REDMOND, Wash. — April 12, 2010 — For Pioneer Studios creative director Jon Friedman, it’s not symphonies or sunsets that inspire great design. It’s the little things we work with every day.
“It’s the way we use garbage cans or soap dispensers,” says Friedman, who works in the Microsoft group named for Seattle’s Pioneer Square. “In every little problem there’s an opportunity for a better design, and a better experience.”
KIN TWO, left, features a high-resolution camera and enables users to shoot HD video; the compact KIN ONE, right, is small enough to easily fit into a pocket.
Friedman says that approach played a big role in Microsoft’s next generation of social phones, called KIN, which the company launched today. The new touch-screen phones combine a sleek, compact form factor with software that helps users discover, share and interact with friends and family online. The phones, available this spring through Verizon Wireless in the U.S. and later this year through Vodafone in Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K., let users organize and experience their social media feeds, video, messages and more, and share them with others as they choose.
KIN began, he says, with a lot of research to help understand today’s younger generation, which has grown up with social media embedded into the fabric of their lives. The research involved everything from usage statistics, to target-customer profiles, to a Web-based “consumer collaboration” group called project muse that involved some 2,000 volunteers.
As it progressed, the picture became clearer and clearer of what this socially connected generation really wants in a phone, and what they haven’t been getting from devices on the market to date. Friedman says what really stood out is how emotionally connected young people are to their phones. He says one person described leaving her phone at home as like losing an arm. Others said they have slept with their phones under the pillow. For Friedman and his team, that deep connection became a cornerstone for the design of KIN.
“It was amazing to realize the emotional response people have to this product space,” he says. “For us it really elevated the emotional moments of design over features and functions alone.”
It’s About the Content
When designers talk about personalization, they usually focus on colors and button styles. Letting users choose how certain things look and work is often as deep as it gets. But Friedman says the team took a different approach for KIN phones based on what they saw with social consumers: Their connection wasn’t about the phone itself as much as it was about people, and the experiences they create and share every day.
“We wanted to let their content be the thing that’s beautiful,” he says. “Our biggest challenge was getting out of the way, to let that content live and breathe inside our software. How could this device enable a group of people to share the story of their lives over time?”
That question became the essential design challenge, and eventual breakthrough, for the experience of KIN phones. Interestingly, the source of the inspiration came from more traditional media: After hitting a brick wall during a brainstorm session, the team headed out to a local bookstore for some inspiration. They ended up buying a few dozen magazines and bringing them back to Pioneer Studios, hoping the images inside would spark an epiphany.
“We started cutting them up and throwing them on the wall,” Friedman says. “But as we looked at that stuff, it wasn’t the content on the wall that spoke to us — it was the medium of the magazine, which is really rich and powerful.”
At that moment, he says, the magazine became the metaphor for KIN phones. It was a theme that would guide them the rest of the way. The team was struck by the ability of magazines to transcend all different types of content, yet discuss and elevate individual stories, represented by pictures, articles and layout.
“Some metaphors feel like they’re really powerful, but they don’t extend,” he says. “The magazine metaphor extended. We had to start thinking more like we were writing an article and less like we were designing a phone.”
Like a magazine, KIN phones are designed around publishing stories — in this case, the ones created by friends and family in status updates, text messages, group photos and everything else people share every day.
“We saw an opportunity to treat your friends as contributors and editors of your storyline, and make you an editor and a contributor to your friends’ storylines,” Friedman says. “Only instead of being published month to month, your story is published from moment to moment.”
Full Bleed, No Chrome
While the magazine concept was a great compass for the design team, Friedman says it was really just the beginning. They quickly progressed to determining what kind of magazine KIN would be.
“We tried many different things, and plastered the walls with many, many different designs,” he says. “The one that really spoke to us the most we named full bleed.”
Full bleed is a print-publication term meaning that a page has no empty margins. The print, pictures and design go all the way to the edges and potentially beyond. The full bleed concept, Friedman says, lends itself to photos and other visuals. It puts a premium on the content itself, rather than the layout, and also lends itself to just about any size screen.
“Software creates the ability to bring content to life, in motion, as you move through the space,” he says. “What goes off the edges is actually more content that you can pan to and scroll through.”
