N.B This is the unedited transcript of the interview.
Can you introduce yourself?
Sure, absolutely. Ryan Freitas, co-founder of about.me, acquired previously in December of last year by AOL. It's an identity-based start-up. We work with a variety of different sites in order to integrate and provide the best possible presentation of everybody's online data in one easy place to put together a good-looking online splash page for themselves.
And you have a strong background in design?
Primarily interaction design and information architecture, yes.
For entrepreneurs that have an idea and have a whiteboard and it's from concept to having something formal, mock-ups. Let's say I have this idea, I have a whiteboard. How then do I visually solve the problem? And say, "OK, this is what the user's going to see."
Of course, the vast majority of entrepreneurs are not designers. They don't really have no formal background in design. I myself, my background is in neuroscience and artificial intelligence research. So I'm not a formally trained illustrator-designer or anything along those lines. I think I share that with most people who get into the business and the space that we're in. I think the primary challenge when we think about that is bridging the gulf between the thing that I hold in my head, and how do I express it visually to others? And that stumbling block is difficult for a lot of entrepreneurs. They want to think about, "Well, this is the best possible realization of that idea," and really it begins with a sketch. It begins with those things that we come up with at the whiteboard when we're simply trying to talk about structure, or this is where the image goes, and this is where the call to action might begin, and these are the three things that might need to be in the nav. All of those ideas need to become expressed into an artifact of some kind. I've spent the vast majority of the last fifteen years in front of a whiteboard or working with a piece of butcher paper. Just getting these things written out regardless of skill is the most important piece. It's getting over that hesitation that this is not going to look professional, and the realization that it's all about expression, that it's all about if you have something that you can point to, be it a sketch, something that you do in Balsamic, or something that you do in Visio or some other program.
Let's talk about collaboration. Everybody's on the table, they have this idea, they've identified a problem. Is it okay to delegate the structures to a designer, or should that be something that everybody thinks through?
I think it's absolutely essential that anybody who's going to wind up touching that piece, be it code, be it design, whatever, they need to be a part of the conversation from the beginning. So we don't ever start talking about a feature and keep it only amongst an interaction designer and a visual designer because we'll bother the front-end and the back-end guys when the time comes. That only leads to interaction designers and visual designers guessing at what's actually possible, or not even being fully informed about how elegant the eventual solution could be. So what we endeavor to do is make certain that there's no wall between how we discuss what we want to accomplish, that we arrive at the most elegant form of the solution understanding everything, because everyone who's going to be involved in bringing that thing to life, all the opportunities and all the constraints are understood from the first moment we start talking about it.
I was watching the talk that you gave last year at 500 Startups, and you made this interesting point about building empathy. How do you build empathy?
The hardest part with empathy is that ultimately what we're trying to do is guide behavior, or take advantage of specific sets of behavior. When we are building something, we are either trying to capture an existing zeitgeist, or curate one around a particular set of ideals. Being empathic is rooted in not just a deep understanding of who the people that you are building for are, but what motivates them. What causes them pain? What causes them delight? What causes them pleasure? What kinds of interaction are the ones that they need? That is what guides truly interesting and great product design. I'm of the belief that you can ask those questions and you can be very explicit with people about "Does this work for you, and does this not?" But primarily an understanding or an empathy evolves from observation when people aren't speaking to you directly. When they are not telling you what they want but simply engaging with things that either frustrate them or delight them.
So what should be in this document then? When I'm going around, what's the main kind of fields that I want to fill out? So like age, location, what else do I need to think of?
What you're talking about when you're thinking about doing a profile of existing users or potential users, it's very easy to gather demographic data because it's simply right there in front of you. What we pay attention to primarily is psychographic data. Which is intent, mood, overall expression, general sub-vocalizations of frustration or delight based on a moment of an interaction. My friend Adam Greenfield talks a lot about these elegant moments within our interactions within systems, and an elegant moment is something that expresses itself where we have previously experienced something that either a bank interaction at an ATM, or buying a ticket for a show either online or at a box office, these are things that can be inherently frustrating, if only because the systems involved are so convoluted and so obtuse. We don't understand why they are the way they are, they force us to be upside down when we'd like to be right-side up. People express the most brilliant observations almost to themselves when we're in an observational role. If we pay attention even to their minor asides, we get enormously valuable data about how we can improve those circumstances in order to make them a more pleasant environment or something different.
Let's talk about gut versus data. How much do you rely on your intuition? If I go to the about.me website, what's good on an intuitive level and what's informed you with data? Is it possible to find out?
