Microsoft has been a leader in developing new vehicles for storytelling for over two decades now. I had the chance to visit their headquarters in Washington and learn a bit about how they continue to be on the forefront of telling new stories.
Here are five ways that Microsoft tells new stories:
1. Empowering employees to take ownership of their ideas.
Every tech company claims to value innovation, but Microsoft takes it to the next level. Their headquarters is equipped with dozens of rooms designed to give employees with the next big idea the time, space, and tools necessary to innovate 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.
Microsoft’s “The Garage” was developed as a way to replace company-wide meetings with a way for employees to “make something, have their own idea, and do something with it,” according to Susie Kandzor, Director of Hacking. Microsoft believes giving employees the physical space and technological resources to experiment with their own ideas whenever inspiration strikes. Mike Pell, design lead, says of The Garage, “Employees have great ideas all the time and they want to work on them, and they had no place to go, so we started to open up physical locations where they can go and tinker and hack and get together with the community.”
Rooms in The Garage are as diverse and designed to service various need. One room dubbed The Reality Room allows any employee to step in and learn about AR, VR, and Mixed Reality, and not just about current Microsoft products. The Video Room helps employees pitch projects to move them forward. Rolly Seth, garage program manager, says, “People have a need, and they want to take that need forward. Any employee can come here and swipe their badge. Press this red button, start recording, within 30 seconds you get an edited copy of your video.” There is a Maker Space with a workbench of tools and 3D printing capabilities that has been nicknamed The Pinterest in Action Room because it allows employees to recreate online tutorials.
It is not just about developing new products—Microsoft’s culture encourages employees to think beyond the product and develop new systems and processes that help empower people globally.
Ultimately, every space is designed to empower employees with innovative new ideas to be able to design, test and promote them.
2. Designing with new customers in mind.
Microsoft is leading development of new AI technology, but they’re doing so through the lens of inclusiveness. Their AI for Good grant program “supports efforts across sustainability, accessibility, humanitarian action and cultural heritage,” and includes their fascinating AI for Accessibility initiative. I had the chance to test out their gaming controller, which allows users to completely customize every single button according to their accessibility needs.
Jeff Rubenstein, Xbox senior communication manager, says, “So I’ve seen creators who have trouble reaching the shoulder buttons just because of their mobility, and they’re actually able to tap this button or that button because they were able to re-map everything. This is really a platform for people to customize their controls for whatever works for them.” Expanding accessibility to technology expands who can be involved in storytelling if everyone can access a control the same way someone who is fully mobile can.
3. Designing technology to work like humans instead of the other way around.
One of the most difficult aspects of designing new tech is figuring out how to integrate it into our lives. Microsoft believes that the best way to do that is to make technology function like humans, instead of forcing humans to adapt their behavior to technological advances. Chaitanya Sareen, principal group PM at HoloLens and Mixed Reality, says of Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 Mixed Reality technology, “How do we make an operating system that works like we do? As opposed to how we have to adapt ourselves to technology.”
Microsoft is excited to see what new technology can be designed when starting from that framework. “We make the device, we made a platform. The real magic’s going to be in what people do with it. Those developers, those companies that are taking this device, and we’re super excited to see what they invent with HoloLens 2.”
4. Sharing experiments with the world.
Microsoft’s The Garage has a “Wall of Fame” for those whose experimental designs have been incorporated into their flagship products and services. There’s only one way to test new designs, and that is to share them with the world, learn from them, and iterate. The Garage has a process for doing just that.
Pell states, “We have a program called Hackathon, where we take projects from all over the world, where people want to get them out as experiments. So the Garage team helps them to get their experiments out into customers’ hands so we can see is this a good idea to take forward or not. We’ve had over 100 projects in the last four years ship out as experiments, and they cover every different [area]…people can download for free and just try out. And some of these actually make their way into our flagship products and services.”
5. Taking advantage of their unique surroundings.
Every brand has a story that makes them unique, and part of Microsoft’s comes from its headquarters located in Redmond, Washington. The campus is surrounded by gorgeous forest views, but instead of simply admiring it from the windows, Microsoft created spaces for employees to get immersed in it. The famous Treehouses are literal tree houses with conference rooms, meeting places, and wifi that are a peaceful, relaxing, and quiet place to get work done surrounded by nature.
They feature diffuse ring lighting, comfortable leather chairs, and lots of balconies that are a great place to get a breather from the busy work day or take a Surface Go for a meeting on the go. Microsoft wisely brought in an element of what their region is best known for into their day-to-day work.
Microsoft is leading the way in storytelling and innovation by empowering employees, creating technology with human use in mind first, and sharing experiments with the world.