Holmes | Sterling | Yoo | Groene

A Gang of Four

Emily Alhadeffwritten by

Emily Alhadeff

Meet four people helping to design the future of Microsoft

Behind the idea for any new piece of technology is a question: How do designers at the front end translate hunks of metal, plastic, wires, pixels and bits into a new human experience?

Microsoft’s designers approach their products from their own unique angles: Kat Holmes takes her fascination with messy, complicated love stories to Microsoft’s Cortana personal assistant and ends up hitting the streets to create a documentary about relationships, while Jonah Sterling designed the Microsoft Azure cloud computing experience and also acts as a curator of his team's workspace and daily culture. Yeongkyu Yoo brings an Asian design philosophy of simplicity and emptiness to the Microsoft Devices team, while Surface’s Ralf Groene measures the weight of every decision in emotional units. Together, they’re revolutionizing every aspect of the user experience.

Kat Holmes portrait

KAT HOLMES

DESIGN DIRECTOR, OPERATING SYSTEMS

Kat Holmes was working on the design of Microsoft’s personal assistant, Cortana, when the trailer for “Her” — Spike Jonze’s film about a lonely writer and his emotional relationship with a computer operating system — was released.

“There were some uncanny similarities to Cortana,” said Holmes, a principal design director for Microsoft’s operating system group. As they watched Theodore Twombley talk to his computer for the first time, and his screen vloom to life with a spinning circle, they were shocked.

“Our goal was to make Cortana hyper-personalized by having her start with simple chit-chat, then grow with you over time,” Holmes said. “Seeing a similar idea in a movie was potentially really cool, or really, really bad.”

The daughter of an Irish artist-psychologist mother and a Chinese engineer-karate instructor father growing up in Oakland, California, Holmes would often bridge left- and right-brain activities. She describes herself as a nerd in three things: math, civics and painting. Although she settled on an engineering major in college, she never felt totally comfortable there.

“The challenge I found with engineering is it was focused on how things worked, without giving room to study people or why these things mattered to them,” she said.

In her first job as an engineer, at Tektronix in Portland, Oregon, she often wandered over to the firm’s in-house design studio. “I’d never met designers before. Their work was filled with questions about people and crazy hard challenges to solve,” Holmes said. “It felt like home.” She joined the design team several years later.

“As a kid, I adored ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and straying from the path,” said Holmes, 37. “Curiosity and play are central to design.”

Curiosity and play are central to design.

So when it came to Cortana, the pressing question was not just “How should it work?” but also, “What’s the purpose?” Holmes sees herself as not just designing products but, more importantly, designing relationships.p

“Why does Microsoft make technology?” Holmes asked. “If we have a clear answer for why our work matters to customers, it helps us understand what to make. My job is to connect the dots between why and what.”

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CAPTIVATED BY HER

After seeing the trailer for “Her,” Holmes got on the phone with Warner Bros., and a partnership was born. At two design workshops in Los Angeles and New York, Holmes and her team spent several days with participants, exploring the ways human emotions can inspire new interactions with technology, resulting in two short documentary films.

“We learned so much from the project. Interactions with your technology are no longer just about the functional information exchange,” she said. “It also becomes an emotional exchange.”

For Holmes, this means helping teams connect with customers and apply their insights to future products. “As we design intelligent technology, it’s critical that we raise its emotional intelligence too,” she said. “When it comes to things like respect, trust and love, technology – and the people who make it – have a lot to learn from human beings.”

Jonah Sterling portrait

JONAH STERLING

CREATIVE DIRECTOR, AZURE

“Every user experience is a story that is unfolding,” said Jonah Sterling, principal UX manager. “Everybody that works on a product is part of its user experience.”

Sterling is not only the creative director behind Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, but he also played a key role in designing his building on Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, campus.

The disarmingly named Building 44 is decorated with red leather couches, faux antlers and walls plastered with provocative magazine pages, like the interior design love child of Urban Outfitters and a 1960s lounge.

