Larry Carrollwritten by

Larry Carroll

Inclusive design isn’t just polite – it’s also good business

Sometimes, serving others can be a wonderfully self-serving experience. Take Christina Chen, a fast-rising star at Microsoft who was recently named by Business Insider as one of the “most powerful women engineers in the world.” She began her “education” young, working in her parents’ restaurant, where she first formed the customer-centric mindset that has taken her from appetizers to app development.

“I started out cleaning tables,” she said recently, discussing those quite-literal salad days. “My parents always told me that everyone was the same, and to treat everyone with the same respect.

“When you’re working with the public like that from a young age, you see a huge cross-section of humanity,” Chen added. “I’ve always thought that people’s strengths and their circumstances sometimes match and sometimes don’t. I think there are a lot of people out there who haven’t been given a chance.”

But as any good small business owner will tell you, being inclusive isn’t just an altruistic idea – it also makes good business sense.

“From an engineer’s perspective, focusing on customers is about efficiency – spend your finite time on the things that people actually use,” she reasoned. “From a business perspective, people now have an abundant choice of experiences and they will choose the experiences that best serve their needs.”

From an engineer’s perspective, focusing on people is about efficiency – spend your finite time on the things that people actually use.

Wielding that customer-focused mindset to make technology more inclusive, Chen has blazed a unique career path. Today you can find her serving as general manager for Microsoft’s Emerging Devices Experiences team, building apps for new devices. She recently shipped four high-profile apps for wearables that some might call emblematic of a new, cross-platform era at Microsoft. And on top of that, she is responsible for fostering innovation within her larger organization through incubation, open sharing and code reuse. It all would be enough to stress out most people, which might explain why Chen asked to meet us in her “happy place.”

“I love libraries; it’s a manifestation of all the world’s knowledge,” explained Chen, a picture of serenity as she described her affection towards the building she frequents daily. “The Bellevue Library, specifically, is meaningful because it’s part of the story of how I ended up back at Microsoft.”

Showing great promise before she was even out of college, Chen had four internships with Microsoft; it was the third one that made the largest impression.

“One of my internships was on Expedia, in 1996, when it was part of Microsoft,” she said of the now-ubiquitous travel website. “There were not that many people on the Internet. [Back then] you called a travel agent and played phone tag, and maybe a week later you got those weird red carbon-copy paper tickets to take to the airport.”

Christina playing Minecraft with her daughterChristina Chen plays “Minecraft” with her daughter, Natalie – one of their favorite shared pastimes.

Chen got her first glimpse at a leader who knew how to not only make things user-friendly, but to do it by looking at things from a different perspective. “With Expedia, Rich Barton had a vision that we could disrupt the industry. The obvious thing to do would be to make it easier to communicate with the travel agent; instead, his vision was that people would go to websites, enter their credit card number and trust [the rest],” Chen recalled. “In my formative years, I was at a Microsoft that had that vision – nuts as it was – and supported that.”

To a smart young student who had grown up serving people food, that Expedia internship felt like an invitation to combine a people-focused mentality with technological know-how, helping others with a continuously expanding scope.

“When I was in college, I noticed a lot of people taking the Princeton courses and Kaplan courses, which were all about helping people improve their GRE scores. What struck me was the courses were really expensive and were done late in the evenings; they seemed really out of reach for a lot of people,” Chen remembered of her years at Wellesley College. “If you’re on financial aid, you don’t have the money to take these classes and you’re probably working as well, so you don’t have the time.

“I thought about that, and how it didn’t seem particularly fair, and I wanted to find a way to help.” And so, with the blessing of the faculty, Chen created and taught a special class between semesters. “It was successful, we got great feedback and people learned.”

After graduating with a double major in computer science and mathematics, Chen joined Microsoft and worked on various projects over the next decade, including the popular “Midtown Madness” gaming series. “We designed the course so that if every kind of car played to its strengths, it could find a way to win; it wasn’t just the biggest or the fastest,” she said of what appealed to her about the franchise. “[That way] a parent who is intimidated to play a fancy race car game can play [alongside their kids].”

Next, Chen went to work on the original table version of Surface, one of many new products and services Chen has helped build from the ground up. Even in those early days, she saw Surface as “cool technology” that had powerful potential for “making human connections.”

Chen then went to Google for five years, where she built a job search engine designed specifically to serve the needs of military veterans. But after a few years her first professional home lured Chen back with a chance to work on next-generation experiences within the Bing team, explore new device technologies – and give a daily workout to her sneakers.

“Part of what brought me back was that I really wanted to have a walking lifestyle,” she explained of her return. “The universe came together. I got the job, my daughter’s school is nearby, and I got a house that is nearby.”

A portrait of Christina at the library

Christina Chen calls the Bellevue Public Library her “happy place.”

Nowadays, Chen can be found walking her daughter to school, then cutting through her “happy place” on the way in to the office. “There’s a little pedestrian bridge that crosses over to the Bellevue Library,” she beamed. “And every morning, I cross that pedestrian bridge, and I just have jazz hands. Because this is my life.”

