When UX designers mix it up with developers: Microsoft's experience

Microsoft's goal: embed the same Fluent Design principles seen across its product lines into its internal systems.

IT professionals need to become more intimately engaged with user experience (UX) designers -- the end result is software that is much more appealing, more conducive to productivity, and less likely to become shelfware. Corporate end-users would like to see the easy-to-navigate, click-and-done interfaces they see as consumers at work as well. But workplace solutions are often clunky, frustrating, and difficult to navigate. 

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

While bringing development and UX design groups together is easier pontificated than done, such a meeting of the minds is taking place at one of the world's largest tech providers. In a recent post, Tricia Fejfar, director of user experience with Microsoft's Core Services Engineering and Operations (internal IT) unit, describes how it was done. 

Fejfar, formerly a design manager for Microsoft Office, accomplished this by forming a UX Studio at scale inside Microsoft's IT department. The tech giant obviously knew a thing or two about UX design for its products, and it was time to apply those same principles to its own internal users. The initiative received plenty of support from the top -- Microsoft's internal IT unit was reorganizing, and recognized that corporate end-users needed the same positive experiences with software that customer end-users would expect. Microsoft employees were "using tools that weren't always seamless or accessible to our diverse teams around the world," Fejfar explains. "Our evolving workforce deserved better than what they were getting."

Enter UX design thinking. The challenge for Microsoft, as it is for most organizations, is while IT as a Service has been the emphasis in recent years, "UX professionals aren't usually an integral part of IT departments," says Fejfar. "One or two UXers might work throughout the various groups, but you don't typically find a cohesive team of design experts involved in IT experiences from beginning to end."

Fejfar provides some practical advice on how to meld development and design teams:

Start with empathy: "Be obsessed with keeping your user' needs at the center of the work, and shape priorities around them," Fejfar advises. "It's essential to apply human-centered design thinking to internal experiences just like you would with external products or services. With qualitative and quantitative methods from our UX research toolkit, such as ethnography, diary studies, heuristic evaluations, and surveys, we developed a deeper understanding of our employees' unarticulated needs and stated desires."

Hire a diverse team from both the development and design worlds. The UX Studio sought a diverse team of professionals with backgrounds in UX research. The combined development and design team was tasked with employing the principles of the Microsoft Fluent Design System to internal IT requirements. The system emphasizes "a collective approach to creating simplicity and coherence through a shared, open design system across platforms."

Become laser-focused, don't spread yourselves too thin: "Be unwavering in the focus areas that you've created based on research and vision," Fejfar says. "When you build products, services, and infrastructure to run a company like Microsoft, it's easy to get pulled in many directions." While encountering some resistance from department heads, her team recognized they needed to "become ruthless" and target their efforts on top employee needs and organizational initiatives.

Promote collaborative decision-making: "Implementing great ideas that your team can get behind and own will eventually yield a reward for everyone," she says. Within the Microsoft UX Studio's work, a "quad model" of decision-making was employed, consisting of "a researcher, designer, product manager, and engineer all working together and sharing ownership."

UX design is a must when delivering software to customers. Increasingly, enterprises are recognizing that UX design principles are just as important for their internal customers -- employees and partners -- as well.