”I wasn’t really a Microsoft person, design people aren’t usually.”
That was one of the first things Rochelle Benavides told me when we met late last year. It’s quite a statement from a design leader who heads up the Experience Development team in our Interactive Entertainment Business. With a background as a front-end web developer and designer, Rochelle started as a contractor, hired to fix design bugs and do fit and finish work on Media Center for Windows XP back in 2004.
“That contract experience was my look inside the machine. It changed my impression of design at Microsoft forever.”
A group of people working on Media Center had a profound impact on her. They were aiming to put more control in the hands of designers and allow them to take ownership of layout, typography, visual effects, and motion during production. It was the earliest seeds of the framework and workflow that would be needed to deliver a design language like Metro.
“I walked into the perfect storm of dreamers, influencers, an doers who all believed in empowering design in the software engineering process,” Rochelle said. “People like Bill Flora, Francis Hogle, Joe Belfiore, and Mark Weinberg had been working together, shaping a UI framework around this vision for Media Center.”
With hindsight, Rochelle had glimpsed at the opportunity at Microsoft during that contracting gig and somehow knew that fate would bring her back. But her career was just getting started and she hadn’t fully understood the unique value of her skillset or its place in crafting the user experience. After her contract ended, Rochelle took a job as a web developer at an interactive design firm - that happened to do most of its work on the .NET platform. Two things happened during that time – she became a much stronger developer and deeply passionate about all facets of design and user experience. After a couple of years, the growth she was experiencing started to plateau, and Rochelle craved an opportunity to apply her skills, insights, and instincts to new problems. She decided to spend a year and a half freelancing as a UI prototyper for a company that made hand-carried ultrasound devices. It was really different work in an industry she knew little about, but in that year and a half she learned a lot about industrial design, interaction design for touch, human factors, and usability – all of the skills required to create holistic interactive hardware/software experiences. She was amassing a unique portfolio of skills.
Rochelle maintained strong connections with the design team from the Media Center job and decided it was time to knock back on the Microsoft door. She contacted Bill Flora to see if there were any opportunities to work on his team again. Bill had moved on to Zune, and the team was building out a new entertainment ecosystem and the group included another fit and finish production team. It was a chance to go back, albeit as a contractor. Not what she imagined, but as a music lover, the product was exciting.
About 6 months into her contract, she saw Bill Flora receive his 15-year service award. Bill’s influence on design at Microsoft was well-known and she wanted to know more about what inspired him to stick around for such a large portion of his career. Rochelle had a desire to create lasting change and to further embed design’s role in the engineering process. Bill had cleared a path for her, and she was intrigued as to what kind of career she could have championing this idea as a designer at Microsoft. She scheduled a meeting and showed up with a stack of design comps (comprehensive artwork) she’d been working on and proceeded to walk him through them, highlighting many of the design challenges the team was facing. There was more to the job than fit and finish, she told Bill, and there were huge opportunities to avoid painting themselves into corners due to not intercepting design issues early enough. It was a long meeting, explaining the architecture and highlighting the opportunity to redefine the process. By putting repeatable processes in place, working on features with the UI framework team, and through prototyping, Rochelle felt many of the technical constraints they were encountering could be removed. In hindsight, she was writing a job specification and defining her career path at Microsoft with that discussion. The conversation closed with Rochelle explaining to Bill that it was a full-time job for a team of people who could develop and mature this very specialized area of design.
“This job was about execution and getting ideas out the door. This was about preventing a hundred ideas from dying in the design studio. This was about uncompromising attention to detail and quality to create immersive and personal experiences that would connect people to our products and our brand.”
Rochelle was crafting the job she was designed for, and within a few months, she was invited to interview for a full-time position and got the job. Now the hard work really began. “It required use of every soft skill you can imagine,” Rochelle told me – “I had to build trust between design and engineering, which meant immersing myself in engineering process and culture in order to see where the gaps were and identify injection points. It also meant knowing our design vision as well as any creative director did. I had to understand the personality and soul of what we were creating and the rationale behind every choice so I could inspire engineering to see problems through our eyes. I had to translate design language into developer language at the task level to ensure we would get the hooks we needed to bend the UI to meet design requirements.”
