What my Grandfather’s drill can teach us about designing business software

I come from a long line of blue-collar workers who helped keep New York City running smoothly in the mid-20th century. 

My maternal grandfather, Anthony Paretti, was a New York City subway repairman who kept the trains moving safely and on time so people could get to and from work, school, and home. And my paternal grandfather, John Gould, worked for years as a repairman in New York City for the Otis Elevator company.

When my parents downsized their living quarters a few years back, my eight siblings and I helped sort through the stuff they’d accumulated over their almost 60-year marriage. Some things we donated, some we threw out, and some cherished things were divided among us: fine china, antique quilts, old photographs. What I kept was my Grandpa Gould’s old drill.

He used this drill to keep elevators running smoothly in buildings throughout Manhattan for many years. I love the drill’s clarity of purpose, its power, and its durability — his drill has remained in working condition for over half a century. I love his drill because it reminds me that making high quality tools for people is one of the highest leverage things we can do as designers. 

Tools amplify human abilities

Sometimes we forget about the role that tools play in our lives. We take them for granted as we integrate them, fluidly and effectively, into our workflows and everyday lives: scissors, hammers, utensils, pencils. Other more complex and sophisticated tools, like medical devices, computer servers, 3D printers, and telescopes, let us reach well beyond what humans could ever accomplish without them. 
My grandfather’s drill increased his physical capacity, so he could do things faster and better than he could have with his own, unaided physical strength. With his drill, he allowed people across New York to work and live far above the ground, way up in the sky. A few hundred years ago, this would have been unimaginable, but through the invention and use of many kinds of tools, it is now a commonplace part of the human experience. I think the term ‘tools’ has become so trite that it fails to convey the impressive potential they have to enhance the human experience and increase each person’s potential to do good things in the world. 
This is even more true when we look at the impact and potential of digital tools. Software, especially when connected through networks, has the ability to amplify someone’s ideas and actions well beyond what a physical tool can do. Compare the potential audience of a physical megaphone to a YouTube video. Or a physical library to the Google Search engine. Or a physical scrapbook of photos to an Instagram feed. Physical tools and software tools are both valuable in their own right, but there is no denying that digital tools have a massive potential for global impact because they can be distributed so much more widely and efficiently than physical ones. Of course, with this potential comes great responsibility, both on the part of the inventor of the tool and also on the part of the person utilizing it.
Yet our understanding of the craft of digital tools is still in its infancy. The Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum recently mounted an exhibit called “Tools: Reaching Beyond Our Grasp,” which celebrates the design of tools throughout human history. The inventive utility of the objects in the collection is enormously inspiring, and some of the designs are also aesthetically breathtaking. The exhibit features everything from Stone Age hand axes made from rocks to 19th-century fishing implements to high tech space gloves designed for the Apollo space missions. But as I walked through the exhibit and later perused the full collection in the excellent printed catalog, I was not surprised by the absence of business software.

Unlike the objects in the exhibit, software designed for businesses are often sorely lacking in craft. One might think this lower bar of design quality doesn’t matter since relatively few people have to use these tools on a daily basis. But the lack of excellent business tools should alarm anyone interested in improving society’s most complex ecosystems, including government, healthcare, education, and advertising.

Why is business software so badly designed? And why should we care?

Unlike widely popular consumer products like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Google, only a small percentage of the human population ever use business software, yet their use effects nearly everyone’s lives. They are used to manage budgets and human resources, procure goods and manage the bidding of contracts, transport goods and services, track the progress of students and patients, and help businesses plan and run marketing campaigns to connect their businesses, brands, products, and services to people around the world. Given the impact of these tools on our lives, it is all the more concerning that they are often very difficult to use.

It’s easy to assume that the experience of using these products is bad because there aren’t good designers working on them, but this is not necessarily the case. There are often passionate, talented designers who want to launch great products just as much as those working in consumer-oriented industries. Unfortunately, many things conspire to deliver poor user experiences. 

