Remote work challenges inspire Windows 11 updates to increase productivity and lessen distractions
When pandemic lockdowns more than two years ago required Swetha Machanavajhala to work from home, she almost immediately felt the impact on her ability to work efficiently.
Born deaf, the product manager on the Azure Cognitive Service Translator team reads lips and doesn’t use sign language, so when virtual Microsoft Teams meetings became the norm for working together from home, she couldn’t follow the flow of conversation when people didn’t appear on camera when they spoke.
Since 2013, when she joined Microsoft, she’d been able to attend meetings and presentations in-person, reading the lips of speakers. She also used the Microsoft Translator app and had access to the services of an interpreter who captions meetings (through an additional laptop). During that early time of remote-only work, she had to find and rely on new tools to replace in-person interactions, and the tools she had weren’t helping her as well as they used to as when she went to the office.
“Captioning became hard for me because it worked only on Teams. If I wanted to open another document, it would cover the caption,” says Machanavajhala, who also struggled with juggling with a laptop dedicated to her interpreter with one that she used for taking notes and attending meetings. “It became very difficult. I could not multitask anymore. I was more productive before the pandemic.”
Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more, and the company has a long history of creating inclusive technologies. Listening to customer feedback and the experiences of its own employees, like Machanavajhala, who struggled with remote and hybrid work challenges prompted by pandemic lockdowns, helped inspire features included in the recent update to Windows 11.
With her first-hand experiences and struggles to stay productive in meetings, Machanavajhala came up with the idea of platform captions embedded in Windows to provide captioning for any audio source. During a Microsoft hackathon in 2017, she led a team of 10 people to evolve the live captioning in Windows from app-specific to app-agnostic.
This team developed multiple iterations of their hackathon project. They worked with the deaf and hard of hearing community, along with Microsoft’s Accessibility and Windows teams – the latter of which kept developing the experience until it became the system-wide live captions feature, which was recently released as part of the latest update to Windows 11.
For Machanavajhala, it was a positive hands-on experience that showed how Microsoft practices inclusive culture and a growth mindset, which she says “are very important and essential traits in listening to lived experiences and turning them into products that can empower everyone on this planet.”
With a focus on accessibility, the teams working on the update realized the way people connect, collaborate and get work done has fundamentally changed.
“The system-wide live captions on Windows 11 have greatly improved my productivity as I can easily multitask while the captions remain intact and are not occluded by other applications/documents,” says Machanavajhala, who’s been using the feature through the Windows Insider Program. “I can drag the captions anywhere on the screen and, even better, move it closer to the person’s lips so I can focus on both lip reading and viewing captions without much eye coordination. It can also caption a person’s voice when there’s someone talking to me in-person. It has made my life easier as I can now follow any podcasts, or videos, or any audio source just with a button-click, without spending too much time on searching or settling only for audio sources that have captions enabled.”
“We're trying to make sure that we are designing solutions that can help everyone”
As companies around the world continue to embrace hybrid work, the new accessibility features in Windows are helping people of all abilities to be as productive at home as when they are in the office.
Carolina Hernandez, who leads accessibility for Windows and recently wrote about how inclusion drives innovation in Windows 11, says that system-wide live captions could also prove useful to people learning another language, or who are in loud or quiet environments – such as those in an active household or in a library, trying to watch something like a class.
“The diversity of the people that we want to serve helps us look at a problem in a more holistic way, because we’re understanding all of the different points of view and we’re trying to make sure that we are designing solutions that can help everyone,” Hernandez says.
The Windows teams also worked on empowering people of all abilities to sharpen their focus, limit distractions and improve their workflow in this update.
In the before times (pre-pandemic), Alexis Kane, a product manager on the Windows Accessibility team, often left her laptop behind when she attended in-person meetings. (She commuted to the Redmond, Washington, headquarters of the company daily from her home in Seattle.) Most of her day was spent collaborating with others, so she estimates she actively used her laptop only one-third of her day.
“I wouldn’t even bring my laptop into the conference room. I would sit there and be able to listen to whoever,” says Kane, who prefers to take notes with a pen and paper. “If I was focused, my door would be closed and I wouldn’t look up. So if someone walked by my office, they wouldn’t interrupt me.”
Everything changed during the COVID-19 lockdowns when she had to work from home.
Kane found the number of notifications popping up on her laptop – which was now always on during her work hours – to be overwhelming, exacerbated by her ADHD. Pings came left and right – something she admits initiating, because she wanted to relay questions before she forgot them.
“But when you’re the person receiving the notifications, it feels like ‘oh no.’ At least for my brain,” Kane says. “I instantly see this notification and maybe I’m not answering it right now, but I’m definitely thinking about it.”
Another big change that’s still making a big impact on her happens during meetings.
“I struggle with this. There’s been such a change in standards and how we do meetings. And so even now that we’re a little bit back in the office, it’s kind of etiquette to always be on the call as well. And so that means your laptop is still open and you still have access to the meeting chat, which some people I think have really enjoyed, being able to put their comments in the chat during a meeting, if they don’t feel comfortable speaking out, or just want to write out their thoughts,” says Kane, who’s gone back to the office once a week. “For me it now adds double the amount of work, it feels like. I have to go back and read the chat because I can’t do both at once and it’s extremely overwhelming if I try to read them during the meeting. So it’s just kind of constant.”
Hernandez says this could affect other users, too — like people who are blind or have low vision and use screen readers.
“They’re trying to listen to this meeting and then all the chats that are coming in as notifications tell them: message, message, message, message,” she says.
“I just like everything to be in one place and so having something built into Windows is super helpful”
Focus Sessions and Do Not Disturb – newly built into Windows 11 to help limit notifications with a simple on/off toggle — wasn’t top of mind when Kane first joined the Accessibility team. But soon, the team was thinking about solving problems for neurodiverse people, such as those with ADHD or autism. Through customer interviews across the wide range of this community, they found common pain points that came down to calming down distractions on the PC, like notifications.
“I personally had such direct input into what we built but we also reached out to the neurodiverse community at Microsoft so they could give general feedback about Windows,” says Kane, who helped created a small, internal advisory board for these focus features. They brainstormed and gave constant input on its development.
Start a Focus Session from the notification center and Windows will calm itself down for you, turning off notifications, such as removing taskbar badges. Priority notifications can still come through if needed.
“The biggest thing we did was silencing a few different types of notifications that Windows has. The red flashing that comes from Teams or Outlook or other badges that tell you how many notifications you have unread or draw attention, go away,” Kane says. “It’s a pretty subtle change, but I think that’s the point. We weren’t trying to introduce another distraction or change anything major on the PC.”
Another useful addition to the feature is a timer that stays on the screen that can help those who are more deadline driven or like to track or see the duration of their Focus Session.
“I just like everything to be in one place and so having something built into Windows is super helpful,” says Kane, who likes that she can sync up Focus Sessions with To Do lists.
Spotify is also integrated into Focus Sessions for those who prefer to listen to audio when they’re in creation or concentration mode, using a specific playlist.
“What we want to do with Windows is create the experiences and the tools that are going to help each of us be as productive and as creative as we can,” says Hernandez, who also advises users to look for other updates to Windows 11 such as bringing more natural voices to Narrator and Voice Access to command and control PCs. “That’s part of what we are aiming to achieve, not just as part of Windows, but also as part of our company’s mission to close the digital divide.”
Lead photo: Swetha Machanavajhala working on her laptop (photo by Dan DeLong)