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San Francisco, CA 94107
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Design the simple


How good design can bypass problems you can't actually solve

Erik Will

I was recently hired to refresh a mid-sized corporate intranet. The intranet is mature - over 10 years old, with plenty of useful but often orphaned content, and a higher than expected amount of MS Office content. The client—the support team for the intranet—wanted a beautiful updated visual language of course, but they also wanted "better templates" for the content, and improvements to search, and they wanted things to be easier. But there wasn't a lot of specific info on what that meant, so I dove right in to stakeholder interviews: Folks who managed writers, writers, program managers,  HR leads, company news and PR teams, customer support. If they created content, I wanted to talk to them. 

I expected to hear from content owners about the awful design, or the awful content management. But I did not expect to get many earfuls on the poor state of content governance. They didn't call it that per se, but the primary issue stemmed from a problem many people would be really happy to have: The company loves its employees so much that it actively encourages internal mobility to retain them. So an employee writes content, which may become mission critical, then they move on to another possibly unrelated position and no one else is caring for it. It gets out of date, and the only people one can blame are the handful of folks supporting the intranet who don't maintain content at all. And that support team was our client.

How do you "redesign" - how do you manage the cruft into reasonable buckets when the client is unable to pay for a content strategist or IA or lobby for company wide organizational changes that put focus back on the intranet which might fix this problem?

We made search a lot more powerful. We gave them widgets to progressively disclose content. We gave them a very limited, and not overly designed set of templates. They weren't actually suffering from far too many specifically designed designed templates and had a frustrating paralysis of choice. We analyzed the existing contents, the ones most used or cobbled together, and came up with a handful with more extensible add ons that got the job done no matter what.

The primary tool we gave content owners was a very prominent content rating/freshness module widget at the tops of pages. It told the consumer what the current rating was and how old the content was. If they disliked it they could give it a thumbs down, which would fire off a signal to the original author to please come back to fix it, or delegate it to someone who can. It gave them some form of priority and a push notification that something needed to be done.

As for the end users trying to find relevant content in this crufty system, we gave them new and more powerful ways to search. Search is easy for me. I worked extensively on vertical search at Yahoo!, and understand the space fairly well.

We looked at the top search terms, and focused in on the 20 top terms. We created not just specialized search results tailored to those terms, we made them in a tiny modular format that could be shown as a search suggestion so the user could, say, fill out a PTO form, or see a calendar of holidays, or a number of other functional things before they even got to the search results. We also federated their search results from multiple repositories, and gave them clear powerful filters to search by relative recency and document type ("Help: i need that PPT from the CEO from 2011!")

Sometimes the problem isn't a bad or even old design: its bad content, or bad tools, or bad company structure, and while we can't always fix those underlying problems, design based on simple and clear discussions with the people who matter can produce solutions which will make everyone's lives a little easier.

A love affair with enterprise design

Erik Will

My first real job was customer support for people who were dipping their feet in the nascent visual internet using a PPP connection on a 4800 baud modem and firing up NCSA Mosaic which could be installed from a single floppy disk.

I became interested in design because I needed a better way to communicate to the customers I was supporting, which tended to be workarounds… for software that was behaving badly because it was designed poorly. Sitting on the phone all day was boring, and plain text just didn’t cover it. I downloaded a hypercard html editor and got to work writing nicely formatted help instructions with friendly image mapped click-throughs and uploading them in places where it made people’s lives a little less awful. I liked this work. It made people’s lives better, though the problems weren’t that hard.

With that experience under my belt, I bluffed my way into an agency as a “web designer” who had several folks on site at Netscape, I was on a team of amazing technologists and designers creating web based intranet training and mission critical employee apps for people three cubes adjacent doing their best to make software for our end users. We created fun, immersive envelope-pushing training on writing pixel perfect html emails using Netscape Communicator Gold and Capital-L-<Layers>, powered by javascript so fresh it still smelled of Brendan Eich’s sweaty fingers. I loved this. It was important work making my coworkers lives a lot better.

Then it was the late 90s and early 2000s and I did jumped around a bit, expanding my storytelling chops sitting side-by-side with startup founders desperately trying to come up with The Next Killer App while their cars were repossessed and they hid eviction notices from us. The enterprise lust went away as I got caught up in fat stock options, fancy drop shadows and sexy but useless interfaces that didn’t help people. These were generally fun, small problems to solve for a few months, then… wash, rinse, repeat. I liked this, but I didn’t love it.

I spent a some time ironing out dating and social networking at Planetout/ Anything social tends to have big fun problems to solve, and because there were only two of us designing, we got to work across the entire system. How do free and premium features live in the same UI construct? How do we gracefully take away your premium features and ask you to buy them back? What if you’re using our service not as an adult, but as a scared teenager who is using our service as support network to stay alive? How do we enable smart customer support tools to foster growth and slay trolls? This had big problems and wonderful people to help. I loved this.

