Design Design Thinking Innovation Microsoft Prototyping Usability User Experience

How design thinking helped improve the usability of Microsoft’s internal products by ~50%

When designed badly, the products are unusable, leading to great frustration and irritation.  When designed well, the results are brilliant, pleasurable products.  There’s tremendous business value in enabling great user experience. Industry research shows >30% improvement in productivity, usage, satisfaction, loyalty, and revenue.

There was lack of key user insights into the design of many internal Microsoft products.  Consequently, NSAT (net satisfaction score) for many mission-critical products was below average.  Users were using the products but felt frustrated with their inability to get things done quickly and easily with error free outcome.

This was established after conducting mixed method user research to uncover actionable findings and translate those into business impact –

  • (Quantitative) Detailed reviews of last two annual NSAT reports
  • (Qualitative) Interviews with the users
  • (Qualitative) Contextual inquiry with the power users

What is the anticipated consequence

If getting a task done requires a large investment of time – or looks like it will – it’s less likely to be used, it’s more likely to frustrate the user Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think

Lack of ease of use and lack of error free outcome were pulling down the net satisfaction score on these products. We were at serious risk of letting down and losing our users. With one of the products, Microsoft’s Global Careers, we were at a serious risk of losing the ability to attract, develop, retain the best talent.

What was my role

I prioritized research needs across numerous work streams by evaluating the moment, scope, scale of potential studies.  I infused research insights to evolve understanding of different users’ profiles, identifying big opportunities as well as quick wins by communicating the outcomes of the studies and the reason behind them.

I saw an opportunity to make user centered design an integral part of the engineering effort.  It was my role to identify solution to this challenge … to do it fast … while establishing a sustainable rhythm of business.  I partnered with cross-functional teams (product management, design, development, testing, security, support, executive management) to make this happen.  The intent was to drive the team in fostering an understanding of the users and to influence thinking about mid and long-term product strategy for the products.

What actions were taken

User resentment and complaints quantify bad design.  Good design drives long-term user engagement. Play the long game.

I established strategic value proposition of integrating design thinking principles with the agile engineering effort by delivering on a pilot in the HR domain, Microsoft Careers Portal (

I conducted contextual inquiry with power users, created user personas and user, developed low and high fidelity prototypes, conducted A/B testing of the prototypes with power users, etc. to demonstrate the value of productive UX. Working in collaboration with the stakeholders, I defined success KPIs (NSAT, time to complete critical tasks, number of support calls) to measure the end user experience.

I evangelized the results of the pilot across the organization and invited discussions with other business groups on how design thinking can help.

What was the decision making process

I chose HR domain since it was high visibility mission critical business function with the lowest NSAT. I negotiated with product manager for HR products to pilot the integration of design thinking principles while addressing his concerns of delivery timeline & value add. Making this proposal required talking to each key stakeholder, armed with industry data and case studies that could convince them that this effort was worthwhile. The data had to make sense and projections needed to be realistic. I also needed to leverage my technical and design background to understand the nuances involved.

Consulting – Design team provides consultation, reviews, feedback, etc.
Co-ownership – Design team collaborates with product management, engineering and business team based on agreed upon RACI framework
Full ownership – Design team drives the design effort with active participation by product management, engineering and business teams

We agreed on the co-ownership model to ensure everyone is working collaboratively towards a common goal.

What was the outcome

Usability is about how people understand and use things, not about technology. By leveraging design thinking principles, we were able to successfully improve the usability of HR products by ~70%. This helped set the precedent for user centered design and development for the entire Microsoft Engineering organization.

I went onto institutionalize design thinking across the seven business units of Microsoft Engineering. We were able to improve the usability of mission critical, high visibility internal products of Microsoft by ~50%. To support this initiative, I grew the Microsoft Design team from 2 (1 researcher, 1 designer) to 12 (3 researchers, 9 designers) in four years to support the demand. Additionally, I established quarterly cadence for Design-A-Thon, a cross-functional 3-day collaboration to move from idea to prototype, fast.

Day 1Day 2Day 3
Project Teams & Design Rangers Meet & GreetAffinity Diagramming (translate research into design)Storyboarding and rapid prototyping (cont’d)
Clarify Roles & ResponsibilitiesStoryboarding and rapid prototypingConduct or simulate usability testing
Determine the need for user researchPresent your projects and share feedback
Conduct Contextual Inquiry (CI)

3 days with passion and enthusiasm … 3 days spent in conversation in the presence of product management, development, testing, security, service engineering, leaders from across Microsoft Engineering … 3 days of sharing ideas … it is such a joy to converse.

Design-A-Thon aims to enable project team members collaborate together with the goal of delighting the customers of their applications by improving the end user experience. Held at the Collab Lab, the 3-day Design-A-Thon saw 32 enthusiastic project teams collaborate and build with guidance from 16 design rangers leading to a total of 210 participants within a span of one year.

The motto for Design-A-Thon was ‘Good design begins with honesty, asking tough questions and comes from collaboration and from getting into user’s shoes’. At the end of 3 days, we achieved what otherwise would have taken more than a month.


What has most value

Great design is anything but skin deep. It only works—it only happens—when it goes right down to the heart and soul of the company that produces it. —Rod Oram

Solve the right problem.  Your product roadmap should be a sequence of the most pressing customer problems you want to solve, not a set of features you want to develop.  User research can help uncover the most pressing customer problems.

The user centered design funnel begins with user research and ends with usability testing. Ideation is largely dominated by sketching. This enables ideas to be explored quickly and cheaply.

More refined and expensive prototypes provide the basis for testing at later stages of design. The most dominant artefacts are more refined and expensive prototypes.

As you progress, the overall investment in the process grows. You don’t manage ideation the same way as usability. Involve users throughout the iterative process, not just during usability testing.

Historically, Microsoft product innovation has been rooted in technology innovation and business thinking, rather than design innovation. However, that is changing.  Halo 3 from Microsoft was the most successful entertainment launch in history, selling $300 million in the first week. The team that developed Halo 3 did so in a collaborative, free-thinking environment, frequently employed user-based prototyping.  Microsoft has embraced design thinking, which includes learning new behaviors and ways of thinking, validating design ideas, collaborating across disciplines. 

Compelling design is necessary for Microsoft to stay relevant and grow its market share in the enterprise. Design thinking has the power to fuel innovation, transform the ecosystem, change the way customers relate to and use Microsoft products.  Microsoft is on its way to make it happen.

How does design thinking work in your organization ?

How do you measure its effectiveness ?

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