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"Thirteen Years of Innovative Design", Interview with Ken Fry, Design Group Director: Microsoft Hardware

Recently, had the opportunity to visit and tour the Microsoft Industrial Design Studio courtesy of Ken Fry, Design Group Director of Microsoft Hardware. During the visit, we were able to discuss the ingenuity and creativity behind the hardware group which enabled Microsoft Hardware to provide to current day "thirteen years of innovative design."      What is your job?

Ken Fry: I am the design group director for the hardware design group which consists of about twenty some people. In addition, we have seven industrial designers on staff. Our group is one of the biggest corporate design organizations around from a design standpoint. The group has been around since 1991, and one of the older design groups within the company. Can you tell us a little bit about the Industrial Design Studio?

Ken Fry: So all these offices around the studio generally have designers who are working on the projects, including the library, product room, model shop (where are all the hand carving takes place and where models come to life). Even to this day as being as high tech as things are, everything is still done by hand initially via clay or foam models, etc. At first, they will actually carve it out using a file and sandpaper. Eventually the design makes the way to a CAD database before making its way to prototyping equipment. What type of prototyping equipment is in use?

Ken Fry: We use a machine that generates a prototype using epoxy resin. Those are pretty cool machines; however it takes awhile for a prototype to be produced. For aesthetics, we generally use foam models because they are easier to carve. Did your group design the Xbox hardware?

Ken Fry: About half of the Xbox design team came out of the hardware organization.  So the short answer is yes, however now they are working within their own group. Do you still assist them at all during the design process?

Ken Fry: Because we are unique design group, we still provide feedback to other design teams. We've done some work with the Xbox group doing game controller, etc. Tell us more about the recent new color, style/pattern introductions.

Ken Fry:  The color stuff has been quite a revolution both within Microsoft and the design industry as a whole. Lately, if you take a look at any recent consumer products you'll see they have more "personality" from a color and design standpoint. The same goes for the products we are designing. As technology products become more mainstream, people expect these things to have more personality and to reflect their personality in better ways. We continue to do that by providing different color options and you will see more from us in this regard in the future. What sets Microsoft apart from a hardware standpoint?

Ken Fry: We try to stay in the top of our game in the originality and creativity behind our work, but also in terms of technology behind the hardware.  What is the "product room"?

Ken Fry: This room (fairly new) is a repository for great work we have done over the years, work in progress, and a good place of inspiration for our designers in the design of new products.  How did the Notebook Optical mouse come about?

Ken Fry:  This product we are particularly proud of, considering the amount of work and research that went into it. Basically, the whole program started with us looking "what are some new ways people can interact with a mouse?  We actually came up with some wacky designs at first, starting in 1999, and first looking at comfort over all other things. Over the next two-three years, there was a natural progression to the final model on the market today. There are slightly different designs for Japanese and other foreign markets. What research has gone into developing new colors, patterns, etc. for Microsoft mice?

Ken Fry:  We have researched many, many items. We looked into such things as bright and vibrant colors. Even though most of the mice colors we research are not in production, all of the ones here (not pictured) have made their way to a customer for feedback. Even though some of the test colors are pretty obnoxious, it is all part of the research. We also research different weights, and have found in general consumers prefer a lighter mouse.  Do you have any plans to offer an "insert" for mice similar to cell phones to offer a much wider variety of color choices?

Ken Fry:  Our research shows that once customers make their initial product choice they are pretty satisfied with the color of the product, so inserts are not necessary. We are beyond the days of "boring" beige.  What determines the use of translucent materials in Microsoft hardware?

Ken Fry:  We research translucency in the same way we research color, and we have found that having translucent materials add a "depth" feeling to products.  Did your group do the SideWinder and Broadband Networking design?

Ken Fry:  Yes, our design group did the designs for both those sets of products.

Additional Information:

Microsoft Hardware Website


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