This is a talk I gave in London and Amsterdam as part of the Inside Intercom World Tour in May 2016. It’s an attempt at tying together several trends that have driven the computer industry for over half a century, a prediction that they are all set to dramatically change in the next couple of years, and a look at what that change means for product designers.
Full transcript on the Intercom blog.
This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the Rebase conference in Dublin on 2nd October 2015. I’ve also written about some of the ideas below on the Intercom blog but the talk contains additional detail and some killer dad jokes. Thanks to Rebase for inviting me to speak.
This is the title of my talk today: Design is a Conversation. This can mean a couple of things.
First, the obvious one: the process of doing design involves lots of talking. Talking about your ideas with your colleagues. Talking to users to see what they need.
And in some ways design is a dialog with the world: we make all this work and put it out there in the world and see how the world responds, how it reacts. That’s a conversation too, I believe.
But I’m going to focus on two other ways that I think about design being a conversation.
I’ve got a new post up at the Intercom blog, this time about design that’s so good you can’t even see it:
These products don’t want to be noticed at all. They want to be the background noise to your daily routine, infrastructure working away below the surface just like the underground subways, sewers, and cabling of a city.
It also has David Fincher, magic tricks, and that time I was almost killed by a rhino. Check it out.
In some way a follow up to my previous post on flat visual design, the idea this time is that a minimalist/less-is-more/reductive approach to design is often incorrectly seen as an easy route. Making something invisible is really hard. That’s not to say that every product needs to be invisible either: just because your distraction-free writing app tries be all zen doesn’t mean that Call of Duty needs to adopt the same approach. But it’s worth at least considering where on the sliding scale you want your design to sit.
For example, look at the public reaction to the various different wearable thingies.
Most people seem generally cool with the idea of wrist computers like Android Wear and Apple Watch. But the very same crowd seem aghast at the notion of a slightly less discreet eyeball computer like Google Glass. Oh, you think to yourself, maybe there’s a threshold for how visible these devices might be before people start to reject them. Watch equals okay, glasses equals not okay.
But VR devices like Oculus Rift and HoloLens are about as discreet as a bucket on your head, and yet regular people seem genuinely excited to try them out. Why is it that a prism balanced on a sleek titanium frame is considered awful and a giant helmet computer is just fine?
Yeeeah... I just had a brief conversation with the most powerful man in the world. On the downtown 3 train. Nice guy. pic.twitter.com/cx93BXKY— Noah Zerkin (@noazark) January 21, 2013
It’s as if Glass fell into a sort of Uncanny Valley of invisibility: not unnoticeable but also not willing to fully accept it’s own prominence. VR on the other hand makes no apologies. VR embraces it’s own brash obtrusiveness. VR says screw everything, strap me onto your goddamn face and let’s go blow up some bad guys. We’ll have to wait and see how everyone really reacts to VR being a part of our lives, but my guess is that this inconsistent initial reaction has something to do with the invisibility of each device. Or rather, it’s inverse corollary: conspicuousness.
I mean, it’s fairly unlikely this fellow is secretly taking a photo of you:
I’ve got a new post up on the Intercom blog, asking whether the aesthetics of software has stagnated and what styles might come next:
The status quo of visual design in software is pleasantly inoffensive, but also somewhat uninspiring. It is of course natural for styles to settle into a comfortable conclusion for a time. These things come in cycles and mobile UI design is clearly providing a lot of cues here. Who knows, we may even be nearing the crest of the trend: Peak Flat, if you will.
If current styles were precipitated by the introduction of touchscreen devices, it may be the case that newer technologies will trigger a whole new wave of visual styles.
Seeing as the entire piece basically amounts to poking them with a big pointy stick, the feedback I’ve received from designers so far has been heartening (some interesting reactions here). Of course, posing the question of what might come next is the easy part of this conversation. But it’s an opener.
Another question. What are the great works of graphic design?
