Experientia interviews Anne Kirah, senior design anthropologist at Microsoft

Anne KirahAnne Kirah (bio) is senior design anthropologist at Microsoft’s MSN Customer Design Centre. In this interview, she talks on the importance of taking off your blinders and focusing on the real lives of real people. She discusses her work at Microsoft and her latest challenges.

She highlights that “it is just as important understanding people who are not using technology as it is to understand people who are using technology” and describes what the challenges were in changing Microsoft from a tech-centred company to a people-centred one.

She reflects on how companies can change to have a people-centred focus no matter what their products and services are, on the new 180º Academy where she is directing the programming, and on her new consulting activities.

The interview, which was conducted in October, is published as a prelude to the European Market Research Event that Anne co-chairs and Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken will attend and blog about.


Anne Kirah (bio) is senior design anthropologist at Microsoft’s MSN Customer Design Centre. In this interview, she talks on the importance of taking off your blinders and focusing on the real lives of real people. She discusses her work at Microsoft and her latest challenges.

The interview was conducted by Mark Vanderbeeken and took place in October 2006.

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How did you start your work as an anthropologist for Microsoft?

When they hired me eight years ago as the first official anthropologist, they weren’t sure what to do with me, so they had me design my own job. I soon realised that Microsoft had until then the tendency to come up with feature and product designs within the confines of its own walls. Microsoftees just didn’t have much of an idea what real people in their everyday and not so everyday lives were doing. After all, I think it is just as important to understand people who are not using technology as it is to understand people who are using technology when you are meant to be building products or services that are meaningful, relevant and useful to people in their everyday and not so everyday lives. What went on in the minds of Microsoft’s brilliant software engineers and of people outside the walls of Microsoft, was not always very congruent. So I created the Real People Real Data (RPRD) programme for Windows XP’s development cycle.

Tell me more about how you started out with the RPRD programme.

At first I went to meetings and listened to people (employees at Microsoft) talking. They were just on another planet for me. It was like going to another country where I didn’t speak the language. Then there was the disconnect with what was going on outside Microsoft. For example I was asked to go out and watch people purchase computers, and set up an internet connection. In the usability lab it took on average 3 hours (three hours!) to set up computer and internet. But outside the lab none of the 40 families I studied were able to set up the internet. Those 40 families by the way were randomly chosen families from all over the United States (not just Redmond, my first big win). Later on I would also get them to realise the importance of research outside the United States. So none of the 40 families were able to do it by themselves without serious technical support, and even then they took much longer than the average usability lab time of 3 hours. This told us that people who signed up for usability lab assessment were not average people, but rather techno hobbyists who knew something about usability.

So Windows XP was changed to accommodate those insights.

Not immediately. Microsoft first launched the beta of XP and the same thing happened. We had 1000 beta testing consumers and I had my 40 families also setting up the beta. My families were plaguing the tech support guys assigned to the beta. At first my boss was furious and asked me what was wrong with my people. Later on we found out that the 1000 beta users were again IT-pros who enjoy taking software home, while my 40 families were more representative of everyday people. I had made a video of the first field study, which showed a very angry customer who couldn’t manage to set up his computer. I was called in by the Vice-President of Windows who asked me what I needed to stop humiliating him. That is when Real People Real Data got a budget and it became possible for us to impact not only the future design of XP and other products, but to change the company culture to focus on people. It didn’t hurt either that during my first year at Microsoft, I had the intense surprise of going to our company meeting with 40,000 other people and have Steve Ballmer name the Real People Real Data programme as a symbol for what we were going after.

That must have been very moving.

It was. But most moving were the comments from the families. The families are those who really inspired me by giving me the opportunity to see into their lives and letting me understand their aspirations and motivations. This allowed me to transform these data into meaningful and relevant information for software engineers, so that they could make changes to the designs of our products and services in order to meet those people’s aspirations and motivations. A couple aged 78 came to the “release to manufacture” of Windows XP. They had written a letter to me, which was read out by the VP. It said they couldn’t believe that Microsoft would be interested in them and that they were stunned to see their thoughts and ideas incorporated in to the design of Windows XP. Afterwards tons of software engineers were in tears to meet them saying that they finally understood whom they were building for. Honestly I cried too! The moments I have truly loved at work are the moments when the deepest cynics got a twinkle in their eye and I could see change, change from tech-driven to people-driven. That is what I am most proud of, not the features and services that have come out of it.

