Results tagged “design”

Hold The Door Open

April 25, 2013

Though it's currently in vogue to threaten the President with ricin, the fashion when I was a younger man was to intimidate newspapers with anthrax. During those heady days I happened to work at a newspaper, and as always the terrifying eventually evolved into the mundane, so efforts to protect the staff got reduced to the mailman delivering our packages while wearing latex gloves and a sign being taped inside the main door to our office. The sign had no doubt hastily been prepared in Microsoft Word by someone struggling to deal with the very real possibility of a deadly attack on their coworkers, but by just a few months later, it already seemed an odd artifact of an era of duct tape and color-coded alert levels. The sign said this:


Do not hold the door open for anyone. Later, the sign was revised to something more polite, doing a better job of explaining that this simple glass door was supposed to represent a last line of defense against some unforseeable biochemical attack.

But I think about that sign pretty regularly, as a manifestation of how people who are afraid act. I am a person who has a better life because some kind strangers held the door open for me for just that one extra moment. It was especially appreciated because the elevator in 36 Cooper Square took forever to arrive.

Be Kind

These are two posts that both arrived on Sunday. I don't know if they were coordinated, but they connected in a way that I found pretty powerful.

Cap Watkins, design lead at Etsy, asked us to Be Kind:

I was working out of my apartment fulltime, and hadn't met a single person in the bay area outside the people working with me on PMOG. One day, I decided I wanted to meet some designers in San Francisco. So, I did the only thing I could think of: made a list of web sites I thought were well-designed, figured out who designed them and sent a cold email to the designer telling them I was a new designer in the area and asking if they'd like to get coffee or a beer sometime. In all, I probably sent around 20-30 emails to a variety of creative people in San Francisco.

I received a single reply.

Daniel Burka (who at the time was the creative director at Digg) said that, sure, he'd love to grab coffee. We set up a time and I took the train to the city to meet up with him and his friend Mark. We chatted for awhile and, just before we left, they both mentioned that they were going rock climbing the next morning with friends, and asked if I'd like to join.

Absolutely, I did. ... I wonder sometimes about where I would be now if Daniel hadn't responded to that email. Most likely, I would have gone back home to Louisiana after PMOG. I wouldn't have known anyone in San Francisco, wouldn't have known how to even start looking for new work, etc.

And from Daniel Burka, the Google Ventures design partner mentioned in Cap's piece? A rumination about Doug Bowman:

Nine years ago, I sent a tentatively worded email to Doug Bowman asking if he’d meet up for a coffee when I visited San Francisco for work. At the time, Doug had just launched the new Hotwired site, which was the most incredible, amazing, mind-blowing achievement in web standards at the time. No way did I think that Doug would agree to get coffee with a handful of nobodies from Eastern Canada.

And then he responded. And said yes! And even knew some of the work we’d done (or was generous enough to look us up on the way to the café). And he didn’t talk down to us. And he treated us like COLLEAGUES, not like disciples. And he was just a human.

I’m not exaggerating when I describe this as a seminal moment in my design career. The fact that Doug Bowman treated me like I belonged in the same league allowed me to believe that maybe I really did play in the same league. What a wonderful boost of confidence!

I don't think it's coincidence that Cap and Daniel and Doug work in design, a discipline that at its best is grounded in empathy, but regardless of which field they happened to work in, they offer examples of exactly the serendipity and opportunity that can arise when we hold the door open, just a little bit, for that person entering behind us. All we have to do is not be afraid of who we're letting in.

You may also want to see How Jason Fried's opinion made it into the New York Times.

How to Redesign Your App Without Pissing Everybody Off

January 9, 2013

Inspired by Anil

The era of User Generated Discontent began about a decade ago, when a critical mass of people started using social apps on the web often enough that they felt a bit proprietary over the user interface and design of those services. Inevitably, that led to mass revolts and widespread complaints any time a company changed even the most minor parts of its user experience.

From Facebook's introduction of News Feed and Timeline to Twitter's launch of New Twitter and New New Twitter to countless angry responses to any given logo change, the spirit of "Why Wasn't I Consulted?" runs deep on the Internet, and perhaps in no realm is it expressed more passionately than in user interface design. How come we keep screwing it up? Is it possible to change a UI without inciting a riot?

It would appear so. We just have to follow some principles based on learning from the last 10,000 times that a mob of users got upset.

Saving Face

Yesterday I talked about how all dashboards should be feeds, using the example of our work with ThinkUp. I sort of glossed over it by saying "we threw out the old UI when we built version 2.0", but the reality is we totally redesigned an app that had been designed by a community, and nobody got upset. So it's possible to do this! But how? By obeying a few principles:

