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Mike Davidson at Prototypes, Process & Play 2017 (Podcast)

This podcast features Mike Davidson, Former VP of Design at Twitter, and his fireside chat from the design leadership conference Prototypes, Process & Play on August 10th, 2017.

Prototypes, Process & Play presentation podcasts are sponsored by Balsamiq – with Balsamiq Mockups, anyone can design great software.

Mike Davidson – Fireside Chat

Former VP of Design at Twitter

Mike most recently spent three years as Vice President of Design for Twitter. Prior to joining Twitter, Mike was Vice President at NBCNews.com, where he managed social news products and technologies. Earlier, he founded Newsvine, which was acquired by MSNBC, and spent several years as Art Director and Manager of Media Product Development for ESPN.com. Mike earned a B.A. in Business Administration from the University of Washington and studied Creative Advertising and Management at the University of Oxford.

Before the advent of web fonts, Mike invented and open-sourced sIFR, a technique which enabled thousands of individuals and organizations to use custom typography on the web.

For more, keep up with Mike at mikeindustries.com or on Twitter as @mikeindustries.

Presentation Transcript

Please note:

Podcast transcript below.​ Please note: Transcription was recorded live; there may be errors (typographical and contextual), as well as omissions or other content gaffes.

​Additionally,​ there was microphone feedback that happened in the room from time to time, and we did our best to minimize it in the podcasts. We apologize for any disruptions to your listening experience that this may cause.

Moderator:

We are about to start our kind of last talk of the day, which is the fireside chat. – Check.

Mike Davidson:

Hey.

Moderator:

Hey, it worked! All right. Excellent. –

Mike Davidson:

Yes.

A year and a half. So this is about as close to work as I’ve come.

Moderator:

So before, by the way this is open floor. I’m going to ask Mike questions, but if you guys have any questions, let us know. We’ll try to ask a few. But I have a few questions. The first is Mike, –

Mike Davidson:

I haven’t taken more than two weeks off in my life until this. I was never a vacation taker. I didn’t really take a break between jobs. I would kind of hop on the next train. And towards the end, three or four years, the subject of the talk was managing the assets.

– So it turns out when I – having taken a year off. I did okay at Twitter. –

Moderator:

Okay. I purposely didn’t ask you that before. So I asked you that now. So now something that is a little weird to me. Not that it’s happened to me. However, gosh, the internet with the tweet stormings and so people who work for other people and they leave places that they work. So for example let’s say all of us are leaders in an organization. And someone writes an experience that is not too positive. These managers, et cetera, can’t really do anything. How do you suggestion people handle something like that?

Mike Davidson:

You’re saying when somebody leaves your company and writes a very candid article about what it’s like to work there?

Moderator:

Shared.

Mike Davidson:

Yes, very candid. It’ll. Moderator:

It’s just my experience is the people who work in the human resources – don’t want you as a manager to respond and say anything.

Mike Davidson:

That’s a good one. When I did leave Twitter I wrote about a 10,000‑word article about my time there. And in San Francisco, as well. A lot of my experience was being someone who is not from San Francisco and going there and working. I was as candid as I could have been, but I was also very professional about it. My goal was to be helpful with everything I do. I wanted to do it in a forward‑looking way that is helpful for the company. So before I published that piece I re‑read it. – the next day or the year after. And this one, I probably went back and read like 20 times. Because I wanted to make sure that where I was critical I was being positive. I think I hit the right tone. But if you were with me at the company at the time there were certain paragraphs that you could read and you could say I was at that meeting and it was not that positive. I think it is your duty to be helpful with your criticism. It doesn’t do anything good to throw people under the bus without trying to make things better.

As somebody who is still at the company trying to deal with something like that, I tend to try to do things more often. Twitter, for all of its common attributes, I think it’s a poor place to have discussions to have nuance. Oftentimes it becomes more of a performance because they’re performing for their followers. And the other person is performing in front of their followers. And you end up saying things to each other that you wouldn’t have said face to face.

