Designing enterprise products at Microsoft

At Microsoft, we design products that people love. That holds true for both our consumer products like Xbox 360, Zune, Windows Live Messenger, etc and even more so for our enterprise products like Exchange, Office, Windows Server 2008, etc.. Contrary to the popular opinion, there is no secret sauce in designing products that dramatically increase productivity of millions of people. The highest order bit in designing products that people love is the notion of informed design, entails simply asking people what they love and then fanatically aspire to exceed their expectations.

From my experience on designing enterprise products at Microsoft, successful design is driven by three tenets. 1) People-focused design 2) Iterative feedback ecosystem 3) Platform mindset.

1. People-focused design: 

Designing enterprise products can get tricky because within an enterprise, people who make the purchase decision are often different from the people who manage and administer the product who are again different from the end users of the product. It is not uncommon for purchase decision makers, administrators and end users to have conflicting requirements .The key is to identify all stakeholder personas and incorporate them in the design process. Throughout the design phase, we work relentlessly to develop an empathy for each of the personas for  a particular product. The process begins with defining the personas themselves. It is an iterative process that includes but is not limited to talking with existing and potential customers, shadowing users, conducting focus groups, conducting qualitative and quantitative surveys and studying the personas for the other similar products.  To define the personas, we paint a mental picture of all aspects of that user’s professional life and familiarize ourselves with the main aspirations, motivations, experiences, daily tasks, pain points and expectations. For any given product, we define a set of personas primarily distinguished by their unique roles and tasks .  Once a persona is defined, we incorporate in all aspects of product design and marketing by including it in functional specifications, design discussions, feature prioritization and marketing. Having a clear understanding of the desires of our customers ensures that there are no contradictions in our value system when we make design tradeoffs. Typical personas for an enterprise server product may include administrator, business decision maker, end user,  database engineer, network specialist, etc. The key to designing highly successful enterprise products  is to identify and respect the interdependence of  engineering, IT, and business disciplines in an enterprise.

2. Iterative feedback ecosystem:

One of the biggest advantages of designing enterprise products at Microsoft is our unparalleled access to customers. We leverage this unique privilege to gather clear requirements from actual customers and iterate over them until we come up with a validated design that would exceed a customer’s expectations. Customers are not the only source of requirements. Several innovations are driven by identifying trends in the industry, predicting the desires of a customer 3-5 years in advance,  identify the gaps between today’s offering and future needs and then designing the product to fill those gaps. But, customers play a vital role in helping validate our assumptions, hunt down any missing information, prioritize the requirements relative to each other and eliminate ambiguity in design trade-offs. Besides the direct access with strategic customers, Microsoft has a very sophisticated feedback infrastructure to proactively seek feedback from customers through online forums, product support group, early adopter programs like Technical Adoption Program (TAP) and Rapid Deployment Program (RDP) as well as through our esteemed MVPs (Most valuable professional).

3. Platform mindset:

Completeness, customizability and comprehensiveness are three critical components of a  successful design. Given the broad scope of scenarios enabled by enterprise products, it is less likely for a single product to address all needs of the long tail of customer segments. We develop most products with an assumption and desire for it to become a platform, that can be extended by independent software vendors (ISV partners) or development teams within the enterprises to enable scenarios that are critical for a particular customer segment. The platform mindset gives us the liberty to prioritize  and focus on the core functionality. We rest assured that almost all scenarios across various industries are potentially addressable by the platform. Designing an effective platform is not easy, but having a mindset is the beginning and can radically influence key design decisions.

I believe firmly that design is going to be the primary domain of differentiation amongst enterprise products A people-focused approach to design with an effective feedback ecosystem will lead to creation of "wow" experiences and will positively impact millions of customers.

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