  • Communicate in advance with the community about what your goals are. You've got reasons for making a change in your app or site, but they should be grounded in meaningful goals that meet user needs. "We want to increase engagement" is not a goal, or at least not one that you should try to get a community to care about. But "we want to make sure new users aren't overwhelmed with options" is something people can actually respond to intelligently. If the community can understand your rationale, then they can help you achieve it, or at least begrudgingly concede that it's one of your priorities. And the time to do this is before you actually put the new version out. If you're concerned about revealing secrets to competitors or to the market, then just speak in broad terms without revealing exactly how you're going to change the app to meet those needs.
  • Enforce communications discipline amongst your team members when communicating the change. Everyone who knows a change is coming should get together and discuss how they'll talk about the redesign, and should work together to come up with consistent ways to describe both the goals and what's up for discussion in terms of future adjustments. Be hyper-responsive and very present as soon as the change is announced or released, to respond to complaints or questions wherever they happen. And if someone on your own team is worried about a design change, or disagrees with its implementation, you can bet that many of your users will feel the same way.
  • Describe the audiences you're trying to serve by making changes. One of the most common tensions with a community is when you make a change to address one part of your audience, making the other people you serve feel left out. If you optimize your mobile UI, desktop users get mad, or if you shift an element on the page so that international languages get a better experience, your primary language users might be frustrated. And no matter who you're serving, some people will say "Why did you fix that instead of fixing this other thing I care about more?" So articulating who a change is meant to serve helps to focus the conversation about a change in a useful way. We did this in a very literal way, simply writing a blog post called Who is ThinkUp for? to start to define our target audiences.
  • Give people structured ways to provide feedback and comments. Okay, so your users are asking "Why wasn't I consulted?" about this new change — now what? There should be clear, consistent ways for them to get heard, whether that's through social media or email or a comment form or any other mechanism. So many companies, especially big companies, screw up on this part by hoping that refusing to provide a forum for user complaints or feedback will somehow stop a backlash from coming.
  • Define a process and timeline for iterating based on feedback. Many of the issues that your community complains about or brings to your attention are going to be legitimate! They'll be raised in the spirit of a productive conversation, and you have an obligation to respond to those points with plans that are as concrete as possible in addressing them. So, be ready before you announce your changes with a team that will estimate the effort involved, and roll out those updates as efficiently as possible.
  • Set a measured, rational tone with your community. This is something you need to be doing well in advance, but if you set the expectation that changes will be responded to and both your team and your users are going to communicate about them respectfully and calmly, people will follow the prevailing culture of the conversation. On ThinkUp, we've had a mailing list for almost four years where there's never been a flame war. That's almost unheard-of in open source, and in addition to making things less stressful when we make a change, it helps us attract good, diverse talent to our community.
  • Accept that some people will never be happy. This is the sort of zen aspect of community management with changes, the one you have to confront by reciting the serenity prayer. Some people are determined to be unhappy, usually for reasons having to do with their personal lives or other challenges, and they simply want to use your app as the platform through which they demonstrate it. As long as you can contain their tantrums and direct them away from those giving productive feedback, they're not that hard to deal with.
  • It helps if people don't care that much about your app. This is more of a worst-practice than a best-practice, but we began to explain our reasoning behind a radical change in our user experience by talking about what sucked in older versions of ThinkUp. As painful or humbling as that exercise may have been, the criticisms that were leveled resonated as being accurate with our community, and gave us permission to pursue a more aggressive redesign. So one takeaway if your community gets upset is that you should thank them, because it indicates passion about what you're doing.

Humility Above All

This is far from a comprehensive list, but these are some of the basics that you'll have to accommodate if you want to not make your users mad. If you have a super-small community, you might be able to skip some of these steps. But overall it let us go from an app that looked like this:


To one that looks like this:


Without anybody getting upset. It's not inevitable that every change on the web has to involve drama; By carefully anticipating people's responses and thoughtfully engaging with your community, you can actually come out of even a dramatic UI redesign with people happier than they were before.

Related Reading

Many of these ideas of community management are far from new; Lots of people liked a similar piece that I wrote a few years ago called If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault.

If you're a developer or designer, you might want to follow along and make sure we put these principles into action by joining ThinkUp on GitHub.

Facebook makes it official: You have no say

November 28, 2012


Late on Wednesday, just as Americans were taking off for the Thanksgiving holiday, Facebook announced its intention to change the feedback process for the policies which govern use of its service.

For the last few years, as I'd mentioned in Wired a few months ago, Facebook held sham elections where people could ostensibly vote on its policy changes. Despite lots of responses (the most recent Site Governance vote got far more people participating than signed the secession petitions on the White House website), Facebook never promoted these policy change discussions to users, and the public has never made a substantive impact on site governance.

Now, Facebook follows the steps that most tyrants do, quietly moving from sham elections to an official policy that users will have no vote in site governance.


I'd like to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt on their change to site governance, as the company pinkie-swears that they'll listen to users now. Facebook even offers up their well-intentioned Chief Privacy Officer, Erin Egan, to lead conversations designed to engage with the public about site policies:

As a result of this review, we are proposing to restructure our site governance process. We deeply value the feedback we receive from you during our comment period. In the past, your substantive feedback has led to changes to the proposals we made. However, we found that the voting mechanism, which is triggered by a specific number of comments, actually resulted in a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality. Therefore, we’re proposing to end the voting component of the process in favor of a system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement.

But if Facebook believed in this move, and thought it would be embraced as positive by users, it wouldn't have been announced late on the day before Thanksgiving, with a deadline for responses just a few days later. No matter how earnestly Egan wants to hear from the public, this effort is structured in a way where public feedback on site governance will almost inevitably be futile.

Copy and Paste Panic

Though this policy change from Facebook attracted very little attention, as designed by its release just before a holiday weekend, a separate panic about Facebook's terms of service raised its head in the last few days. A copy-and-paste meme inspired thousands of Facebook users to post a message to their profiles asserting their copyright over their content, with explicit calls for Facebook not to exploit their posted data, tied to a bigger perceived threat due to Facebook's recent listing as a publicly-traded company.

Facebook offered a terse refutation of the need for the meme, explaining correctly that users retain copyright on their works by default and thus have no need to share this declaration. (Especially true as posting this message to a Facebook wall would be ineffective for this purpose regardless.)

But Facebook's one-paragraph response to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of users expressing concern about their personal data and content shows exactly why their site governance process is unacceptable.

A brief "fact check" about the site's copyright policy assumes that simply correcting the factual error in the premise of postings solves the issue that's being raised. One can almost hear the condescension behind the Facebook response ("they spelled 'Berne Convention' wrong!"), but there's a glaring absence of any effort at addressing the emotional motivation behind so many users crying out.

Facebook sees a large-scale user protest as a problem to be solved, rather than as an opportunity to serve their community. And as a result, they dismissively offer a short legal or technical dismissal of users' concerns over their content, rather than empowering them with simple, clear controls over the way their information is used.

What Facebook Could Do

Facebook and its apologists will say, "but we already have good privacy controls!" and will point to their settings page, which, to their credit, has been admirably simplified.

Now imagine if, instead of posting a "fact check", Facebook had responded to the rapidly-spread cries for intellectual property control on the site by leading and guiding their community in a way that was better for users while also being better for the web.

The same brief explanation that users retain copyright on their content could be followed by two simple controls, the first reiterating the existing site's existing controls for privacy:


And then a second one (this is just a quick, silly mockup I made) could default to the existing rights and protections, but offer a simple interface for Creative Commons or similar license for sharing content.