After the bubble burst, I learned how to communicate with a wide variety of clients and internal stakeholders with magical titles such as VP/AD and Client Partner, and Creative Director, and “WHATEVER YOU DO, NEVER CROSS THAT GUY IN STRATEGY.” I learned how to pitch projects, and gently but authoritatively give Fortune 500 CEOs the news that requiring users to sign in before sampling their site was what was killing adoption, not their logo. There were a handful of interesting problems here, but again, they tended to be small, even targeted bits of advertising with a smidgen of interaction. I didn’t love the challenges, but I loved learning how to have meaningful dialogs with radically different people to solve problems.

Then I went to YAHOO! — I lived and breathed the largest living ecosystem with the largest number of users seen anywhere ever. I worked on the incomparably brilliant platform design team tackling big, huge, problems with implications on dozens of sites impacting hundreds of millions of active users every single day. If you logged in, saw the header, searched, interacted in a geo-aware way, rated any object on any YAHOO! site, we touched it. And the list truly goes on. Led by a visionary director, we created and managed a design pattern library which is still upheld as the best of its kind. The problems were big and the audience opportunities were enormous. I managed a small and wonderful team of designers working on personalization and vertical search, and we all drank the purple koolaid as a stylish little family. I loved working on enterprise UX of this scale. I loved mentoring and clearing roadblocks for my team. I loved supporting and being supported by a network of other designers and design managers.

My last product gig was creating UI and social constructs for a big network of video product: prerecorded and live; available on desktop and mobile; free, purchased, and subscription; in house and affiliate network sales, which meant it had a house brand, or could be whitelabeled to look just like someone else’s site with a slightly different set of features. I learned that you can’t make CTAs too obvious, and continued to learn that I love to manage smart people while making people’s lives better.

For the past few years I have been consulting for a variety of clients, often enterprise, intranet, or tools. I even got back to my roots designing a communication interface used by customers of the Big Streaming Video Company to chat with and get help from famously smart and snarky customer support reps. I’ve created dashboards to help QA engineers manage thousands of compliance tests. I’ve built rich search interfaces that enable student advisors find and assist students at risk of quitting school. I’ve prototyped iPad apps that help busy parents take a sip of goodness from a firehose of YouTube videos. I’ve retooled an intranet for tens of thousands that help folks get what they want and get back to work. I love seeing my work come full circle to help the folks that started out the same way I did.

I finally get to admit today, that I truly love designing for enterprise software.

Do you want to work with me?

What do you like to do?

Erik Will

I’m a designer. I’m exploring my next career move.

I had dinner with a good friend and career mentor. She’s one of those people whose career has been a fun, fast, meteoric blast to behold. She’s always in control. Sometimes she may seem amused that people will throw money at her to do certain things which she considers merely practical, and at others she has no problem admitting she’s easily the smartest person in the room and is being vastly underpaid for her mere utterances.

She casts off simple and mind blowing bits of wisdom without seeming to think about it. She is inspirational.

I told her I was looking for a job, and she asked me “What do you like to do?”

I didn’t have an easy answer. It took a few glasses of sake and some great sushi to come round to the fact that I’m really not interested in sexy stuff.

I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable, guilty, black sheep when other designers tell me they like to make “delightful” experiences that make people happy. I like that idea too, but thats not the kind of work that revs my engine.

I like to make stuff that doesn’t suck. When people use the stuff I work on, I want them to feel relief. I want them to have a distinct lack of anxiety when they sit down to use my software, because whatever they were using before was hard, confusing, frustrating, enraged them, made them hate their jobs which eventually made them misanthropic and hate everyone and everything around them… and now that burning ulcer is simply gone. They can get their stuff done, they don’t take their work home by way of bitching to their families at the dinner table about some atrocious piece of software causing such anguish they dread going to work the next day.

Would I like to delight users and make them smile? Sure. But what I really want is to get the shit out of their way so they can go be happy on their own. If the UI they use is invisible because they’re productive, they got what they need, they didn’t need to look at the help manual, or call customer support,then I am delighted.

So… I am looking for work. I have done product, intranet, consulting, startups, freelance, and design management. I didn’t have a solid elevator pitch on "What's next" for my friend, and that worried us both a bit. She challenged me to write 500 words a day to help me clarify.

I am a great designer, communicator, and storyteller, but I have never written about my work. So this is going to be what I do for at least the next several weeks. Try to talk about what it is I like to do for work, and see where it leads.

Thank you, Christina.