Microsoft, seagulls and magic: An interview with Michael Gough

Design isn’t just about aluminium chamfered edges and sapphire crystal screens. The architecture of bits, bytes and pixels is just as crucial and defining: it’s the unspoken language that brings us closer to the devices we use every day. Behind the glass walls of an office deep inside Microsoft’s Redmond campus, one man is taking on the challenge of unifying and reimagining the design language spoken throughout the tech giant’s software portfolio.

Microsoft, seagulls and magic: An interview with Michael Gough

That man is Michael Gough, the chief design officer in the Applications and Services Group (ASG) at Microsoft. He’s no stranger to the constantly shifting intersection between hardware and software, nor the design challenges which lie in wait: before the Microsoft job he was vice president of experience design at Adobe, and before that the vice president of brand design at Nike.

A year and three days after he first stepped through the gates at Redmond campus, Alphr met Gough to talk about interfaces, accessibility and seagulls.

What made you move to Microsoft?

I don’t want to take anything away from my time at Adobe, but I always felt a little bit downstream from the most important innovations. There is, at the convergence of hardware, software and services, some magic that happens.

Can you give me an example?

When touch started to show up, or what touch could or should be. We saw the demos, but at Adobe we just had to sit around for three years waiting to be able to incorporate touch into our applications and user experiences. But there was another motivation, too.

Which was?

“I saw the movie Her and I thought, “yes, that’s going to happen,” and I mean it – it is.”

That’s quite a bit more specific. I saw the movie Her and I thought, “yes, that’s going to happen,” and I mean it – it is. So I started to scramble around thinking how do I get to play with THAT? How do I get to talk about when the computer starts to gain more and more attributes of a human, when agent technology really takes off? Well, there are only two or three companies you could go to, to participate in that revolution. This one seemed like the right one.

ms_underground_tour_march-2643_1What’s your main approach to design?

“It turns out that if you design for one person, you can do a pretty remarkable job.”

It turns out that if you design for one person, you can do a pretty remarkable job. If you design for a million people, you can do sort of an okay job. If you design for everybody on the planet, it’s a lot harder. When you think about the design that everyone gravitates towards, it’s usually a Porsche or it’s a Jony Ive where there’s one person who decides, who says “I’m going to make it for me, and I’m going to follow these certain criteria and then hope that a broader audience gravitates towards it.” Microsoft’s approach is dramatically different, because of how inclusive they are.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella rewrote the company mission statement as “To empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more”. Is inclusivity a part of that?

Sure. Inclusive design means starting from a base of considering special needs and disabilities. For the sake of argument – this is a little crude – but just imagine that you had lost an arm. Now think about your day. There is some point when you are trying to text message or communicate in some way and one arm is busy because you’re holding a backpack. So you are, from a technology point of view, blind. If you start from the lens of those people and those needs, it opens up the way you think about the user experience.

What kind of user experience do you want to create?

Most user experiences are designed by relatively young people with incredible eyesight, quite technologically adept, so that some of the confusing things you have to do are just a slam dunk for them. As a result, the solutions have very narrow audiences. So if you start from the edges and work your way in you come back to a very different solution set. Just technically, that was my biggest shock when I got here. I do come from a background where design is elitist, just to be candid. The whole idea of being the designer is about being cooler than anyone else. It is very unusual to think of designers trying to be inclusive, to embrace everyone.

So where do you see software design heading?

The design field and technology was dominated by graphic designers for quite an extensive period of time – after all it was called the graphical user interface. The graphical user interface is still doing well, but now there are tactile interfaces, there is touch, haptics are coming. There are spatial interfaces, gesture, there are audio interfaces and so suddenly there is an explosion of new interaction modes. It requires entirely broader ways of thinking. We have a lot of work to do because so much of it is so new.

Give me an example of a new interface.

Take sound. There are people here who focus full-time on the personality of sound. Cortana is not going to be successful unless she is trusted, so what’s the voice of trust? What’s the vocabulary of trust? What’s the cadence of interaction to trust a voice? That’s a design problem, a really hard one.

I’m getting a sense of your ambition here, but what about day-to-day work, what does that involve?

“I’m a little bit, for better or worse, what they call a seagull manager.”

I’m a little bit, for better or worse, what they call a seagull manager. Have you ever heard that term? I stay at a very high level and every once in a while I shit on something. I love to dive in deep because otherwise I don’t really feel that I understand what’s going on. And some people hate me for it but that’s the way I like to work.

So what’s preoccupying you right now?

Currently I am working on supporting the vision for the future of Office 365, trying to figure out how we knit all those services together. And then I am working on a project that is imagining the future of content. Imagine that that we were focused less on documents and more on ideas. We call this the modern unit of information. Documents were the older unit of information: I write a paper, send it to you and then you comment on it and send it on to a friend. What if we are just exchanging ideas and acting on them directly?


You’ve been championing inclusive design working from the edges inwards. Can you tell me more about that?

If you focus on the edges, a couple of things happen. If you pick someone who has a disability and you focus on them first, you become more empathetic, you start to think more about people and their real needs, you hit a broader audience. You assume you get the central case for free. If you start from the edges you hit more use cases. And then every once in a while something really magical happens because you create something that a much broader group of people can use.

Magical? Like what?

Well, magical moments are when you get an unexpected byproduct. I’ll give you a couple of general examples, rather than stuff I’ve done. High-contrast screens are typically designed for people with visual impairment, but it turns out they’re also useful in bright sunlight as well. All of us at times have that temporary disability of being in bright sunlight. Or take the drop kerb. It was designed to make it possible for wheelchairs to get onto the sidewalk. But it turns out a drop kerb is really good for people carrying groceries, people with strollers, even skateboards.

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