"But wait!" you cry. "Isn't this much more complicated? Isn't it a bad UX to force a choice on a user?" To which I reply: Not when a desire for control is what they're expressing.

Because the emotional underpinning to the hue and cry over copyright and permissions on Facebook isn't some newly-discovered weird mass fixation on intellectual property rights. It's a simple expression of a lack of trust for Facebook, one where their status as a publicly-traded company makes users feel that Facebook is less accountable to their preferences on privacy and permissions due to its accountability to shareholders to maximize value.

Think about the feelings behind an ordinary Facebook user updating their status to say, in part, "By the present communiqué, I notify Facebook that it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, disseminate, or take any other action against me on the basis of this profile and/or its contents". They're expressing the fear that Facebook is going to disclose their personal thoughts, and exploit them for commercial gain.

You don't solve that level of concern by offering occasional web chats with a Chief Privacy Officer.

Being Of Service

Facebook needs to change its culture to one where it's determined to be of service to users who are worried, even if those users have some misunderstandings about technical details or esoteric legal concepts. Because the fundamental issues of trust and vulnerability are legitimate, and users deserve to have them addressed.

There's also a huge long-term liability for Facebook if these issues of trust aren't addressed. Companies face the wrath of regulators and the vagaries of policy changes not just because of lobbyists and wranglings in the corridors of government, but often because ordinary people have a gut sense that these huge corporations aren't working in their interests. That sentiment can express itself in a million different ways, all of which serve to slow down the innovation of a company, limit its opportunities to reach new audiences, and eventually come to cripple its relevance in the market. Microsoft should offer a sobering example to Facebook of a company that, in addition to breaking the law (which Facebook seems on course to do in a few years with its constantly-shifting policies) had separately earned such mistrust and animosity from the industry and from users that decisive legal action against the company was all but inescapable.

When Facebook went public, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a great letter to investors, which began with a simple statement:

Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.


We hope to strengthen how people relate to each other.

When Mark says that, I believe him. I do sincerely think that's what he intends to do, and what he hopes for his employees to do. But from the micro-level decisions where a panic over content rights is handled in a perfunctory, dismissive way, to the macro-level where the fundamental negotiation with users over their empowerment as the lifeblood of the service, Facebook has made obvious that they're not culturally ready to meet the mission Mark has laid before them.

It's not too late to change, but Facebook has the obligation to truly embrace empathy for its users. Right now, it's sneaking out the warnings in the dark of night that things are going to get worse before they get better.

A Little Bit of Control

October 19, 2012

When I used to fly a lot, people would ask me why I was such a big fan of Virgin America. Some of it is the usual stuff — they have wifi and power outlets, and travel to the cities I visit most often. But the crux of why I like their brand taught me a good bit more about the obligations companies have to their customers, and what institutions can do to be more humane in general.

The typical flying experience, especially for regular travelers, reduces adults who are used to a high degree of control over their lives to having fewer choices about their actions than a room full of kindergarteners. When we fly, we're told when we can sit down, when we can stand up, when we can listen to music, and we basically can't even get up to go to the bathroom without asking, just like a 5-year-old.

It's even more egregious an affront in the more minor areas: When we fly, we can't have a drink when we want.

Pushing Our Buttons

Virgin's touch-screens invert that model, as the best and most empowering experiences do. I can tap on the screen, order a drink, and a few minutes later, someone shows up with my beverage. There's no waiting for the cart, and it feels much more personal and accommodating to boot.

Now, obviously, this is only giving people the illusion of agency over their actions when they fly. We still can't stand up or sit down or read an ebook whenever we want. And frequent fliers are often among the worst-behaved, most over-entitled people in society, so we have to be careful exactly how much we want to indulge the desire to appease their every need.

But fundamentally, giving people a little bit of agency over the small actions that bring them joy can do a lot to mitigate the countless indignities that they're forced to suffer by big bureaucracies and inflexible institutions. An airline can't make the TSA's policies more effective or sane, but they can help us regain a bit of our feeling of control and dignity by assuming we can be trusted to ask for a can of Coke when we need one.

I'm trying to keep this small lesson in mind, as I think about the many big companies and institutions that visit unkindnesses upon us every day. There are accommodations they could all be making which could be as minor as letting us push a button to get a drink, but too often they get stuck thinking about the impacts to their own processes rather than how much those little things can mean to the people who are stuck in their machines.

Gawker Is A Blog. Just Like Twitter.

December 1, 2010

I love blogs. Nick Denton wrote over on Lifehacker about the pending redesign of Gawker's blogs, with a lot of great insights into the leading edge of web publishing today. As with any thoughtful, provocative writing of such length, it inspired some great responses, including two of my early favorites:

  • Joel Johnson, in 133 characters, offered up "Gawker Media is the size of a moderately successful local McDonalds franchise. So I guess it's a compliment that it's so interesting."
  • Felix Salmon, at 6000 words, covers Hungary and the Cayman Islands, Kinja and Blogwire, and probably other stuff that I missed.

Finally, Nick Bilton did a follow-up on the NY Times Bits blog today, which talks about this evolution of Gawker's design (which you can see for yourself at and then quotes me:

“I think Nick [Denton] is eager to declare this a post-blog design as a sop to advertisers,” he said. “It’s still a blog, it’s just the blog is in a narrower column.”

This is true! I do think this — Gawker is still, and always has been, just a nicely designed blog. Same goes for its sister sites. But what neither Nick mentioned is an idea that I've shared with them both, that Gawker's redesign to me shows an interesting convergence around a pattern that is best exemplified by, of all things, the new Twitter design.

River On One Side, Party On The Other

Let's consider the core elements of a reverse-chronological headline flow, accompanied by a sort of "content well" where rich media items sit. I mumbled about this a bit a few months ago in Twitter, Transclusion and Trust, but basically a half-decade after RSS readers failed to take over the world, major media sites are all converging on the idea of a two-paned reader, with a river of news of headlines that can be clicked to yield an embedded article reader that prominently features video, photos or other rich content. Here's a side-by-side comparison, with the bloggy parts highlighted:

Gawker & Twitter: Blog Columns

Interestingly, this sort of seems like blogs have finally adopted elements of web applications as part of their fundamental design. Many have noted how the new Twitter on the web seems influenced by Twitter on the iPad (though the order of the two platforms' release may not have been the order of their creation), but in chatting today Nick Denton mentioned that there has seemed to be a sort of convergent evolution around these ideas between Twitter's work, Gawker's redesign, and other apps as well. Nick specifically mentioned the Mail app on the iPad, and added, "When we saw Reeder on iPad, we thought: oh, wow, same thinking".