[Anne adds after the interview that Howard, who was the husband of the 78 year old couple died recently at 85. “I found out that tech support for Windows VISTA had a corner of their office called: “Howard’s corner” dedicated to making the product acceptable to Howard as a symbol for everyday people in their everyday lives. I went to Howard’s funeral and delivered a speech for the family. It was very moving and most importantly of all, I realised that Howard was a symbol for so much and he will live on in the hearts of many people in my company.”]


Changing a culture…

My work on the RPRD programme was in fact the start of a revolution within Microsoft, and helped the company change from techno-driven to people-driven design. I did of course have some impact on Windows XP but I am much prouder being part of the cultural change at Microsoft than I am of the products and features that have been impacted by Microsoft’s anthropological research. Today, I firmly believe that products and services that are not grounded in understanding the people they are being made for, will result in failure.

What came after your Windows XP experience?

I worked on a product that failed. We predicted it, the group went ahead anyway and it failed. This failure gave me credibility since we had predicted it. I since worked with mobile applications and Messenger, both MSN in general (in Europe people often think it is only Messenger), as well as individual apps such as Hotmail, communications, MSN Spaces, etc.

You worked mainly on mass-market consumer applications?

People are not just consumer or enterprise or whatever. We switch roles all during the day and when we have data relevant to an area within Microsoft, we give them to that area.

Fair enough. But these are all apps that are also consumer apps.

No, XP is also enterprise. There is a Messenger that is for enterprise. There are calendar issues that are not consumer. And when we have relevant data for these areas, they go to the enterprise people.

Microsoft makes quite some applications that are only for business.

The problem is that you are thinking within a mental model of business vs. consumer. In the course of any given day, real people are in both spheres and they overlap! I even worked sometimes in the small biz space when I had relevant data. In fact they are integrated. I have a big issue with how we are taught to think. It is as if we have to unlearn to get to what I think is fairly obvious. I believe strongly that if you want to innovate, you must take off your blinders built through your education and your work experience. As long as you are blinded by these two things, you can not see the world and the potential around you. You can only make changes incrementally based on the lack of understanding of what is really happening around you.

So you don’t focus on particular types of applications?

The data my team collects are holistic. It is not for any one product, be it service enterprise related or consumer related. It is related to the real lives of real people, not to market segmentation. I can easily get annoyed with market segmentation that is purely built on averages and superficial field research. There are plenty of people out there calling themselves ethnographers who do work that is of dangerously poor quality. Of course, we can argue the same for nearly all disciplines. But I am obviously only one person and therefore tend to focus on areas that can have impact for as many people as possible.

How has the user-focused process evolved since?

Let me first say that I never speak about users. Did you wake up this morning defining yourself as a user? No. Maybe you woke up with an alarm clock, so you are an employee. Maybe you woke up with a baby, so you are a father. Maybe you woke up with your wife or lover, which makes you a spouse or a lover. But you sure as hell didn’t wake up and say: good morning world, I am a USER. If we create jargon to deal with our research, then we are no better than the engineers and anyone else who doesn’t speak the language of everyday people in their everyday lives and not so everyday people in their not so everyday lives or any combination thereof. The kind of innovation I am involved with means changing the cultures at work by speaking the same language and culture as the people the company is innovating for.


Describe me Microsoft’s people-centred development approach then.

We do both exploratory and reactive research. Exploratory research means taking off the Microsoft hat and studying life stages and life events associated with a life stage. This means looking at people who are at a basic level focused on everyday aspirations and motivations. For instance, a new mother needing support or trying to figure out the best diaper to buy, or a lonely single person looking for someone to love. We look for patterns across life stages, within life stages, across cultures, and within cultures, and we make design recommendations based on the themes that emerge.

How does that then lead to new applications?

From the exploratory research, we get data that are being condensed into themes. We then have these very cool ideation sessions — brainstorming, story boarding, rapid prototyping, dream ideas based in the motivations and aspirations of people — with the programme and product managers (the PM’s). We create lists of concept ideas, which we prioritise based on market research and design research, and then develop into new features, products and services. Even when a programme manager comes up with an idea for an app on their own, they first of all ask if we have data to support the concept and we work with them to be sure the idea is relevant, meaningful and useful.