A lot of times I see that happening in advance. Where it’s a tweet where I think it’s going to turn into something more like an article, I’ll ask that person what did you mean by that. And then in a best case scenario the person actually writes a followup, which kind of captures more of what the person was trying to capture.

Moderator:

That’s great that you’re suggesting folks – who say bad things. Reach out to the individual. Professional liability insurance. Particularly if you choose to sue people. I’ll take a quick check from the audience to see if there are any questions for Mike.

All right. –

Mike Davidson:

So I think that a lot of times that designers go into the field, they feel like it’s a field they can do on their own. I think one of the first things, I saw all the things that I could do myself. And I felt powerful. I worked for my college’s newspaper designing newsprint ads for sporting events. And design an ad for a football game. It would go to the press. This was me. I didn’t have anybody review it. I just developed it myself and figured wow, what a great field to get into. And only when I got into the real world did I realize how much of a team sport it is. To do anything really, really great in the world requires collaboration. Engineers, designers, researchers, marketers, a bunch of different people. A large part of your job as a designer and as a job design manager is learning the skills to collaborate with other people. So it’s very common to bring an experienced designer into your organization and try to impress you with the work that comes up in a computer search. That’s impressive and stuff but it’s not impressive when you go to other departments. Why do you put a designer out in the corner – and they’re right. That designer was not actually talking to the people they’re working with. So the concentration on people skills. People call them soft skills. I don’t think that’s right. It’s just people skills. Communications. People skills I don’t think are taught very well in high school or college.

Moderator:

I see design school focus on – and that feels a little, and something that you said collaboration. Why does this critique – why can’t you just be open with each other? How do people get past that?

Mike Davidson:

They’re separate, but related topics. Critique is what I did. Collaboration is what do you know. What are we trying to solve. It’s getting everybody in the room in the beginning and getting everybody bought into the concept and it affects how you move forward. The related skills. You get criticized. Designers. – get criticized as a designer. You think you created something great and as soon as it hits it whether it’s a professor in school and they say your design is crap. It does take a thick skin to kind of get over that and get past a review and realize that your goal – it’s human behavior.

Moderator:

One of the things that has been hard for me is somebody saying something – celebrating. This is awesome. Let’s go figure out what to do. My idea was horse shit. –

Mike Davidson:

Not sure.

Moderator:

Oh. –

Mike Davidson:

It’s great. It’s a great philosophy to have. And you move forward. There’s no reason to be dissatisfied. I will say this, though. A behavior that I’ve witnessed in large organizations. I won’t name names. But one thing I’ve seen is a team will get together and decide here is the problem we want to solve and here is the approach that we want to take. And they’ll go over all the risks of the approach and say there is a 25% chance it’s going to work. And then it doesn’t work. And then there’s a bunch of revisionist history that goes on after that. And people start asking who, what? Why do we let this team do this project? It didn’t work. 25%. Those aren’t good odds. And like you have to be not only tolerant of like those sorts of risks, you have to encourage those sorts of risks. He wants so much innovation to go on in that company that failures occur all the time. You think that’s a disaster, you haven’t seen anything yet. I love that philosophy. As long as you can learn from the quote, unquote failures, you’re getting the innovation.

Moderator:

Questions? – Talk about collaboration and critique. How people collaborate. You get that when you’re working on a project. As you establish a design team and what the design team wants to be when it grows up. How do you go setting about those goals? So we’re not just the graphics team.

Mike Davidson:

The art team. I think design teams need to have two separate goals. Teams less than 20 people and they all sat in the room together. All spread out throughout the organization. And we had really two sets of goals. One of them were actual design goals. And I think one of my mistakes early on is I said we need to look at some design principles. So took the entire team and it was a very collaborative process. Design principles. Examples were like every pixel counts. Understand the problem first. Relentless refinement. Things like that. And they were a great rallying cry for our team. But when you’re in the trenches building a product and like an engineer is telling you they want to do something that goes against the “every pixel counts” design goal, that’s not a really good way to argue for what you’re trying to do.

You can’t necessarily expect that the engineer will care about design goals that are geared towards designers. For that reason, I don’t think design goals are actually the most important part of the goal that you need to set for yourself. I think those goals are operational goals. So your design goals should be something like we already have all of our files under source control in the next six months.