The relative widths of the columns accurately reflects the priority of the media companies that host them: Twitter is mostly about the stream, but also about the content; Gawker is primarily about the content but needs to have the stream.

In this way, blogs are emphasizing the trait that's always defined them, the fact that they're an ongoing flow of information instead of just a collection of published pages. By allowing that flow to continue regardless of which particular piece of embedded content has caught your eye, Gawker and Twitter are just showing the vibrancy and resilience of the format.

Fat Pages

October 12, 2010

Today, in a Wired interview about Instapaper, Marco Arment offered up:

“People love information,” Arment said. “Right now in our society, we have an obesity epidemic. Because for the first time in history, we have access to food whenever we want, we don’t know how to control ourselves. I think we have the exact same problem with information.”

Meanwhile, Clay Johnson's InfoVegan states in its thesis:

As we consume food, we also consume information. Yet few of us make deliberate decisions on what kind of information to consume or how much. We do make unconscious, non-deliberate decisions though— we’re naturally drawn towards the opinions we agree with, whether it be through following our friends on twitter or the mass media we consume. We naturally avoid diversity in the news we consume— you won’t find many conservatives watching MSNBC or being fans of Keith Olbermann, and you’re not going to make any liberal friends happy turning on Glenn Beck in their living rooms.

Information consumption also has a consumption chain, just like food does. Most news, for instance, comes from a set of facts on the ground, that get processed, and processed and processed again before it ends up on your television set boiled down into chunks for you to consume. But it also gets filled with additives— expert opinion, analysis, visualizations, you name it— before it gets to you. If this was food, a vegan would want none of it. They’d head straight to the data, to the source, to the facts, and try and get as much of that additive business out of their way.

There's a lot of thoughtful, broad vision in what these smart geeks are getting at, but some small part of what they're articulating is merely about clutter. I'd attribute some large part of the success of app phones to the fact that they've merely erased much of the clutter that we take for granted in most of today's web experiences. Instapaper's one of my favorite New York City startups, not simply because of my usual New York boosterism, but because the future of media ought to be decided here in New York. And something simple and readable, with room to breathe, feels like the future.

Of course, I've tried to practice what I preach here on this site; I got rid of ads about a year ago, and kept only one image on the page, not counting any illustrations in the posts. The one concession to the proliferation of Digg/Like/Tweet spam I've added is the "Read Later" link in the sidebar, which of course would let you read this content later in Instapaper. I decided that was worth the tradeoff because the intention to read something later is, at its core, a fundamentally hopeful and optimistic tendency, and I want to encourage that in my readers. And also because this blog is usually among the top ten Google results for "TL;DR".

I've also tried to bring that ethic of decluttering to other projects I work on (Gourmet Live has a page reader that looks almost as clean as Instapaper, which is surprisingly uncommon in the magazine world), but I know for lots of web publishers that's an unaccustomed luxury.

Trim The Fat

So, if these smart folks are right, and lots of people value a clean experience, and right now publishers are making zero dollars off of readers who prefer uncluttered reading, who is going to be the first to charge for a clean version of their site? And which bloggers are going to choose to eschew all the flashing ads and obnoxious sharing buttons, forgoing a few dollars in revenue in exchange for a better presentation for their ideas?

We already know people will pay for more control over presentation and the ability to skip ads on TV. That same drive has helped satellite radio take off. We see even the Gawkers of the world headed towards designs with fewer ads. And lots of us pay a premium to use computers that aren't pre-loaded with spammy software or covered in advertising stickers. Hell, I've been linking to the (cleaner, less ad-cluttered) print versions of articles on this site for the better part of a decade. Why not simply give the people what they want?

Forking is a Feature

September 10, 2010

While Linus Torvalds is best known as the creator of Linux, it's one of his more geeky creations, and the social implications of its design, that may well end up being his greatest legacy. Because Linus has, in just a few short years, changed the social dynamic around forking, turning the idea of multiple versions of a work from a cultural weakness into a cultural strength. Perhaps the technologies that let us easily collaborate together online have finally matured enough to let our work reflect the reality that some problems are better solved with lots of different efforts instead of one committee-built compromise.

GitHub's map of code forks

The idea of "open source" in the technology world is really a set of cultural beliefs, despite usually masquerading as technical or legal choices made by a community. All cultures have norms, and standards of behavior, and most importantly, they have behaviors they consider antisocial or destructive.

For most of the first three decades of open source's ascendance, the most destructive action that one could threaten to do, the nuclear option, was to fork.


There are several related technical concepts that can answer to the name "fork", but the one I reference here is the dramatic moment when a software project undergoes a schism on ideological or technical grounds. Instead of merely taking their ball and going home, those who forked were taking a copy of your ball and going to a new playground. And while splitting a community could obviously cause an open source community's momentum to grind to a halt, even the mere threat of a fork could cause significant problems, by revealing conflicting goals or desires or motivations within a previously-united community.

Still, forks have had important consequences. Firefox (earlier Firebird and Phoenix) was originally a fork of Mozilla, the open source browser that had been mired in indecision for half a decade. WordPress was born as a fork of B2, a neglected early blogging tool.

Outside of tech, forks have an even bigger meaning. You could make a pretty strong argument that the Reformation was a fork, or that Christianity itself is a fork. So clearly, forking a community can have a significant, even profound impact. But in tech, it had largely been seen solely as a violent, schismatic action.

Part of the predicate for forks being so disruptive was the idea that there is One True Version — a creation, like a piece of software, a written work, or anything else, that can only be accurately represented by a single ideal expression. Even some of the most disruptive technological innovations like Wikipedia are still built around the idea of achieving consensus on a definitive work, and striving mightily to avoid forks arising within the community.

