Launched in February 2017, Microsoft StaffHub is a purpose-built app for the frontline workforce (also known as deskless workers, shift workers, staff workers, and firstline workers) to manage shifts, communicate, receive training, and share content. The product’s initial focus was on shift scheduling and swapping. Task management was the next big area the team planned to explore. The team envisioned it to be a new pillar of the product.

I led the research effort to understand what “tasks” mean for frontline workers, how they know what they are supposed to do throughout a shift, and what solutions can best address their needs.

Research goals

1. Gain a foundational understanding of what frontline workers and managers do daily, and what kinds of tasks they perform

  • Understand how tasks are generated, assigned, tracked, reported, and assessed
  • Gather examples, scenarios, and artifacts of tasks

2. Identify opportunities and key scenarios around “tasks” for StaffHub

  • Understand pain points and ideal solutions for tasks


  • Field observations and contextual inquries
  • In-depth interviews, including interactive exercises such as activity mapping
  • Focus group discussions
  • Collection of related documents, photos, artifacts

Research participants

I looked at the nature of the tasks performed by different industry vertical, and by geographic location. In each visit, I spoke with managers and frontline workers, as well as the company’s leadership team, to gain a holistic understanding of their current state and challenges. Major research trips included:

  • Pilot research at Microsoft Café in Seattle, USA (1 day)
  • Field visits at an international hotel chain in Los Angeles, USA, and Paris, France (1 day each)
  • Field visit at a large construction company in Atlanta, USA (2 days)
  • Field visit and design co-creation at a leading retail company in London, UK (4 days)

Field visited retail stores and hotels. We joined frontline workers’ morning huddles and shadowed them at work.

(Left) Focus group discussion with a luxury brand’s digital leadership team in Paris. (Right) Focus group discussion with a construction team in Atlanta.

Key learnings

TL;DR – The next billion-dollar opportunity is a chat-based, photo-centric mobile solution

1. Tasks for frontline workers are housed in chats and messages, not in a to-do list.

Initially, the product team followed the information workers’ mindset and wanted to create a to-do list for frontline workers. The findings convinced the team that the ability to easily transform a message into an actionable, trackable, and sharable task is critical.

Additionally, as frontline workers are not always on their phones, and therefore tend to be overwhelmed by the amount of information when checking messaging apps, the to-do items should also be able to be filtered, searched, pinned, and sorted, etc.

2. Photos are heavily used by frontline workers in task assignment. Photos are valuable in reporting as well, but they don’t usually fit into the existing workflow.

We saw managers use photos to give instructions, show best practices, and point out issues. Frontline workers use photos to evidence their work. Photos help them increase the clarity of the work that needs to be done. However, the challenge is that photos captured during the day can’t be easily incorporated into the workflow when doing reporting and handover. As a result, having a detailed account of a project is difficult. For example, a construction team I talked to got into lawsuit during a road-side project for damage allegedly done to a third party’s property. If the construction team had related photos showing what actually happened, the case would have been far more straightforward.

We heard this need from multiple industries. I proposed a picture-centric solution which captures, assigns, and reports tasks with metadata (location, time, etc.).

Photos were used to communicate tasks across industries and continents

3. Our target should be: non-routine tasks that need to be tracked, and teams that are spread out and have a more top-down and structured workflow

Before the research, I created a “task matrix” with the hypothesis of what kinds of teams might want the task feature, and what kind of tasks might go into StaffHub. The matrix was updated after the research.

I found that some teams, especially those in luxury brands, tend to have a more empowering culture. Therefore, the work process is free-flow and organic. Frontline workers have a good sense of what they are supposed to do, and the managers prefer to just supervise rather than assign to-dos. Therefore, “task” is not the ideal term. Ad-hoc activity management (e.g. locating people, picking up a package when the manager is away) are more relevant scenarios.


As I spoke with more companies, the features required to better manage “tasks” became clear. As our research entered its final stages, we held a set of brainstorming sessions with potential customers’ digital transformation teams to determine the solutions they want to have for their frontline employees. The solutions we proposed were very well received.

Eventually, I worked with program managers and designers to turn research insights into a MVP, and to lay out the roadmap for implementation.

Ideating ideal solutions with designers


Task MVP (Blurred)


Task roadmap (Blurred)


Other major research projects I led for StaffHub

Frontline workers in China

The goal of this research was to understand common habits and practices of frontline workers in China, and to identify the user requirements for StaffHub to succeed in China.

I visited managers and Frontline workers at their workplaces in Shanghai, and had them show me the tools they use and their work environment.

Key findings include:

  • WeChat dominates communication and file sharing at work. However, many share concerns over information overload and personal privacy by using WeChat for both personal and work communication.
  • Staff members generally try to avoid making changes to an already set schedule because it is considered owing someone a favor and creates a negative impression.
  • Relationship and trust can affect procedures – Having a better relationship with management means that staff might be able to bypass the formal process of requesting shift changes.

Snap of the report 

Daily information needs

I conducted diary studies and in-depth interviews to understand frontline workers’ daily information needs and how StaffHub can serve as a hub by providing the information people need at work.

Read the case study here.

Snap of the report


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