Sometimes the companies developing business software are insufficiently staffed with design resources. Sometimes they don’t conduct enough user research to truly internalize the needs of their core users. Sometimes they have legacy backend systems that make it incredibly difficult to improve the UI, even in obvious ways. And sometimes the leadership in these companies has not adopted a design-led philosophy that prioritizes end-user experience. These influential but poorly designed products live in the shadows, where design quality is often not an imperative. Consequently, they can be bloated with features, suffer from complex and inefficient navigation, and fail to support core use cases. The resulting experiences are too often inefficient, ineffective, and disempowering.

This would be bad enough if people were only subjected to these experiences once in a while, like having to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew your driver’s license. But for some jobs and occupations, people are obliged to use them many hours each day. Can you imagine if a consumer product you had to use many times a day was a miserable, inefficient experience? You’d revolt, change brands, find a better option. But when you are a junior assistant media buyer in an ad agency, or a nurse in the maternity ward, or a teacher in a public school system, you don’t have that kind of power or choice. 
But it’s not just about sympathizing with those forced to use poorly designed software. It’s also about recapturing the waste that these inefficient and ineffective tools create. It is hard to calculate the amount of financial and human capital lost through the use of these tools, capital that could be reinvested in better products and services, job creation, and general economic development. This is a hugely exciting opportunity for designers to create not just interesting products, but products that address some of society’s biggest challenges. 

The beauty of the beginner’s mind

Three years ago when I joined Facebook to lead the Business Design team, I had no experience designing business software. I’d spent most of my career building consumer applications and experiences like YouTube and Google Search. I’ll admit I was nervous when I started because this work was in some ways far more complex than consumer design. I worried that my lack of ad tech experience would make it hard for me to have the impact I wanted to have. But I could see that improving the quality of business products was one of the biggest levers for improving the experience of using Facebook, by making marketing more relevant and more valuable. Can we even imagine a world where we only see highly relevant marketing messages? Ads that are attuned to our interests, needs, and lives? We are so awash in irrelevant and interruptive advertising that this can be hard to envision, but I am excited to build tools that help make it a reality. 

And over time, I realized something even more important: the fact that I wasn’t a domain expert allowed me — and many members of my team who also don’t have an ad tech background — to approach these problems with fresh eyes, unencumbered by “how things are supposed to work.” The beginner’s mind, combined with the expertise of many colleagues who have deep domain knowledge, is a winning combination.

We still have a long way to go to consistently achieve our own aspirations for the quality of products we want to build. There is no denying that it has been a steep learning curve, but if I’m not learning, I’m not growing, and I still hope to grow a lot more before I’m through. Over the years, I’ve learned that there is no free lunch when it comes to having a big impact, and that the constraints and complexities of this work feel like a fair price for the positive change we hope to create in the world. 
Moving forward, there’s a lot that my team and I want to share about the things we’ve learned in hopes that others can apply it to their work. And we’d love to engage other teams and companies looking to raise the bar of quality in business software in conversations that help all boats rise with the tide. I believe that if we do our jobs right, then just like my grandfather’s drill, the tools we design can have a huge positive ripple affect in the world. It’s challenging and exhilarating work, and we are very much at the beginning of the journey. I hope many more members of the design community decide to join us.


Why Beauty Matters

This past fall, Raul Pantaleo, Co-founder of Tamassociati, accepted the 2013 Curry Stone Humanitarian Design Prize for the work his firm does designing and building healthcare facilities in war-torn areas, such as refugee camps in the Sudan and Sierra Leon. When asked why he works so hard to make his architectural designs not just functional and sustainable, but also beautiful, he explained:

"Beauty is the first message you give the patient, that you consider them as equal."

Wooden blinds shade a public terrace at the Port Sudan pediatric clinic. Photo from  Massimo Grimaldi and Emergency.

Wooden blinds shade a public terrace at the Port Sudan pediatric clinic. Photo from Massimo Grimaldi and Emergency.