Until a git named Linus changed that.

In The Road

You know Linus Torvalds, he's the guy who created (and nearly eponymized) Linux. But perhaps his most impressive act of creating technological culture is in fathering Git, the enormously popular distributed revision control system. That mouthful of a description basically means "system that lets a decentralized group of creators efficiently collaborate on a complicated bit of software". Other systems had enabled distributed revision control before, making it easier to rapidly evolve software, and to appropriately assign blame to whomever had introduced a bug into the program, but few had found any notable degree of popularity.

Forking on GitHub

But Linus' pedigree, influence and outstanding implementation immediately put Git at the forefront of choices to solve this class of problem. Even better, his credibility with the new generation of social software creators inspired the rapid launch and brilliant evolution of GitHub, a social network for developers that relies on the technology of Git as its underpinnings, but has also embraced the philosophy of Git as its fundamental interaction model.

Often, the very first thing a coder does when she sees an interesting new project on GitHub is to make a fork of it and start tinkering. That's only one of the reasons that GitHub so important, though; The GitHub principle of "see it, make your own version, and then get to work" has started to filter into other disciplines, as exemplified by design sites like Dribbble, and upcoming new sites for creatives such as Forrst.

These new sites are admittedly still in their formative stages — Dribbble just had its breakout moment with the recent popularity of redesigning the iTunes icon — but it's easy to imagine a more mature version where, instead of merely focusing on the pretty pixels on the screen, the designers who frequent the site were encouraged to describe their rationale, and to use the site's replying abilities (called "rebounds"on Dribbble) to do something more akin to forking, where raw Photoshop and Illustrator files were shared.

The One True Version

Most importantly, the new culture of ubiquitous forking can have profound impacts on lots of other categories of software. There have been recent rumblings that participation in Wikipedia editing has plateaued, or even begun to decline. Aside from the (frankly, absurd) idea that "everything's already been documented!" one of the best ways for Wikipedia to reinvigorate itself, and to break away from the stultifying and arcane editing discussions that are its worst feature, could be to embrace the idea that there's not One True Version of every Wikipedia article.

A new-generation Wikipedia based on Git-style technologies could allow there to be not just one Ocelot article per language, but an infinite number of them, each of which could be easily mixed and merged into your own preferred version. Wikipedia already technically has similar abilities on the back end, of course, but the software's cultural bias is still towards producing a definitive consensus version instead of seeing multiple variations as beneficial.

There are plenty of other cultural predecessors for the idea of forking, all demonstrating that moving away from the need for a forced consensus can be great for innovation, while also reducing social tensions. Our work on ThinkUp at Expert Labs has seen a tremendous increase in programmers participating, without any of the usual flame wars or antagonism that frequently pop up on open source mailing lists. Some part of that is attributable to the cultural infrastructure GitHub provides for participation.

Moving forward, there are a lot more lessons we can learn if we build our social tools with the assumption that no one version of any document, app, or narrative needs to be the definitive one. We might even make our software, and our communities, more inclusive if we embrace the forking ourselves.

Hospitality and Process

September 7, 2010

There are some links I just keep finding myself sending around to friends and coworkers. Hmm, isn't that what a blog is for?

  • From back in April, a look at the service guidelines for staff at Momofuku offshoot M� P�che. Though the Eater commenters respond with their typical asinine snark, what you see in this list is the extraordinary level of detail it takes to get consistently great service, and how thoughtful a successful organization needs to be to the culture it creates and the communications that shape that culture. "No pointing."

  • Andre Torrez on meaningful work. Where the first two links are about motivating a team to be of service, Andre's is similar to Dan's in focusing on giving a group of people work they can be proud of.

We will build this application. You might use it or you might not. We have an actual plan for making money and we have such low overhead that we can play with that plan until we think it's right. It would be nice if more people did it this way. Life's too short to spend it sitting in a stupid meeting wishing you had more time to make something good.

Each of these pieces is, essentially, an exploration of the process of cultural accommodation, of communicating and understanding communication in a way that frees others to be more comfortable and happier. And, incidentally, also leads to them being excited about the potential for giving you money or opportunities, instead of resentful or suspicious.

Flags, Windows, Lucky Numbers and Hidden Mickeys

May 21, 2009

Another new version of Windows is nearly upon us, as Microsoft will release Windows 7 later this year. Vista was greeted with probably a few too many jeers, which in the tech industry means Windows 7 will probably be greeted with a few too many cheers as compensation. I've used it for a while, and Windows 7 is fine or even great if you like Windows, and will not be fine if you don't. But I found some interesting points in the initial marketing materials that are starting to become visible across the web.

Windows 3.1 flag logoMicrosoft's gradual design evolution from Windows 3.1-era "What's design?" to XP-era "We're trying our best!" has graduated with Windows 7 into the first visual design touches that are thoughtful, clever, and perhaps even witty. It starts with the logo and promotional graphics for the new version.

There's been a (likely-unplanned) public reveal of the branding around the new release thanks to a site called Windows Lounge. Staying true to Microsoft's uncomfortably awkward corporate culture, the Windows Lounge site is a standalone one-page website that features a YouTube video and some text instructions, all designed to get Microsoft employees to join a Facebook group where they can talk privately about what's planned for the new Windows release. Yes, they're using Google's video service and a private Facebook group to have a conversation that, being aimed at Microsoft employees only, could take place on their own intranet. But I'm not judging that part!

windows-7-green Instead, look at the clever "7" graphic I've included here, which I cropped from one of the Microsoft promo sites. It's clear and simple, like the "7" name itself — no inscrutable "XP", no overly-broad "Vista", just a version number like software used to have in the olden days. Sure, the overdone lens flare gives it a little bit of that I'm-blinded-by-your-brilliance presumptuousness that made squinting my way through the otherwise-delightful new Star Trek movie a little painful. But overall? It's as good a job as any logo Microsoft's done, and it maybe even suggests a > greater-than sign, subtly indicating that this new product represents an actual improvement over whatever version of Windows you're enduring now.

