How Design Thinking Reshaped Microsoft Products

10 years ago, I used to be a Windows operating system user and always asked myself; why is it so complicated? The screen is full of functions with minimum consideration for the user experience. In 2012, Microsoft released their Windows 8 with dramatic changes that can be easily spotted–I guess you noticed that too. Microsoft switches to a minimal user interface (UI) and more user-friendly features. So, what is the hidden secret behind this shift that not only affected the Windows operating system but also all Microsoft products? It is the adoption of the design thinking process. Previously, we covered the application for the design thinking process in Apple, Google, and IBM. Today’ we will explore how Microsoft adopted the design thinking in Microsoft’s product development process.

Microsoft is one of the leading giants in the technology market that supplies billions of users with operating systems, software and game applications. Their products were translated into 130 languages. In 2016, the company employed 114,000 employees with a net profit that reached USD$85.32 billion. The company has different design groups focusing on the user experience including the Microsoft’s User Experience Excellence group and Windows Live Web Communications user experience team.


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According to the Design Council publication, Eleven lessons: managing design in eleven global brands, Microsoft was able to move from a technology-centric to a user-centric company where the design is taking an essential role in this new model. While technology (viability), business (feasibility), and design (usability) are essential for business success and achieving innovation, the third factor, the design, is essential to solving the users’ problems and address their needs in the production process. Brad Weed, Director of User Experience at Microsoft, stated: “In 1993 design was a luxury. It is now generally accepted that design is critical to our success.”

design thinking innovation
The relation between design thinking and innovation

Why Adopting a Design Thinking Process

The design thinking is a discipline that address solving human problems through a set of tools, process, and strategy that aim to put the consumer in the heart of the development process in order to create a product that can be considered technologically feasible and viable from the business perspective. In Microsoft Enterprise article, How design thinking can transform your business, Linda Shi highlights three main ways to adopt design thinking inside the organization to foster innovation:

Achieve empathy within the business strategy

Empathy refers to building a clear understanding to the people’s needs; this applies to both consumers and the company employees. This understanding is then contributing to the holistic business strategy. In the core of the design thinking process, the user problems need to clearly defined in order to use it to ideate the solution in a form of a product or service which is transformed in the Prototyping stage to a testable prototype.

Highlight the importance of prototyping

In the core of the design thinking process, the prototyping helps the stakeholders and users to visualize the solution in order to explore, test, and validate that it solves the user problem and reflects the business strategy.

Embrace the role of design inside the organization

The design thinking helps to reshape the role of design and designers inside the organization. The designers can contribute with the stakeholders to build a user-centric business strategy and ensure that it is adopted through all the product development stages.

Windows UI
The different between Windows 1996 and Windows 2012 user interface design (Source: Microsoft)

The Design Thinking in Microsoft

In order to achieve Microsoft target to build a user-centric product, the User Experience Excellence group managed by Surya V ank, a design process have been deployed and it includes the following five cycles:

  • Understand – this phase focuses on the research and gathering information about the user in order to observe their needs and clearly understand it.
  • Envision – In this phase, the design team analyzes the data collected from the understand phase and use it to think of the solution for the addressed problems.
  • Specify – After sharing and discussing ideas, the design team define the solution and build a detailed specification for the product.
  • Implement – The product is developed based on the specifications highlighted in the previous cycle. this phase includes developing the prototypes and testing the product before releasing it to the market.
  • Maintain – The product is a case of continuous evaluation and testing in order to apply these modifications in the next releases it.

The Product Design Lead for the Windows Live Web Communication product team, Erez Kikin Gil, highlighted the implementation of another design process model consists of four stages:

  • Understand – This is the research stage that involves investigating the problem that needs to be addressed, ethnographic user research, and the design research.
  • Ideate – The team starts to visualize the solution directly through sketches, scenarios, and other prototyping tools. The stakeholders communicate together in this phase to brainstorm and discuss the new ideas over the course to solve the user problems
  • Test – This stage runs through both the ideate and product cycle in order to test and evaluate the prototype and ensure it solves the user’s problems. different tools are used in this phase such as the comparison studies, benchmarks, and product usability.
  • Communicate – The results of the previous stage is shared with the stakeholders using different channels in order to ensure that the product is viable from different perspectives.

Product Example: Microsoft Surface Book

Surface Book is one of Microsoft newest products. A powerful laptop that merges between simple design, high performance, high battery life, and adaptability. Microsoft Surface Book can be used as a laptop to undergo heavy computer tasks or it can be switched to a tablet device where users can use them easily along with its drawing pen.

According to the review for the Surface Book insights by Danielle McClune, Microsoft Writer, we can highlight two main characteristics that contributed to building the new innovative product; Addressing user’s needs and prototyping. The focus on the user problems as the new product aimed to provide an easy to use a laptop that users can hold with them anywhere and fold it as a table device with maintaining the powerful specifications in the laptop. It can run a normal laptop application including heavy graphic applications and use the drawing pen to work with desktop applications.

Microsoft Surface Book
Microsoft Surface Book (Source: Microsoft)

The other characteristic is the intensive usage of prototyping to help the design team to imagine, visualize, and test the different ideas. These prototypes played an essential role in reaching the final shape of the product. Kait Schoeck, Industrial Designer, highlighted: “We always joke that we could fill this whole building with prototypes,” and he continued “It is for real. We made more models on this project than I’d personally ever seen before.”

Microsoft Surface Book
Microsoft Surface Book modes. (Source: Microsoft)

The prototypes created for the Surface Book also help the team to communicate with other industrial designers in the company to test and give feedback on the product in order to validate how it solves the user problem through an innovative approach. Hua Wang, Industrial Designer, comments on the Surface Book: “It’s quite incredible what we did here because you can detach it, but when it’s attached, it looks like one piece.”

Where to Go from Here

The above case study provided a successful example of how the application of design thinking can contribute reshaping a giant company such as Microsoft toward focusing on the user’s needs through building a user-centric strategy. While there are two design processes applied in two different products, both of these models share the same characteristics of the design thinking process. Another lesson to learn from this case study is the companies may create or alter the design stages to fit with their own product development process as long as they follow the characteristics of the design thinking that move through research, ideation, prototype, and testing. We have seen this adaption of the design process in previous examples in IBM, Google, and Apple.

The Microsoft Surface Book provided a successful example of how the focus on the user needs and prototyping can contribute to building an innovative product. The Surface Book is a good example of the outcome of the adoption of the design process the new product development process (NPD). Although the large structure for the organization, Microsoft provided a success example that can be followed by other companies on different scales.

Dr Rafiq Elmansy

I'm an academic, author and design thinker, currently teaching design at the University of Leeds with a research focus on design thinking, design for health, interaction design and design for behaviour change. I developed and taught design programmes at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Northumbria University and The American University in Cairo. Additionally, I'm a published book author and founder of I am a fellow for the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), and an Adobe Education Leader. I write Adobe certification exams with Pearson Certiport. My design experience involves 20 years working with clients such as the UN, World Bank, Adobe, and Schneider. I worked with the Adobe team in developing many Adobe applications for more than 12 years.

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