I was so moved by this notion, and it put into words something that has been hard to articulate over the years of working on highly utilitarian designs for Google, YouTube, and now Facebook. You must design something that solves a real problem and improves the lives of people. And you must design it in a way that people can access and use your creation with a minimum of confusion and strife. But companies, especially high tech companies, have struggled with whether or not beauty really matters. If you get the two first parts right, won't people be satisfied?

The answer is yes. And no. Certainly, no matter how beautiful something is, if it's not useful and usable, it won't make a meaningful impact in the long run. Sure, it may give people a fleeting sense of aesthetic satisfaction, but like a diet of high fructose corn syrup, it doesn't satisfy you for long, and you eventually realize the need for something more substantial, something more valuable and meaningful.

For decades, software was so badly designed that the bar for usability was tragi-comically low. While there were some interesting ideas of products that could add value, like word processing and spreadsheet software, they were so difficult to use that people couldn't access or realize that value. Lotus Notes, various Mircosoft products, and the first generation of search engines are all excellent examples of this. Products that weren't focused enough on their raison d'être, and succumbed to bloating, rendering them either unusable, or so laden with feature sedimentation that people would only access 10% of the utility. Of course, people didn't know to ask for anything better, and sometimes through nearly monopolistic market share, they didn't have a choice anyway.

I remember having conversations at Google where the design team was dissuaded from making anything too polished or "designerly". This urging seemed to stem from two motivations: by investing in polish, there were concerns that the product would be - and equally important - would appear less fast. But there was also a sense of pride in the fact that Google didn't want to appear to value beauty over functionality. By keeping our spartan aesthetic, like some kind of Amish tech movement, we could show ourselves to be more serious about power and functionality. We kept the Google homepage Doodles to ensure that we maintained a sense of levity and didn't look like we were taking ourselves too seriously, but the product experience itself was to be kept as free as possible from what some might describe unnecessary ornamentation.

And people were so happy. Because compared to the other search engines at the time, Google worked SO MUCH BETTER. In fact, people who grew up after Google made its way into the world completely take for granted how high the bar is now for search experience, relative to where it was back in the late 90s. The clarity of purpose and reliability of the Google search engine (you come to a page, there's only one thing you can do, and you type in what you are looking for, and the damn thing finds it almost every time!) was so amazing, that for a time, people didn't want more, or more precisely, they didn't know what to ask for.

And then the iPhone came along. And we had to wrap our heads around something that solved real problems (minicomputer, camera and phone, all wrapped up in one device!), worked really well (way more intuitive than any other phone on the market at the time, by a long shot), and by God, it was beautiful. Sexy. Delightful. Covetable. And all of a sudden, the software we had been using, even the decent stuff, seemed, well, ugly. Soulless. Less than we all deserve. If Google Search tried to launch today with the aesthetics it launched with in 1998, it would be a laughing stock.

Now, to be fair, the technology that we work with, which both empowers and constrains us, has improved a lot in the last 15 years. The browsers and mobile phones of today provide a much more nuanced toolkit for designers and developers to play with. So we shouldn't judge the interfaces of 10 years ago by what we are able and expected to create today. But it's also the norms which are starting to change. People who are now accustomed to the high quality of successful mobile applications are now transferring those expectations to other areas of software.

So here we all are. At the cross roads of the next phase of digital product design. How do we get software fully past the age of ugly into the age of delight? First, we must understand that delight, and even beauty, are going to mean different things to different people, depending on the problems a given product is looking to address. For all products, we want the craft of what we do to reinforce a sense of quality; that the product is well made, is reliable, and can be trusted.

In the world I am currently focused on, the design of business software, the cost of not attending to craft can be very high. If our product looks janky, our industry's favorite term for poorly crafted, then perhaps our customers might start doubting the validity of our data or the reliability of our back end system. Like a profound essay littered with typos, poor craftsmanship can erode confidence in the quality of the ideas, even though in reality those things can be quite separate.

Ultimately, we need to put our products in service of people, and not just in a functional way. We need to surprise and delight them with the small details that show that we really care. I believe if we work to make what we build valuable, usable and delightful, we can create a virtuous cycle of raised expectations.