But the moment of delight in truly pleasing designs comes in the reveal, in the sense of discovery that maybe there's something unexpected or unexpectedly familiar in a graphic. It's that moment of FedEx arrows and hidden Mickeys. Which hit me when looking at the familiar Windows flag logo. What if we take this new 7 logo and overlay it on that old standby Windows flag? We get something like this:


Hey, that's pretty cool! It's not perfect, probably as the result of some hand-tuning of the 7 logo. But to take a familiar icon like the Windows flag and use an element of it in a new way — that's a step forward for Microsoft's visual design efforts in terms of thoughtfulness and care. It even echoes the simple, understandable branding of the new platform itself, which uses a lucky number to try to get back some of that feeling (now almost completely forgotten) of when people used to be curious and excited about new Windows releases. You can imagine exactly how they'd animate this luminescent logo in an advertisement, without even having to see it done — that kind of evocative immediacy has rarely characterized any past Microsoft design efforts.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the larger corporate culture at Microsoft outside of groups like the Zune team is largely indifferent to design, except where it's actively and aggressively anti-design. Take the official corporate logos page on the company's press site. It features the usual array of Microsoft, Office and Windows logos, along with other smaller products and whatever the hell the Forefront/System Server mesh-typhoon thing is supposed to be. (It's a logo that screams "this product is not for people who like having sex!") But then there's that familiar Windows flag, in large and small versions, laid out however you might want it.

The small version is basically the same as the Windows 7 logo you see above. And the big version, designed for print editors to use in their publications? It looks like this. You can almost hear the folks who were just celebrating their success with the 7 logo sighing and shaking their heads when you click on that link.

Elastic Happiness

April 6, 2009

There's a principle in game design that's referred to variously as rubber band or elastic artificial intelligence. While descriptions of the concept refer to it as "cheating", and discussions of the technique can sometimes devolve into a litany of frustrated complaints, the idea clearly works. Put simply, an elastic artificial intelligence helps a game adapt to the varying skill levels of players, keeping a game competitive when it might otherwise simply let one player profit from an advantage to the degree that the game would become boring, frustrating, or simply unwinnable for all other players.

In a system like Mario Kart, which uses an elastic intelligence, computer-controlled opponents can vary their skill levels, and human-controlled opponents get advantages that make them better competitors. Adversaries get more adept as your own skill level rises, and in general, gameplay gets more balanced and more satisfying for most players, with the exception of the person in the lead. The leading player is merely kept from running away with the game every single time in a well-balanced game, or in a poorly-designed one, they're punished for being good at the game.

This principle of balancing strengths in a game is pretty important for any system to remain engaging and entertaining for all players; The same idea of balanced gameplay is seen in any kind of multiplayer game. A recent Wired article on board game phenomenon The Settlers of Catan describes its analog implementation of a rubber band AI:

[T]he game is designed to restore balance when someone pulls ahead. If one player gets a clear lead, that person is suddenly the prime candidate for frequent attacks by the Robber, a neat hack that Teuber installed. Roll a seven—the most likely outcome of a two-dice roll, as any craps player knows—and those with more than seven resource cards in their hand lose half their stash, while the person who rolled gets to place a small figure called the Robber on a resource tile, shutting down production of resources for every settlement on that tile. Not surprisingly, players often target the settler with the most points.

In addition to deploying the Robber, players will usually stop trading with any clear leader. In tandem, these two lines of attack can reduce a front-runner's progress to a crawl. Meanwhile, lagging opponents have multiple avenues for catching up.

The interesting thing is that, while a generation has grown up familiar with the idea of elastic balancing, it's still a relatively controversial idea. In games like the Madden football series, where its effect is heavy-handed and obvious, it makes sense that players would balk. But some part of me feels like a lot of the people who complain about these features are the sort of people who object to letting their nephew win at Mario Kart sometimes, just so the game is more fun for everybody.

Interestingly, the "rubber band" analogy for this kind of game balancing is more apt than it might seem at first, when you consider the effect it has on keeping a game fun and lighthearted for a group of players. Rubber bands actually heat up when they're stretched, but cool down when they're restored to their natural state. So an elastic AI really is trying to function as a system that "cools down" a crowd of people who are playing a game.

I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to extrapolate on the political impacts we'll see from a generation growing up seeing elastic artificial intelligence as an important part of keeping harmony in a community of people playing the same game. For the record, I'm a very good Mario Kart player, but I'm still strongly in favor of its use of elastic artificial intelligence.

Phones are For Hardcore Gamers

December 30, 2008

Please (re-)visit Dan Cook's seminal Nintendo's Genre Innovation Strategy essay from 2005. It's chock-full of his signature revelatory insights, in this case inspired by the excitement and skepticism surrounding the announcement of the controller for the Nintendo Wii (then known as the Revolution).

Among many other inspired moments, Dan offers up, early in the piece, two key points.

  • The increasingly hardcore nature of the game industry is causing a contraction of the industry.
  • New intuitive controller options will result in innovative game play that will bring new gamers into the fold.

He goes on to describe the evolution of individual genres within the gaming industry, reaching a conclusion that was surprising to me, but that intuitively felt correct upon re-reading:

As the less hardcore players burn out on the game mechanics of their favorite genres, they too are at risk of leaving the game market. The result is a steady erosion of the genre’s population.

What is left is a very peculiar group of highly purified hardcore players. They demand rigorous standardization of game mechanics and have highly refined criteria for judging the quality of their titles. With each generation of titles in the genre, they weed out a few more of the weaker players.

This made me think of the recent innovations around the iPhone and, particularly, the games that have been created for the iPhone app store. Prior to the iPhone's release, high-end mobile phones had, essentially, become a really specific gaming genre, catering to hardcore "players", consisting of tech reviewers and industry analysts whose tastes had evolved as all genres must. "They demand rigorous standardization of game mechanics and have highly refined criteria for judging the quality of their titles. With each generation of titles in the genre, they weed out a few more of the weaker players."

The iPhone was about Nintendo-style innovation, applying the same rules that Nintendo has, and achieving a quite Nintendo-like result of producing a device that is fun, satisfying, and very inexpensive to develop innovative games for. As Dan says about Nintendo's history of innovating in controllers:

One of the easiest ways of creating a new genre is to invent a new series of verbs (or risk mechanics as I called them in my Genre Life Cycle articles). One of the easiest ways of inventing new verbs is to create new input opportunities. Nintendo controls their hardware and they leverage this control to suit their particular business model.

