Microsoft’s Radical Bet On A New Type Of Design Thinking

On one otherwise unremarkable day in May 2013, August de los Reyes fell out of bed and hurt his back. Forty-two years old at the time, he 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. At first, de los Reyes was worried that the fall was serious; he went to the ER and was assured that he was fine. Yet several hospital trips later, he found himself undergoing emergency surgery. His spine had been fractured all along. His spinal cord had been damaged. With breathtaking quickness, he was unable to walk ever again.

De los Reyes has the reassuring smile and steady calm of a high-school guidance counselor, and an almost-spiritual attachment to video games. He likes to tell people that the universe is play, and that we all have a moral imperative to play. And he believes, wholeheartedly, that video games will change the fabric of our storytelling, just like movies did. After the accident, de los Reyes wondered what would become of that sprawling dreamscape. Nothing felt right anymore. He barely even felt like himself. Then, after months having not checked his email or used his cellphone, his sister brought him a laptop. He checked his email. He checked his voicemail. Among the hundreds of messages, there were dozens from a romantic interest, baffled at his sudden and total disappearance. The outlines of his former life began to return. He knew that to feel right again, he had to go back to work. Within three months, he did.

The return was bracing, but not in the way de los Reyes expected. Being back in the office was actually a balm, because the workplace had been fastidiously designed to accommodate wheelchairs, with wide halls and low elevator buttons. The problem was the rest of his life. De los Reyes, despite his mild demeanor, has never been content to let things happen slowly when they could happen fast. After the accident, he had methodically set about trying to do as many things as he’d ever done. Yet the limitations soon become obvious. He’d try to meet friends at a favorite restaurant, only to discover that he couldn’t quite get inside because of one tiny curb that some contractor had overlooked. He’d be steering his wheelchair down the sidewalk, only to be met with a tipped-over garbage can, which would force him to circumnavigate an entire block.

To de los Reyes, these myriad frustrations shared one thing: They didn’t actually speak to his own limitations. They spoke instead to the thoughtlessness all around him. As he began to see it, disability wasn’t a limitation of his, but rather a mismatch between his own abilities and the world around him. Disability was a design problem. As we spoke in his office, secluded in a quiet corner of a colorful new design studio built on Microsoft’s sprawling Redmond, Wash., campus, de los Reyes’s eyes widened: “That’s what radicalized me.” The question was: Radicalized him to do what?

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