From sneakers to smartphones: The man behind Microsoft's Windows Phone design

Albert Shum joined Microsoft from Nike to pump up the design of Windows phones

One of the key figures in redefining the Windows experience on smartphones is Albert Shum, who’s been with Microsoft for barely two-and-a-half two years. His previous employer for 12 years: sneaker manufacturer Nike, where he worked in design.

One of the key figures in redefining the Windows experience on smartphones is Albert Shum, who's been with Microsoft for barely two-and-a-half two years. His previous employer for 12 years: sneaker manufacturer Nike, where he worked in design.

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Shum was offered the job of director of "Mobile Experience Design" for the Windows Phone group, with the challenge to recreate the operating system's user interface in a way that would let users "emotionally" connect with Windows smartphone.

Take a visual tour, via slideshow, of the Windows Phone 7 user interface. 

Importing outsiders with fresh eyes and ideas, and giving them a free hand, is one side of the coin. The other is pairing outsiders like Shum with veteran insiders who are invested in and responsible for re-creating a growth business. Andrew Lees, who grew Microsoft's server products into a multi-billion dollar franchise, took over the company's Mobile Communications Business about three years ago. He's brought in top marketing, engineering, and developer relations talent from other business units, such as the Zune media player and Windows Media Center projects.

The work of Shum and his colleagues on redesigning the mobile user experience for Microsoft customers is the first visible result of this effort, and Windows Phone 7 was unveiled last month. 

With Windows Phone 7, smartphone users start with three buttons at the bottom of the screen: start, search and back. The initial lock screen gives way to a completely redesigned start screen (what Shum and others call the "Start Experience"). Microsoft has discarded the familiar grid-like display of application icons.

Instead, the user interface offers a flexible, customizable display that combines elegantly clean, crisp text with intelligent icons, dubbed "live tiles" because they're linked with online data sources such as Facebook or Flickr or e-mail, grouped in "hubs" or collections that bring together related data from applications, corporate servers like Microsoft Exchange, and the Web. Text and tiles "overflow" the touch screen, but users pan quickly through arrangements that are visually consistent in each hub.

Shum has a background in engineering and architecture, and a master's degree from the Stanford Design Program. Avid in programming, he's an equally avid cyclist and runner.

You've said elsewhere that you don’t want to just "enhance the experience, but make a deeper emotional connection with products." What do you mean by that?

One of our key experience threads is making it personal. How do you make a product personal? The answer is: with the user's content. Consumers want their content on their device. Our live tiles make the user interface come alive through your content.

That's especially the case with touch interfaces: we let you use your content to navigate. You're directly interacting with things that you want or that are important to you. The picture you [just] took gives immediate content, and all your pictures are in one place. We create contextual relevance through content, and that makes [the experience] more personal. It's not just a static icon for photos.

How did you come up with the combination of live tiles, grouped into hubs?

We focused on the end users. When we did that, we found that people were juggling a lot of things, like writing an e-mail, then taking a picture, and then sharing it on Facebook. People needed a way to ground themselves, when you're juggling all these moments in your life. We addressed this in part in our [Windows Phone 7] Start Experience: we developed what we call "glance and go." It's about presenting [meaningful] information immediately, without having to go drilling down. At the same time, as you glance and go, you can also take action on small "snack-bite" activities.

Our Start Experience is a way to navigate [your information] but also a way to give you always updated information.

But you also want a richer, more immersive experience. The "hubs" are a place to kind of "hang out." To get music, hang out in the music hub, where you can find what's new. It's a more immersive way to find things that you care about and take action on them.

Windows Phone 7 is a balance between these two experiences for the user: glance and go, plus a richer immersion.

There's a lot of typography in the Windows Phone 7 user interface. Why?

User typography has been in development for some time [at Microsoft]. We were really inspired by a lot of the [typographic interface] work going on with Windows Media Center. [WMC is a Windows application for watching and managing Internet TV shows, movies, music, radio, photos and videos.]

Typography is one area that Microsoft has been very active in: the use of type is really important in terms of usability. [Click here for details on Microsoft's ClearType technology.] This is true throughout Microsoft products, but especially in the evolution of Windows Media Center.

We really looked at using type as a system, not just for navigation but for creating a more personal experience. The [2007 documentary] movie "Helvitca" showed that type is very international, transcending cultures, even in Asian languages. It's striking and personal and very beautiful. We're elevating type into a whole new area. It's one of those things that links us with the past but also with the future. In our applications and in our browser, we want to make type come to life.

In one interview, you mentioned the team spent a lot of time really talking to your users. What was involved in that?

We looked at users in a couple of ways. When we started, we asked ourselves "who are we designing for?" Who was our target? We did ethnography, and field research. Smartphones are new. So who really are smartphone users? We did this to understand the problems we were trying to solve.

Our key [user] segment was what we called "life maximizers." These are people who are juggling their lives and trying to balance lots of separate moments. We spent a lot of time defining all this, and bringing people into our design process to help us and into our usability testing.

We were challenging ourselves in our preconceived assumptions about smartphones and users. We'd create quick prototypes and get these in front of our users, get their feedback, and keep iterating on that. We're still constantly doing this. When you really listen, and listen well, you can make the product better.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

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