And this is exactly what Nintendo has done historically. The original Dpad, the analog stick, the shoulder buttons, the C-stick, the DS touch pad, link capabilities, the tilt controller, the bongo drums … the list goes on and on.

The touchscreen and tilt sensor in the iPhone are just another in the series of controller innovations, and they've yielded the results that these inventions always do. Only, instead of Mario being the brand that benefits from this new set of verbs, Apple is the brand that benefits.

And all of this confirms my suspicion that the iPod and iPhone are not only designed to be subscription hardware that you repurchase constantly, but that Apple is deliberately creating their devices so that the only way you can level up in this game is by buying a new iPod or iPhone.

It's worth concluding with one of Dan's final points:

Nintendo’s strategy of pursuing innovation benefits the entire industry. It brings in new audiences and creates new genres that provide innovative and exciting experiences. The radical new controller is a great example of this strategy in action.

Surprisingly, this also benefits Microsoft and it benefits Sony. As the years pass, the hard core publishers that serve mature genres will adopt previously innovative genres and commoditize them. Their profits will be less, but they’ll keep a lot of genre addicts very happy. Everybody wins when a game company successfully innovates.

I see both of these strategies as a necessary and expected part of a vibrant and growing industry. Industries need balance and Nintendo is a major force of much needed innovation that prevents industry erosion and decline.

According to Amazon's account of holiday bestsellers, "Nintendo Wii dominated the top sellers in video games and hardware including the Wii console, the Wii remote controller and the Wii nunchuk controller." Worldwide sales of the Wii are nearly equal to sales of the Microsoft XBox 360 and Sony Playstation 3 combined.

Fonts for Contemporary Use

December 29, 2008

In a blog post that I wrote for work today, I had occasion to use an interrobang as part of a title. Hooray! A chance to exercise some pointless effort in pursuit of typographical correctness.

But chasing down that obscure character led me to thinking about an opportunity that still exists for all the type designers out there. Does any commercially-available font out there do a good job of anticipating modern uses of text like smileys and texting shortcuts, and create styled characters or ligatures for them?

We will increasingly see marks like :) and "B4" and "OMG" showing up in print or in styled text online, and that means we should have appropriate typography to represent these words and phrases as our language evolves. This, of course, would also require a Unicode character representation to be added for common smilies, just as one was added for the Euro symbol when that currency was introduced.

The Euro mark also offers us an opportunity to avoid a mistake made when that symbol was introduced. The familiar � mark was unfortunately introduced more as a logo than as a character, meaning designers were initially discouraged from tailoring the presentation of the symbol for appopriate display in the context of a particular font.

With smileys, and especially with new text ligatures from characters that would never have been paired up in the past, we have the chance to see font designers interpret these new parts of the language in the context of type designs that may have existed in some form for centuries. That promises to be fascinating!

Of course, I'm far from an expert about type, let alone about design in general, so maybe someone's already doing good work in this realm, and it's just escaped my notice. Either way, I look forward to finding out when I'll be able to use typographically elegant OMGs and ;)s on my blog.


September 5, 2007

A Brief Message seems interesting: Essays about design, in 200 words or less. Khoi explains some of the thinking, and the idea of a new design for each update reminds me in a nice way of the late, lamented 0sil8.

Empathy and Hipocrisy

August 28, 2007

I found Nelson Minar's thoughtful look at Larry Craig's arrest to be very moving because of its deeply empathetic perspective. I find one of the things that frustrates me most about the public media sphere is the profound lack of empathy for people. Now, I don't like Craig -- I think he is a hypocrite. But Nelson took the time to think through the perspective of the person being demonized and understand and explain a very logical path to how a person arrives at the worst day of his life.

I find myself wishing more and more that we could teach people the ability to see the world through other perspectives. I think we can detest someone's hypocrisy and regret his awful decisions, and maybe even resent his beliefs, while still being sympathetic for his having been in a situation that left him with no good choices.

This is also what I was thinking about when ruminating on design and mise en place a few weeks ago. There is tremendous opportunity in being able to see through someone else's eyes.

Cooking Up a Design

August 2, 2007

Ryan Freitas, whose culinary wisdom I can personally vouch for, just shared some insights into his idea that designers can learn a lot from the discipline of a well-run kitchen.

Ambidextrous - Cooking and Design

The article in Ambidextrous magazine (download the three-page PDF, it should only take a minute) starts with a simple parallel between the two disciplines:

With careers as an interaction designer and a professional cook (sometimes simultaneously), I've noticed striking similarities between the design studio and the kitchen. Like their peers in design, chefs are under constant creative and competitive pressure to execute and innovate. Both professionals service an increasingly savvy customer base in a public landscape where only the tastemakers and trendsetters survive.

Though it's not mentioned in Ryan's article, the most relevant concept to me seemed to be the idea of mise en place, which is basically the discipline that good cooks have of preparing all of their requirements at the ready and properly placed when they begin to prepare a dish. From ingredients to utensils to preparation surfaces to oven temperature, getting everything lined up perfectly means a chef never has to pause to take care of preliminaries while in the midst of creating a meal.

I'm far from a serious cook myself, but I've found that keeping mise in mind when getting ready to cook something forces me to have to actually think through every step of the task I'm about to perform. So it's not merely that all the ingredients are chopped up, it's that knowing what to chop, and how much, makes it imperative that I'm keeping a mental image of the entire process in the front of my mind.

And good design mimics this process by giving you an experience that anticipates mise en place. You find, in the course of using a tool or performing a task, that a designed has thought through the entire process of your task at hand and placed the information and raw materials you need right where you'll need them. Delicious!

Friends of Faux

July 26, 2007

Behold, It's (K)not Wood. I hestiate to make such a bold prediction, but it just may be the best blog dedicated to fake wood and woodgrain that you'll see today. I daresay it's the one you've been pining for. It wood knot leave you board.