Those hands were put to work making more than jazz once she returned to Microsoft, as Chen helped her co-workers better unite on projects across teams with initiatives like BLOX.

“It stands for Build Lots of Experiences,” Chen explained. “It’s about helping teams work together. Even once you’ve convinced people of the value of working together, there’s still the tactical enablement of getting people to do that. Even when they want to, how can they? BLOX is a way for different teams to share their code.”

And as her work came to be a key component of Microsoft’s annual employee Hackathon, Chen’s attention turned to specific projects within that event. “BLOX is actually the back-end, where all the hackers can put their projects,” she said of the Hackathon. “Since the nature of the Hackathon is to work on passion projects, I’m always passionate about the ones that help people.”

Specifically, this time around Chen became determined to help women – and once again, it was a customer-focused notion that was not only compassionate, but also good business.

“On a professional level, there’s a huge audience out there that is an important economic power, and we have the engineering ability to address that market,” she said of women, projected to have a worldwide income of $18 trillion by 2018, yet often overlooked by the tech industry. “On a personal level, I always want to include people and reach the most people. Those are the two things that make all this very meaningful to me.”

A recent Chen-led “HackForHer” event encouraged participants to think about women and girls as they worked on their projects, but even more importantly, to do so with what she calls “The Culture of Thoughtfulness.”

Christina running

“I’ve been around the product development block for almost two decades now,” she said of her experiences. “Usually, at the beginning there’s a whole bunch of ideas, and they can be the most well-intentioned ideas. But when you get close to the end and it’s time to deliver, oftentimes, it’s the thoughtful touches that get cut.”

So Chen has gone to great lengths to surround her daily efforts with the sort of people who would work against such omissions. “What I’ve found really interesting is that thoughtful people really love being around thoughtful people,” she explained. “My team is all about working together, cooperating together, leveraging each other’s strengths – so there’s no competition within my team. It turns out to be this really happy place with positive energy.

“And as we work with partners across Microsoft, as we show thoughtfulness, human nature is that when people are thoughtful towards you, you tend to be thoughtful back,” she marveled. “It builds this cycle of positive energy that works really well. And thankfully, it’s such a nice environment to be in.”

This summer her thoughtful team unveiled their newest project: productivity apps for wearables that knock down some of technology’s longstanding walls.

“My team just launched four applications: Outlook for Apple Watch, OneNote for Android Wear, and Microsoft Translator for Apple Watch and Android Wear,” said Chen with pride. “I’ve always been interested in natural user interfaces and bringing technology closer to people to solve their problems. We are doing the code for those projects while working very closely with the parent brands.

“As an Emerging Devices Experiences team, our mission is to make experiences that take full advantage of the device to serve people’s needs in context. So we start with understanding their needs,” she explained, giving us a behind-the-scenes peek into the development process. “Each project and platform is different. An Apple Watch has different capabilities from an Android Wear and their users may have different desires. Since we are in the industry, we make a point of meeting with people outside of the industry who purchased these devices on their own. We want to understand what they were expecting and what they find useful and delightful.

“For our projects with other product teams (like Outlook), their users have certain expectations and ways of doing things and they know their users best. We work closely to combine our understanding of the user,” said Chen. “For example, what would Apple Watch users expect from Outlook? What would they find useful and delightful?

Our mission is to make experiences that take full advantage of the device to serve people’s needs in context.

“The engineers and the designers work hand in hand to come up with creative ways to use the device capabilities to delight people,” she said of the process. “From a development perspective, my team writes the code for the wearable extensions and works closely with the existing product team to integrate and add new functionality into the phone app when needed. For Translator, we wrote the phone apps as well and worked with the main Translator team to incorporate the translation services.

“By having our group focused on the wearables,” Chen added, “we are able to build deep expertise, invest in wearable-specific components that we can use across experiences, and drive a holistic experience across the projects.

“It’s a break from the thinking of the past,” she added. “With Satya [Nadella] coming in, he’s more interested in making our experiences available to people wherever they are, and I think it’s great, because I’m all about reaching people where they are, whether that’s physically or through their mindset or habits. I don’t think you should make people do things your way; if you’re going to serve someone, serve them in the way they need to be served.”

Spoken as if echoing her restaurateur parents, Chen’s words are fueled with excitement and enthusiasm for the future. “How do you take technology and solve real human problems, and really think big?” she asked. “That question has always inspired me.”

Suddenly, the truth is revealed: While all those stacks of books in Bellevue may appear to be her “happy place,” it is simply a stop along the way to her true source of joy.

“I look forward to my commute, because of that walk through the Bellevue Library,” she explained. “But I also look forward to coming to work, making interesting products that bring technology closer to the human being and in service of the human being, and to see my team.

“From a personal perspective, I am user-focused because I am here to serve people and my medium is through technology,” she added. “To really serve someone you need to understand them. The key user-focus principle for my team is ‘Who, Why, How, What.’

“I work through the day, then I look forward to my commute home,” Chen said, smiling. “The library is one of my happy places. And I can honestly say, work is one of my happy places too.”

Originally published on 8/31/2015 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft
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