Ralf Groene of Microsoft Corporation
Designing for the home office has been a strong design trends over the last few years – transitioning from the merely functional (and oft ugly) to the beautifully functional. And all indicators continue to show that the desire for stylish and functional digital equipment from mobile phones to net-books to home computers has not abated. Microsoft is one of the companies leading the way in designing digital hardware that provides us with the technological functions that we need to be productive from home or on the move without forsaking style.
Recently we had the opportunity to interview Ralf Groene, Senior User Experience Lead of the Hardware Group at Microsoft Corp. regarding some of the interesting designs Microsoft has introduced into the market over the last few years, including the Arc Keyboard and mouse and the Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 6000.
Ralf is responsible for the industrial design of all Microsoft Hardware products, and manages a team of eight industrial designers in the User Experience Group who work on a variety of designs (some of which are discussed in this article).
Many artists/designers find inspiration in a wide variety of places: street style, travel, fashion, art, nature, architecture, furniture, trends, hobbies and countless other venues and objects. Could you share some specific inspirations for designs like the Arc Keyboard and the Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 6000?
Our inspirations come from all over – we definitely look to fashion, architecture, automobiles and trends all over the world. Inspirations also come from observing what people do with their digital accessories.
Observing what people do and combining those insights with a modernist design philosophy is usually the path from inspiration to design. The design team really likes to study modern architecture and listen to music. Most of our inspiration comes from then discussing ideas together.
When looking at the Microsoft Arc mouse in profile it appears to have the shape of a futuristic super car (both in the unfolded and folded mode) that seems to convey a sense of speed. What inspired the design form of the Microsoft Arc mouse?
When designing the Arc mouse, we were trying to find a form that provided some comfort in the hand, but was light and pure in form language. The Arc form came about naturally through the process of finding something that just worked. There wasn’t a moment where we looked at another object and thought that we should translate it into a mouse. The inspiration was more around creating something simple and light in form – something that captured the spirit of portability.
Guide us through the process of designing the Arc Keyboard and Mouse from the user research to the two-dimensional conceptual drawing to the modeling/proto-typing to the usability testing (and focus group feedback cycle if used) and to the final product development.
We made some early observations on how and what people carry in mobile environments. Those observations let to some basic principles on the Arc Mouse. For the Arc Keyboard, we studied people’s behaviors inside their homes and observed how they used their keyboards on desks, their laps and sofas. The second step was to translate these insights into objects and interactions.
We made a number of paper prototypes to see how a mouse should fold into a more compact volume. On the keyboard we printed out some 3D forms and started to use them in our living rooms and around our coffee tables. We studied how an object like a keyboard could blend into a living room environment while still being a keyboard, just hidden in plain sight.
After we built some prototypes we liked we made more precise models and tested them with real users. Here we ensured that the usability was where we needed it to be. We discovered that slight “dishes” on a key cap increased the typing comfort substantially and that a four-way arrow pad was more usable than discreet buttons when using it with your thumb.
On the Arc Keyboard the page scrolling function is compressed into one button – a very small mouse-pad that can be operated with slight shifts from the user’s finger. Tell me how it was decided to implement this technology and the ergonomic and functional considerations of this design.
When you use a keyboard strictly on your desk, the pace scroll buttons are mostly used with your index or middle finger.
In a scenario where the keyboard is used on the sofa we found that it was more convenient to scroll pages up and down with your thumb. That was the ergonomic insight that led us to this solution. The d-pad also gave us the advantage to save space and gave us the opportunity to make [the keyboard] even smaller.
As an industrial design engineer working with hardware and software engineers in the development of keyboards and pointing devices, you have to concern yourself equally with the aesthetics as well as the functionality (including ergonomic aspects) of the products you design, how do you reconcile these two design concerns which may at times lead to conflict?
