Collaboration’s next chapter with Microsoft’s Jon Friedman

Ted Brown
Managing Editor at Figma

Tool chains are an increasingly vital part of team collaboration. Only a few years ago, designers, engineers, and writers had to hop between silos and sandboxes to get a project over the finish line. It was a clunky process for cross-team collaboration, full of potential pitfalls and interminable file names that made everyone on a team ask, “Are you sure this is the final final version?”

But as platforms started to emerge and hybrid working became a reality, it was clear that team collaboration would go from navigating walled gardens to wading in a lazy river where design, engineering, product, and marketing tools were all within easy reach.

That evolution is continuing, and we’re ecstatic that Figma is now fully integrated into Microsoft Teams. You can now collaborate in Figma and FigJam without ever leaving Teams, giving users a seamless way to simultaneously design, talk, and work together in a single ecosystem.

We recently sat down with Jon Friedman, Corporate Vice President of Design & Research at Microsoft, to talk about collaboration, the importance of design systems and tools chains in freeing up time for ambitious work, and why it’s worth it to change a company’s culture—even if it’s hard.

Screenshot of Figma interface within Microsoft TeamsScreenshot of Figma interface within Microsoft Teams

You’ve been talking about remote collaboration since before it was a global trend. What made it clear to you that the world was heading for a hybridized workforce prior to COVID, and how did that prepare your team for the rapid shift to remote collaboration?

So the first thing I should say is that I am not a soothsayer. I certainly couldn't have predicted a global pandemic, but as a designer, part of what I do is just observe reality. And I think the pandemic accelerated the trend of companies like Microsoft growing more globally than ever before.

There are a couple of big things that we were seeing even before the pandemic. One is there's talent in so many places beyond your immediate geography. There’s amazing design talent in India, China, Atlanta, Norway…everywhere. And the pandemic has only accelerated that realization for people.

And the second observation—it was this evolution of a conversation that asked the question, “Why wouldn’t we promote someone in New York that is more influential and impactful than someone in Redmond (Washington, where Microsoft is headquartered)? Why would we require them to move?” As we started thinking about that and writing down thoughts on how to make remote working more successful, it helped us look for talent in other places and support those remote people in the right way. This was all academic for those of us working in person. When the pandemic hit, we were able to put a lot of these lessons into practice.

We’re big fans of your take on “new professionalism”—and how the boundaries between work and home have dissolved. What are you observing now that the tools are so much better? Where are there new or unexpected gaps?

The experience that I'm observing at Microsoft is that we’re using our own tools and tools like Figma to collaborate more effectively than many in-person scenarios. Tools are non-hierarchical, and that helps give everyone a stronger and more equal voice. But the big question for us next is: what is in-person for? And when do you use it?

Of course, there are a lot of serendipitous, nonscheduled things that can happen virtually. But we're still social animals, and we still need much richer rituals. I met up with one of my newer employees for coffee in the middle of the pandemic, and I had never met this person face-to-face before. So when I met them, I saw what they actually looked like. It was a pleasant, lovely surprise, and it made me think about how our brains can take in so many signals about other people, their mannerisms, who they are, their shoes, and the way their clothes drape. We're deeply visual beings, and something like that is an enriching, distinctly human social experience. It helps bring us closer together.

At Figma, we think a lot about the creative potential for tool chains and ecosystems. So I'm curious from a design perspective, how do you engender systems thinking into a space that values fluidity and creativity?

The “how” is the multibillion-dollar question. It can take a multi-year cultural shift to move a whole company’s mindset into one that is grounded in collaboration first vs. solo contribution. Tools certainly help accelerate that in a big way.

I had a conversation before the pandemic with my design team at the time where the main topic was how do we take a design system really seriously and what does that mean? As I was talking to the designers, I had this nagging concern in the back of my head that I was telling a bunch of creative people who love to design every pixel that they shouldn't do all of that but rather use this shared system, you know?

I was passionate about the idea that we can naturally build coherent things and not reinvent the wheel. It’s not about rules but freeing people to focus on what matters and creating connections in a natural way, not in a forced way. And so I remember getting excited about it and talking about the importance, and then the whole room erupted in excitement because this is what creators actually want. We're so busy trying to design a better solution—but a good design system or a good set of tools can give you the benefit of building on that which is already good.

When we’re designing software together in Figma and having conversations on video and in chat simultaneously, it unlocks our ability to make things better together rather than separately—whether it’s in real-time or asynchronously. And it goes the other way as well: Microsoft Teams needs to help third parties outside of Microsoft build great things, and companies can use the real-time chat and video that Teams offers. The combination of those tools becomes really powerful, and the ability to build a design system at Microsoft while using Figma as a core tool is tipping Microsoft to become a company that truly builds together. And that's pretty cool.

Screenshot of Microsoft Teams video calling with Figma UIScreenshot of Microsoft Teams video calling with Figma UI

How do you deal with those situations where design teams may have to build for something they didn’t anticipate? And how do you go about refurbishing a design system with integrations like Figma in order to get to new places?

There are two things that immediately come to mind. One is when it comes to a design system at scale, you have to work in a hub-and-spoke model and consider what all the local teams need deeply. When you build your design system approach in a hub-and-spoke model, you have to give a lot of power and accountability to the spokes. But you also need the hub to be in there elevating and connecting the work. You need both parts to turn the wheel.

The second thing is what happens when “spoke” teams want to be able to influence and change the design system? It can’t be so rigid that cascading change becomes a limiter. Sometimes spoke teams invent really amazing new ways of doing something, and it gets a hub team to think that actually we should change everywhere in the design system. The transformation process there has to be easy.

When you’re Microsoft and your portfolio is so deep and wide, that's a really hard thing to do. Some of our products have been developed over 30 years, and some of them are new this year. We have everything in between as well. Combine that with the fact that we work across every platform and you have a matrix that is highly complex with more products than I can rattle off right now. So you have to think about how you make fast changes as an inherent part of your toolchain and design system.

The thing we're really excited about that we're working on now is integrating design tokens into our baseline set of Fluent controls. What's cool about design tokens is you can connect your design tokens from Figma all the way through to multiple code bases making change really fluid and fast.

Just doing that will free up design to be empowered to bring back new thinking and make a change that can cascade across a wide and deep set of products. It’s also empowering the teams outside of the central design to play and have an equal partnership with the design system hub team and makes it easy to change the tools and the design system via tokens. That's the way we're approaching it now, and it's a pretty promising, exciting thing.

Tools aren’t going to solve every problem on their own. What are the blind spots? What are the things that help people get to a shared common language? What are the things we’re missing in these spaces?

I've talked to designers for years about walking into the room with even a bad drawing of what you think people are talking about because suddenly the conversation gets hyper-focused. When you're only using words, everybody has a different picture in their mind of what you're talking about. Designers can be in the driver's seat of helping everybody articulate their thinking in a way that gets to a better product over time.

It’s a form of active listening. It's a form of trying things that you are maybe uncomfortable trying because you think it might help people see what’s good and what’s bad. Sometimes the brilliant ideas come out of someone misinterpreting what you were saying and then having some other idea that you never considered. If we don't keep encouraging that in our tools and in our culture and in our process, then we will lose out on what has made humanity great at creating and evolving further in the first place.

What are you most excited about right now?

As you know, huge customers of ours that are using products like Microsoft Teams also use Figma. As we're working with multidisciplinary teams all over the place to actively and consciously construct amazing products that work together, we’re starting to think about how you do that at scale.

The combination of Figma and Microsoft Teams as a place to come together and collaborate on UI and bring in multiple people to see and give feedback and work on something together and to do that asynchronously or in real-time is empowering. It helps usher in this notion of collaboration and design in ways that haven't been available in the past.

We talk a lot at Figma about the “multiplayer” concept of collaboration. How do you think you can equip designers to deal with that shift?

Design is inherently multiplayer. There is no world where anyone really designed something on their own by themselves and didn't build on something someone did before. It just doesn't happen.

I think it's probably one of the core distinctions between art and design. Art can certainly be a clear expression of an individual. But it's very hard to design something end-to-end that goes out into the world at any sort of scale without having collaborated with lots of people.

If you ask any designer to draw a design process, you'll always see this diverging and converging. And if you ask them about convergence points, they'll talk a lot about connecting with people, meeting, critiquing, and then they go off and try a bunch of things and bring everyone together again. They learn from a bunch of potential users and then they converge again. Every time one of those convergence points happens in the creation process, it’s always multidisciplinary and always multiplayer.

What do those new avenues of collaboration look like?

The act of design has always been an ebb and flow. You go off and create, come back together and share, and then go off and create and come back together and share again. And so if you know both Figma and Teams are tools that are capable of doing that with different amazing skill sets, that helps with conscious creation. That helps people’s ability to go off and jam for a while with some music going and then share that work, have people pick up on it asynchronously, share feedback and then come together and talk about it. That's the serendipity of creation in a collaborative environment, and Teams and Figma together can do that perhaps greater than any single creation tool.

And making those tools and experiences the best they can be to help ensure that the world is creating great content is vital. We have to help people design better and help empower people first. That’s always been the goal of design. You have to move past your own ego and say no, these tools and systems don’t mean I'm designing myself out of a job. I'm helping make design more accessible for all.