Absolutely, I think gut is where we all begins. I think young designers are blessed with an overabundance of confidence in their gut, and I cherish that because it gets harder and harder as you, one, are exposed to the way the industry works, as well as just beaten down by the hordes of users as they express their behavior in the transcripts and logs that you wind up being exposed to as your audience grows. I think everyone begins with a gut assumption of how things should be and how they should be structured. I've spoken multiple times about using really good data and seeking out good data around behaviors in order to really fine-tune what we call the user experience, which is those first few seconds when the users makes the decision to engage with you, and then getting them into a registration or whatever. My friend Keaton Shaw calls it the funnel, going from point A to point B. How many steps in between, how much information are you asking for, what kind of value are you presenting? And I think with about.me we've been terrible in our use of data. We didn't start instrumenting our overall funnel until, I would say, about six months ago. But one of the reasons was our overall conversion data was so high and so blessedly straightforward, we were free from a very early stage to focus on other things. Instead of optimizing we were simply creating things out of whole-cloth.
There's an inflection point along the maturity of any product where you go from, “Okay, we still have to build a lot of stuff,” to “oh my god, if we do not optimize this, if we don't get more people in there's never going to be a sizable enough audience to make any of the changes that we're making to the feature sets, or the overall value prop that makes sense.” So you wind up ping-ponging back and forth between, "Oh this is the core product," and "Oh my god, we have to actually fix the marketing message because not enough people are coming through the door." That's a persistent issue whether you've been acquired or whether you are still seeking out 10,000 registrations a week. You have to really focus on the thing that's right in front of you. And gathering the data is the first piece of instrumenting properly. If we had had our wits about us, we would have been instrumented properly from the beginning. We would have been working with funnel analysis and overall analytics that made sense. But we were moving so fast and there were stages where we were not building properly. And if I had it all to do again, it might have taken us six months longer to launch, but we would have been very tuned in to exactly what was going on from the beginning.
What would you have done if you had to do it again? What actual steps would you have taken?
We would have implemented something like KISSmetrics to analyze overall funnel patterns so we knew exactly where people were abandoning, where our message wasn't working right, where things were just falling apart in terms of the overall we're asking for too much data. We would have been able to split test the calls to action that we were doing on the marketing pages. We would have tested as many different landing pages as we could have. Adam from Google is a huge fan of basically saying that any page that your users can arrive at via search engine is a landing page, so make certain that you're figuring out exactly where they're landing based on what search terms, and then tailoring the exact calls to action and the exact ways into the registration process from that. We didn't do any of that. We were constrained by being a small team and being very focused on a core set of principles. I'm not saying that anything went poorly. I just would have loved to gotten that data from the beginning.
Ryan I know you had a brief history in cooking.
I specifically want to know what you learned from cooking. Because it's such a craft, you know.
There's a lot to be learned from the professional kitchen. As a cook it's one of those things where your friends will often maybe send you on cooking course, they can joke around about it. Once you wind up in a professional kitchen, especially something that winds up with a couple of Michelin stars, which I was blessed when the Americans actually embraced the Michelin system that I was in a place where that actually got granted to a place that I was working. You realize that there are rigid structures within such a creative environment that allow for excellence to express itself, and you understand that being part of that system is both a blessing and something that must be rigorously followed. One of the core things that I pulled out of my four years in a professional kitchen was generally in any creative environment, your job is not the thing that you think it is. It is primarily around making the guys around you look as good as possible by being the best at what you do as you can be. If you're simply working on a line, if you're working in some capacity under a stew or a chef, your job is to make them look as good as you can. So if you're a designer you're looking to make whoever your founder is, or whoever your creative director is, or whoever is above you, as good as possible. If only because the system is built on this regimented idea that the guy at the top gets the recognition while the guys underneath do all the heavy lifting, but it goes back and forth.
When you wind up as a co-founder or a founder, your job is to provide an environment in which your people can do the best possible work in order to make you look as good as possible. So when you wind up as a founder or a co-founder and you're managing a team, you owe everything to the people who are working their asses off to make the product work and make everything beautiful to your standards, to keep your excellence in mind, the thing you value most about the experience, the things you value most about your aesthetic, the things you value most about your brand, bring all of these things out and express them and hold them true. Because if you don't have that, if you don't get that level of service and that level of commitment, you're just caretaking the ideas, you're not actually expressing them.
Do you think design is what's separated you from your competitors?
This is a space that was being addressed by a lot startups, I believe.
