My Experiences at Microsoft’s Firenze|BXT Competition


The Cornell Finalist Team

If there is one experience that is undoubtedly the most rewarding and distinctive of being a university student, it is the pure excitement that comes from instantly being plugged into a network of brilliant minds and infinite opportunities. From case studies to hackathons, there seems no end to the amazing team-based competitions on campuses across the nation.

I had the great pleasure during my Spring semester of freshman year at Cornell University to experience a competition that blends design, business, and technology to allow for equal footing among a wide range of talents and majors: Microsoft Firenze|BXT.

Microsoft’s unique team competition has been nothing but a whirlwind of fun, nerves, sleepless nights, and incredible new friends.

From the Bottom…

As a freshman, I was concerned I would only be getting in the way of those who have had more experience in their fields. However, as one of the few design oriented majors there, I grew an appreciation for what I could offer: animation, conceptual rendering skills, and visual communication. However, at the time, I did not realize that I would be contributing an important skill that I had never explored before: User Interface design.

Tasked with reimagining Microsoft’s Bing search engine as being a search engine that heavily incorporated social media, my team and I set out to create an idea that would help us stand out from the six other talented Cornell teams. As the sleepless hours piled up, so did the ideas and drawings. We soon came upon a concept and design that my team and I unanimously loved: A clean redesign of Bing that placed equal emphasis on standard search results and reviews/tips/photos/etc. from “experts.” These so-called experts fell into two categories: those in your social network (such as friends who had posted material related to your search including reviews or photos) and those who are established experts in the related field (such as a well-known travel book author or a highly-regarded tech reviewer).

By compiling all the results into a cohesive search results page, we created a concept of a search engine that did not just serve users but connected them within their circles to provide better and more human results.


Delivering the Goods…

To aid our presentation to a panel of Microsoft employees ranging from Creative Directors to actual developers on Bing’s team, I was tasked with creating a conceptual user interface and a product demonstration video. With the help of Adobe Photoshop, Audition, Illustrator, and After Effects, I set out to create within just a day’s time the full video and necessary conceptual UI screens.

I am proud of the results – especially with 18 consecutive hours logged on the animation alone – and am extremely proud that my team and I were able to win a spot in the final round of the competition at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, campus.

Let’s Fly Away…

The entire final round of the competition will always seem completely surreal. Microsoft generously flew out the winning teams from the competing schools to Seattle, WA, for a weekend-long final competition. Once there, the finalist teams were created by mixing up the individual students and giving a new competition case: creating a new design for the Microsoft retail stores.

Alongside the best and brightest from schools such as Carnegie Mellon University and Ohio State University, the weekend passed quickly with meet and greets, constructive individual reviews/critiques from Microsoft HR and executive employees, field research at local Microsoft Stores, and a lot of caffeine-aided hard work throughout the night. The following day, each team presented their findings and proposals to a board of select Microsoft employees.

The result was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Finalists were rewarded not only with the opportunity to participate in such a memorable  competition, but also with an incredible number of awards including Microsoft Firenze|BXT jackets, sleek glass trophies, Xbox 360 consoles, and, for the winning team, Nokia phones and tablets.

To the Top…

Humbled and flattered by the entire experience, I cannot believe that weeks of hard work, nights of little to no sleep, and countless hours logged discussing concepts and ideas with my teams are finally over. I am left with a newfound appreciation of the field of User Interface Design, the important roles of Project and Product Managers – a few of which I had the honor of meeting while on Microsoft’s gorgeous Redmond campus, and the push Microsoft has started to make in recent years to place greater emphasis on design.

A major thanks to everyone at Microsoft who donated their time and resources to host the Firenze|BXT competition and to all the great new friends I made while competing this year.

Here’s to hoping the competition is offered next year!

Note: All Conceptual UI Design and Photos are property of Colin Budd. Duplication and use only allowed with permission.

Update: Be sure to check out my follow-up on the competition here: In the News: Microsoft Firenze|BXT 2012

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