We are going to re‑do the way we do this into this, this, and this. Eternal stuff. Design matters. Those are your design goals. Your most important goal, really just company wide. You cannot, the goals that you share between your design product and research, you’re doomed to fail. I like to think of those as two separate processes.

Moderator:

– design. How many people on that team?

Mike Davidson:

About 100. It was like 65 designers, 35 researchers, and mixed in there kind of – I believe at first researcher.

It is. 10X.

Moderator:

– Large team. 45. And a few years ago when I was leading larger teams, the thing I had trouble with was I didn’t know who was my pencil skills, who was my research skills. I’m scared to lead design – recognize that it’s not that you’re leaving design behind. And even though I had done that, the thing that I struggled with is that I don’t see design anymore. How did you design? Did you see design with a hundred plus people? How did you manage to become engaged? And shape design versus leaving it to some –

Mike Davidson:

Yeah, there’s a lot compacted there. At some point in your career you need to decide whether you want to be a manager or not. One of my favorite rules I had is there are separate parallel tracks for individual contributors and managers. And they both get paid the same and they both rank the same. So there is no promotion into management. Like if you’re a senior designer and you want to be a manager on my team, it’s a lateral move. We will try you out with a small team of 2‑3 designers and you will not get a raise and you will not get any sort of bump into anything else. You just decided to move sideways.

I think it’s healthy, if you think you want to kind of get into that, it’s healthy to give it a try. Oh, we’re talking about salaries. Some people really embrace it, you know? And so I think, you know, if you’re interested in trying something like that out. But the second part of your question is should you keep your skills sharp. Yes, absolutely. Blue Sky redesign of Twitter. I personally participated in all of it in Illustrator, in Sketch. In some cases switching code, learning Jquery, which I didn’t really know.

– I know I’m never going to do that again in my life, but I still want to be current on those sorts of technologies and how people are designing. I feel like the best managers and leaders in design are practitioners, as well. It doesn’t mean they’re going to continue to be the best individual practitioner in their life. But when a designer comes to you I don’t want to do 20 mocks of this thing, I can sympathize with that. I just spend 3 days wrangling Jquery to do this animation that you asked for. And like this extra thing that you just asked for, I want to know what that means. And I also want to know when it’s bull shit, too. There are a lot of times when a designer or engineer will come to you and it will be like that’s a lot of work for us. And you turn around and go interesting because it’s not a lot of work for me.

It’s not about keeping your skills as sharp as they’ve ever been, but it’s about keeping your skills as sharp as they need to be.

Moderator:

I’m sorry I asked you so many questions there. I’ll give you a summary. How much – Twitter.

Mike Davidson:

A lot. So right when I got there, there was this thing called product review. And it was every week. And our CEO, our CTO, and a couple other people, and me. And that was it. And a different product team would come in every week to pitch, you know, what they had been working on and show their prototype. And we would discuss it for an hour. It was great. It was just like super deep product talk, design critique, and it was great.

And it had been a few weeks, and I thought I had a good hold on everything that my team was doing. And then one week the events team came in. And the designer on the event team, she was great, she came in and showed this thing I had never seen before. It was like a new thing on how to do live events on Twitter. And like she started presenting it. And I had never seen this thing before. And it’s being presented in front of the CEO and other important people. And I kind of just kept my mouth shut and let her go through the presentation. And then they turned to me and said “What do you think of this?” I totally faked my way through it. I almost felt blind sided by it. How dare this person on my team present something to the CEO that I hadn’t seen before. And I pulled her aside and said I never want to be in that situation again. I got to see this stuff. And they were kind of like “Huh, okay.”

[Laughter]

Because there is so much going on. Like it’s weird. Every time there is a change in Twitter, like this latest re‑design that went out a month and a half or two months ago or whatever, surrounding the avatars and all the other cool stuff.

But some of the comments were interesting. I can’t believe you would waste time on something like this! You know, when you can’t even handle this. You people think it’s a single organization, like a kid’s soccer team. The ball is over there and then the ball goes over and then the ball goes over there. When you have 2,000 engineers and like 65 designers and 35 researchers and 100 + PMs, whatever, everybody is working on different things at all times. So you’re going to miss stuff.

People say I don’t know the name of the principle. There is a principle that says a company tends to look like its products. And the product tends to look like its product. There you go. It’s totally true of Twitter. It’s chaotic and you miss a lot of stuff. It’s kind of all over the place. It’s really fast. But it’s really cool. So learning to deal with that sort of chaos and learning to sort of trust your team to produce things that your eyes haven’t necessarily been honest, it’s a new skill.

Moderator:

I’m going to quote two people, some of them are here. I hate surprises.

Mike Davidson:

I hate surprise parties.

[Laughter]

Sorry. Just thought I would throw that out.

[Laughter]

Moderator:

All right. You just hired a design manager and they have 6‑7 people they’re responsible for. What kind of expectations do you have? How do you on board them? –

Mike Davidson:

The company has something called New Hire Orientation, which all the new hires go into this room and spend the whole day. And they come in and do a full jokes. None of it is really specific to design. But like to answer your specific question, I think of manager direction as how much influence do you have inside. As a new design manager, I don’t expect you guys – outside your own team. Help them improve. Look after their career and typical manager stuff. A full team where you’re 10‑12 people. But general responsibilities. But you start to have more influence across the design studio. When you get into the director levels, that’s what I ask every single person. You need to pick something extracurricular to do that improves the entire team.

Examples of this is one of my directors, Mike, led the design refresh across the floor. That was just a project without being scheduled. This needs to be done. And it needs a person. He took that.

Another person organized the yearbook for the end of the year. We had this beautiful like leather‑bound yearbook of the design team. And the work that we had done. And a bunch of fun stuff. She had put that together. That’s kind of what I expected at the director level. It’s sort of a studio‑wide influence. And then the senior director level is more company wide. How could you affect teams outside of design?

Moderator:

– article about it?

Mike Davidson:

Yeah, I could. I could.

Moderator:

Mike Davidson:

Yeah. No, that’s not a bad idea, though. I’ve read a lot about how we value designers. That’s one of the things that I wish would have gone differently in terms of how the product developed and a bunch of stuff. But, you know, one of the things I am kind of most proud of is the career ladder that I put together. Most companies have general career ladders like here is what a VP does and what a director does. And you try to map what your life looks like in that ladder and try to make it fit.

We had a career ladder that we created with the entire team. Revision after revision after revision. Using everybody across the entire team. Basically four things. If you want a raise, a promotion. There are four ways that we grade you on that. I think that worked out really well. Number one. So you do what you say you’re going to do. When you commit to something, are you putting time in where you need to get that work done?

Number two is building relationships. Are you the sort of designer where you’re going to need your P.M.s to fight to work with you. – Also, are your relationships within the design team – Number three, this is one that can be expressed in terms of recruiting. Are you holding brown bag to do like skill shares and make really great prototyping? Are you coming and teaching the rest of the team? And number four is technical skills.

So by spreading the criteria across those four kind of pillars, we sort of de‑emphasized being a great designer and emphasized being a great team lead.

Moderator:

Nine minutes left. Lightning round. If you have questions, raise hands.

[Laughter]

– All right?

Audience:

What it’s like to design something that people give feedback on?

Mike Davidson:

It’s terrible! The latest post I wrote actually was specifically about that. I think it’s the last post on there. But yeah, it’s really, really tough. Because for a lot of reasons, number one. Like it’s really hard to say anything really insightful in 140 characters. That’s the performance art piece of it. There are people out there who love looking at updates on Twitter or anything else and coming up with a tweet that will get them the most likes or the most retweets or the tweet that the other designers go “haha, that person is a good designer, that person is really insightful.” That’s not really what the goal of critiques should be. So the downside of getting feedback over Twitter is there so much of it. And most of it is low quality. But the upside of it is how amazing to work on a product that people care enough to give direct feedback.