Where do Microsoft’s user experience designers fit into this process?

They are part of the link between our data and the coders. For example on my old team the user experience designers worked with the data from the field and the PM’s, and bridged the link through design. I am not a designer… I can’t design anything. I can come up with ideas, concepts that need to be transformed.

How would you describe this transformation process?

It’s like an illustrator, an interpreter. You have to read the book first to be able to illustrate. In fact, they are the most important part of the process because they breathe life into the concepts. But in the end, we are a team. Let me give you an example. One day not so long ago a designer, a PM and myself brainstormed on a certain topic. By listening to the two others, and thinking through the themes, I came up with a patentable idea. They immediately told me that I should patent it. I said no, WE patent it. Nobody and I mean nobody comes up with an idea alone. I just don’t buy that. We might feel we do at times, but we forget the experiences and people behind these experiences that are inherent to our ability to come up with ideas. I would never have come up with that idea if I hadn’t been sitting and discussing a topic with people of a different mindset than my own, each representing different styles and different parts of the process. So they deserve as much credit as I do. I came up with the concept idea with them, not alone. WE came up with the design together. All of this is teamwork and this is vitally important to me.

You also mentioned reactive research.

Reactive research is when you study a particular product or product area. For example when Messenger was not succeeding in Japan, my team was sent there to figure out why and to come up with solutions that would be meaningful and relevant to the Japanese. It turned out that in Japan synchronous communication is considered the rudest form of communication possible. So we made Messenger asynchronous, which means that you can send a message even if the other person is not online. However in doing this, we realised that this intervention, which originated from a culturally specific need, was also meaningful for the rest of the world. In the end we changed the platform globally.


Do you also do reactive research on Windows, for example, to help prepare a new release?

Yes, we do and have done. For Vista there have been six real people feedback programmes that are directly related to what you ask: Windows Vista user experience, customer love, living with Windows Vista, working with Windows Vista, living with Windows Vista global, and Windows desirability. In short, they addressed living with Vista at home, at work, in different countries and in different contexts. But all this is done as a team: usability, design research, coders, programme managers, software engineers and anthropologists. I am proud of my team, of the other teams that I worked with. They are amazing people. Success is built upon working together as a team.

I am asking this question about Vista for three reasons: it is a major release, it is the Microsoft programme that most people will use in a few years and it is promoted with a strong emphasis on the user experience. So I am trying to better understand what is behind that claim, and how you have helped in making that happen?

Well, I am the founder of the Real People programme and worked on Vista at its earliest stages. I left Windows 3-4 years ago though I since still had meetings with the people over there. I started the Internet version of the Real People programme and our data often overlaps. In fact, we became now completely integrated after a recent reorganisation. But Vista is not really my baby.

Fair enough. You started out by talking about the change from a tech-centred to a people-centred company. Is Microsoft now a people-centred company?

Parts of it are, parts of it are not. But that is the direction they are going and it warms my heart.


Where are the biggest obstacles still?

Well, you can change people by giving them experiences that change them. It starts with the education models that do not take into account people-centred design enough, that are not equipped to address the rapid changes that come with the technological revolution (as opposed to the incremental changes of the industrial world), and that do not yet see the world as a global world, though it IS.

You told me that you are involved with some new initiatives, in part dealing with education, which are not immediately connected to Microsoft…

I am very loyal to Microsoft which has given me amazing opportunities. But yes, I am now on a 50% leave from Microsoft, working as a corporate consultant and helping set up an academy.

Let’s talk about the academy first. How will it change education?

In fact there are two academies. The first one (see also article on Putting People First) is a 9-module course for people in the workforce now. It will start off next year. It’s called 180° Academy, based on the concept that we want to turn people 180° around. The other provides a fulltime Masters and PhD. It is not ready for a few years and is only in the concept stages. Both were formed with a focus on front end research before concept making and the commercialisation of concepts.

The 180° Academy was started by some top Danish business…

Yes, companies such as Bang & Olufsen, Lego, Novo Nordisk, Gumlink, Middelfart Sparekasse, Nokia, and Danfoss. I was hired to create the curriculum and hire the faculty. I am just so passionately involved with it. It has given my life new meaning because all I really want to do is save the world and to be able to touch the lives of powerful people (me not being powerful), I have a chance at it. I truly believe that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. It is the most exciting thing I have ever done.

