AMA with Dan Saffer, author and product designer at Twitter
Dan is a seasoned product design leader. Since 1995, Dan has designed devices, apps, websites, wearables, appliances, automotive interiors, services, and robots. He’s also found the time to author four books: Designing Devices (2011), Designing Gestural Interfaces (2008), Designing for Interaction (2006, 2009) and Microinteractions (2013) – a book I personally love and referenced in our own article on Google’s microinteractions.
Dan is currently at Twitter working on senior design projects.
For this hour-long chat, Dan fielded questions on everything from ethics in social media and product design, to the future of interaction design, to breaking into the UX industry.
Here are the highlights from Dan’s AMA. Please note, some edits have been made for clarity and spelling, and here’s an additional disclaimer from Dan: “I can’t talk too much about Twitter specifics, and I definitely can’t do anything about Trump’s tweets.”
Do you feel the solutions we’ve created are evolving us towards a better ‘utopian’ world, or do you feel we’ve grown in some areas and gone backwards in others? [Hugo Froes]
Definitely a mixed bag here. I feel like products are better designed than they were 20 or even 10 years ago, but some of the ends those products serve are insidious and can have serious societal consequences. I think we’re becoming more aware of what we might be losing, but whether we’ll be able to stop some of the bad stuff is the question.
I think we’re more aware now, for sure. But we’re also in an era of unintended consequences. Twitter is a case study in that, from going from a thing to tell your friends where you’re eating lunch to a platform for world leaders to drop policies.
There’s been a huge amount of concern over two ethical issues relating to social media. Firstly, the impact on people’s attention and the dopamine hit from social media feedback, and secondly from the impact of Twitter bots particularly on public debate, most notably Brexit and the US elections. In your role, what can you do to help address what are pretty wicked problems? [Peter Hornsby]
I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about this, as do whole teams at Twitter. The bots one is mostly a technical question of detecting and eliminating them. We’re doing a lot on that front. On the UX side in general we’re wrestling with how do we let people know they may be interacting with a bot (some of which are helpful) and is what you’re seeing/reading true. But doing that without Twitter itself becoming some sort of arbitrator of truth. I think the Facebook method they are attempting now is going to be a disaster.
Attention is another problem. Some of that is getting the *best* stuff to you quickly. Which was one purpose of moving to a ranked timeline instead of a chronological one. We’re still working on this one.
Twitter is different to a standard corporate website because you have no direct control over the core content. What challenges or opportunities does that present? [Kevin Robinson]
Oh man, how much time do we have? A big challenge is how do we remain design neutral. You might have a tweet of a cat gif next to a world leader threatening nuclear war. Then of course there is the freedom of speech vs. safety and trust of our users. If you’re offended by what someone says, should you be able to report them? Where is the line? This is a constant and ongoing debate. Especially because it can involve lawyers and governments.
What are some ethical considerations that a designer should consider while designing something? I am constantly in turmoil regarding trying to design apps that catch user’s attention while on the other hand avoiding apps on my phone to be more productive. [Jatin Gupta]
There are a lot, but the value vs. attention one is big. How much value is the user getting vs how much attention are we demanding? And the same goes for effort and data as well. How much are we taking from you in exchange for providing value. I think about this one all the time.
How would you define ‘interaction design’ as a specific field? [Kevin Robinson]
My definition is that interaction design defines the behaviour of a system, and those systems usually incorporate technology. I click a button and this happens. Defining that there is a button to be clicked and what happens when it is clicked is interaction design.
How has interaction design changed in the last 10 years? [Kevin Robinson]
Mostly the products and services it has been applied to have grown. 10 years ago the iPhone was new, as just one example. But now you see people wrestling with interaction challenges in government, robotics, voice UI, automated services, self-driving cars, etc.
How do you anticipate interaction design evolving in the next 10 years? [Kevin Robinson]
Maybe because of where I work, but AI and Machine Learning, and being able to work with and manipulate algorithms is going to be huge. Voice UI is big and growing. Designing for developing markets. More services-oriented work. What I think we’ll see less and less of is web work and possibly even basic mobile app work. I suspect that’s going to be very commoditised in the next 10 years. Web work is already getting that way.
What’s the difference between CX and UX? I feel that Norman’s definition of UX didn’t have any room left for CX. [Abdo Osama]
I usually refuse to engage in any ‘definition’ discussions, as I’m not really sure how helpful they are. That being said, I’d see CX as almost an overlapping circle with UX in the Venn diagram. I think there are some duties that CX has that probably don’t affect the user experience, although I’m struggling now to come up with any on the spot. Probably backend processes like re-ordering and keeping track of inventory.
