Interview with Idan Gazit, Django Core Designer

Designer, developer, djangonaut, geek. Idan likes to find ways to bridge the worlds of development and the many other design-related issues which affect product: interaction, information architecture, and visual design. As Django’s benevolent designer for life, he is busy trying to make Django a shining example of cooperation between developers and designers in the open source community.

Idan occasionally writes longform at gazit.me, where links to his other activities around the web can be found. He tweets as @idangazit, and resides in the warm mediterranean paradise of Tel Aviv, geeking out with his wife and two daughters.

1. Where do you get UX inspiration?

Once in a while there are roundups on the usual sites. uxmag.com, smashingmagazine.com, etc. Sometimes these have nice tidbits or projects I haven’t seen yet.

Honestly, I’m constantly just using sites and applications, and making note of when somebody does something particularly delightful. I’ve gotten better at noticing the nice touches with time.

There’s also a surprising amount of good UX fodder on sites like Hacker News. UX-related stories are the minority, but I’m reading it all the time anyways, and I’ve stumbled into a lot of good stuff there. Whether it’s due to sampling bias, I can’t say!

2. How do you recognize a great UX designer?

I’m not even really sure that it’s fair to call me a UX designer, or that I know how to define UX designers. The field is a strange mashup of designers who operate empathically and empirically. The empaths put themselves in the shoes of their audience and move the obstacles out of the way of desired outcomes. Those of an empirical bent devise ways to measure user behavior and try to quantify a good outcome, then alter the product to produce bigger “good outcome” numbers.

I don’t think either is wrong. I suspect the empiricists probably regard the empaths as witch doctors, and there are certainly a lot of quacks who think they can call themselves “UX designers” by virtue of their ability to empathize. That said, I think that audience empathy is a critical component in good UX design. Being able to imagine the state of your audience’s heads when they are using your application is a priceless skill.

I think in the end, I judge people on their ability to communicate more than anything else. If you are able to communicate a solid chain of empirical reasoning, or you’re able to explain to me the mindset of a user in a methodical, convincing fashion, that’s the business. How you got to those understandings is almost secondary.

3. What do you think are the 3 most common misconceptions about user experience?

I think the problem with “User Experience” lies mostly in our nomenclature. What are the differences between UX and IxD? Do most people really care?

Among most people who aren’t UX designers or who don’t spend a lot of time in the company of such, “design” is an opaque, homogenous thing. They hear these terms thrown around but they don’t understand the impact a UX designer can have on their product, and how that’s any different from the impact a graphic designer can have on their product.

“Will a different shade of blue work better here?” is rarely a UX question. It doesn’t help that most writing on the internet uses IxD, UX, and just plain “design” as synonyms. Educating the consumers of UX is the hard task at hand. I’ve had lots of conversations with people where I explain that UX design can be entirely abstract and unrelated to the user interface. A decision of what bits of information to demand from users on signup is a UX decision, not a UI decision. A decision on the optimal amount of information to display might have UI design aspects, but fundamentally you’re deciding what the user needs most at this moment—a UX decision.

Sorry, I don’t have three concrete misconceptions. Just one big one!

4. Jeff Gothelf calls copywriting “The Secret Weapon of UX”. Do you agree and to what extent?

I agree wholeheartedly, except about the “secret” part. It’s probably a poorly-kept secret.

The self-describing user interface is often held up as a designer’s holy grail. Some exceptional applications manage to achieve this, mostly touchscreen applications—probably because touch removes many layers of interface abstraction, and interface elements which behave in a manner consistent with our understanding of physical objects need less explaining. There’s something direct and visceral about manipulating things with your hands which is absent for most users of a mouse.

I think it’s a little bit of a red herring to chase, though. Most applications are probably too complex to be entirely copy-free. The one example that springs to mind is the to-do list Clear — it has an entirely gestural UI with absolutely no copy. Every other to-do app out there has text and buttons and all the trappings of an application. They managed to excise it all, but I don’t think that it generalizes to most cases.

So if you aren’t the 0.01% who can figure out how to subtract most of your interface and still leave a usable product, you have text. Text is your weapon, and you can use it to elicit emotions and responses, to dial in the perfect level of peppy irreverence, business formality, masculinity or femininity—whatever you need to communicate to your audience.

In fact, I find that I’m thinking about the copy in my interfaces more than almost every other aspect, especially when I’m not working. I’m constantly rolling different bits of copy around in my head and saying them out loud to hear how they’ll sound. I’m constantly asking friends and family what they think about different ways to describe something. It probably adds up to more time than I bill for the concrete deliverables.

