How studying underserved communities is helping the tech giant create better products.
On one otherwise unremarkable day in May 2013, August de los Reyes fell out of bed, hurting his back. The then-42-year-old designer was just six months into his dream job at Microsoft: running design for Xbox and righting a franchise that was drifting due to mission creep. He had worked at Microsoft before, on projects such as MSN and Windows, but had returned because the world of gaming had an almost spiritual appeal to him. “I believe the universe is play,” he says. “And I believe there’s a moral imperative to play.”
At first, de los Reyes didn’t think the accident was serious. But several trips to the hospital later, he finally underwent emergency surgery. He’d broken a vertebra, his spinal cord had swelled, and, with breathtaking quickness, he was unable to walk ever again. The agonizing months adapting to his new life awakened de los Reyes to the thoughtlessness that hides all around us. He couldn’t meet friends in the usual restaurants, simply because no one had made the effort to pour a tiny concrete ramp. A tipped-over garbage can blocking a sidewalk would force him to circumnavigate an entire block. Disability, he came to believe, isn’t a limitation of a person; it is a mismatch between a person and the world that has been designed around him. “That was what radicalized me,” he says as we sit in his office in one of the colorful new design studios scattered about Microsoft’s sprawling Redmond, Washington, campus. The question was: Radicalized him to do what?
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