Every user experience is a story that is unfolding.

Sterling used design principles to help achieve the eclectic outcome — from the enormous, pineapple-growing living wall of plants in the foyer, to the electric blue spiral staircase, to the commissioned murals, right down to the so-tacky-it’s-cool wood laminate Elvis Presley wall hanging above his desk.

“My mom got it at a garage sale,” he explained.

A portrait of Jonah Sterling

Much of the paraphernalia, in fact, came from Sterling’s own house. Which might lead you to wonder how many ceramic skull vases a man can own.

“Growing up all I wanted to do was draw,” he said.

“One of my earliest memories was getting caught drawing on the inside of a cardboard box I was sitting in, trying desperately to capture the essence of Marvin the Martian. Drawing eventually took the form of telling stories.”

Originally aspiring to a cartooning career while in high school at the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences, Sterling later turned toward conceptual illustration at the California College of the Arts.

After completing school, through a strange turn of events, he found himself designing kids’ toys and games — the kind of stuff that comes with fast food to give parents five minutes of peace, he explained. Sterling was surprised to find the design challenges were the same.

During that time, he was also learning about how to interact with the people behind the products. That led him to creative director positions for Razorfish, Ramp Group and IdentityMine before he landed his current gig at Microsoft in 2010.

Now in charge of a team of more than 30 visual designers, videographers, copywriters and more, Sterling’s job is to design the best possible user experience in Azure.

“Our goal is to make it simple for businesses of any size to build, scale and monetize their products at startup speed,” Sterling said. That entails tapping into users’ emotional states — “What they were doing, why they were doing it, how they were doing it, how someone feels at the end of it.” Sterling injects playful elements into his designs – from iconography to the experience itself – to create emotional triggers that achieve that goal.

Sterling’s role in designing the Azure user experience mirrors his role in designing the building and the corporate culture within.

“I push really hard in terms of balancing funk and functional,” he said. Hoping to achieve an open concept workspace that facilitates collaboration and camaraderie, Sterling took inspiration from the best restaurants in Seattle and Portland. Ambient music filters in, and team members are encouraged to design their spaces with their own flair. Vintage leather couches and Ping-Pong tables occupy edges of the building known as “beaches” to inspire an atmosphere of fun.

“No matter what the design challenge, friends work better together,” Sterling said. “We get more done together, faster.”

YeongKyu Yoo portrait

YEONGKYU YOO

CREATIVE DIRECTOR, DEVICES

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Sterling’s perky, extroverted designs is YeongKyu Yoo, creative director for the Microsoft Devices team and one of the designers behind HoloLens, Microsoft’s new holographic computing device.

“My design philosophy is pure, meaningful and functional,” Yoo says. His past creations — a floating glass lamp, a white bottle-shaped humidifier, USB flash drives that look like earth tone Chiclets — shun decoration or superfluity. Yoo’s Asian background heavily influences his products: In stillness and emptiness, he finds beauty.

Originally from the idyllic island of Jeju, off the coast of South Korea, Yoo is modest about his journey from college to Samsung, Motorola and Nike — where he helped develop a technology patent that was applied to the FuelBand — and then to LG, iRiver and director of his own company, cloudandco, before coming to Microsoft. Only when he delves into his design approach does he begin to sound like a Zen master.

“Simplicity can be understood as minimalism in the Asian culture,” Yoo said. The concept of emptiness invites viewers to bring their own interpretations to the experience, he explained, attributing this idea to Muji Art Director Kenya Hara, one of his chief influences.

“Less Than Nothing,” a 2006 exhibition in New York of prototypes Yoo built combining traditional bone china and LED displays, epitomized the philosophy of simplicity as beauty. Inspired by the translucency of the bone china material, he built an inconspicuous table that doubled as a speaker, responding to FM and Bluetooth technology and lighting up with muted bursts of color. In another prototype, Yoo built a cappuccino cup whose LED sensor could read the temperature of the liquid inside, and even let you know if it was optimal for the taste of your specific beverage.

While working on HoloLens, Yoo looked to invoke the same approach to the design, creating a simple, elegant experience that belies the complex technology under the hood.

The humidifier designed by YooYeongKyu Yoo designed this minimalistic bottle humidifier.

“People often consider designing as just creating something new and unique,” he said. “But for me, it’s important to adapt to the environment while creating something beautiful and solving real problems.”

“While I was looking for a simple-looking humidifier that would go with my space, I couldn’t find the clean modern design I wanted,” says Yoo. “This then gave me the idea to design one myself instead.”

Humidifiers tend to look like appliances, which is what they are. But who said appliances can’t be beautiful objects that blend with our styles and surroundings?

“I was surprised by how many people were looking for the same thing,” Yoo says.

From designing a new humidifier to building his own dream home, if Yoo doesn’t find what he wants he goes out and creates it. In a world of obsolescence, gimmicks and gizmos, he wants eternity, inquiry, honesty.

“Simple design is timeless design,” says Yoo. “It’s more honest.”

Simple design is timeless design.
Ralf Groene portrait

RALF GROENE

CREATIVE DIRECTOR, SURFACE

Simple design doesn’t necessarily mean simple production. For Ralf Groene, senior creative director at Surface, every decision reflects the people who create and use a product, and there’s no way to simply analyze the emotional relationship at the heart of it.

“We try to find the balance between why you need something and why you want it,” said Groene. “We are always trying to simulate how someone would feel. Why did it make you feel that way? Is it the materials, the proportions, how you carry it around, how you charge it?”

Groene’s journey to becoming the lead designer for Surface started in a small town in Germany, where he was set up as an apprentice to a toolmaker for Volkswagen. He heard about industrial design from a coworker and was intrigued.

“I had no idea that design existed,” he said. “My parents were expecting me to do what my grandfather did. It was very disruptive when I got a different idea, and it took them quite a while to wrap their heads around it.”

A portrait of Ralf Groene

Groene was one of nine students accepted out of hundreds of applicants to his industrial design program. He worked throughout school to finance his living situation, and spent his savings on a fax machine.

“It looked extremely professional if you as a student had a fax machine,” he said with a laugh. “People would think you had contracts. It was full-on styling.”

Groene knew one other person with a fax machine, a friend working for a design firm in New York.

“So I faxed him a fax, ‘Hey Klaus, I have a fax machine.’ And he faxed back, ‘Hey, do you want to do an internship?’”

A few faxes later, Groene, who knew almost no English and had never been on an airplane, was on his way to New York for a seven-month internship. That touched off a string of lucky breaks working for some of the best designers in the world on quirky gigs, like coming up with a line of furniture and dental equipment with his idol, Frog Design founder Hartmut Esslinger, and designing consumer electronics at IDEO.

Like his prior jobs, Groene’s arrival at Microsoft in 2006 to design mice and keyboards was coincidental, he said. A walk through his workshop seems to bring him full-circle back to his origins working with metal and creating tools for an auto manufacturer.

“Yesterday I drove the forklift truck around,” he said with a touch of thrill in his voice.

As the lead designer for Surface, Groene acknowledges the weight of every design decision, and the responsibility of creating a product that will not just fill a need but serve an emotional purpose for the user — without increasing cost and without compromising on materials.

“Design is the intersection of content and expression,” he said. “It’s like the car: It gets me from A to B, but that’s not the whole story.”

Products are reflections of the people who make them.

Obstacles need to be removed, emotions need to be tapped into, and the product has to be physically well made.

“Design is like a dance,” Groene said. “When you buy a Surface, you get the result of the people who make it, and those are more than just designers. Products are reflections of the people who make them.”

All four designers stenciled on box lidsPhotos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft
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