Windows Phone Designer Seeks the Right Balance

REDMOND, Wash. — Feb. 16, 2010 — Albert Shum, one of the key thinkers behind the new Windows Phone 7 Series design, admits that 12 years at Nike doesn’t sound like an obvious springboard to becoming director of Microsoft’s Mobile Experience Design team.

Albert Shum got into design as a way to bridge the divide between the art of architecture and the science of engineering and find what he calls “right brain/left brain balance.”

“I have this picture of ‘Get Smart’ in my head,” he quips, referring to the TV show about the spy with the shoe phone. “It’s a bit like, ‘Wow, how do you go from making sneakers to making phones?’”

Shum’s background, though, fit right in on the team behind the design unveiled Monday at Mobile World Congress 2010. Before joining Microsoft two and half years ago, Shum met with J Allard, chief experience officer in the company’s Entertainment & Devices division, and Don Coyner, general manager of Microsoft’s Entertainment Experience Group. They talked about using design as a way to not just create new mobile experiences, but also to help shift the culture at Microsoft.

“The tone was, ‘Let’s mix some folks from Nike, from the entertainment world, and from the technology world and start thinking differently about how we design, build and launch products,’” Shum says.

The first result of that new approach is Windows Phone 7 Series, a new mobile experience that’s designed for a life in motion, Shum says. The new user interface aims to connect content from the Web, applications, and services into one simple experience. “It presents a way to navigate and interact with the things you care about. That’s really the new fresh start we’re bringing to Windows phone.”

According to Shum it took an open, diverse team to look out across Microsoft’s various entertainment offerings and bring them all together into the new mobile experience. The key to connecting the dots was to stay focused on the consumer.

“You know, everybody says simple is the new awesome,” Shum says. “OK, make it simple. But also make it emotional and relevant for the consumer.”

That’s what the design, engineering and business teams set out to do with Windows Phone 7 Series, he says. Shum hopes consumers see that personal connection right from the revamped Start page. Dynamic icons called “live tiles” display real-time content from users’ contacts and applications. The tiles are gateways to “hubs” of the content consumers care most about: people and social networking, pictures, games, music and videos, their workplace, and an application marketplace.

“We took the idea of making it personal so when you look at it with the Start experience, it’s all your content, it’s all your people, it’s all your pictures, it’s all your music,” Shum says. “I think that’s really a key part – that personalized way of navigating the things that you care about, the things that you want to share, the things you want to listen to.”

Shum has been creating new consumer experiences throughout his career. His interest in design stretches back to his days at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. At the time he was studying engineering and architecture, and wanted to practice both. He was searching for what he calls “right brain/left brain balance,” and he thought product design might be the answer.

On a whim, Shum and a friend entered the 1990 Sony Design Vision contest, which challenged college students to design futuristic but theoretically possible phones. The two started brainstorming. How could you literally reach out and touch someone, they wondered. They wound up submitting a concept they called a TAK-tile Communicator, which could send a vibration to the phone on the other end.

To their surprise, they took second place and won a trip to Japan.

Shum hopes consumers see the personal touch right from the revamped Start page, which can be customized with “live tiles” that show updates from the Web.

The experience opened Shum’s eyes to how product design could not only bridge the gap between the art of architecture and the science of engineering, but also have a meaningful impact. “Our idea was all about making a deeper connection,” Shum says. “Those kinds of ideas always excited me, and I think that’s what led me to a career in design.”

Shum went on to earn his master’s degree from the Stanford Design Program, where he further learned to balance the left and right brain. After graduating, Shum took the job with Nike. One reason was his love of sports. “If you’re a sports geek, it’s the best place in the world,” says Shum, an avid cyclist and runner. As a Nike employee he attended several Olympics and a few World Cups.

He loved the work, too. Shum started a group called the Tech Lab, which explored the convergence between sports and technology. The group was interested in sports monitoring, a way to measure and motivate people to exercise. Projects ranged from heart rate monitors to work with mp3 players. The team also drove what Shum called the “ultimate convergence” of sports, technology and music, the Nike + iPod collaboration with Apple.

“That led me to this realization that there’s so much you can do when you combine what I call consumer insights and build experiences around them. You don’t just enhance the experience, but make a deeper emotional connection with products.”

Shum’s career arc of combining lifestyle with technology made the move to Microsoft a natural one. He says he likes how Microsoft has embraced new ideas and new ways of working. His design team works out of the Pioneer Studios offices in Downtown Seattle, where the open office environment has helped fuel new approaches.

“It wasn’t just let’s throw all these designers together in this new space,” he says. “It was really about making sure there was enough business thinking there and technical validation to make sure the ideas worked.” The design team used the new office, and the new framework, to make sure it was getting the right ideas off the ground.

Monday’s unveiling of Windows Phone 7 Series is just the start of a wave of new experiences that will be coming from his team, Shum says, further benefiting people’s lives through design.

“That’s the best part of being at Microsoft. I get up every morning saying, ‘Wow, we’re actually being part of this, we’re creating the future.’ It’s like writing a sci-fi novel because we are literally taking fiction and making it reality. There couldn’t be any better job than that.”

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