Each year, in the lead up to Thanksgiving, Microsoft holds its annual Giving Campaign where as a company we focus on giving back. This can be by either giving time to our local communities, schools and other organizations, or through donations to registered charitable organizations. As part of this campaign Microsoft IT traditionally runs an auction to raise funds for United Way, an international network across 45 countries that focuses on providing a better life for all through the building blocks of education, income and health.

For the auction, employees donate and bid on items throughout the Giving Campaign using an online auction tool. These auction items include anything and everything, from cupcakes to candlelit meals for two, from collectable gadgets to the latest technology. Nothing is too big or small!

This year we built a new version of the auction tool utilizing Silverlight for the user experience while migrating the heart of the application to Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform.

As is often the case with these types of projects, time was constrained and we needed to maximize the return on our development budget. At the outset of the project our designer decided to use SketchFlow as a quick and easy way to prototype and demonstrate different concepts for the application. SketchFlow allowed the team to iterate and explore different navigation, layout and interaction options, quickly mapping out a rough vision for the entire application.

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While Microsoft IT created the core auction tool service, we partnered with a vendor over the course of a month to build the Silverlight user experience. SketchFlow really accelerated the start of this project. Our designer demonstrated his rough SketchFlow vision for the application to the vendor in our first project meeting and rather than starting from scratch we were able to quickly iterate with the prototype to test and evolve ideas. This immediately saved us a few days of getting everyone on the same page.

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When we returned for our design review, the vendor showed us visual comps as well as a refined SketchFlow prototype. The visuals showed us how the application would look and SketchFlow enabled us to experience how it would work. This process helped define all aspects of the project and left much less room for surprises down the road. The prototype also enabled the team to detail the polish that would appear in the final version more accurately than would have otherwise been possible.

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When the vendor delivered us their work, the final application looked and acted exactly the way we expected it to. SketchFlow not only accelerated the design phase, it gave us the confidence to be more ambitious with our design because we were able to experiment and test different ideas quickly and easily right from the start of the project.

The result? A great development experience, a fantastic new auction experience for our employees, and over $400k raised for United Way during the course of the Giving Campaign auction.