Interview with Jeff Veen, User Experience Guru

Jeffrey Veen is a high-profile author, speaker, and user experience consultant who has been involved in the design of such sites as Flickr, Blogger, Typepad and Google Analytics. Jeff took some time out with SitePoint’s Josh Catone to answer a few questions submitted by the SitePoint Forums community.

Australian readers can see Jeff speak at the Web Directions South conference in Sydney in September. SitePoint readers are eligible for a discount on their ticket price – read more details in this blog post.

SP: Jeff, thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions from the SitePoint community.

No problem, Josh.

SP: The differences between doing client work at Adaptive Path, where you were creating your own product (Measure Map), and then moving to the corporate culture at Google, must have been profound. Can you talk a bit about your transition between these contrasting work environments and what it was like?

In some ways, it was a pretty straightforward transition. When we founded Adaptive Path, our goal was to do the highest-quality work possible for the most interesting array of clients we could find. We were extremely fortunate to achieve that, choosing which projects satisfied those goals. I quickly began to focus on startups, because I loved the momentum.

Working with companies like Blogger, SixApart, Technorati, and Flickr, I realized that the sort of rapid, web-focused product development they did was very satisfying to me. Eventually, Adaptive Path started up the Measure Map project to try to achieve that as well.

We had an amazing team develop that product, so the transition to Google was smooth. We were acquired with the clear task of redesigning Analytics, and the people at Google were focused on helping us achieve that goal. They left us alone to integrate into the Analytics team and work very quickly. Essentially, we were able to keep working the way we had as a startup.

SP: Can you share some effective strategies for team communication and keeping everyone on the same page? How much understanding of back-end processes does a designer need to have to communicate with programmers, and how much in the way of design principles does the programming department have to be able to grasp?

I am becoming less and less concerned in the difference between designer and programmer. Instead, I like small, highly-motivated teams that can work together on the entire process from start to finish. As soon as you have different people working on different stages of a project, you’re mired in process and artificial communication like specifications, product requirement documents, and style guides.

Instead, I try to work with programmers who are focused on positive user experiences and designers who have strong technical skills. If you get enough overlap between the two, it all just blurs into a team that works well together to make great products. On the Measure Map team, some of the best design insights came from our Ruby developer, and our interface designer wrote the bulk of the visualization code. So really, I don’t care too much about roles and responsibilities.

I realize this theory doesn’t translate to large organizations very easily. But that, in a nutshell, is one of Google’s key differentiators. They effectively empower small teams of people to achieve innovative work, feeding them the resources to make sure they’re successful. This doesn’t mean creating some sort of Xerox PARC or Yahoo Brickhouse lab where you reward talented employees by removing them from the rest of the organization. Rather, it means delegating product decisions out to the people who are closest to your users. And maintaining that advantage will be Google’s biggest challenge as they continue to grow and mature.

SP: Recent outages at Gmail and Amazon Web Services have some people questioning the wisdom of shifting to the cloud. When all your data is on some server out there, does the user experience degrade because of the inevitability that the cloud will go down?

Outages of cloud services are both painful and unsurprising. It’s early in the transition from local storage, so each glitch in a service has an undue effect on the tenuous trust we’re trying to build. But I also think about it like the electricity that comes into my house. On very rare occasions, it fails. We sit in the dark without television, worrying about the food in the refrigerator. Then it comes back on. But people who depend on it as a vital service have multiple backups and contingencies, for example: hospitals and factories.

The cloud services will mature and reach 99.9 percent uptime. But that still means nine hours a year of downtime. So applications that depend on perfection will need to build that themselves or develop automatic ways of switching providers to enable uninterrupted service. I’m not sure what the diesel generators of cloud computing are, but I know people are working on that.

SP: The Mozilla Foundation recently challenged designers to come up with their vision of the web’s future. Adaptive Path was one of the initial participants in the project, and presented a future web browser experience that was heavily focussed on social interactions. What do you think the future holds for the browser and its interface?

I wasn’t involved in the Aurora project, but I’m very impressed with the results my colleagues achieved. Their vision of the future of the browser makes some pretty key insights: the openness and portability of personal data, increasingly seamless online collaboration, and tools that adapt to the user’s behavior.

For me, at least, the vision they put forward actually has less to do with UI components in the browser. Rather, I think it points to all the change that will need to happen with publishers. Users are increasingly assuming the stuff they create online is theirs, and they should be able to do with it as they please. If I want to take my friends’ contact information that I inputted out of Facebook and keep it somewhere else, that’s my decision. Same goes for my purchase history, book reviews, photos, bookmarks, and anything else I produce online, either explicitly or implicitly. Underneath all the innovative UI, Aurora showed examples of that happening effortlessly.

SP: Jeff, we appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. All the best for your trip to Australia – I visited the SitePoint office recently and the 40 hours in transit were unbearable!

My pleasure, Josh. Yes, that long flight is a tough one, but the conference is always terrific, so it will definitely be worth it.

See Jeff present at the Web Directions South conference in Sydney next month, on the topic of Designing Our Way Through Data. Tickets are still available at the “Middle Bird” discount until September 5th, and SitePoint readers are eligible for an additional $55 discount by quoting the code WDS-SP during purchase.

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