In Focus: Dell Innovation Driven By Customers

Editor’s Note:
This article is part of the IN FOCUS series providing a look at hardware advancements across a wide range of Windows-based devices and form factors. The series highlights Microsoft partners creating personalized experiences with cutting-edge designs.

AUSTIN, Texas — May 25, 2011 — In a world where people increasingly depend on their phones, laptops and other connected devices, it’s only natural that they have their own opinions about what works and what doesn’t.

Fortunately for its customers, listening is an essential element for Dell. Putting that feedback into action is the next step, and it’s a formula that works.

Full of unique designs in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, Dell’s online catalog offers an interesting twist on the traditional spectrum of devices. According to Dell’s Michael Tatelman, vice president and general manager, Consumer Sales and Marketing, most of the creative inspiration comes directly from its customers.

“Behind the scenes, Dell’s marketing group is organized into customer segments that include prosumers, families with kids, professionals, gamers and the 18–35 age group we call Gen Y,” he says. “Our development teams are immersed in the needs of those segments. We talk with customers all the time. It allows us to focus on the things that users really want from their computers and devices.”

It’s an approach that can be seen across Dell’s product lineup. The recent category-busting Inspiron duo is a new type of “convertible” PC: part tablet and part laptop. Its design was inspired largely by students who may need the mobility of a tablet for taking notes, a laptop for writing papers, and multimedia capabilities to handle music and movies.

Examples are everywhere. Style-minded entertainment enthusiasts were the inspiration behind Dell’s Inspiron R laptop, which combines powerful features, such as Intel’s latest Core i-series processors, and contemporary designs, including the ability to switch lids in seconds.

Developed in alignment with real-world feedback from customers who need it all, the XPS laptop series is designed for performance, featuring powerful processors, high-definition (HD) screens and JBL speakers for an immersive and interactive multimedia experience. In fact, the just-released, power-rich XPS 15z laptop – which at a crazy thin .97 inches thick may well be the thinnest 15-inch PC on the market – was inspired largely by professionals and consumers looking for a coveted combination of mobility and power; a laptop that would span at-home and at-work needs without forcing compromise.

Dell’s Alienware laptops are designed specifically for the needs of hardcore gamers who said they need advanced graphics performance, wireless HD streaming and lifelike 3-D experiences. And the list goes on.

The Power of Listening

With such an emphasis on evolving its products in concert with customer needs, the company has developed several avenues in recent years to keep the dialogue going.

Last June, the company held its inaugural Customer Advisory Panel (CAP) Days event in Round Rock, Texas, inviting customers active in social media to work for two days side by side with company executives. Dell also recently launched a social media “command center,” where teams monitor and respond to conversations with people around the world. Several years ago, the company also introduced the IdeaStorm website, which asks customers to post ideas and provide feedback, which feeds right into Dell’s product development teams.

“We use all this information not just from a marketing perspective, but to measure the performance of products and people,” Tatelman says. “And it’s not just the ratings. We have people reading deep down into the posts and threads, looking for ways to improve our products and for new things we can do.”

Ratings and rankings are filtered by keyword and product, allowing engineers to translate the feedback and build the next generation of products.

“The beauty is that it’s syndicated across multiple channels, and that information is aggregated across multiple retailers and our direct channel as well,” Tatelman says. “The bigger the sample base, the more accurate it becomes.”

Performance Is the Bottom Line

No matter how cool the idea, Tatelman says, what really makes or breaks a product is how well it performs. To get the best performance out of cutting-edge concepts, Dell’s development organization is tightly integrated with Microsoft, ensuring that all the pieces fit together and operate at the highest level.

“Performance will always trump design, but with the XPS 15z, we captured both,” Tatelman says. “It’s critical, though, that we nail performance first, in terms of how the devices work with the software and the overall experience of using the technology.”

At Microsoft, Dennis Bonsall is an engineer involved in this collaboration with Dell. He points to the Inspiron duo for which Dell turned to Microsoft to ensure the software and hardware integrated tightly and maximized the device’s potential.