Those two solutions are actually not in conflict. It is a decision which is based on the context for which you are designing for. On a keyboard that is designed for heavy typing we would probably always design discreet arrow buttons. The Arc keyboard is designed into an entertainment and productivity scenario. For those activities a single button solution for the arrow keys made most sense. The Arc Keyboard can be used on desks or in your hand or lap. This scenario set the stage for our decisions.
Tell me what motivates you to create beauty as the sculptor of functional art in the form of consumer products like the Arc keyboard and Arc mouse?
The motivation comes from the desire to never create beauty in a selfish, stand alone way. Beauty is the result of content meeting an expression in a clean and simple way. Designers in a way are the opposite of decorators. I’m constantly looking for expressions that fit a particular content, no matter if the content is typing, navigating an interface or making coffee. Hunting for the perfect expression is my motivation as a designer.
Microsoft could easily produce keyboards and pointing devices that simply meet the functional and ergonomic requirements without giving a thought to stylish design. Thankfully, they don’t. Can you tell me why designing a product that meets the functional and ergonomic requirements and is attractive, stylish and sophisticated is an important consideration for Microsoft?
It is important for us that people love our products because they not only appreciate the function, ergonomics and quality, but also agree with the point of view on why we designed the product this way. Function and quality are a great starting point and always top of mind when we develop products. Microsoft has a particular point of view on how we think about digital media and digital lifestyle. It is important that we express this point of view in every bit and atom we create. I don’t see us as a team that adds some styling to products. We create products that enable and amplify the Microsoft experience. Design is an integral part of this exercise and goes way beyond the good looks.
Ralf shares his thoughts on a range of Microsoft products he has designed or collaborated on.
As I took on the design of whole Microsoft Hardware portfolio I started to realize that we have a couple of core stories we communicate to our customers with our products. We are in the business of enabling and amplifying software experiences and on one end of the spectrum we have products that are designed to be the best tools money can buy.
MICROSOFT ARC KEYBOARD AND MOUSE
What we discovered when we developed the Arc was that there was another audience that wanted the most seamless integration of products into their life. The Arc family of products does exactly that. It fits into people’s digital lifestyle.
Over the past years we have invested a lot of attention in understanding peoples digital lifestyle and created specific point of views towards a young and mobile crowd we call genD, the true digital generation of users.
MICROSOFT WIRELESS MOBILE MOUSE 4000
As people use their computers everywhere, they also want to look good at all times, people expect to use their mouse wherever they take their netbooks or laptops. One of the accomplishments I’m very proud of is our Bluetrack technology, cause it provides you with the ability to use your mouse wherever you want. This technology enabled us to bring true mobility products to market.
From this aspect I love our Wireless Mobile Mouse 4000. We worked with trend agencies to understand the fashion trends and launched this products as these trends became important. They are a very successful products for us and are often sold out.
MICROSOFT LIFECAM CINEMA
If I look at the other end of the spectrum I see products like Lifecam Cinema, our HD camera we recently launched. This product was designed for pure performance. I love the way it affords you an outstanding communication experience.
The physical product was designed to be out of the way. There is nothing extraneous on this camera, that’s why it creates such powerful character. We found a great balance of content and expression here.
MICROSOFT BLUETOOTH MOBILE KEYBOARD 6000
Another product that stands out for me is our new Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 6000. Similar to the Lifecam Cinema, this Keyboard came to life by reducing it to its core purpose. Internally we called the theme fit comfort, because it provides a great typing comfort through our Comfort Curve keyset while everything else is stripped off. The result is an extremely thin keyboard that builds a great companion to a laptop. We saw people coming home with their notebooks, placing their computers in working areas that were much smaller than what we had seen from desktop users.
This small Bluetooth keyboard waits here for an extension of the computing experience. It’s great for long typing. The fact that left-handed people can move the number pad to the other side is a great benefit.
What new product designs can we expect to see debut from your design team in the next year or so?
We have an amazing User Experience group at Microsoft. There’s no doubt that our future will be filled with exciting products.