Off the top of my head, I can suggest the usual suspects: Milton Glaser’s I ♥ NY or his Dylan poster, Shepherd Fairey’s HOPE poster (sorry, yes), the Massimo Vignelli’s NY Subway signage system (and the NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual), Harry Beck’s London underground map, Paul Rand’s logos, Josef Müller-Brockmann’s Zurich Town Hall posters, Penguin book covers, Saul Bass’ film titles, David Carson’s Ray Gun Magazine, Peter Saville’s Unknown Pleasures cover… there’s a fairly well-worn list that springs easily to mind.
Now, what are the great works of software visual design?
You might start with either Xerox Star of the original Macintosh (depending on which side of history you’re on) just for establishing the medium. The original releases of OS X and iOS certainly belongs there. I’d include Material Design, but time will tell. Joshua Davis’ Praystation, if you’re old enough. The NY Times Snow Fall article?
After that I’d have to start thinking hard. Send me your suggestions. There are probably a few fair reasons for this: we’re drawing on almost 100 years of history for graphic design, and only about 30 years for software design. The ephemerality of software design plays a part: there are not many websites frozen in time on the walls of museums, reminding us of how great they were.
Or, they haven’t been made yet.
I wrote the Android Wear design guidelines before I left Google earlier this year, so I was curious to browse the well-written and thorough Apple Watch Human Interface Guidelines that came out last week. It’s interesting to note some language and ideas common to both.
I’m not highlighting these to make some arch point – there are many striking originalities that differentiate the design of AW and, uh, AW – but only to dig into the vocabulary and design thinking that’s already naturally emerging around these devices.
Android: Android Wear focuses on simple interactions, only requiring input by the user when absolutely necessary. Most inputs are based around touch swipes or voice, and inputs requiring fine-grained finger movements are avoided. Android Wear is gestural, simple, and fast.
Apple: Apps on Apple Watch are designed for quick, lightweight interactions that make the most of the display size and its position on the wrist. Information is accessible and dismissible quickly and easily, for both privacy and usability.
Android: Android Wear devices provide just the right information at just the right time, allowing users to be more connected to both the virtual world and the real world.
Apple: No other Apple device has ever been so connected to the wearer. It’s important to be mindful of this connection as you design apps for Apple Watch.
Android: Time a typical use of your Wear app. If using it takes more than 5 seconds, you should think about making your app more focused.
Apple: If you measure interactions with your iOS app in minutes, you can expect interactions with your Watch app to be measured in seconds.
Paged navigation structure:
Apple: A paginated interface lets the user navigate between pages of content by swiping horizontally. […] A dot indicator at the bottom of each page shows the user’s place in the set. Keep the total number of pages as small as possible to simplify navigation.
Android: The context stream is a vertical list of cards, each showing a useful or timely piece of information. […] This UI model ensures that users don’t have to launch many different applications to check for updates; they can simply glance at their stream for a brief update on what’s important to them.
Apple: On Apple Watch, a Glance is a quick view of a focused set of content from an app. Ideally, it is timely and contextually relevant. […] Configure the Glance based on the user’s current context. Stale or irrelevant information makes a glance less useful. Use time and location to reflect what is relevant to the user right now.
Android: Omit needless text. Design for glanceability and not for reading. Use words and phrases, not sentences.
Apple: Keep title strings short and focused. The space available for displaying title strings is minimal, so keep them brief and to the point.
Android: Keep notifications to a minimum. Don’t abuse the user’s attention. Active notifications (that is, those that cause the device to vibrate) should only be used in cases that are both timely and involve a contact, for example receiving a message from a friend. Non-urgent notifications should be silently added to the Context Stream.
Apple: Be sensitive to the frequency with which you send notifications to users. Users might perceive a frequent notifications as annoying and disable notifications for your app on Apple Watch. Always make sure notifications are relevant to what the user wants.
Android: Be discreet if necessary. Wearables are personal devices by nature, but they are not completely private. If your notification serves content that may be particularly sensitive or embarrassing (such as notifications from a dating app or a medical status report), consider not displaying all of the information in a peek card. A notification could place the sensitive information on a second page that must be swiped to, or an application could show different amounts of detail in peek and focused card positions.
