Ralf Groene grew up in Germany and began his career as a tool maker at Volkswagen, before expanding his interest into product making. He moved to the United States in the late 1990s, first in New York and then later in Silicon Valley, working for frogdesign and IDEO. He joined Microsoft in 2006, and has grown into a creative visionary, embracing innovative methods and materials across Surface, Xbox, and HoloLens, while influencing the industry with his dedication to superb craftsmanship. Groene leads the design vision for all hardware at Microsoft and helms the Windows and Devices Design Team. His diverse and international team spans Industrial Design, UX, Human Factors and Research, and includes a group of movie makers and CG artists who create launch and concept videos.
IDSA's International Design Conference takes place September 17 & 18, and will be a 24-hour livestream with speakers in different countries delivering immersive design content across disciplines—including industrial, graphic, UX, service, furniture, interior, medical, and social impact design—through a carefully choreographed series of presentations, workshops, panel discussions, and breakout sessions. Groene will be participating as one of the many keynote speakers. IDSA's Leah Pickett caught up with him via a Microsoft Teams video call, to discuss his path as an industrial designer, the importance of forming a diverse team to serve a diversity of users, and how he and his team at Microsoft are navigating a new reality in 2020.
IDSA: Starting out as a tool maker for Volkswagen, what made you want to go more into hardware and industrial design?
Ralf Groene: Before I was a tool maker, when I grew up, I always sketched and took things apart, fixed mopeds, and was interested in how stuff works. I spent a lot of time as a kid on my grandmother's kitchen table. She put a stack of paper in front of me to keep me quiet, and so I always doodled and noodled around with sketching. Growing up where I did, I was never really exposed to industrial design and didn't really know what that was. After I became a tool maker, I spent two years working in a hospital. During that time, I met a gentleman who came from a family of designers. He explained this to me and said, "I'll bring in my portfolio," and I thought, "What is a portfolio?" He brought that in and I instantly knew that this is what I was going to do.
What was it like to move from Germany to the United States, and to Silicon Valley in the late '90s? What was the environment like then?
In my fourth semester at school, I did an internship in New York City at Teague. I had never worked in another country. I had never been on an airplane. That was seven months of me learning English in New York, and it was a whirlwind of influences, as you can imagine. I was exposed to not only the lifestyle of a city like New York, but also for the first time there were designers and engineers working next to each other. This was very uncommon in the German studios I had visited and interned in. From there I decided, "I have to go back." I fell in love with what I thought was America, but what was really just New York City.
A gentleman I got to know there, Chris Flink [now the Executive Director of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, CA], went to the West Coast—he studied at Stanford—and said, "You should come and visit." So I visited, half on vacation and half interviewing, and got exposure to the West Coast, which was really amazing. I started working first at a company called Palo Alto Design Group, which was a small product development firm that did the PalmPilot, and I designed an electronic book for a company called NuvoMedia—the two gentleman that started that company [Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning] went on to start Tesla.
Growing up in Germany, during my student years, frog design was always like god mode. They had a huge brand and I always loved to check out what they were doing. When I started working in Palo Alto, frog was in Sunnyvale, just a few miles away. IDSA had an open house opportunity to visit frog design, and I went over with two engineers and ran into Hartmut Esslinger. He gave us a tour and invited me for an interview, without me applying or showing any of my work. I got hired and worked there for two and a half years or so, before I got an offer to lead the design team at IDEO. I'm still good friends with Hartmut and his wife Patricia.
Frog was quite an amazing place that had and still has a deep history through the work they did with Apple. At the time when I started [in Silicon Valley], the start-up culture was still there, before the economy crashed in 2001. Everything was still called the "new economy." Everything had an "e" in front of it: e-wine, e-trade. It was a very interesting time, and I learned a lot from Hartmut. I worked for him directly for his European customers, and also would work on electronics for Dell and concepts for other big U.S. brands.
What was it like to transition to Microsoft in 2006?
The [previous] consulting work was amazing, coming right of school and being able to design all of these different things, from exercise equipment to printers to phones to meal replacement strategies for Frito-Lay—all these kinds of sometimes weird, very interesting, and esoteric projects. To me, it was a great nine or 10 years in consulting where I could look around and poke my head into the different cultures from the clients, from small start-ups to big corporations. At some point though, you figure out the pattern of consulting, where we would get called after a project was already defined and leave the project before it would go through final engineering. It would leave me desiring to make products end-to-end.