Good IDEAs

July 23, 2007

The International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) winners for 2007 have been posted on BusinessWeek's site. There are all of the usual slideshows and essays that you'd expect, but perhaps the coolest tool is the interactive table of winners from 2000 to 2007, sortable by client, school, or designer.

Where's the logo critique?

April 5, 2007

Hmm, MSNBC gets a brand-new logo, presumably as part of the new "spectrum" campaign they're doing, and yet Brand New has no review of it! The shame!

It looks like SS+K (whose site is shamefully under construction in a very 1998 way), has been leading the effort to brand MSNBC as a "Fuller Spectrum of News". Though it's alluding to the peacock logo MSNBC inherited from its NBC parentage, there's clearly an allusion to having a broader focus of coverage than Fox News, too.

The lame part is the showcase at the "Spectrum" site, though. There's a thing called "Spectrum TV", which I thought might be an interesting visualization of their new initiative, but is basically just a trailer showing off the colors of the rainbow. There's a screensaver, but I'm not really going to download an executable onto my system so that MSNBC can advertise itself. And there's a game "NewsBreaker", which I think is just a Breakout clone with headlines. That's about two decades too late, and you can't even play it yet anyway. They've got a long way to catch up to the addictiveness of Desktop Tower Defense.

And then of course the whole thing is wrapped up in a Flash movie so I can't link to any of these elements anyway. It'd all be forgiveable if the lettering in the new logo wasn't so wonky-looking. Hello, design blogs, help me out here!

Reviewing The View

December 14, 2006

A few days ago, I foolishly described a table of my blog archives as my favorite view of my blog. As with all posts that I only spend 30 seconds writing, it got some good responses that really showed how little thought I'd put into the whole thing.

First, Tim Bray offered some good feedback on what he called The Dash View. I should quickly point out that lots of people, including me, have used this kind of display years and years ago. I've also had it on my current sidebar as my archive list for months. So I'm not pretending that it's any kind of innovation, just something neat to look at. Tim improves upon the design by listing his posts by month along with a count of the number of posts.

Jackson Miller followed up with some useful points as well, and Mark Bernstein muses some more about the name (I used to call my daily links "Dash Bored") but his closing point is the most interesting one:

Chronological access is literally geeky: we're exploring it because we can, not because it's useful. It's far more useful to provide good topical access, and still better to link things together. But if dates are what you have, then it's better to represent and use the dates than to treat your archives as fish wrap.

I've found a much better date-based organization of blog info: Ryan's got a year in review post that helps me remember just how eventful 2006 has been for me, too.

Names Behind the New Face of Windows

November 7, 2006

Windows Vista's astoundingly long beta period is winding down (they just sent out the "what did you think of the beta?" surveys to testers), which means a whole wave of analyses of the new user interface is about to be unleashed.

Windows Interface Guidelines Amongst the hand-wringing over the choice of colors and animations, and the inevitable kvetching about the need for new video cards, it's worth pointing out the rise of some interesting personalities from within Microsoft. In fact, the most notable thing to learn from Microsoft's recent enormous leaps in the usability and attractiveness of its flagship products is that there actually are personalities at Microsoft.

Take Tjeerd (pronounced "Cheered", as is noted every time his name is mentioned) Hoek, a design director at Microsoft. There's a brief profile of him on the Microsoft Design site (did you know Microsoft had a design site? I didn't.) Having worked his way through various versions of Office from 95 to XP, Tjeerd moved to Windows and became one of the driving forces behind trying to make Vista not just pleasant, but possibly even enjoyable. I think they've done a fairly good job, just based on some admittedly superficial testing of Vista betas. But you might want to take that with a grain of salt given my effusive praise for Microsoft Office 2007 and my earlier kudos for Jensen Harris, who is roughly Tjeerd's counterpart on the Office team.

Caveats aside, take a look at this 2004 Paul Thurrott interview with Tjeerd and Hillel Cooperman:

Hillel: It's a funny thing. It's very easy to look at a company -- and I'm not saying you're doing this, but I did do this -- and see some of the very obvious spots where we could be less boring, less formulaic, or whatever those things are.


Hillel: We make it hard on ourselves because our style is not to push a single personality as the genius behind all of it.

Paul: Are you sure about that? [Laughter]
Hillel: No, when it comes to the UI ... Look, we certainly have a single personality when it comes to the guy that is running the company. But even there, there are a lot of people on stage during keynotes, and it's not just people doing a demo for Bill Gates. I mean, that was my job, but ...

I'm talking about, from the UI perspective, this is a real team effort. The bench that we have around the UI is so exciting, but you're only seeing two of us today. When you come back in April, you have to meet everyone else.

Here's the truth. The reason we've never been great at telling this story is that ultimately, if we have to choose between making it as great a product as possible and getting the story out, we'll always choose the former. We don't really care about the credit. We've only started to care recently because we've realized that it sets the tone for what users expect from the product. So it's not so much that we really care about getting credit, but if we're going to talk about what we're trying to accomplish, the credit goes to a broad group of people.

Another great look at the team's attempts at being more human, not just in the user interfaces they create, but in their interactions with customers outside Microsoft, is in this 2004 Discover article by Steven Johnson.

A growing awareness of the inextricable connection between emotion and cognition sparked Microsoft’s push toward aesthetically pleasing software. For many years their products were the virtual equivalent of the barren cubicle mazes of many modern offices: functional, but devoid of life, of personality. Neglecting aesthetics might have made a kind of cruel sense in an older, assembly-line context, in which work revolved around mindless, repetitive labor. Factory owners didn’t want to inspire creativity among their employees; they wanted to drill it out of them. But the keyboard jockeys of the information age -- precisely the people using Microsoft Windows -- do their best work when they’re rewarded, rather than discouraged, for creativity and mental agility.

I find the parallel between the humanization of Microsoft as a company and Microsoft's software products to be fascinating. Given that Apple is considered (fairly on unfairly) the reference standard for usability and delightful experience, I wonder what impact it will have in the long run that none of the many rank-and-file designers within the company are allowed to speak publicly with their own voices about the work they do. Either way, increasing competition to make software more pleasant can only be a good thing.