Most importantly, I think good copy takes time to formulate. Like everything else about a good experience, copy needs iteration, and iterations need time. You have to be able to let your ideas percolate. I haven’t had the privilege of working on an app with a dedicated copywriter yet. Maybe they can do it faster, but if you’re flying solo, don’t write copy with a deadline-gun to your head. It won’t end well.

I’m also a big fan of conversational-tone copy. I have the luxury of not working on too many “enterprisey” projects, so pretty much everything I write, I try to write without the stiff formality that has plagued user interfaces for a generation. Sometimes it takes a bit of convincing to get clients on board with the idea.

5. You say that you are interested in info visualization. What does this term mean to you and how should we perceive it?

“We live in the age of information” has become a tired cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. With the advent of the smartphone, the hive mind has left my desk and come to rest in my pocket. So long as I’m not roaming abroad (where data is ouchily expensive), I have the collected wisdom of humanity at my fingertips, everywhere I go.

Unfortunately, while we may be wealthy in data, we suffer from a paucity of meaning. Car accident rates went up? How much? What does it mean? Is it related to the models of car that we buy?

I live in a bubble of tech-savvy developers and designers, but my parents and my sister seem constantly frustrated with the firehose of data pointed at them. Helping them understand their phone bills and bank statements is a pain. I don’t think that most people are able to articulate the fact that they’re drowning in data, and the firehose is only getting stronger. I think that helping people distill meaning from data is one of the primary challenges we’ll face as designers (UX or otherwise).

Moreover, data visualization is a neat field because each visualization can have a custom interface. You get to throw away a lot of your assumptions and conventions when designing a custom visualization. What works for one dataset doesn’t necessarily work for another. I find that fun, and challenging.

6. What are the primary features that distinguish a developer from a designer? What bridges these two professions to make one into a hybrid developer/designer?

The developer/designer divide is something of a fake dichotomy. I don’t think that the two fields are actually very different. I feel my brain working in the same way when I’m designing, or writing English, or writing code. I’m working within some set of constraints to serve an audience.

Developers think that designers have some instinctual, intuitive grasp of beauty. Designers see developers in terms of science-fiction tropes—“I can see the code for the matrix!”

What both don’t usually realize is that their respective professions are disciplines. Some people are born with a natural aptitude for either, but disciplines are acquired. You learn from the masters that came before you. You struggle and sweat to acquire the rules of your field before you start to break those rules consciously and creatively.

Intuition only carries you so far, and the rest is practice, practice, practice. Hybrids are just the people who decide that they’ll be better at one thing if they know a little bit about the other. For our industry, that’s unquestionably true—knowing the fundamentals of design will make you a better developer, and understanding the fundamentals of software engineering will make you a more capable designer. In both cases, you’ll have a deeper understanding of what your limitations are, because lots of design decisions happen in code, and the best-designed features often have a surprising amount of engineering behind them.

If you’re a designer or a developer, try learning the basics of the other. There are a ton of resources online. You aren’t going to become a DaVinci or a Knuth overnight, but you will become a more competent practitioner of your craft, and a more valuable asset to employers.

7. What are your top 2 recommendations for making the first visit to an online service a success?

Refine your message. Refine it more. Pound on it until your knuckles start to bleed.

I’m often annoyed by services which fail to clearly communicate their most important selves to me in the first ten seconds. Anything but the most minimal product will have too much cool stuff to fit into the magic-bullet headline. You have to make a choice about what is most critical to communicate. Figuring this out takes time—like I said before, product design with a gun to your head rarely results in a great outcome.

Often this refining reaches more than homepage-deep. Sometimes your whole product needs to adapt to your message. You drop features that add more cognitive load than value. You refine first-run flows to guide users into good behaviors. If this is sounding somewhat holistic, it’s because product design is.

If people are giving you the barest fraction of their attention, you have a precious window. You can’t stuff your entire product in that window. Prop it open with something small, interesting, and easily understood. Don’t use big words to describe it. In fact, practice your self-description out loud with everybody who will let you. If it doesn’t roll off your tongue, if they don’t get what you’re about immediately, then go back to the drawing board. The out-loud test is a great one for successful introductory copy.

As for my second recommendation, invest in good typography—not just the fonts, but how you use them. Unless you’re building a site for typography geeks, good type is the ultimate subliminal UX weapon. Nobody knows to point it out, but everybody feels that there’s something fresh and attractive about your app.

Then again, that might be my personal addiction to good type, so take that second one with a large grain of salt!