“Dell had this idea to develop a convertible notebook, and there wasn’t a product like it in the marketplace,” Bonsall says. “They realized that they would be able to produce a better machine in collaboration with us to validate the design, engineering and performance.”

Bonsall says Microsoft helped orient the software to sensors in the hardware that detect light levels and GPS coordinates, helping the device regulate its brightness in relation to its environment, giving applications the ability to align with geographic information.

“The basic plumbing for GPS is already in Windows 7, but taking it to the next level, making applications aware of the GPS, that’s an example of how Microsoft was able to work with Dell and make it seamless,” Bonsall says.

The companies also worked together on its screen rotation, allowing the interface to orient itself to the user, and optimizing Dell’s Stage interface, a tile-based navigation system, now used across Dell’s entire product line, that personalizes the Inspiron duo by responding to how it’s being used. Building on the capabilities within Windows 7 and the device’s three user modes was a joint engineering project that challenged the team to perfect it.

“Inspiron duo is a great example of deep collaboration,” says Dell’s Tatelman. “It required some in-depth engineering to make the multimodal capabilities work so smoothly between tablet mode, keyboard mode and dock mode.”

Collaboration Is the Bigger Story

The joint effort lasted all the way to the Inspiron duo’s launch at the grand opening of the Microsoft Store in Bellevue, Wash. The launch was symbolic in many ways, highlighting the two companies’ long history of working together, as well as their joint commitment to collaborating tightly to create the best experience for customers.

According to Tatelman, working so closely with Microsoft allows Dell more latitude to be creative in building the devices its customers are asking for. Microsoft’s platform provides a range of opportunities for hardware design to take advantage of the software’s capabilities, and collaboration with the Microsoft team allows for the fine-tuning that ensures products perform well.

“Microsoft has built-in capabilities that allow us to add value from the ecosystem,” he says. “As an OEM [original equipment manufacturer], it gives us the ability to tailor to the needs of our users in an open way.”

From Microsoft’s perspective, Bonsall says, working with OEMs such as Dell to build the next generation of devices allows the software to flex its muscles, and also to continue evolving with the marketplace.

“By taking into consideration what the software can provide to maximize the abilities of the hardware, we’re extending what both the device and the software can do,” Bonsall says. “This tight collaboration results in a better product, and ultimately a better experience for customers.”

Experience Matters

For Dell and its customers, enhancing the usability and working the way you would expect the device to work matters. Dell provides its customers with immediate access to Microsoft’s most popular applications and services, taking experiences to the next level. The latest versions of Internet Explorer, Bing, Microsoft Office and Windows Live Essentials are pre-loaded on Dell PCs for easy Internet access, sharing and creating, right out of the box.

Tatelman also points out Microsoft’s ability to integrate its technologies across the desktop, mobile PCs and phones, which allows both companies to give customers a unified experience from all their devices. It’s a point that’s already playing out well with Dell’s Venue Pro smartphone, which runs Windows Phone 7. Designed to support business users who need to be productive and efficient while on the go, this device enables them to access both work and life apps, including Microsoft Office Mobile and games on the go with Xbox LIVE. Behind the Venue Pro was feedback from Dell’s business customers, who have strict connectivity, security and management requirements, and who are also looking for greater life balance.

“The Venue Pro is the only Windows Phone 7 device with a vertical sliding keyboard, and it’s a beautiful product,” Tatelman says. “It really shows off the full value and capability of the next generation of Windows on a phone. It’s the right platform for this device, plugging right into corporate environments, and works great with the rest of your devices and their applications.”

The success of the Inspiron duo and the Venue Pro, and the introduction of the Dell XPS 15z, tells the story about how far computing has come. Over 25 years of working together, Microsoft and Dell have developed a unique and productive rhythm to product development. Tatelman says bringing products such as Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 to market involves tremendous collaboration all through the development cycle.

“The Windows Phone collaboration, the Inspiron duo collaboration — Microsoft and Dell have been doing this together for a long time,” he says. “These companies are always listening, on the edge of product innovation, advancing customer experiences.”

Of course, it always helps to have a head start in knowing what people really want.

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