Travis Lowdermilk and Jessica Rich on building a customer-driven culture at Microsoft

The O’Reilly Design Podcast: What makes healthy teams healthy, being customer obsessed, and design and research at Microsoft.

By Mary Treseler
May 25, 2017
Gear transparency. Gear transparency. (source: Pixabay)

This week, I sit down with Travis Lowdermilk senior UX designer at Microsoft, and Jessica Rich, UX researcher at Microsoft; Lowdermilk and Rich are also co-authors of the Customer Driven Playbook. We talk about why failing fast is not always a good approach, sensemaking, and never losing track of the customer’s voice.

Microsoft’s customer focus

Travis: Over the past few years, Microsoft reemphasized its mission to connect and learn from customers, so we’re seeing a sort of Renaissance period at the company where there’s this kind of recommitment to being customer obsessed.

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This isn’t something that’s unique to Microsoft; you see this with other companies as well, that folks aregetting hip to the idea that in order to make great products, you’ve got to listen to your customers and you’ve got to do it in a procedural way—you can’t just comb the feedback forums and come up with ideas; there has to be a process.

We have the desire to be Lean and Agile, but I think what’s unique to Microsoft and other big companies is we also have a kind of unique responsibility. It’s great to want to be startup-y and embody those fail-fast type philosophies, but we also have to make sure we keep our customers’ best interest in mind. It’s a hard ideology to swallow when this company’s responsible for software that spans countries and cultures, we have these software products that militaries rely on, software that helps first responders respond in a disaster situation. The gravity of what we work on can’t always be a fail-fast model.

That being said, the challenge for us and anybody in UX, is to find ways to help them operate in a way that aligns with the responsibility we have, but still allows them to respond quickly. Quite frankly, to not lose the customers’ voice along the way. This is a big company, and we have big divisions. We’re trying to do things as one Microsoft across the company that involves everything from Windows to Office to Skype, moving in a concerted effort, but then there are things our individual teams are trying to do. It can be easy to lose the customers’ voice in all that.

That’s why we have whole dedicated sections in our book to an activity called sensemaking. It’s the idea that you need to periodically step back from your work and look at the bigger picture, to identify those patterns, and that’s something that’s really resonated here at Microsoft. We have a huge insider program with the Windows product, where we have hundreds of thousands of customers, millions actually, giving us hourly feedback. How do we step back from that and make sense of what do we do with the data we’re collecting?

Design and UX research at Microsoft

Jessica: Travis and I are in the cloud and enterprise division, and we work on Visual Studio. Our UX team is both, as he mentioned, design and research, and we support and partner with our product teams, which include engineering and product managers. The interesting thing about our group is that it doesn’t matter what role in the organization you’re in; everyone is customer focused. Our entire team is involved in customer development, and we all use different types of mixed methodologies. We use things like A/B testing, analytics, surveys, focus groups—the list goes on and on. The idea is that we want to learn as much as we can from our customers and make products that suit their needs. We share our results with everyone in our organization, so if a particular team is having conversations with a certain type of target customer, they share it with our entire organization so we can all have a shared understanding of our customer. The idea is that we’ve framed this as raising our organization’s IQ about our customer, customer IQ. Everybody’s learning from these experiences so we can build on the learnings we have from all of our customer engagements, whether it’s qualitative or quantitative.

Healthy teams: Stepping outside your role

Travis: The teams I enjoy working with are folks who have a mutual respect for each other and a desire for learning. Like Jessica was saying, they check their ego and their role at the door, andthey’re hungry to learn more, not just from the outside world but from each other. I’m a designer who works with a bunch of researchers, but the researchers don’t make me feel like, ‘oh, well, you’re just the designer—you can’t do the research work.’ There’s no element of that.

I think it’s critically important that we can go beyond our roles and say, ‘Yes I’m a product manager, but I want to do some research, and I want to try this hat on, and I want to talk to customers and do it in a procedural way.’ Or, ‘I’m a dev and I want to step outside and try a design thinking activity and explore some ideas.’ I think the best teams are the ones that are able to do that effectively, and also that they’re willing to build off each others’ ideas and share knowledge with one another. That’s not always easy at a company like Microsoft—or any other company where, especially in a large organization, it pays to stand out and be recognized as an individual. We’re getting better at that, but it’s still something each company struggles with.

To be a member of a great team, you’ve got to want to serve or to assist the team and help others succeed. The best teams understand that, yes, we all have our personal ambitions and our own individual goals but the team, as a cohesive unit, is going to work better if we’re all willing to assist and share what we’re learning and also be willing to learn from others. I learn from a design perspective; I’m open and receptive to learn something that I can add to my ‘design toolbox’ from a product manager or an engineer. That happens because I’m open and receptive to it.

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