Apple: A Short Look appears when a local or remote notification needs to be presented to the user. A Short Look provides a discreet, minimal amount of information—preserving a degree of privacy. If the wearer lowers his or her wrist, the Short Look disappears.
Android: Actions should be limited to three for a single card row. […] Bridged notifications, such as new message notifications, are pushed to the wearable from the connected handheld using standard Android notifications.
Apple: Long look notifications can display up to four custom action buttons. Apple Watch leverages the interactive notifications registered by your iOS app to display action buttons in the Long Look interface.
Android: A confirmation animation is an opportunity to express your app’s character and insert a moment of delight for your user. Keep animations short (less than 1000ms) and simple. Animating the confirmation icon is an effective way of transitioning the user to a new state after completing an action.
Apple: Beautiful, subtle animation pervades Apple Watch and makes the experience more engaging and dynamic for the user. Appropriate animation can: Communicate status and provide feedback. Help people visualize the results of their actions.
We launched Android Wear. I’m leaving Google and moving from San Francisco to Dublin where I’ll be joining Intercom as Director of Design.
We launched Android Wear.
There’s an immediacy, a sense of here-and-nowness, to being a technology designer that excites me. We get to sit at the edge of what’s about to come, trying to will the near future into being, to prod and push at the adjacent possible until something new pops out. Maybe the result wasn’t quite what you were expecting at first, but another few prods and it turns into something new and amazing. Technology is the greatest multiplier of culture that’s ever existed, and even if you just do something small, well, that’s still pretty decent when refracted through a massive magnifying lens. Connectedness continues to seep into the lives of regular people at an unbelievable rate, in what must be one of the most signification cultural shifts of our times.
When I remember to look up, I notice that these changes are happening incredibly fast. If you’ve been using computers for even a few years you’ve probably experienced technological whiplash a couple of times. Maybe a friend shows you a simple new thing they got, like a USB thumb drive or something, and you marvel at how capacious and cheap it has suddenly become. Maybe you bought one yourself just last year, but it was half the size and twice the price. How can that even be? It’s like compound interest, multiplying annually, snowballing. You needed a forklift to move 5MB drive in 1956, now ten thousand times more storage could easily fit into… well, into a watch.
Thus has it always been. This trend turns out to have been so consistently reliable that it’s basically been a codified law of the computing world for several decades. (How long it’s likely to continue, who knows.) But the nice thing about this trend is that it allows you to fairly accurately look into the future: computers will get smaller and cheaper at a fairly decent and steady clip. Just extrapolate the slanted line of Moore’s Law and you get a decent prediction of the future, no charge. Then, you just imagine what that future might be like.
So, while working for Google in Zurich in 2011 along with a couple of friends – the inimitable Morten Just and the irrepressible JP Gil – I started a 20% project to design a computer watch. It seemed an improbable idea just four years ago, but that slanted line don’t lie: before long someone was going to shrink an Android-capable device down to the size of a matchbook, and then keep on going.
It began as a fun design fiction topic to debate over beers: what would the UI for such a tiny computer look like? How would you interact with it? What would it be good at?
Well, for a start you probably wouldn’t want all of the bother of installing and launching apps. (Who wants an app grid? Yeuck.) You probably wouldn’t even need apps at all, at least the way we typically think of them. You’d might just want a display that you could glance at quickly, and it would somehow magically show you only the most pertinent information for you at just that moment. Of course, the design challenge is to take all the knotty complexity involved in actually making it work, and just make it feel simple.
A lot happened during that fast forward: a lot of collaboration, merging, splitting, canceling, rebooting, and sprinting. And also some guessing, despairing, disagreeing, and failing. We collaborated with countless Google colleagues, many of whom donated their own 20% time. We worked with hardware and software engineers in Motorola, and worked inside Google[x] for a while. I moved to the US, and we teamed up with a group inside Android who were thinking along the same lines.
Apple, of course, have since provided a preview of their take. I look forward to playing with one. Here’s what I’ll say: it was immensely interesting to get a look at how some of the best designers in the world approached many of the design problems that I wrestled with over the last couple of years. I mean really, how often do you get an opportunity like that? I feel like I watched their announcement with eyes already attuned to the hazards of the environment: oh, look how they tackled the list selection problem; the finger occlusion problem; the spatial model.
