Design as the Difference: Lessons Learned from Microsoft

In the startup world, it can be really easy to fall into the “just build it quickly and get it out there, it doesn’t matter what it looks like” trap. It becomes really tempting to glaze over the design and branding to focus almost exclusively on building a product quickly. For some companies, just having a logotype is enough of branding and design to make the company notable and viable. Unfortunately, for most of us, design is the differentiator. It’s not a phenomenon that’s exclusively for new and up and coming companies, however. Just look at Microsoft (especially versus Apple). After the recent Microsoft redesign from Andrew Kim created some noticeable buzz, I decided to look further into Microsoft and took away a couple of lessons learned that can help tech companies (even Microsoft).

People have to know what you do
Remember the Zune? Microsoft finally stopped producing them last year (Who knew they were still making them?). Zunes were actually pretty cool- and I know I’m risking losing all of my techie points here, but they were maybe even better than the iPod, at least initially. One major problem for Zune was that most people didn’t know the coolest parts of what it did. It didn’t help that almost all of the advertising around Zune was disjointed and had very little to do with the music player itself. The coolest feature was definitely wirelessly locating other devices and sharing music and pictures with them. It was the first notable step in making portable music social. Too bad nobody seemed to notice.

The same thing can be said of many of the company’s failed attempts at different kinds of technologies. One thing that has been clear from Microsoft is that outperforming in technology doesn’t mean that you’re going to outperform in sales. There has to be a why. Only design can give you that why. It’s understanding user needs and translating them into products with great user experiences and clear benefits to the user for the choices that went into that product. It doesn’t matter how sexy the product is.

Lesson learned: What makes your company cool has to be the forefront and you need to build off of that.
You can start that process with a good landing and about page:
Creating Effective Landing Pages
Anatomy of a Perfect Landing Page
5 Traits of Effective ‘About Us’ Pages 

Branding really is everything
Believe it or not, Microsoft is a lot cooler than people give it credit for. Zune was released in November 2006 and came preloaded with cool indie music, including a couple of songs from the same album as the song that aired in the first iPod touch commercial almost a year later. It even has a Tumblr with some hipster humor. But most people would never think of the company as cool because its branding is just vague geekery known for products that are either hated or popular with corporations.

Microsoft could be cool, if it made these attempts at coolness part of a cohesive brand identity and stuck with it. Clearly, having products that stick to that message is just as- if not more- important than the message itself. Right now, Microsoft’s message is… well no one quite knows. A glance at their careers page says that they really love developers and MBAs, and we all know Steve Ballmer really loves developers.

Unfortunately, their products don’t communicate this. Sure, having products that are technically better communicates this on some level. However, having products like Internet Explorer, which doesn’t support lots of features that other browsers do and makes life more difficult for web developers, and Bing, which got caught in “copygate” last year, don’t really say “We really value what you do and want you to make cool stuff for us” to developers like other brands do- and no amount of attempts at creating a developer community or dubstep is going to change that. Microsoft is going to stay the uncool kid unless it finds a way to be accessible and cool to developers- the people who build stuff that other people think is cool too.

Lesson learned: It’s not just about color schemes and copy. Branding includes culture, user experiences, and products, and they need to have a cohesive vision.
Here are some guides for branding and identity design:
Branding, Identity, Logo Design Explained
How to Manage Your Company’s Brand
Startup Branding: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs
The 5 Basic Building Blocks for Branding Your Startup

It may seem like those two mistakes are no match for the technology behemoth. However, it’s their combination that provides some insight into just how much they can hurt a company. Perhaps the starkest contrast between Microsoft and Apple is their consumers’ desire to upgrade. While Apple has fanboys waiting impatiently in lines around the block every time there is a new release, Microsoft airs ads to tell people that they should upgrade from their “good enough” computers and begs people to stop using Internet Explorer 6. This lack of excitement has caused Microsoft’s sales and profits to dip below Apple’s. There’s little excitement about Microsoft because it has failed at branding and getting people to fall in love with their products. There are few fanboys, but that doesn’t have to be the case, for Microsoft or you. Designing everything from an easy-to-read typeface to company culture really makes all the difference.

What are some other design mistakes that companies should avoid? Have any other tips for differentiation? Let us know in the comments.