Design icon Paul Rand once said, "The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with." It's audacious to claim you are going to prove Paul Rand wrong, but let's give it a go, shall we?

To my dearest gallbladder....

To my dearest gallbladder,

I want to start this note with an apology; it's clear to me that I've under-valued and under-appreciated you my whole life. Beyond my high school biology courses, I have to admit to being completely oblivious to the role you've played in my digestive process all these years. And I can imagine that must really steam you. I mean, here you are, reliably releasing bile into my intestines to help me break down fatty foods, working like clockwork, and never being given any notice or appreciation. I know I'd eventually get fed up, too.

But I do want to provide some feedback to you on how you went about letting your presence be known. To go from living in complete obscurity to sending me to the ER writhing in a kind of pain that reminded me quite unpleasantly of labor pains was, well, a bit much. I mean, couldn't you have been a bit more subtle? Maybe start with some mild indigestion, or a tinge of discomfort? Did you really need to go full throttle and put me in the fetal position, unable to speak to the triage nurse? And treating me to further attacks when I eat anything fried, rich, spicy, or in other ways delicious seems a bit over the top.

I feel like you and your friend the appendix really need to develop better anger management skills. I mean, I know it's hard to learn that you are, well, let's be blunt, kind of b-team organs which can be removed with no long term health implications. I mean, when people have trouble with their heart, their liver, their kidneys, it's a five alarm issue. With you guys? In my case, a small incision in my belly button and two surgical robotic arms will make light work of your removal.

Don't take it personally; I mean, we have some good years together. But those days are over. This Thursday, your new home will be a bio hazard waste bin in a surgical theatre in a hospital nearby. I wish you the best, and will toast you affectionately over a big plate of fries sometime very soon.


Moving on, with sadness and excitement

One of the trickiest things in life is to know when to move on. From a project, from a relationship, from a job. I've been thinking a lot about this lately since I recently made the decision to move on from my role as Director of User Experience at YouTube.

Even typing that is hard to do. I love YouTube as a product more than anything I've ever worked on before. And the team I've had the pleasure of building and leading is one of the best in the industry. It's filled with talent, and fun, and team work, and kindness.

The past few years I've spent at YouTube, and the two before that leading UX for Google Search, have been extraordinary. I learned more about the craft of UX, creative management, and myself than I learned in the 10 years prior. I am exceptionally proud of the work we've done to build a robust practice of design and user research within the YouTube organization. And the proof is in the pudding: our redesign of YouTube.com in late 2011 was the biggest redesign in the company's history, and represents a serious raising of the bar for quality of design within the company.

But one of the most frequent pieces of advice I give is to leave on an up note. And that is what I've decided to do. Friday, April 20th, will be my last day as the Director of UX for YouTube. And I am so excited to announce that starting in late May, I'll be joining Facebook as Director of Product Design, leading the team focused on ad products. This is such an amazing time for Facebook as a company and as a social phenomenon. I'm itching to learn as much as I can from my new colleagues about the amazing plans for the future and to be a part of making the next generation of advertising experiences the best the world has ever seen, and to work alongside the larger product design team to help chart the course for this product that is changing the world in so many ways.

But first, I'll take a month off (yay!), so prepare for more blog posts, including one that lists all of the ideas my kids suggested for how I should spend my 4 weeks off. My favorite among their suggestions? "Submit several snarky working-mother definitions to Urban Dictionary." :)

Favorite talks from TED 2012

As far as my favorite TED talks from this year, here are the ones I'd most recommend and why (I'll link to them if they are available, but the TED folks tend to roll them out over the course of the year), listed in the order they appeared at the conference:

  • Susan Cain: "The Power of Introverts" -  As a closeted introvert and a manager of many more, this talk really resonated with me. Anyone who thinks of themselves as an extrovert should consider this required viewing, especially if you lead teams. Here's the blog post.
  • Reuben Margolin, Kinetic Sculptor: A quiet walk through the work of a highly inventive and creative mind. His sculptures feel like they exist in the overlapping space between robotics and ballet. Here is a blog post.
  • Billy Collins: One of my favorite quotes of the conference: "When I was poet laureate...God I love saying that. Because it's true." Such a dry wit and sharp tongue. It's lovely to see poetry come alive in collaboration with animators, too. Again, here's the blog post
  • Sharon Beals: The fragile beauty of birds' nests - I was taken aback by the artistry of Beals' photos, but more importantly, the birds themselves who created the subjects of her work. Some beautiful examples are included in the blog post
  • Reggie Watts: How to describe him? Comedian? Musician? DJ? Provocateur? Uh, yes. And God, how I love a good TED roast. And the topper? Turns out he's a really nice guy. Here's the blog postReggie's own site, and a TEDx talk he gave ont he East Coast
  • Sherry Turkle: This one was a bit painful. When one of the most important thinkers about humans and technology questions whether we need to rethink the impact that over-connectedness is having on our humanity, it causes an audience-wide existential crisis. Turkle asks why we expect more from technology and less from each other. And it's about time. Here's the blog post and a TEDx talk she gave on a similar topic
  • Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about an injustice - Another favorite quote (paraphrased): "So I submitted a motion to have my 13-year-old, poor, black defendant tried not as an adult, but as a 75 year old white corporate executive." Amen. Here's the blog post, a well as a follow up note from TED's Chris Anderson explaining how the TED community rallied to raise over &1M overnight to end the practice of long term incarceration of children in adult prisons. . 
  • Chip Kidd: So funny, so thought-provoking, so inspiring. I loved this talk, and all that it revealed about someone who is a master at what he does: book design. Here's the blog post
  • David Kelly: Creative confidence is something most kids have in spades, but unlearn as they grow older. How can we reverse the trend? IDEO's founder gives a thought-provoking and ultimately very personal talk on why we all need to opt-in to creativity. Here's the blog post
  • John Hockenberry: Why would a journalist be featured in a session on design? Because Hockenberry speaks so eloquently on designing a "life of intent." Make sure to stay to the end of this talk and be treated to his gutsy and unique cover of The Beatles' "Get Back". Here's the blog post
  • Abigail Washburn: Chinese speaking, stereo-type-busting, banjo-playing, curly-haired wonder Washburn is now a new Stewart Family musical favorite. Here's her website
  • John Bohannon & Black Label Movement: "That’s childhood. It’s a Manhattan Project of nakedness.” Sorely needed, frank commentary and reflection on the state of sex ed and talking to kids about sexuality. All wrapped in a wonderfully artful presentation. Here's the blog post, though you really *must* see the video when it gets released. 
  • Rafe Esquith: You can't have an inspiring session on the state and future of education without including Rafe Esquith, and more importantly, his band of merry players, all donning "Will Power" t-shirts in honor of The Bard. If we could clone Esquith and his dedication to these high-achieving lovers-of-learning who mostly come from low-income, non-English-speaking homes, we might be OK. Here's the blog post.   
  • Brené Brown: Appropriately, this vulnerability expert spoke honestly and, well, vulnerably, about a key area of study: shame. How does it differ from guilt? And how does it keep us from being creative, innovative, and happy? Truly worth a watch when it's posted. In the meantime, here's the blog post

Phew. It was a great week, though as usual, emotionally and intellectually a bit exhausting. Now, the trick is to hone in on the key things you actually want to focus on moving forward, since one person can't move all these needles at the same time.  Some things that could change the world, and somethings that are about understanding and changing ourselves. And the realization that those two things are very much connected. 

Hard-earned career advice

A few months back, I was asked my my graduate school mentor, Red Burns, to speak to her class of first year students at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. I gave a talk about what it's like to lead design for a brand and community like YouTube, and all of the challenges and opportunities that go along with it. And then I closed with some unsolicited career advice that I thought might be worth sharing more widely. Here it is....

