Case Studies, Design Strategy, Design Thinking, Methods, Systems Thinking

Case Study: Microsoft

There is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, now that technology is shaping the education sector in transformational ways.

For instance, teachers now have the ability to visualize student progress like never before, and proactively intervene before students fall behind. Students can access lesson plans and supplemental learning materials to help them succeed no matter their learning level. And collaboration tools give students the ability to connect with other students, mentors, and teachers near and far for distance co-working, tutoring, and support.

But all the technology in the world is no substitute for what teachers do best—teach. When considering how to make technology work for educators, we must address the day-to-day needs of our teachers in an accessible way, while creating forward-thinking, innovative products—remembering all the while that EdTech is an enabler, and not a substitute, for real hands-on guidance.

Microsoft, in partnership with Modernist Studio, launched a project to redesign their educator community so it better addressed the needs of K-12 teachers and improved learning outcomes for students.  

While developing a roadmap for this solution, the Modernist team identified three primary areas of focus:

  • Onboarding: Gathering data about our users so that we can serve them the most relevant content
  • Training: Giving users access to professional development courses from reputable sources
  • Community: Better connecting our community of educators to one-another
Designing a Solution that Benefits Educators and Students 

Our primary goal was to design a solution that empowers educators to provide personalized lessons to their students with less preparatory effort while presenting new opportunities for what can be done in the classroom. And the best way to ensure we’re crafting solutions that work is to speak with people who are impacted the most. 

Our human-centered design process offers three primary things:

  • It helps us understand culture by looking at the styles, words, tools, and workarounds people use in an effort to inspire design
  • It allows us to recognize and celebrate the unique and peculiar
  • It affords us the space to develop empathy, allowing us to focus more on rigor than objectivity

In our ethnographic research process, we get to know each of our research participants (users) at home and at work, in places where they’re comfortable. Then we use our insights to develop and test ideas, improve upon these ideas, and test them again. The process continues until we have designed a tool that is both accessible and positively impacts the life of the user.

Leveraging Insights to Design an Innovative Educational Product

Step one: we hosted a workshop with the interdisciplinary Microsoft team to indoctrinate them into the human-centered design process. Together, we sketched out possible designs that could address our goals and help us develop a tool we could test.

Step two: we took the learnings and ideas from the workshop and spent the next several weeks iterating on directions to overhaul Microsoft’s platform to make it work better for teachers. 

The Result 

The Microsoft Education tool was designed for all K-12 educators and needed to flex in a way that supports personalization by grade level and subject. The new and improved tool included several key features which addressed challenges educators face in their day-to-day routines.


We addressed the need for personalization by creating a series of screener questions for new users that:

  • Gathered information about their interests
  • Identified the user’s subject and grade levels
  • Captured the user’s habits and goals

In order to make professional development fun, appealing, and easy, we integrated solutions that:

  • Filtered content by relevance for each user
  • Included helpful details in each course description like course objectives, author, and performance level
  • Allowed users to leave public reviews of each course for others
  • Encouraged a healthy competitive environment by allowing users to post accomplishments directly to LinkedIn

We wanted to give educators the opportunity to connect with one another without burdening them with another complex social media tool to navigate. We designed an internal function that incorporated:

  • Sharing visuals from educators’ social media accounts to the Microsoft Education platform
  • Including curated content from a variety of social channels in one place
Other Essential Features:
  • We included data on how closely content matched each user’s interests
  • The tool allowed both Microsoft teams and individual users to share content
Supporting Educators 

Improving the education sector and helping teachers be more efficient has many possibilities. This project partnership was used as a vision toward the future—by identifying and developing new innovations that Microsoft could test and implement.

Microsoft used many of the ideas generated by the Modernist team and developed them further into the version of Microsoft Education that exists today, including:

  • In-depth information about each training to help educators easily identify which courses best fit their needs
  • Evolving the competitive environment within the tool by:
    • Developing a point system for each activity
    • Providing users with feedback about their test scores
    • Allowing educators to share their accomplishments across multiple social media channels including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn

By better supporting educators to do their job well, we can begin to improve the learning experience for students. It’s essential our students have the best learning experience possible. 

Our future depends on it.

Our work doesn’t end there!

Check out our speculative solutions for K-12 learning in this month’s Future of Education exploration.

And subscribe to our monthly Design Futures email (at the bottom of the page) or follow us on Medium to see the Future of Adult Learning next month!