Meet four people helping to design the future of Microsoft

Behind the idea for any new piece of technology is a question: How do designers at the front end translate hunks of metal, plastic, wires, pixels and bits into a new human experience?

Microsoft’s designers approach their products from their own unique angles: Kat Holmes (who is featured in the latest episode of the podcast “Next at Microsoft”) takes her fascination with messy, complicated love stories to Microsoft’s Cortana personal assistant and ends up hitting the streets to create a documentary about relationships, while Jonah Sterling designed the Microsoft Azure cloud computing experience and also acts as a curator of his team’s workspace and daily culture. Yeongkyu Yoo brings an Asian design philosophy of simplicity and emptiness to the Microsoft Devices team, while Surface’s Ralf Groene measures the weight of every decision in emotional units. Together, they’re revolutionizing every aspect of the user experience.


MS-Stories-2014-01-Designers-Holmes-Kat-352Kat Holmes was working on the design of Microsoft’s personal assistant, Cortana, when the trailer for “Her” — Spike Jonze’s film about a lonely writer and his emotional relationship with a computer operating system — was released.

“There were some uncanny similarities to Cortana,” said Holmes, a principal design director for Microsoft’s operating system group. As they watched Theodore Twombley talk to his computer for the first time, and his screen vloom to life with a spinning circle, they were shocked.

“Our goal was to make Cortana hyper-personalized by having her start with simple chit-chat, then grow with you over time,” Holmes said. “Seeing a similar idea in a movie was potentially really cool, or really, really bad.”

The daughter of an Irish artist-psychologist mother and a Chinese engineer-karate instructor father growing up in Oakland, California, Holmes would often bridge left- and right-brain activities. She describes herself as a nerd in three things: math, civics and painting. Although she settled on an engineering major in college, she never felt totally comfortable there.

“The challenge I found with engineering is it was focused on how things worked, without giving room to study people or why these things mattered to them,” she said.

In her first job as an engineer, at Tektronix in Portland, Oregon, she often wandered over to the firm’s in-house design studio. “I’d never met designers before. Their work was filled with questions about people and crazy hard challenges to solve,” Holmes said. “It felt like home.” She joined the design team several years later.

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