So I looked around and came across Microsoft. My first computer was a Mac; I moved to Windows because I was using Alias 3D modeling in 1998. When I visited Microsoft, what was interesting is that I didn't really expect much, but the people I met were very much in the same mold as the people I had met at IDEO and frog. They were very focused and also quite normal. There was very little attitude and an openness to innovation and curiosity.
I started at Microsoft leading mice and keyboards. Looking at their product line, they did really great ergonomically, with really good accessories. But everything was rather beige or grey, and they hadn't really found their voice in terms of what values they had and translating this into design. So I thought this would be a great opportunity. And here we are, 14 years later.
Microsoft Surface laptops, courtesy of Microsoft
You lead a multidisciplinary design team. How has industrial design, from your perspective at Microsoft, changed? I imagine a lot of it comes from bringing in UX and other disciplines.
It's a super good question. Maybe the story to tell is how we started out. When I began with a small accessories team, most of the people just managed outside consultancies. So the role of the industrial designer, even inside Microsoft, was "Ok, we have a project. Hire the consultancy, manage them through, get their creativity, and massage it into the product development process." But I'm really a designer-designer, so when I started, we shifted to moving pretty much everything in-house, and hired a couple of in-house designers.
The first four years we'd still work with consultancies, since this was a transition time. But in 2010, my boss Panos [Panay] asked me to join what turned out to become Surface. We started this group and this business really from a blank slate, and the advantage was that we were too small to have departments. The way we would work is that, in the morning, we'd design and share our designs with the engineers, some PMs, and some business people; and then in the afternoon, we would move into a different room where we would look at the engineering. From that starting point we hired more designers and other people.
We call ourselves "product makers," realizing that if you want to make a Surface laptop or any of these kinds of products, you need to go way beyond the industrial designer to make something that actually works, and has a gestalt and appearance and function that is succinct, and is affordable, and has the performance that you envision. When you have all these components coming together, you must have more people than industrial designers; you need engineers and marketing people and PMs. You also have to have the mindset that everyone together makes the product. It's not just the designers in the ivory tower who let out some sketches or a 3D model and then everyone has to make it so. We create a vision, for sure, and then we work super hard to keep that vision as accurate as possible as we go through product development. But we're doing this through more of a radical collaboration approach, rather than top-down.
As we have grown over the past 10 years, we started out growing Surface but then brought the accessories team back into the business. The next thing was that Microsoft acquired Nokia, and with Nokia came the Nokia industrial design team. And then we brought Xbox and Hololens over into one team. And now we had not only designers who would think in different avenues like gaming and mobility, but we also had talent like the Human Factors Engineering team, which came through the Xbox team as they merged with us. On that team, you have people who have studied psychology, anthropology, or bioengineering, and most of them have PhDs. It is a group that is rather scientific. So the question was, how do we bring scientists into the product making experience? For us we said, let's call all of us designers. Let's embrace this product-making thing. Because as we built our design team, we also a built a group we now call Visual Design, which produces all of our launch videos. In there we have people who have studied computer science, film, and animation; we have a classical composer with a PhD on staff who is composing the music for us. And these different people with their different talents and specificities in their studies also connect to this larger group of creatives, thinking about the story we want to tell. We bring this diversity in, and of course there [are other kinds] of diversity.
If you leave tech companies on their own, you fill the rooms with middle-aged white guys like me; and if you're not careful, you just talk to yourselves, and just talk about tech. Obviously, that is not beneficial to anyone. We are putting great effort into hiring a diversity of different ethnicities, but also having a good balance between male and female designers. We're putting a lot of effort into making sure this diversity goes through the ranks, as you go from junior to mid-level to senior to director to partner level and so on. And it pays off because, at the end of the day, what we do is make products for people. It can take a little longer for diverse teams to get started, but the quality these teams can produce is far greater than if you just talk to people who look like you.
Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller, courtesy of Microsoft
Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller is a great example of serving diverse users and providing more accessibility. In terms of both diversity and accessibility, what is Microsoft doing before the hiring process to make a career in industrial design or another design discipline more accessible for more people?
We have two official internship programs at Microsoft. We have lots of students from around the world who join the Microsoft [university] internship program. They go through different departments and get lots of exposure to different functions of Microsoft, and the conversion rate from interns into full-time employees is really high, because we want to make sure that, if someone feels like Microsoft is a place where they could work, we have the ability to offer a job.