Take smart risks
Sometimes people who don’t understand the arc of my career say, “Wow, you are so lucky to be where you are.” Yes, and.....no. What defines every major change in my career, and in my life, has been taking smart risks. Let’s face it: many things that are worth doing in life are very risky and don’t really make sense at the time: falling in love, having babies, attending Burning Man (which I haven’t done, for the record). But in hindsight, you see that when you develop a taste for smart risk, you open yourself up to many more possibilities and significant growth than if you always play it safe. In my life, that’s meant getting a fellowship that allowed me to live abroad by myself; attending ITP (NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program), a weird sounding graduate program, well before the commercial web made it a no-brainer for the rest of the world to engage in Internet projects; leaving a lucrative freelance business in NYC to join Tripod, a then tiny unknown start up, for a tiny salary because I knew I’d learn more (said start up ended up getting acquired by Lycos); staying home with my kids for 4 years when the industry when through a downturn and work was no longer fun; uprooting and moving my family across the country to join the big leagues in the Bay Area.

Some of these decisions took my financially conservative parents’ breath away. But the fact is I’ve done so much better personally and professionally because of these risks, and I’ve earned my successes by taking them. This issue is particularly relevant for women, as we are socialized to be more risk averse than our male counter-parts. Forbes Magazine reported that a study showed men apply for jobs when they are on average 60% qualified for a job, while women on average wait until they are nearly 100% qualified. The men apparently figure they will learn the rest on the job, and they are right. Ladies, we need to puff up our chests, drink a Red Bull, and remind ourselves that if we feel a bit in over our heads, we are probably on the right track. Which leads me to my next piece of advice....

Women help other women
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help women.” Amen. Women in roles of influence often get to where they are in part because someone along the way took interest in them and encouraged them to do more, be more. And that someone for me has often been another women: Jan Chambers, my scenic design professor at Boston College, who pushed me to take on projects that were just out of my grasp and in the process helped me grow and develop my taste for risk; Red Burns, the founder of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU where I earned my Masters Degree, who showed me that women leaders can be fearless and maternal; Marissa Mayer, head of UX at Google and my close colleague during my time running Google Consumer UX, who created numerous opportunities for me to expand my influence in the design world outside of Google. If you haven’t been helped by women in your organization, find some that you admire and ask. And if you have help to give, then reach out to the young, promising women in your world and give them a hand. You owe it to the future.

Don’t be an ass
Too often, I hear people posit that you have to be a jerk to do great work, especially in the creative professions. I'm sorry, but I just don’t buy it. I know, it’s all too easy to call up the Steve Jobs example. For the record, I never met him, and 99.9% of other people never have either, but his reputation is not that of a person who is easy or pleasant to work with. But here’s the key point: Steve jobs was a genius AND he was a jerk; he wasn’t a genius BECAUSE he was a jerk. And let’s be real; hardly any of us are Steve Jobs. For the rest of us mortals, getting along with people and being a fun, engaging collaborator are critical components to getting great things done. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be hard on yourself and others at times, and that you shouldn’t have high standards and develop a culture of critique. But I don’t believe that has to be coupled with being an ass. My goal as a leader and a colleague is to be straightforward, authentic, optimistic, empowering, and relentless in the pursuit of great design. And I can do that while being kind and fun, and you can, too.

My TED 2011 sketch notes


I've finished scanning and uploading my graphic notes from the 2011 TED conference. I take these notes so I can share the experience of being at TED with as many colleagues and friends as I can, and it's also a great way to retain more info; in fact, there was a TED talk this year by Sunni Brown about the benefits of doodling. Those who doodle can retain up to 30% more information. :) So enjoy, and feel free to annotate the images on Flickr with your thoughts, ideas, reactions. The full set is available on Flickr, or in the slide show below.

I'll be publishing another post soon about my favorite talks from the conference...

T  ED 2011 sketch notes , a set on Flickr.

TED 2011 sketch notes, a set on Flickr.

Words of the Dalai Lama hit a bit too close to home...

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered:
"Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived."