. If the base is broken, it doesn't matter if you deliver these meaningful experiences on top of that base. We have to get fundamental employee experiences right first and foremost,” she says.”

Once you get the hang of it, deeply considering the needs of your users before you start a project makes a lot of sense and can help everyone involved feel better about their work, adds Ashley Graham, a senior user researcher on the Studio Team. “We’re all here because we want to feel like we’re contributing to the Microsoft community and our product line and our business,” Graham says. “That’s why we come to work every day.”

Empowering creativity and productivity by putting people first

Designing experiences that employees like and want starts with building tools that support their creativity and productivity, meaning they need to be usable while also adding value, Foxford says. Think of saving time or improving workflows.

“How can we get developers writing more code, managers stirring up new ideas, and employees engaging with customers?” he asks. “We want to know their preferences so that we can support them in the right ways.”

Creating employee-centered products also starts with feeling empathy for the frustrating aspects of the employee experience. “When a customer does something we didn’t expect, a researcher should ask why,” Foxford says.

Ashley Graham leans forward in a chair and writes out some research results with a blue Sharpie as an also-seated Rex Roxford looks on

Ashley Graham and Rex Foxford, senior user researchers on the Studio Team, talk through some of the employee experience work that they will take on. (Photo by Aleenah Ansari | Showcase)

Lee says that asking these questions puts the employee using the application front and center. “Research can come in and say to the user, ‘You're the expert. You know how to do your job. Our job is to be curious so that we can try to figure out your unarticulated needs,’” she says.

Getting support for a user-centered approach to developing employee tools isn’t easy.

When the Studio Team works with program managers who own each part of the employee experience, they must lead the discussion with research insights about the difficulties that employees face. Then the Studio Team develops a plan to ensure that there is a consistent and coherent experience across all tools, says Bill Zhong, a CSEO principal designer.

“If we can do an audit to look at the differences across the tools and create a unified solution, the tool will offer a better user experience for employees,” Zhong says. “We don’t want the user to have to switch between tools.”

Convincing engineers who build employee tools to begin with research can be challenging because some managers are understandably concerned that iterating on their product will slow them down. Panabaker suggests that managers embrace a different mindset by recognizing that an up-front investment in user research actually saves time in the end because it ensures that the right tool gets built rather than a tool that doesn’t accommodate users’ needs.

Digital transformation is hard, and it’s all about getting alignment at the leadership level.

~ Rex Foxford, senior design researcher on the CSEO Studio Team

“You want to create a process that informs product development early on so you’re solving the right problems,” she says.

The basic premise of this newly adopted process is that people learn design by doing design. One way the Studio Team evangelizes the iterative approach to product development is by using design sprints, in which program managers and developers go through storyboarding, develop low-fidelity prototypes, and receive feedback about potential designs from customers.

“Most of the program managers and dev leads have never had a chance to experience how a design should be created,” Zhong says. “Now they’re learning about the right way to do it. Once they go through it, they see how it works and say, ‘OK, this the right way to do design.’”

Marcus Wheeler and Bill Zhong sit facing each other in front of a black poster board covered in yellow sticky notes. They are viewed from the side, with Wheeler talking and using his hands to gesture as Zhong listens

Marcus Wheeler (at right), a principal design manager on the Studio Team, and Bill Zhong, a principal designer on the team, talk about tasks, delighters, and technology that employees can use to enhance their work experience. (Photo by Jim Adams | Showcase)

Helping employees find their way

Being research-driven sounds good, but how does it work? Zhong describes a stepwise process of identifying an ideal solution and optimizing it, understanding potential gaps, and making design decisions for the final product. “Moving forward, we know what boundaries we need to push so that we can create the roadmap to evolve our experience,” he says.

One insight that became clear from the Studio Team’s foundational research is that—from booking a shuttle to setting up a Skype meeting—employees see each part of their day as a continuous experience, not a sum of its parts. This is particularly true when it comes to wayfinding. When interviewed, Microsoft employees said that they wanted more guidance on getting from their offices to meetings in other buildings, something that currently requires multiple tools for checking the meeting time and place, booking a shuttle, finding the meeting room or location, and setting up a Skype call.

The left side of the graphic depicts an incohesive, inconsistent set of webpages. The right side depicts cohesive and consistently designed webpages

CSEO has built 1,600 applications for Microsoft employees, each with their own user experience. The goal of the Studio Team is to reimagine these apps so they have a consistent look and feel.

To fix this, CSEO is developing an Indoor Location Services app. This new wayfinding tool will help employees walk from their office, catch a shuttle, and find the way to their meeting location, all while accounting for the twists and turns along the way. This service will precisely locate an employee and use that information to guide them to their next destination.

Before starting to build the tool, the CSEO engineering team reached out to the Studio Team, which then asked employees what they thought of the Indoor Location Services concept. The employees they talked to raised questions of privacy and said they were worried about who would have access to their location data.

“We took that input and designed it into the project so that we could promise people we don’t track them,” Foxford says. “Microsoft is all about privacy, and the last thing we want to do is have internal apps that do not respect an individual's privacy in the workplace.”

After conducting the early research with users, Foxford worked with engineers to develop a prototype and then invited a small group of users to provide initial feedback. Foxford then tracked usage of the prototype.

“We look at the data and the feedback we’re getting through support channels to understand sentiment,” he says. “Is it love or hate? At the end of the day, if people love our product, that means we’re doing something right. We want the product to add value to employees’ lives.”

In addition to conducting research to understand product users’ common needs and difficulties, the Studio Team designers and researchers incorporate employee feedback throughout the product development process. For example, with Indoor Location Services, employees wanted to have a cone to indicate the direction they should be walking. That feature is being added into the next version of the prototype.”

On the Studio Team, designers work closely with researchers throughout the product development process. This is quite different from their previous role, when designers were solely called on for visual design.

“In the past, everyone’s impression was that designers would focus on one part and make everything beautiful.” Zhong says. “Now, we are designing the whole experience and working with program managers to define the features, and sometimes even the vision, for the product.”

Sometimes, gathering input to inform product or tool development means going back to the drawing board.

“You have to be comfortable with being wrong, and that’s a big part of our culture change. It’s what we learn from it that helps us grow,” Lee says. “It’s a journey that all of CSEO is on.”

Wheeler says CSEO is developing a coherent design language that can be used across all internal tools, which ensures that the same design conventions are used throughout the organization. That way, the experience in one tool behaves the same way as in all the other tools. This approach not only creates a more seamless experience but also allows teams to share the code for future projects. This approach is patterned after the approach that Microsoft product teams such as Office now use.

“What if the way you learned how to use one tool involved such a familiar pattern that, by learning one, you’ve halfway learned the next one?” he asks. “That’s the idea. When you’ve learned Excel or Word or PowerPoint, you’ve halfway learned the one you haven’t used yet.”

Creating experiences, not just products

Fejfar says that the approach of leading with research will help ensure that CSEO creates delightful user experiences that are developed based on research insights that employee-users provide, and that are powered by iterative design.

“We’re confident that we’re building the right product because we’ve done the research up front,” she says. “We’re building tools in a holistic way and improving the lives of our employees so that they see a difference in how they do their everyday tasks, whether that’s having a meeting or booking a shuttle.”

The journey of reimagining employee experiences is just getting started. CSEO, like other organizations within Microsoft, is continually working to develop products that put the needs of people first.

“We’re a company with a growth mindset, so there’s continuous learning,” Wheeler says. “There’s so much to be learned from how we go about doing this that we’ll be able to apply to other parts of the business that CSEO supports.”

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