The team’s commitment to full bleed also led to another mini-revolution in phone software — a departure from menus, scrollbars and other tags that traditionally clutter screen real estate, which the team refers to as “chrome.”
“Historically in software we’ve put a lot of chrome on things,” Friedman says. “All that space gets taken by stuff that’s not the content you’re working on. We wanted to get that out of the way.”
The magazine metaphor also influenced the way content is structured and accessed. The front page, or cover — called the “Loop” — offers a taste of what’s inside. More information is available just below the surface, and still more within the actual item.
“We started to think about what magazines do really well,” Friedman says. “They help you prioritize what to read first. There’s a teaser on the cover, and then there’s a headline, and then there’s the article itself. So there’s really a first read, second read, and third read to that kind of content, and that’s how the structure lives in KIN.”
Tools to Connect and Create
With each user’s personal content taking center stage, Friedman and his team began to envision how the device would look and feel.
“There are sort of two sides to one of these phones,” Friedman says. “The bottom side is compact, discreet — personal. The top is more like the eyeball. It’s the window into the soul of the experience and how you connect to people.”
When it came time to fine-tune the hardware, the development team also tapped into a new resource, a consumer collaboration effort called project muse. Microsoft’s Stephanie Camp, who headed project muse, says the program drew inspiration from other models on the Web.
“Consumer collaboration is a way for companies to get feedback and ideas from the market itself,” Camp says. “There’s an apparel site, for example, that knows there will be demand for a certain design because people actually voted to make it happen. It’s a smart way of tapping into consumers for ideas and creativity, and also to promote your product.”
Camp says the team faced some interesting challenges with KIN. Microsoft remained completely anonymous during the process, for example, so volunteers had no idea who was building the new phone or why.
Despite the quirks, project muse wound up with more than 2,000 members, some of whom contributed to the effort on a daily basis. Some were given Flip cameras and asked to record segments of their daily lives. Others contributed suggestions that were passed on to the engineers and designers creating the new phone. Feedback from the community affected the ultimate outcome of important elements such as the qwerty keyboard, camera and flash.
“The muse members really helped us make those fine-tuning decisions,” Camp says. “The keyboard was a big one. We asked what keyboards they were using, what they love and hate about it, what the ideal keyboard would look like.”
According to Friedman, the most difficult decisions in designing a product often involve multiple options, such as which keyboard to use. When it comes to these issues, designers and engineers need all the help they can get. “Keyboards are really hard,” he says. “We went through hundreds if not thousands of iterations to get to the one we landed on.”
Where direct feedback was used in some cases, in others the muse members themselves and their lifestyles were used for inspiration. Friedman points to battery life as one example: “If you’re on a road trip with friends and stay overnight somewhere, we didn’t want you to worry about whether you forgot your charger,” he says. “These phones should just work in the morning.”
Another feature that should appeal to KIN’s target customers is the fact that the phone is also a Zune player. Friedman says KIN phones have an advantage over traditional Zune devices in that they are connected all the time through the cellular network, making the entire Zune experience available anywhere.
“The Zune experience is one of the most soulful music experiences I’ve ever seen,” Friedman says. “It connects people to new music. It connects people to people. Having that in your pocket — without carrying an extra device — is incredible.”
Perhaps the signature feature of KIN phones, however, is the Studio — a Web service that automatically synchronizes messages, pictures and videos from KIN phones. And Friedman says this, too, was the direct result of addressing a market need, both identified in research and expressed by muse participants.
“They told us they had bags of old phones — literally — because content was trapped on them,” says Friedman. “They couldn’t get text messages and photos off of these old phones, and they never wanted to lose that content. And that became the inspiration for the Studio.”
Friedman says with Studio, the physical phone no longer keeps all the content. With KIN phones, every photo is automatically synced to the Web and can be accessed from anywhere.
“We wanted to take the best of the phone experience and bring it to a Web browser,” he says. “It’s a really elegant Web service for phones, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more services like Studio in the future. It’s a simple idea that solves a small problem and creates a better experience.”
In other words, according to Friedman, the essence of good design.