That's absolutely true. I don't think you could ever say that we were overly original or that we had the best approach to the idea, I simply think we out-executed everybody else. I think we did our best to avoid the mistakes we saw other people making.
Do you think elegance has played a role then?
Absolutely, elegance in the way you solve a problem and elegance in the way you present yourself tends to be the difference between people tuning your out in the first five seconds and allowing you at least a few more seconds to make your point. When things are not abrasive, when they don't push a lot of things toward you and they simply invite invitation, you wind up in a situation where you're not immediately disinclined, where you'll actually give a little bit of your trust and attention for a little bit longer, and people can actually put a value proposition in front of you. That's all we've ever asked. We've simply put something in front of our users that we hope they like, and we have done our best to remove any obstacles that would prevent them from seeing what we can provide them as easily as possible.
It's interesting that you said that in terms of inviting the user in and not just blasting them. So you had a goal, right, a state that you want the user to be in?
Yeah, you can have all those things in mind. You can have your understanding of what your own internal goals are, that you want somebody to do something. You have to understand the flows that get them there. You have to understand the transition and desire and state that gets users-
What's the flows?
Flows can be defined in a variety of different means, but a flow can be as simply as a form. It can be a transition from I've received a call to action to I put a value proposition in front of you, you gave me something in return. It's a quid pro quo. I'm going to deliver that value once you give me these pieces of information that are important. The funny thing is a lot of people misinterpret that when they're trying to put something together. They over-ask, they ask for far too much information, they overburden the user with requests before they accurately or even fairly describe what they're going to do in return. We have always endeavored to basically say if you give us a few pieces of information, right out the gate we're going to be able to give you something of value. We're going to be able to give you a place where you can point to regardless of the context, be it an email, be it in a conversation, be it with a business card, that link between physical identity and digital identity which is still important. And be able to see like, Okay, we've give you this, people will be able to find you, reference you, learn about you, without you even being in the room, and you can preserve your identity both online and off- with just a few pieces of information.
I think a lot of people overburden that step of the process with that registration so the flow from hey, you're interested to hey, you're ready to go is just this convoluted mess. The user experience can be so essential to making certain that the product works the way the way it's supposed to. In the first few seconds of an interaction there's so many choices that the user can easily abandon and say, "I never want to do this." And your goal as an entrepreneur who wants people to engage with them is to simply remove those barriers where they think twice about it. You simply want to keep reinvesting and re-presenting that value proposition, but at the same time getting out of the way so they can actually get the job done to get in, so you can present it to them, give them the quid pro quo on what they've given you.
How do improve your design sensibility?
The thing that I point to on a regular basis, particularly on the user experience, is Luke Wroblewski's book on form design. It's still a classic. @lukew on Twitter, he's a former Yahoo! and now probably the most intelligent and gifted speaker when it comes to both the first interactions that anybody has with a given product as well as somebody has studied the ins and outs of user research when it comes to how people fill in information online, and people underemphasize that so much because they go, "Oh, well it's just a form, it's just a log-in, it's just a sign-up." It's the first encounter beyond the marketing messages that anybody has. It's unfortunate that that's how it works. Facebook Connect has taken a lot of that out, but I think a lot of people are still dubious around, "I don't necessarily want Facebook to be integrated with everything that I choose to use online."
I think Luke's books and writing are the best to start out with. In terms of just being generally inspired, it's one of those things when it comes to aesthetic you can watch what's going on online constantly, you can pay attention to things like Brand New, which is a great blog about how brands are being transformed online, even both traditional and web brands. You can overemphasize the startup angle and read things like Techcrunch and Engadget and [inaudible 00:21:08]. I think it's best to go back to the classics. I think reading Michael Bierut's rules on design, reading Paul Rand, studying the general classic forms of information conveyance and design culture are essential.
What's the final thing, the final advice that you'll give to those who want to visually design their startup? What's the cornerstone that they need to bear in mind?
Never stop trying to accurately sketch out what you're trying to get at, regardless of level of talent, because the more times you do it, the more times you apply yourself at the whiteboard to draw a wireframe, describing the flow, or lay out a page, or play with a few design tools, or take an image from another site say, "This is right, but this is wrong, and we should change this color." Every single one of those exercises makes you a more visual communicator, and helps you work with people who will be oriented to visualize your idea, so the more time spent working in a visual medium, the better off you will be when the time comes to actually work with individuals who can help you realize your dream. If you are not the person who's going to eventually comp everything, you'll be better served spending time breaking ideas down and describing visually than you would be by anything else.