We also offer a high school internship program. In the design team, over the past couple of years, we have had a bunch of high school interns. Imagine someone between 16 and 17 years old being in the devices design studio, next to the pros. You can be part of video reviews and product reviews. What I found stunning is, after a little bit of warm-up, the amount of ideas we get and things that get turned into something we follow and eventually become products, is quite high. And it's a lot of fun.
We're also making sure that we're not just talking to high schools in affluent neighborhoods but going to neighborhoods and schools that are more blue-collar and not as privileged. I believe talent is evenly distributed and you can find the next rock-star talent anywhere. It doesn't have to only come from Ivy League or high-end design schools. I worked in a factory in a very blue-collar environment before I discovered design. Oftentimes it's just giving people exposure, so they actually know what design is, and then giving them the path and the encouragement, where all you need is a pen and a piece of paper to get started. We want to pass the torch to people who are crazy talented and send them on a path to become a designer, whether at Microsoft or somewhere else.
How has managing your team changed in our new COVID-19 reality?
COVID hit about three months after we joined with the Windows Design team. Normally, you would walk into our design studio and there's one big space in which we design everything. You would walk to your desk and pass the Hololens department, Xbox stuff, and new videos being worked on. Surface Duo would be designed in one corner and software review would be happening, with other programs being laid out as you walk across the studio. There would be serendipitous exposure, conversations, and connections you would make. In this environment, every designer can work on every project—if you design a mouse, after that you can design a computer or an Xbox—to enrich the experience of individual designers. But with COVID, that stopped.
Now it is very abstract. The design story has moved from being tangible to very much in our heads. We do go and meet in the studio but masked up and with gloves and with only a few people, because in terms of hardware you have to look at objects and samples and talk about tangible ideas. But it is a very abbreviated version of what we usually have. Usually the studio would be brimming with people and discussions, and it would be more like a busy marketplace versus a quiet lab, which it is now.
Normally we do in-person presentations for launch events and have a big stage. But the online version [for the recent launch event of Surface Duo] was almost better than the in-person version. There are some advantages we're getting to understand now, working more remotely, where you can focus and quickly connect to people. You build different relationships. However, it is not a replacement for the in-person, tangible work that we did before, so everyone is hoping to go back. But I also think there will be a long-lasting change from what we had before. I don't think everything will go back in quite the same way.
How do you foresee your work and industrial design in general changing moving forward? What is the path that we're on?
My daughter is an industrial designer who graduated about a year ago, and listening to her, there is a new focus on objects. In the world of industrial design, you get the analog products, the chairs and the household items that are not "smart" or filled with electronics. I find people are developing a more intimate relationship with physical objects and having fewer but a higher quality. Especially through COVID, as we are more focused on our internal wellbeing and confined to a space, there is not so much cheap consumption.
Microsoft's Surface Duo, courtesy of Microsoft
On the electronics side, it's interesting. On one end, Microsoft is for sure a software company, but you build a relationship with software through hardware. And there is something in hardware that is almost like summing up the offering that a bunch of software features have inside an object. You will always talk about Surface Duo; hardly ever will you reference a feature. Same goes with an iPad or iPhone. You always reference the object. The interesting piece is the intertwining of software and hardware, and how we bring an object that is filled with software to people as a tangible thing. How does it feel when you touch it? How do you get into it? A plastic or metal button is as much a user interface as one that is made from pixels. The computer is more than what sits in the box, because it also connects to what is offered in the cloud and through the internet.
I find that the more we work and understand what's possible through software and the connectivity we have, the more we are starting to shape how this is relevant to people. The human roadmap is much under appreciated. We very much see the computer and the software like a musical instrument. If you become really good at playing guitar, you're not really thinking about the guitar as you're playing it. All you're thinking about is expressing your music; and the actual device, as in hardware, or the actual notes, as in software, will disappear into you just thinking about music. This is kind of what we are after when designing products like Surface Studio and Surface Duo. During creation, you jot down an idea and flip the keyboard and turn your sketch into Illustrator and turn Illustrator into a Figma file and make it into an app. These kinds of transitions are how an idea flows from your mind to your hands through your heart into a sketch that you share with people, that turns into a project that turns into a product that other people enjoy. Hardware plays a role, software plays a role, and managing it so humans don't really need to think about the software that they're using—that's the goal.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The International Design Conference 2020 takes place online September 17 & 18. Learn more and register at InternationalDesignConference.com.
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