What makes you so excited?

My passion for working at the academy and in educational world in general is based on my deep belief that we need to change the educational system to be successful in any industry. I work on change management in my consulting work for the same reasons because companies just can’t afford to wait for the educational revolution to take place. They really want to turn things upside down a bit. This all goes back to people-centred design. How can companies change to have a people-centred focus no matter what their services and products are? How can education change to create people who can adapt to this rapidly moving world and focus on the matters of the heart? This is where my passion is and where I will continue to work for the rest of my working years.

You are advocating a new educational approach…

Education has to stop creating models and start giving people tools that help them adapt to rapid change, that allow them to take “context” into account. Each situation is different and you need to have a new tool kit each time. Education should stop creating a one-directional model. The world is not linear. Production and design is not linear. Even the word iterative can be annoying because then it just becomes one linear process on top of another – the same old thing over and over again. I know I am being provocative, so I apologise but if I could stand on top of the Eiffel tower and be heard. Here are some of my core ideas on this:

  • Values from connecting the heart and mind
  • We work too much with our blinders on
  • Innovation comes from learning to see people and things through new lenses
  • Observing the lives and the environment of people
  • A willingness to build with the people we observe
  • Allowing for values of the heart and mind to be embraced
  • Being humble and practicing humility
  • and taking risks!

There are still too many top-down models in just about everything. In education. In politics and governance. In urban planning. Etc. We have to find more creative ways to work bottom-up, to let people co-create.

That is my mission in life. We are on the edge of a revolution and I think we will see a paradigm shift in the next five to ten years when we will get the people with blinders on either to see the light or to move on.


You are also getting involved in corporate consulting…

Yes, it’s currently called the Kirah Group, although we keep changing the name of it. We are focused on the stage before they realise they need companies like yours [i.e. Experientia, an experience design consultancy]. We run workshops with the top management of companies to help them see that by understanding people, environment, context, you can actually open your minds and see the vast areas of innovation. If you ask the wrong questions you get the wrong answers. I set them up to hire people like your company to help them.

The name sounds a bit like a family consultancy. The Kirah’s.

LOL. There are four of us. We are in a sense a family, very close-knit people whom I love dearly: my partner Stefano, my colleague Soren and his wife Vivi. We are very diverse and supplement each other very, very well.

You are basically working on a strategic level rather than doing actual on-the-ground research?

Yes, we focus on strategy, vision and change management.


And now you are co-chairing the European Market Research Event.

I participated in the Market Research Event in San Francisco last year. It provides an opportunity for those working in market research to link better to product development and to learn about different methods and practices in the industry. I got involved more intensely when I sent them some reflections on the San Francisco event. I also adore the other co-chair of the European event, Christian Madsbjerg of RED Associates, a great company.

Anne, thank you so much.

My pleasure.

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Anne Kirah serves as a senior design anthropologist for Microsoft’s MSN Customer Design Center and is responsible for global field research and participatory design. Her primary focus is on future product innovation and people centred research for MSN. Kirah recently won the award for MSN Contributor of the Year (2004).

Kirah is currently working with a consortium of Danish industry leaders to create a curriculum and hire faculty for a new global innovation school called 180º Academy, and is also a partner in the Kirah Group which does consulting work.

Kirah, who joined Microsoft in 1999, previously worked as a research associate for Boeing, the world’s leading aircraft manufacturer. She helped conceive quantitative research surveys for use onboard lengthy international flights and led a team of field researchers seeking input from passengers and crew to improve customer and employee satisfaction of aircraft design.

Kirah has lived and worked extensively in Europe and Asia and is fluent in English and Norwegian. She also has some knowledge of French, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. Kirah has written award-winning newspaper articles in Japan, edited and written books about contemporary Norwegian society and won several research grants, fellowships and scholarships.

She holds an upper level graduate degree in social and cultural anthropology from the University of Oslo, Norway; a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Washington and an undergraduate degree in social and cultural anthropology, with minors in the sociology of education and developmental psychology from the University of Oslo, Norway.

Kirah has two children, Aase and Miriam, and lives in Paris, France. Away from work, Kirah is involved in her children’s activities, cooking, writing, rock climbing and running.

Download interview (pdf, 188 kb, 8 pages)


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