Microsoft Hosts Chat in New York About Making Design More Human

There is no question anymore; Microsoft wants to prove it can design technology for appeal and function alike.

Last night in New York, the company held a private gathering to let a few of its designers talk about their tradecraft. Microsoft admitted it has not been known as a design diva, but in recent years the company has put more emphasis on the look and performance of its software and hardware.

Albert Shum, partner director of user experience design for Microsoft, spoke briefly with me about making technology that everyone can use. Controlling a mouse can be a physical challenge for some folks, for example. Shum believes new types of input and form factors can make products more widely accessible.

“Just because you have different abilities, it shouldn’t limit you,” he said. “If you have vision problems, you can use voice. Or if you have a tough time using a keyboard, you can use gestures.”

Shum spoke as part of panel that comprised Sogol Malekzadeh, principle user experience designer and design lead, and Scott Evans, group program manager for Kinect. Microsoft’s Steve Clayton moderated.

Microsoft has held comparable events in New York to talk up the role design plays in its current strategy. Last September, the company unveiled a new look for the Bing search engine. At that event, fashion and décor designers came together with Microsoft staff to discuss meshing design with technology in a broad sense. Wednesday night’s gathering was more about design that makes it easier for people to use technology.

Evans spoke about making computer controls more contextual. The Xbox Kinect, for instance, can discern between different people speaking the same command and react appropriately—think of two people launching Skype to contact their respective mothers. “It knows who my mom is,” Evans said. “I don’t have to provide extra input.”

Making technology more personal, though, can seem a tad intrusive, which Clayton pointed out may raise privacy concerns. Evans said users have to feel they are in command of how the data is used. Kinect, for example, uses a person’s likeness to recognize who they are, yet there are controls on what gets done with it. “Those images never leave your Xbox,” he said.

Evans also spoke about how gathering of information through sensors in Kinect can be used towards “human technology” as well as the Internet of Things. “Kinect is about bringing eyes and ears to technology,” he said. “It’s raw sensory input.”

That information can be used to gain a contextual understanding, Evans said, of what people are doing in their surroundings. “That’s based on machine learning,” he said. Teaching the technology, for example, meant recording people speaking different dialects to create data to train the system.

Malekzadeh talked about humanizing technology and designing things that fit into daily life. That includes Microsoft’s digital personal assistant Cortana for Windows smartphones, she said. Cortana is something of a challenger to the Apple iPhone’s Siri, answering questions and offering suggestions to users as they go about their days. Making Windows phones more personal through Cortana seems to be a priority for the company to help it better compete in the mobile space, where iPhone and Android have dominated.

To design Cortana, Microsoft spoke to real world personal assistants to tailor the software to learn and better understand the user, Malekzadeh said. However, there is a challenge, she said, in getting more people to embrace technology that knows personal details of their lives. “How do you get the average person to be comfortable with it?” she asked.

As people use Cortana, she said, they should begin to see its benefits as this digital relationship builds. “Collecting that information will start making sense,” Malekzadeh said.

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