Language. It has the power to connect us. Yet, this very same power can serve as an even bigger disconnect. Imagine considering a purchase. You have questions, yet no one in the room speaks your language. What if you long to answer those questions, but you’re powerless due to an inability to speak their language?

“For our stores, in-store customer experience is very important to us. In fact, our HR team does a great job of employing team members who are representative of the population surrounding the store,” said Kristin Rieber, former Demo Team leader for Microsoft Stores. She explained that while best efforts are made to accommodate all customers, there are occasions in which store advisors don’t speak the language of store visitors.

The Answer?

In comes Microsoft Translator, a product that allows two or more people to have a translated conversation on their phones in real time. Microsoft Translator is part of Microsoft Cognitive Services.

Tanvi Surti (Left) and Kristin Rieber (Right) on the Microsoft Redmond campus

A chance encounter between Kristin and Tanvi Surti (Senior Program Manager on the Microsoft Translator Team) at a 2015 internal company event led to potential cross-team collaboration. The two women exchanged business cards to connect. Tanvi reached out to Kristin to chat about the possibility of showcasing the tool through existing programs. Kristin, who sought relevant, customer-experience demos for Microsoft Stores, was eager to find various solutions that made visitors feel at home and enjoy their visits.

“The idea was to use the tool to speak with non-English speaking customers,” said Tanvi, explaining that the initial in-store demo required two devices and extra peripherals such as headsets. Due to the overhead resources of setup and additional required hardware, the original demo did not work as seamlessly as planned. However, the first attempt helped identify a potential gap in features

Tanvi Surti and Kristin Rieber use Microsoft Translator Live

While the first solution didn’t pan out, cross-team collaboration didn’t end here. Tanvi and her team – which falls under the Microsoft AI and Research umbrella – continued to evolve the app to strengthen its usability and widen the communication net.

“We knew our competitors weren’t able to find a solution for the multi-person translation scenario. The individual components were present, but no one connected the dots,” Tanvi added, who sought to also scale the feature up to support more than just two people and two languages. She mentioned that the widespread usage of Internet-connected smartphones allows users to take advantage of their existing devices and have fruitful, cross-language conversations without adding devices or tools.

Determination and Collaboration Wins the Race

This led to the conception of Microsoft Translator live, a feature that converts your personal device into a universal translator. Currently, the app can be downloaded on to Windows 10 PCs and phones, Android devices, Apple devices (i.e., phones and tablets) and Amazon Fire tablets. There is also browser access at http://translate.it.

Tanvi Surti on the Microsoft Redmond campus

Tanvi and Kristin spoke again about the possibility of deploying the app on displayed devices once the new feature rolled out. “It was a better fit for the experience in physical stores,” Tanvi said. “Microsoft Translator is a smartphone application, which means it doesn’t involve an additional headset. It’s also cross platform, so you can show how well it works on Android and iOS.”

Ultimately, the tool was ready for “prime time” simply because it was meant for in-person conversations which bodes well for an in-store scenario. The app supports ten languages in speech and 60 languages in text, while accommodating up to 100 people in one conversation.

In fact, during a two-week pilot for New York City residents, the tool was used to help facilitate the IDNYC program. IDNYC, a government-issued identification card (regardless of immigration status), provides “access to city services, including…undocumented immigrants…who may have difficulty obtaining other government-issued ID.” Deemed a success, the overarching goal of the pilot was to assist communication with non-English speakers by eliminating the language barrier.

Ready for Microsoft Stores Rollout

“My team strove to have the most authentic customer experience,” said Kristin, who oversaw the demo rollouts across all stores in the United States, Canada and Australia. “We looked from the consumer’s point of view.”

Kristin Rieber on the Microsoft Redmond campus

Keeping the app’s capabilities and successful IDNYC trial run in mind, the Microsoft Stores team collaborated with the Translator live team once again to deploy across featured devices and train in-store team members. Microsoft Store associates were excited about the opportunity to use the app in real-time.

After the app’s training, Jesse Cebreros – a Microsoft Store Advisor – tested the waters with a potential customer. “I immediately noticed that there was a language barrier. I felt this was the perfect time to wow my new customer with a demo, showcasing the power of our translator app,” said Jesse, adding that the customer spoke Mandarin. “After a few sentences [he] was incredibly excited to be able to fully communicate with me.”

Jesse now feels empowered to connect with all store visitors. As for the customer, he was excited to purchase a Surface Book. “He mentioned that I was the first American he [had] spoken to in over a year because other people wouldn’t have the patience to try and understand him.”

Deemed a success on all accounts, the launch of the Microsoft Translator live feature on displayed devices has allowed customers and in-store representatives to have productive conversations. Per Kristin, having such a unique feature set shows “how Microsoft strives to make people’s lives better.”

“So far, it has been going well and we’ve received positive feedback, but we have a long way to go,” added Tanvi, who feels the app’s capabilities extend to a myriad of scenarios, including classrooms, meetings, conferences and healthcare.

Of course, the “slam dunk” can be attributed to the dedicated work of multiple teams and their commitment to serving the consumer and willingness to collaborate. “It takes a receptive team,” said Tanvi.

Translator’s rollout in Microsoft Stores is just another example of how one, well-thought out feature and the desire to evolve a tool to greater lengths can help connect people who often feel worlds apart.