So you have to go through and characterize this was super insightful. We should care about this. And this is just something we should ignore because it’s not constructive at all.

Moderator:

Thanks, nice haircut by the way. [Laughing] When you’re at a company like Twitter that’s publicly traded and you’re moving at a lightning speed, can you talk about some of the best – to produce an array that may seem nuts?

Mike Davidson:

Yeah. It’s a really good question. It’s tough because you’re accountable. People look at that stuff. And how a company is doing. And as you all know from being designers and researchers, not everything you do is going to show them. It’s a fact. And do the opposite. (Alarm) That’s it?

So you get a great idea for a feature that tests really well, but it doesn’t improve immediate engagement. Pull the slot machine. It’s going to make people happier. Do you have the wherewithal not just as a designer, but hey this is a good thing for the long term. Jack, the CEO now, he is really patient in that regard. He said when he took over there are changes that need to be made to this product and they’re going to take time. You’re not going to see the things immediately. It is a lot of pressure. It also shouldn’t be used as an excuse for doing things that you shouldn’t.

Moderator:

Questions?

Audience:

So you kind of touched on some of the things that take a long time. At my company when somebody fails we don’t do a good job of revisiting it. Then you have to figure out why did that fail. So I’m just wondering if you have to say about how to manage that when something does fail how do you evaluate what you worked with?

Mike Davidson:

I mean, yeah, that’s a good question. Decision quality. When you say something failed, that’s an outcome. And you can say the outcome of this decision was bad. But you can’t necessarily say that quality of the decision was bad.

– a couple years ago. On the one yard line. Everybody in Seattle. On the one yard line, you just run the ball, you win the game. You throw it, it’s intercepted. Everybody was so mad at us. How could we possibly do this? Worst decision in the history of sports. A lot of people still think that. The amount of time the ball was thrown from the one‑yard line was lower than if the ball was run. It was pretty reasonable. So when something like that happens, you have to go back and look what was the quality of our decision. Was there any information that we should have had ahead of time? Was there any research we could have done ahead of time to prevent us? Or did we make the right decision? Strategy one. With your failures and your victories. The same thing can happen. You can make a decision that turns out really well.

Moderator:

The Seattle play. What’s interesting, there’s a documentary and how he played. I don’t know if you saw it yet.

Mike Davidson:

Yeah.

Audience:

And that was the last play. And they walked through the night before.

Mike Davidson:

Yep.

The last play he walked through is what if they throw at the one yard line.

Mike Davidson:

The slant.

Audience:

So on the point of chance, he somehow anticipated that was a play that Seattle would take. I just thought I would share that.

Mike Davidson:

Yeah!

[Laughter]

Moderator:

I would love to get your questions. We’re out of time. I’m going to take the opportunity to ask the last one myself. So we work for an organization where in some ways people are dependent upon. In some cases people still depend on it to get their message out. I work for an organization, the government. A lot of people depend on the government, too. At the same time a lot of people have pretty strong feelings anything happening with the organization, yours or mine. How do you help things stay positive in light of no matter what, it’s not good enough or not good or worse?

Mike Davidson:

Are you talking about how do you get when you’re a designer or a team. – they are the world.

[Laughter]

Moderator:

The organizations sometimes, there are organizations where sometimes no matter what happens the organization gets stomped on. How do you help the design team stay positive? What they’re doing matters. They’re doing things to elect change. How do you help people stay positive?

Mike Davidson:

I think you answered your own question. I think the answer is you are lucky enough to work on a project people care enough about. Seriously you could be working on a project that nobody even cares if it’s quality or not. They just use it. They go home and that’s it. You never find out what people think about it at all. That’s not cool! That’s not fun! But to work on a project people either love or depend on enough where they actually feel passionate enough to give you feedback on it, as tough as that feedback must be sometimes, and you have to separate the words from the kind of like the motivation and the intention. Although I will say designers have received death threats for things as simple as the retweet. Remember when that was controversial? But even that personal didn’t really want that. They were just really frustrated that this product they loved had changed.

Moderator:

That’s awesome. Thank you Mike. Thank you everybody.

[Applause]

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