Digg’s Designer Divulges Design Details

Matthew Magain
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Based in San Francisco, Daniel Burka is one of the founding partners of silverorange, a Canadian web development company. He’s also the lead designer at the news web site Digg, and a co-founder of Pownce.

Daniel took a few minutes at last week’s Web Directions South conference to chat with SitePoint’s Matthew Magain about designing user interfaces, responding to user feedback, the Web 2.0 aesthetic, and more.

SitePoint: Let’s start by telling the SitePoint readers a bit about yourself – your background, and how you came to where you are today.

Sure. I became involved in the Web back in ’98 or ’99. I was in high school, and my brother, some friends, and I were drawn to web stuff. So we started a company, and a year later we were involved in a big project with another small web firm that was nearby. The project went so well, we thought we’d merge our two companies, and so silverorange was born. And over the last eight or nine years, silverorange has evolved into a very good, boutique web shop.

I worked at silverorange for years–way out in Eastern Canada–working with groups like Mozilla. I worked on the Mozilla visual identity team, so I helped draw the Firefox logo, which was really fun. I sketched on a whiteboard and then Steve DesRoches, who works with me, did a pencil sketch of it. Then Jon Hicks did the rendering. Don’t get me wrong – Jon Hicks gets 90% of the credit, he was awesome. But it was fun to be involved in that project.

Then I worked on mozilla.org, which was a huge project for me. After seeing those results, Kevin Rose hired silverorange to work on Digg, and that project really took off. I was involved in all the work for Digg, and as I’d been working on silverorange for a long time, moving to Digg was a nice transition for me without burning any bridges with silverorange. I started working more and more on Digg, and became an employee while working part-time for silverorange. And now I’m creative director of Digg, and that’s my full-time gig.

Then about a year and a half ago, Kevin, Leah Culver, and I started Pownce, which takes up all of my spare time.

SP: Many of our readers aspire to working for themselves, leaving their nine-to-five lives so that they can be their own boss. Was that a difficult decision for you to give up something that you helped grow from the ground up, to go and work for the man?

I don’t work for the man, so to speak. I was one of the first employees at Digg – I was the fourth person to be working on the project, so I have some ownership of the project. I’m certainly not a founder, I don’t presuppose to say that. But I feel like I’ve got a fair degree of ownership, and I have a lot of say in the direction of the site. And that it’s, you know, a big site with a lot of influence. And when you’re near the tiller of a ship like that, it’s a lot of fun. It’s pretty crazy that, to roll out a new feature and have 30 million people using it. That’s pretty bizarre.

And I’m a co-founder at Pownce, so I have a lot of ownership there and don’t feel like I’m working for the man, no.

SP: Do you have a specific philosophy that you apply to your designs?

I don’t think it could be expressed as a philosophy. I learn a lot by working with smart people, so I was really lucky working at silverorange with people like Steven Garrety, my brother Nick Burka, Steve DesRoches, and a few very good designers.

None of us went to design school – we picked all this up when we were young, from experience, and from bouncing stuff off each other. Going to school is great, I guess, but I don’t think it’s necessary at all. You look at the top tier designers – Dan Cederholm, Doug Bowman. They didn’t go to design school. These are smart guys who figured it out. If I’m asked by young designers for advice, especially those that go to design school, I’d strongly encourage them to find people with like interests and start working together. Build fictional projects, and try stuff.

I mean, that’s the beauty of the Web – it’s like the Wild West. You can look at everyone else’s source code, you can learn from it, and you can see their interfaces. Know what’s working and what’s not working. Listen to them talking at conferences. If you want to walk that way and if you’re a smart, driven person, a classroom is not necessary.

SP: Where do you find your inspiration, apart from those names you’ve mentioned?

A lot of my inspiration comes from our users, and watching how people use our systems. I talked about this a bit today, but our users are fascinating! They do all kinds of weird stuff. It’s really interesting to take what they’re doing and adapt it.

Of course, other web sites in our field are inspiring too – sites like Facebook, for instance. I think the crew down there are doing some really interesting UI work. Even if they’re borrowing from Digg *cough*. Some of the new UI stuff on the new Facebook feed – they borrowed a couple of ideas. It’s funny. Not to say that we haven’t taken a few ideas from them too.

And a bunch of the other social networking sites are doing some interesting projects too. I think last.fm is doing some interesting UI work – Hannah Donovan over there. And that’s how we started too. I’d look at 37signals and think, “What are they doing?” If you’re smart, and you pay attention, you can tell that [a 37signals app like Basecamp] wasn’t just pretty. You could see where the genius was. And you don’t need to flat-out copy it, but you can emulate it and learn from it and start doing it yourself. I think that’s the best way to learn. There’s so much going on out there on the Web, and it’s all so public.

SP: This phenomena of sites influencing each other, and users influencing design – are the days gone where a print designer can bring anything to the table?

Hmm. I read magazines, and sure, I’me influenced to a degree from print. But I don’t have a print background. I’m mostly looking at the Web.

SP: Surely we’re seeing a resurgence in print influence, though? People like Mark Boulton are talking a lot about grids, and we’re hearing plenty about elegant typography … all of these traditional print concepts are coming back into the fray.

Maybe, but these aren’t things I focus on a lot. I’m so much more focused on user interaction design, particularly with Digg. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that typography is unimportant. But on a site like that, there’s so much content entered by users, and it’s so unpredictable in many ways. I’ve never been focused on making it look a certain way. It’s more free and flexible, and I’m okay with it being a little dirtier, as long as people are able to push it around and do crazy stuff with it.

SP: What advice would you have for designers who are used to designing for static content?

Let go! Of course, there are some things that we obviously box in – you can only make titles so long, you can only enter so many characters in a description. But the biggest thing is the philosophical idea of not worrying about it. It’s cool! For example, I once mis-designed something on Digg, as I didn’t expect a certain number of diggs to happen within a certain period of time; I was storing the top ten stories … and it broke the layout. You know, we fixed it! It’s not a big deal. Stuff like that happens. Let go of that control, don’t sweat it. And take inspiration from what your users are doing, rather than forcing them into doing it one way.

SP: So does user-centered design impact or restrict your vision for the site?

User-centered design is the only thing I think about – that’s the critical aspect for designing Digg or Pownce, or any of the web sites I work on. All I care about is how people use the site currently, and how they will use it, depending on what I do.

SP: Do we need ideas anymore then? Or should we just let our users tell us what we should be doing entirely?

No, no, our users don’t tell us what we should be doing. Our users guide us to what the problems are. They’ll sometimes make good suggestions, but usually they’re suggesting a specific thing when they really mean a problem. And it’s up to us to find solutions to the problems – like the Henry Ford maxim that I mentioned in my talk today: “If I had asked my customers, they would have told me they wanted a faster horse.” Anticipate beyond what our users can imagine. Having the feel to make that logical jump to the next level. That’s where the real genius is.

SP: Let’s talk about the visual aesthetic of Digg. It’s very common for someone to say “the design of Digg has some gradients, it has some rounded corners – it’s Web 2.0″. What’s your take on that?

I used to make fun of Kevin a lot for saying “Web 2.0″, back before it was a common term. It’s such an empty, vapid thing to say. Especially the “Web 2.0 aesthetic.” I mean, granted, I’ve been involved in it – like the Mozilla site.

But I blame Cameron Adams for that! He did themaninblue.com, and used a bunch of gradients. I was definitely influenced by that! So when I did Mozilla, I did gradients everywhere. So I think he inspired a lot of people to start using them! I don’t think he would like it if he knew I was blaming him …

But I think there is this notion of friendliness, and because we care so much about people participating, we want it to feel easy for them. So you end up with that toyish, easy feeling: rounded corners, pastel colors – these kind of things became common because we wanted to put people at ease to encourage their participation. So it’s not just an aesthetic.

This approach was definitely my mindset with Mozilla. The previous design was black, red, and brown – it was very harsh. Almost a brutal style, and it was intentional. They had this whole socialist thing going. But it was very inaccessible, from a branding standpoint. It wasn’t friendly – you know, a mother of two wasn’t going to install Mozilla [based on that site design]. At the time, Firefox was trying to break into the mainstream, so that was my thought – bright, friendly colors, a nice, simple aesthetic – that was basically the idea. And that carried into Digg. Those projects back onto each other for me, so I was in that mindset.

SP: In your presentation you spoke a lot about metrics, and about information showing how people really use your site to influence design. So what do you think of surveys? Should we be running them? What should we do with the results? And how much weight should we give the responses?

A certain type of person is going to fill out a survey, so you should automatically put that into your weighting. But surveys can be quite useful. We did one on the recommendation engine on Digg, and it resulted in some good data. But I wouldn’t use surveys as your sole means of getting feedback from people.

Surveys come across as quite tainted, so there’s a lot of deciphering to be done with a survey. I think bringing in a targeted set of users is more beneficial, with methods like user testing, task-based analysis, and focus groups. But it’s more work than a survey too.

SP: What kind of tools do you use in your craft? Do you sketch or draw thumbnails, or jump straight into Photoshop?

I’m not a paper person – I’m really terrible. I whiteboard big, broad ideas. For example, Kevin and I have been doing some date planning for Digg lately, and we’ve done a bunch of whiteboarding lately, which has been really useful. So he and I will just disappear into a room and use the whiteboard.

But I’ll go straight into Photoshop. I’m really comfortable with Photoshop. I still enjoy making perfectly realistic comps that look like I’m actually developing. My brain works that way.

And I use Coda as my coding tool. That’s basically it.

SP: The amount of data that Digg generates has allowed you to have some fun with visualizations, like BigSpy, Swarm, and some other Flash stuff.

Yeah, it’s all built by Stamen Design. We hired those guys and they’re good friends of ours who work just a few blocks away from Digg.

SP: And is there anything that you can tell us that’s on the cards for the Digg labs?

I can’t, sorry! We’re holding that one close to our chest.

SP: On a final note, are there any books that you would like to recommend or share with our readers?

Yes! There are several books that I absolutely love that aren’t about web design, but have lots to do with web design. One is How Buildings Learn by Stuart Brand. Seriously, it’s an amazing book. Two is The Death And Life Of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago. A brilliant book, it’s about urban design. For example, it explains how wide sidewalks should be for optimum behavior, so that children can have enough room to play – but if the sidewalk is too wide, they’re too far away from their guardians, so dangerous things can happen. So many of these kinds of ideas extrapolate to the Web.

And then of course there’s Edward Tufte: Envisioning Information. As for books that are specifically about the Web, Dave Shea’s book about the CSS Zen Garden is great. And the really old book by Kevin Cox, called User Interface Design.

SP: And any blogs that you’ve discovered recently that you’re enjoying and would like to share?

The Canadian Design Resource weblog, which posts print and industrial design, is a great site. The Big Picture, which is from boston.com, is amazing. They’ve started posting photo essays every two or three days, but they’re 600-pixel wide, huge images. They did one for the Olympics, and they did one for earthquakes … they’re amazing. Huge, gorgeous images every two or three days. Put it on your RSS reader. They make the front page of Digg all the time.

SP: Thanks for your time Daniel.

Thanks a lot Matt, that was really fun.

Image credit: Jeff Croft

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