The woman who designed Windows and Xbox

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The woman who designed Windows and Xbox

CRN sat down with Microsoft’s principal design lead Kat Holmes ahead of her keynote speech at Microsoft’s Australian Partner Conference 2016 last week.

Holmes’ resume includes leading Microsoft's design team on Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox, as well as work on HoloLens and Cortana.

Now the principal design director for inclusive design, Holmes focuses her efforts on accessibility and the ways users interact with technology. Here's what we learned about designing products for the entire planet.

The Nadella factor is about openness

To the outside, the past two years have seemed like some of the most transformative in Microsoft's history. Since Satya Nadella took over as chief executive in 2014, Microsoft's hardware game with Surface has clearly paid off, selling 1.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2015, and the uptake of Windows 10 is monumental, reaching 350 million users (though under a cloud of controversy over its pushy upgrade tactics).

Holmes said Microsoft getting its mojo back wasn't all down to Nadella, but that the company is much more open than it used to be. "We work more as a family than we do as a hierarchy. What you're seeing is those ideas starting to come to the forefront that have been but haven't necessarily been nurtured in the way they are now."

"I think there's more creativity that becomes visible and that that creativity can look authentic to what we do well. Play your own game and play it well, not try to chase the game someone else is playing."

There's an Apple (and a Google) team inside Microsoft

You might be surprised to learn there are Apple and Google developer teams in Microsoft. The teams work on developing software for Microsoft's rival platforms. Holmes said it's one of the most fun parts of the job.

"What’s great is each company we develop for has published really great guidance on their design and we've published an enormous guide on design as well," said Holmes.

"We like to take those opportunities to build a best-in-class example. It's just a trade-off of understanding what people are familiar with in terms of the patterns and flows that they use. When we introduce something that's specific to Microsoft, we have to make sure it work's inside that context."

Last February, Microsoft unveiled integration of Word, Excel and PowerPoint with Apple iCloud. Later in 2015, when Microsoft launched Office for Android, more premium features where freely available than with the Apple iOS version.

How Cortana became a personal assistant

Holmes worked on Cortana for two years, and said it was the product she was personally most proud of. "Cortana's not perfect, but the process of designing Cortana was very different, going back to when she was a circle and then a voice," said Holmes.

The personalised voice assistant was released in 2014 and has since become a staple part of Microsoft's consumer product line-up thanks to its inclusion in Windows 10.

"Early on, we realised as a team that we were trying to create this personal assistant experience but none of us had ever been personal assistants or had a personal assistant, and yet we are trying to imagine what it would be like," said Holmes.

"I led the team in interviewing and spending time with 15 people who are personal assistants and do that for a living and trying to understand what experience principles they use with their clients. One example is that you can imagine trust comes up a lot, trust is a very important thing, especially with an assistant.

"What they talked about was the importance of transparency. Each of them had a notebook where they captured anything about their client. That transparency made it possible to have a dialogue about what was OK and what wasn't. That directly informed the notebook we created in Cortana."

To design for disability, you must get over your own bias

As Microsoft's design lead for inclusive design, Holmes has a self-confessed bias for the importance of accessibility for products over their aesthetic.

"The aesthetic is an important part of making sure people understand the interactions they're going through, but when you see someone using a product so naturally that it's enabling them in the moment… knowing that the technology is almost invisible makes it just an extension of getting the person to where they want to go," said Holmes.

Holmes said one of the biggest challenges for designers is overcoming their own bias in designing for their own abilities. She tries to design with mindset that one size does not fit all.

“We all have moments where we have a mismatch between us and a computer or an environment. We all have places where we are socially excluded at times so we think about diversity more along those lines,” said Holmes.

“We think about designing for the moments when it's better to be using an auditory experience with something tactile and there's a category of people whether it's on a permanent disability basis or temporarily unable to see or you're in a situation where your eyes are occupied.

“So we [think] about the human ability and interaction where we can start to design for those moments. If we can design for multiple ways for people to interact with technology, that opens it up for people to participate which is really at the heart of getting to those 7.4 billion people.”

Design is about function first, then form

"For a long time, especially within Microsoft, design was thought of as an aesthetic treatment or the way that you would match someone's preferences or the style that they like," said Holmes.

"Although that is one aspect, the real foundation of design is how things work and how well they work for people and the process that people go through to make that product. It's more of a verb than a noun. Making something that works well for everyone, that's a whole different challenge."

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