“Sometimes we think too far ahead”: Elliott Hsu, principal designer of Microsoft devices

Elliott Hsu discusses how launching new technology depends on public understanding, what makes a good brand partnership and how AI moves beyond Sci-fi.

“We’re the tangible part of Microsoft; the physical manifestation of who we are”, says Elliott Hsu, principal designer of Microsoft Devices of his interdisciplinary team of designers, researchers, and engineers.

Uniquely placed within the wider Microsoft company, Hsu explains that the team works across products from Microsoft Surface to Xbox – extending “horizontally across our device ecosystem”.

Elliott Hsu, principal designer for Microsoft Devices

“We have the unique position of seeing a lot of the hardware that Microsoft makes come through our studio”, Hsu says. “We have the luxury as designers”, to shape the experiences of those products, he adds. “How they are used, how they connect to our other assets across Microsoft”.

Initially trained in industrial design, Hsu discusses how the discipline has developed from being “all about the physical hardware, and usability and ergonomics”, to a present day where “as the digital and physical worlds have become more integrated, industrial design has essentially broadened into user experience”.

Microsoft Surface prototypes

His design team contains “people that are scientists and others that are engineers” in addition to those from traditional industrial design and user experience backgrounds. “That melting pot of talents really helps us with our products because every day there are people coming in with a diverse set of inputs and points of views”, Hsu says.

“We label our team as a design and research team, but we like to call ourselves product makers. That way it breaks the silos […] we’re just making products together”.

A matter of timing: aligning technology and public understanding

While projects are often “business-driven” and aligned with product launches, “we also continue to strive and work at giving our designers and the team space to think freely”, Hsu says.

The team can “tinker and make”, following a process of “what if we took that service, this technology and this hardware, and put it together to create something unique”, Hsu explains.

Supporting this culture is the notion of “fail fast”, he adds.

“One of the most rewarding parts of our culture is that we have that room to put an idea on the table, and if it’s bad, just hey, it doesn’t work. Let’s move on or pivot from that.

“The first generation of an idea may not be [right], but somebody will find something that becomes a feature, that becomes slotted into a particular product or device”.

In an Anechoic chamber on the Microsoft campus

According to Hsu, timing is often the crucial factor. “At Microsoft, we always say there are so many smart people here, always thinking about the next thing. Sometimes we have to be cognisant that we are maybe thinking too far ahead”.  Sometimes it’s a case of “I’ve got an idea, but the technology is not there yet”, or else, “the technology is way too far ahead and people don’t understand it”, Hsu says.

In the meantime, these projects are stored in Microsoft’s “Building 87” – suitably a windowless, “bunker-like” former storage facility to fit its mysterious, Area-51-esque name.

The creative stimulation of this work environment doesn’t get old, according to Hsu: “Ten years of our design organisation coming together, we still see that innovation on a daily basis”.

A good partnership: avoiding hype and looking for those with design legacy

Hsu and his team also lead on external partnerships, ranging from collaborations with British retailer Liberty and the Space Jam film, to research-led projects to develop its Ocean Plastic Mouse.

“We always want to ensure that our partnerships have aligned brand values”, Hsu says, cautioning against collaborations for hype’s sake. “In the partnership space there is a lot of what we’ll call a hype moment; a moment where it exists and dies off”.

Microsoft Surface x Liberty

“We want to partner with those who have legacy in design in their industry”.

But “most importantly”, he adds, is “just bringing a smile to someone’s face when they use the device or when they own the device”. “That’s the most magical thing as a designer to see”, he says.

Speaking of the collaboration between Microsoft Surface and Liberty, he suggests it works because it “came out of left field”.

Bringing together the prints of Liberty’s archive with the Microsoft Surface, was a reaction to the centrality PCs took in people’s living spaces during the pandemic – and which continues as WFH becomes the new normal for many.

The team at work on the Microsoft Surface x Liberty project

“PCs, devices have become much more personal”, Hsu says. “[In the pandemic] it was our connection to everything; from the lifeline to your family, connections to work, and actually  [what was ] keeping the world moving”.

Hsu’s team played with the notion of making it “more personal and expressive”, wanting to create “these objects of beauty, with all the productivity that Microsoft can provide for you”, he says.

Another partnership was the Ocean Plastic Mouse, which involved “a lot of work behind the scenes looking at how we work with suppliers and our vendors in very unique ways”, Hsu says.

This isn’t “as flashy or glamorous as two brands coming together at retail”, he says, but for such a “tiny little mouse, somehow the ripple effect that it created across industries… when other corporations are asking how did you do this, how did you implement this, you begin to see that this is an important thing for everyone”.

The Microsoft Ocean Plastic Mouse

He adds that Microsoft didn’t make the information proprietary to the company: “For us to achieve the real goals of developing this, you should be able to have this plastic available for anyone”.

Microsoft’s most recent partnership is also sustainability-focused, working with youth sustainable fashion competition Junk Couture to educate the next generation about circular systems in fashion, creating Masterclasses for Microsoft’s Flip platform, a video discussion app for co-learning.

What’s next?

For Microsoft as much as elsewhere, AI is an area of importance – integrated into its products as well as the working practices of its teams.

But rather than fear AI replacing jobs, Hsu believes AI can be effectively used as a tool. In Microsoft’s own work, for example, “it can exponentially accelerate things that you are working from, even the design process itself”, he says. “Something that could take a designer weeks to create, can be visualised immediately. Those visualisations are not perfect, they are not the answer, but you’re able to combine concepts and textures of things to spur an idea”.

“In broader Microsoft, we’ve invested in AI technologies in order to aggregate information and data collection that could take a human months to track”, he adds.

He believes it to be increasingly important in the consumer space: “Unlike the metaverse, it’s something that everyone has access to”, says Hsu.

The Microsoft Ocean Plastic Mouse

“It’s going to change the way that we work and how we utilise technology; even new UX paradigms are based off AI prompts”, he says. In UX design, it’s often now a question of “how does a human input the right data points to get what they need [from the AI]”.

In contrast to the headline-grabbing output of ChatGPT and Midjourney, Hsu suggests designers can integrate AI as “little things throughout your daily work and creation that can help with human connection.”

One example is its use for the Surface Pro 9 5G, which uses AI to fix eye direction on video calls so that users can appear to be looking at the camera – and the person on the other end – while their gaze is actually focused where it might more naturally land on a screen.

“The ethics around AI can very quickly become Sci-fi and Hollywood dystopia but it is an amazing space to explore – we almost consider it the next generation of input and output”, Hsu says.

“Now is the time to shape it in a way that is digestible and understandable for people”.

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