If the ebb and flow of competing software platforms for the last 30 years has taught us anything, it’s that these different approaches will probably lap against each other’s shores, gradually commingling and mixing to form something standard and canonical – and ultimately better – while each still retaining their own individual flavour. I’m glad to have had the chance to add some ingredients into the early mix.
I’m leaving Google
Eight years! I can only say that Google was a big part of my life, and an experience for which I’m very grateful. Over the course of those years (and living in three countries) I met some of the nicest, sharpest, most interesting people I ever have. There are a couple of projects that I fully expect to have the same level of global impact as Web Search and Android have already had (autonomous vehicles is one of them). It’s insane that all of that can come from one company. Google’s ambition and audacity continues to astound.
Still, the world is disappointingly real. There’s a lot of sound and fury around Google Inc., mosto fo which is nonsense, but I do believe it’s true that corporate entities can develop their own autonomous momentum. A lot of people are fairly skeptical of the machinations of ultra-mega-globo-corps, but I also believe that Google is a grand experiment in building something different, better, and more intentional. I hope that it can continue to hold onto it’s original character for a long time to come.
and moving from San Francisco
People ask me if I like living here, and I usually prevaricate and say that I do and I don’t.
I love the light here: I’ll probably miss that the most. And the wide open sky. The unfettered positivity. The countryside just across the bridge. The food. The local history. The niche events. The sense of living in a beta version of the future.
But. Suffice to say that I agree with most of the points in Alex Payne’s break up letter with the city. The inequality is devastating to witness and hard to countenance. In an odd way, I found San Francisco to be strangely conservative: almost hostile in it’s devotion to preserving a precious sense of itself, strangely resistant to the very change that seems to be it’s primary character trait, determined to doggedly play out a role that it has defined for itself. I know these seem like contradictions; so yes, this city is large, it contains multitudes. Honestly, I think a lot of people come here and feel alienated by the overt SF-ness of SF. That popular person you know who is actually riddled with self-doubt? That’s San Francisco. Trying really hard to pull off that effortless look? That’s San Francisco. Thirty-eight going on eighteen? San Francisco. A really nice city that’s understandably having a bit of a midlife crisis.
“To be Irish is to think about leaving,” someone said. To leave, I would add, is to think about going back.
Dublin, though. You wouldn’t want to be casting too many stones, like. Fair enough.
But. There’s an elemental attraction to go back that I never really shook off. It was always in the back of my mind. Certainly my Irishness is intrinsically connected to that feeling. But having traipsed around a few places, I do know that people spend a lot of time searching for what you get in Ireland for free.
Recaps are supposed to be short, so I won’t even start on about the most significant thing that’s happened to me of late. But it’ll be nice to bring him home too.
where I’ll be joining Intercom as Director of Design.
When the chance to join Intercom came up, I almost had no choice. I’d crossed paths with Eoghan, Des, Paul, and some other folks at various stages in the past, and was curious why so many really good people all seemed to be gathering in one place. Very suspicious indeed. When I figured out that they happen to be building what I think might become an important piece of infrastructure for the future of the internet, I was pretty much sold.
As the dust kicked up but the introduction of mobile computing is settles, we can survey the landscape and the vast changes wrought. First, the world is pouring online at a scale that PCs could never have facilitated, and commerce is following. Next, the fundamental ways we interact with computers and each other has changed, and new patterns and standards have emerged. Messaging is mobile’s killer app and may be the most natural unit of interaction on mobile (the card and the chronological stream of posts might also be contenders).
Yet almost anyone who has tried to actually communicate with a business online at even a basic level knows the pain involved. Kafka would weep. There’s no doubt that this is fertile ground for improvement. It’s almost as if the problem and solution are just lying there, waiting for someone to figure out how to fit them togther just right. And Intercom has some great ideas for how to do it.
It’s actually a knotty design problem that can only be solved by making things much simpler for everyone involved. I like problems like that. Plus ça change!