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Meet the design guru trying to make Windows Phone relevant

Former Nike designer Albert Shum joined Microsoft five years ago to infuse design thinking into the software giant's product development process.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
6 min read
Microsoft's Albert Shum takes a picture with a smartphone running Windows Phone software at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich in 2011 Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

You might not know who Albert Shum is, but it's a pretty good bet you know some of the products he helped design.

He was among the group of designers working in Nike's famed Innovation Kitchen that created the earliest prototypes that would ultimately become its Nike+ performance monitoring product line. When Microsoft hired him five years ago, he and a team cooked up the tile-based interface that was centerpiece of the company's Windows Phone debut.

Shum is a new breed of Microsoftie, a creative type that the company needs as it works to win over consumers that have learned to crave great design. As it competes against the slick styling and increasingly seamless experiences created Apple, Amazon, and Samsung, Microsoft has tried to shift away from a culture where programming chops often trump design flourishes. Shum believes he needs to help weave more "right-brained" creative thinking to a "left-brained" engineering culture.

"That's really the special sauce," said Shum, general manager of the Windows Phone Design Studio.

Microsoft has come late to the design ethos. In 1999, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates mocked the early candy-colored iMacs, quipping at a financial analyst conference, "The one thing Apple's providing now is leadership in colors. It won't take long for us to catch up with that, I don't think."

Shum's design group, with 88 employees, is at the heart of reframing design as a business strategy at Microsoft. He helped lead the effort to overhaul the company's smartphone efforts, coming up with a new tile-based interface that is simple, clear, and perhaps most important, uniquely Microsoft's.

"The end result is something fresh, fun, and functional," CNET Reviews' Bonnie Cha wrote in 2010, when the new Windows Phone operating system debuted.

Of course, Windows Phone faces huge challenges. It held just 2.9 percent of the market for smartphone operating systems in the U.S. in December, dwarfed by Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems, according to ComScore. Worse still, it's not a big part of the conversion about smartphones. Facebook just made headlines with a new skin that runs on top of Android. Samsung, which makes Windows Phone devices, has thrown much of its considerable weight behind the Android-running Galaxy S4, which should debut in a few weeks.

And all the terrific design in the world can't overcome the meager support from wireless carriers who often push consumers to models running competing operating systems. That, in turn, discourages developers from creating must-have apps for Windows Phone devices. It puts Microsoft on the wrong side of the virtuous cycle.

But Shum's efforts to make Windows Phone more compelling for consumers is central to seizing market share. And the notion that design is part of the development of a product from the very beginning is something that Microsoft is still getting used to.

"The way we approach design has really shifted in the last few years," Shum said.

Born in Hong Kong, Shum, 46, moved with his family to Winnipeg, Manitoba, when he was eight. His father, a taxi driver in Hong Kong, opened a restaurant in his new hometown, where Shum occasionally worked.

"I can make a mean omelet," Shum said.

As a kid, he was always interested in art, drawing pictures like the Japanese Manga comics he loved. He also was keen on tinkering, taking apart his bike and trying to put it back together. It was that mix of technical and creative pursuits that drew him the University of Waterloo, outside of Toronto, where he hoped to become an architect.

While studying architecture, Shum realized that only a handful of architects got to create the sort of iconic buildings that he loved.

"There are only one or two Frank Gehrys in the world," Shum said.

Moreover, he learned that he liked working on smaller projects with quicker turnarounds. That led him into the world of product design, where he still could mix art and engineering. One of his college co-ops was with Northern Telecom, where he worked on handsets.

"In some ways, I've been working on phones way too long," Shum said.

He earned a mechanical engineering degree from Waterloo in 1990 and headed to Stanford University, where he received a master's degree in product design.

Like many Stanford grads, Shum decided to become an entrepreneur rather than work for a big company. He and a classmate found warehouse space in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood, a haven for tech startups, and launched Primal Sports, where they designed all sorts of products for athletes.

One of those products, protective gear for inline skaters, caught Nike's eye. The sporting goods giant licensed the product, and then the company offered Shum a job. (His Primal partner, Tony Hu, is now a designer and consultant in Boston.)

Shum joined Nike's advanced product engineering group, and was one of the early employees in its Innovation Kitchen, where much of its research and development gets done. He worked on Nike's watches, and its skates, back when the company made them. He also worked on the technology that would become Nike+, which uses sensors to track athletes' performance.

Microsoft came calling in 2007. At the time, the company's top design instigator, J Allard, was assembling a team of like-minded executives, designers, and engineers to push the frumpy software giant, known for its then-musty Windows operating system and bland-but-essential Office productivity software, into producing products consumers craved.

Allard led the team that created the original Xbox, as well as the group behind the disappointing Zune digital media player. He wanted to shake Microsoft up, pushing it to embrace design at the very beginning of product development, baking design thinking into the way products are conceived.

The Metro interface in Windows Phone. Microsoft

He created Pioneer Studios, a skunkworks operation in Seattle's Pioneer Square, and named Shum studio director. Shum focused on incubation projects, such as Microsoft's ill-fated Courier tablet, a device that could have emerged around the time of Apple's iPod launch had it not been killed by Microsoft management. He was drawn to the opportunity to create products that might be used by hundreds of millions of people across the globe.

"At Microsoft, that was the potential," Shum said.

Not only did Courier never see the light of day, Pioneer Studios was shuttered as well. And while Allard eventually left Microsoft, much of the team he assembled moved to the Windows Phone group, just as it was rebooting its business, having seen upstart operating systems, Apple's iOS and Google's Android, soar past it in the marketplace.

Shum and his team put some of the work they did on the Zune interface to the new task. The group created a look for the new Windows Phone efforts, dubbed Metro, that featured tiles with content that could be updated dynamically. It was a dramatically different look and feel from the icons familiar to customers who used the old Windows Mobile devices, as well as those who opted for iPhones and Android smartphones.

The inspiration for Metro (a name Microsoft has since dropped, possibly because of a trademark dispute with a German retailer with the same name) came from way-finding graphics used in transportation signs. It uses bold, clear lettering, in the same way that signs on subways and in airport plainly help travels navigate through stations and terminals. There's plenty of white space, reducing graphical clutter that often confuses users.

Metro was a giant step away from the direction visual design was heading at Microsoft competition. Apple and Google had favored crafting interfaces where digital icons resemble their physical counterparts. The newsstand icon in iOS looks like a bookshelf for example, and the contact list icon is a picture of a bound address book. In design circles, the approach is called skeuomorphism, and it's one that Shum and his team avoided.

"This isn't about skeuomorphism," Shum said. "It's about shifting the paradigm" away from those representations of physical objects to cleaner, crisper graphics.

For Microsoft to have any success with Windows Phone, that's key. Shum and his colleagues realize that to win over smartphone customers, they can't simply produce an operating system that's merely a better version of what rivals are already making.

"We have a very clear point of view," Shum said. "We're very clear about that."

Shum remains in the Windows Phone group and the team continues to refine its work. But he's also been a leader in bringing the design philosophy to other groups at the company as well. The tile-based look is at the heart of the Xbox home screen as well as the touch screen version of Windows 8.

"That's the journey I'm on," Shum said, "bringing different parts of Microsoft together."