Design Inside Yahoo!: Luke Wroblewski

Just in the past few years, Yahoo! has made leaps and bounds into the world of social media. Beyond acquiring Flickr in early 2005 (and relaunching Yahoo! Photos), they’ve launched a podcast service, a music service, and recently released version 1.0 of Yahoo! Video.

This is the fourth interview in the Design Inside Yahoo! series. I interviewed Luke Wroblewski, Principal Designer for Social Media. I talked to Luke about the role of design vision at Yahoo!, the tools he uses to communicate ideas, Yahoo!’s personality and more.

Joshua Kaufman: You’ve talked a lot about design vision and the role it plays within organizations. As Principal Designer for the social media teams at Yahoo!, how do you use this concept in practice?

Luke Wroblewski: Well there’s the obvious task of designing products that are useful, usable, and enjoyable. But doing so effectively in large corporate environments often requires applying design principles and problem solving methodologies to more than just product design. I actually spend a lot of my time helping various social media projects focus. Half of this effort is continually constructing and refining — through narrative and illustration — where we are headed. The other half is weaving our internal and external data streams into information that helps set that direction.

Painting a picture of where you are going is especially important when you have large (30 person+) teams distributed across the globe. You need a vision that resonates with people and gives them a clear sense of how their individual work contributes to our success. Too many times this type of strategic direction is only expressed as high-level mission statements and Excel spreadsheets. I instead employ design artifacts to illustrate where we are going and why. Whether that’s a concise roadmap that visualizes how several independent efforts will converge into a unified experience, a large-scale user experience architecture diagram that represents a product redesign, or a PowerPoint narrative that defines a problem space and potential solutions, the end goal is to communicate a tangible outcome that keeps us focused.

To help set direction, Yahoo! has no shortage of internal data. When coupled with the information available online, we — like many companies today — can end up with more data than we can handle. So another part of my role is using pattern recognition and visual communication techniques — both part of a designer’s toolkit — to make sense of the information available to us. By applying design principles to prioritize data and illuminate relationships, I can help teams make faster and better decisions. Though I can’t speak to specific examples, you can get a sense of what this process entails and the impact it can have by reading a recent conversation I had with eBay’s first designer, Jamie Hoover about his role in eBay’s registration redesign process.

JK: In an interview with John Haven you discussed the designer’s role as someone who can help communicate the value of ideas. Communicating with comics was a specific example you gave in the interview. What communication tools (including comics) have you found most effective in your work?

LW: Well, Kevin Cheng is Yahoo!’s comic maestro, so I can’t compete there. Instead I employ many of the artifacts I alluded to above. In particular, there’s a few I continually return to:

  • BAPs: Affectionately known as big-ass prints, BAPs are more of a format than a type of artifact but I mention them because of their impact. I’ve used BAPs of user flows to talk executives out of making business decisions that negatively impact customer experience. I used them to pitch product concepts to Product Management & Engineering teams by incorporating comprehensive metrics alongside screen designs. I’ve also used them to set product focus by illustrating a range of options and their consequences. So I’m a big fan of BAPs.
  • Diagrams: I’ve made all kinds of diagrams to illustrate both strategic and product concepts. The two types of diagrams I make most frequently, however, are product roadmaps and concept maps. When most people think of product roadmaps, they probably envision a table at the end of a PowerPoint deck with specific dates owners, risks, and more. The ones I create concisely illustrate where we are and where we are going. They are very much directional, visual, and not focused on details. Concept maps, on the other hand, outline the relationships between people, content, and actions within products. They illustrate the big ideas behind products.
  • PowerPoint Narratives: Yes, I know most designers would crucify me for touting PowerPoint as a communication medium, but when used properly PowerPoint — or Keynote for you Mac heads — has the ability to tell a story quite effectively through virtue of its sequential presentation model. Of course, to tell a story well you need to have a beginning, an end, and a point and not just a series of loosely connected charts and bullet points.

JK: In that same interview, you mentioned ethnographic research as a tool that Yahoo! uses to investigate how people use Yahoo! products and services in the real world and then applying that knowledge within the design cycle. What key lessons have you learned about using ethnographic research methods as a design tool?

LW: Having just participated in an almost complete spectrum of user research from usability testing to home visits to “unfocus groups”, for me, truly innovative concepts are often not the real value-add any of these techniques provide. Instead, the summation of these techniques paints a very clear picture of a potential audience: their behaviors, motivations, perspectives, and more. It’s this type of understanding that for me — I can’t speak for all designers — is perhaps the core value of research.

It’s not research to find where “x marks the spot” and a treasure of innovation is buried. It’s research to understand people, context, and as a result current and future behavior.

JK: It has been widely thought that several Yahoo! product groups are self-competing but the recent memo from Brad Garlinghouse brought new light to the topic. One of the three pillars of his plan called for “focusing the vision”. As a leading designer, how can you help Yahoo! define who they are?

LW: I think any of the skills and communication tools I outlined earlier can help focus corporate interests but when you really want to enact real high-level corporate change it takes more than design chops.

Bryan Zymijewski just wrote up a great series on my Functioning Form site about being a “design” strategist. The first point he made was that the one of the most important skills of business is knowing what drives people to make decisions. This and the ability to rally people around a shared vision are skills that belong in Engineering or Sales as much as Design. Unfortunately, many designers aren’t interested in exploring outside the design toolkit for the skills they need to really make an impact.

JK: One of the big ideas in your book, Site Seeing, is that people need to be aware of the personality that their site is creating through its visual design. As Yahoo! has become increasingly “designed” over the past several years, what personality has Yahoo! been communicating?

LW: To allude to your earlier question about focus, as Yahoo! has grown from an Internet directory to almost a portfolio company of products and brands, the Yahoo! personality has been stretched accordingly. So some Yahoo! properties are more reflective of the fundamental Yahoo! personality than others. At its core, the personality of Yahoo! is simple, fun, innovative, and unique. Clearly some properties reflect more or less of these attributes than others — Y! Finance for example is not all that fun — but in general that’s where the company needs to be heading. And no, I don’t think we’re there quite yet.

JK: What’s next for Yahoo!’s social media products and services?

LW: What isn’t? Social media continues to be a major strategic pillar for the company and the recent reorganization announced last week aligns our assets in that space more closely. So I’m looking forward to lots of interesting social media integrations and customer experiences in 2007.

Luke Wroblewski is Principal Designer for Social Media at Yahoo!, Founder/Principal of LukeW Interface Designs and author of Site-Seeing: A Visual Approach to Web Usability.

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