What advice do you have for students who want to break into the UX industry? [Jatin Gupta]
I’d try going to meet-ups and other design gatherings. Conferences if you can volunteer and afford it. Meet designers face to face. Ask them to coffee and get their read on your portfolio. Try to build up a network, which is where a lot of jobs are found. You might also have better luck trying for jobs in places where they are often hungry for people, which is usually not the very sexy stuff.
What’s the latest buzzword that has caught your attention? [Pedro Almeida]
Oh geez. Working with the ‘Jobs To Be Done’ framework seems to be all the rage now.
How many UX/IA/IxD books do you read a month? What are the best you’ve read lately? [Pedro Almeida]
I read zero a month, probably 1-2 a year. I try to read anything *but* design books. My rule is: when you’re starting out, read as many design books as you can, but once you have a good foundation, read as few as you can.
Here’s a list of my favorite introductory psychology books for designers.
Does your team use Principal to animate/test design ideas? Have you had the chance to use Invision Studio? [John Shaw]
Yes, we use Principal, but most of us are moving towards Framer for prototyping.
What has been your experience of working alongside Business Analysts? In theory they should be able to support UXers but in practice I don’t find them very helpful as we’re more analytical than most realise. [Merina Khanom]
I’ve had good and bad experiences, all depending on the person. The biggest thing to establish is who owns what. Make a list of job responsibilities and include those that are cross-functional and make sure you know who is in charge of, say, market analysis vs. screen flows.
Have you lied with design thinking? [Pedro Almeida]
Hahaha. I have tried to be honest with my design thinking, but I have definitely seen designers bend user research findings to their own wills to design what they wanted to design in the first place.
How do you balance creating something that brings value to the business vs. value to the user? How do you approach making something profitable, that has real value to the user and doesn’t have hidden agendas? [Hugo Froes]
This is easy. Kidding. This has been a core question for decades now. And there are competing philosophies on all sides (often within the same company). I’m usually in the ‘what’s good for the user is what’s good for the business’ camp, but that’s not so simple anymore. If we got rid of ads, which most users hate, there would be very few content/media businesses.
The hidden agendas issue is another challenge. People’s data is a commodity (usually used to sell ads) and we often don’t know or don’t think about how much we’re giving up to get what we want (often for free). For me, I guess I come down to value. Are we providing enough value that what we’re taking from you (money, data, time, effort) is worth it? And do users understand that exchange? Transparency is something I wish there was more of.
How does one prioritise a backlog? [Jarno Nousiainen]
So there’s a number of criteria that come into play here, and each company is different in how they prioritise. The one thing you have to make sure gets into the mix is value to users. If there is a high value feature (especially if it’s low effort), that’s worth prioritising in the backlog.
It’s really hard to balance the ‘broken windows’ vs new features” but it has to be done. Design has got to have a seat at the prioritising table, and that’s hard in some places too.
How do you decide what roles you need and how do you integrate new designers when building/expanding a design team? [Olga Apolinarska]
Usually that revolves around the kinds of problems we need solved. More strategic problems mean designers with experience and skills to tackle them, vs designers with tactical skills. I’m a big fan of No One Works Alone. Make sure that all new designers work as part of team, paired with another designer who knows the company/project.
Any plans to disable these annoying notifications ‘Joe blogs has tweeted after a while’? I personally don’t care for these, it adds no value for me and I think the user should have the ability to disable this if it’s affecting their experience using the app. [John Shaw]
I don’t work on the notifications team, but I will say that our future depends on our having both smart (AI) notifications that are aware of our interests and context, as well as granular controls of our notifications so we can tweak them when the AI guesses wrong.
I will say that we wouldn’t have them unless a lot of people found them useful. Just might not be you or me. That’s the problem with half a billion users.
Christopher is the Content Marketing Manager for EMEA, which basically means the skipper of the good ship ‘UserZoom blog’. So far his requests for changing its name to the ‘USS-erzoom Blog’ have been rightfully denied. In his spare time, Christopher is a filmmaker and the editor of wayward pop culture site Methods Unsound. He used to be the deputy editor of Econsultancy, editor of Search Engine Watch, staff writer for ClickZ and features editor of CMO.com.
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