“Design Development removes technology dependencies that paralyze design thinking & innovation” is a guiding philosophy for Rochelle, as are the tenets below:
1. Technology should inform design but never guide it
2. Design should inspire technological innovation
3. The design process should never be crippled by technology
4. Our products should deliver beauty, create emotion, and be memorable
Rochelle had taken a risk, betting on the discipline of design development – “and the people joining my team took a risk on me,” she says. They were relying on the approach and philosophy of an individual with a vision, not a job description or career track. Only a person confident in their hybrid skillset would thrive in this culture where there was no identity or community for this role. When you meet the people in Rochelle’s team, you find a group who all love and believe in this work and want to be a part of moving design forward at Microsoft. In the same way Rochelle relied on her instincts for that conversation with Bill, she does the same in hiring in her team. When I met with her most recently, she had just come from an interview with a prospective new hire and told me:
“there’s always a spirit and a spark that makes a person right for my team and that’s important to me as innovation truly happens because of people, not ideas alone.”
I’m interested in what it takes to do this work so Rochelle stepped me through some of the tools used by the design team. It was a real mix of artistic tools, developer tools and even research tools that target different areas of the product to create the desired experience. This bag of tricks is handled by many people too and I asked Rochelle about the skillsets in IEB Design. She explained that it spans a wide spectrum of design disciplines from motion design, to industrial design, interaction design, information architecture, visual design, brand experts, and of course design development. The folks in these roles have rich and diverse backgrounds. Rochelle categorized them as having people with experience of screens of all sizes – from the motion picture screen (people who worked in the film industry for companies like Pixar and movies like Titanic) to the mobile screen. Alongside those, we have design researchers, design strategists, sensory designers and more.
I finished by asking Rochelle if she’d made the right choice to pursue a design career at Microsoft and she pointed me to the 2011 Commencement Address that Denzel Washington gave at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a great speech and the part that resonated with Rochelle was this Les Brown analogy about fulfilling our potential and aspiring to live the life we are capable of living:
Imagine you’re on your death bed, and standing around your death bed are the ghosts representing your unfulfilled potential. The ghosts of the ideas you never acted on. The ghosts of the talents you didn’t use. And they’re standing around your bed angry, disappointed, and upset. They say, “We came to you because you could have brought us to life. And now we have to go to the grave together.” So I ask you today, how many ghosts are going to be around your bed when your time comes?
Rochelle had seen her opportunity and decided that in her corner of Microsoft she would live the change she believed in. It’s paid off and she’s doing what she loves with people who are equally as passionate. These are people who care as much about how something feels as much as how it looks. Her team is currently working on the next generation of the Xbox dashboard that has a new, more integrated Kinect experience – often referred to as “the dash”. The team also built the existing dashboard you see today, including features like voice control of Netflix. The new dashboard was shown recently at our Worldwide Partner Conference and I asked a number of people at the event what they thought of it. Their answers included words like elegant, playful, whimsical and cool. One person said “it just made me feel good.” Exactly the kind of response the team had worked to create.
In chatting with Rochelle, it’s clear that design culture at Microsoft has come a long way and that she has played a big part in that – she remembers that when she had that initial chat with Bill Flora, she didn’t just want a job, she saw an opportunity to do something nobody else was doing that would elevate the quality of the experience. And more than that, she wanted to make a commitment to doing it better than anyone else. It started as the creation of a role, led to the emergence of a design philosophy and has culminated in the creation of a whole group of design integration experts here at Microsoft. She decided to “go big” as some folks say.
Right now, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Xbox and Kinect and I’m excited about seeing the new dashboard and a few other projects Rochelle is working on. Who knows, maybe it’ll compete in the IDEA Design Awards next year and continue to chip away at the notion that Microsoft isn’t home to some great design…and designers.