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Daniel Burka — Iterative Design Strategies

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Daniel is currently the Director of Design at the early-stage startup Tiny Speck in San Francisco. For the past four years he was the creative director at the social news website Digg where he helped the site grow from a niche technology news site into one of the leading media services on the web with a massive and passionate community. Working with Digg founder Kevin Rose, Daniel and his design team shaped the user experience and product direction of Digg.

Despite all the lessons learnt when building a site, when you launch, your first release will suck - hence the need to release early and faster and have early users find the bad stuff.

Burka told the tale of the redesign of the Mozilla site that despite three months of planning got lashed by the user community. Quick iterations allowed them to make changes rapidly and test new things on a user base. The feedback for smaller sites is different and more difficult - this is where metrics, A/B testing and usability testing comes into play.

Burka quoted Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn who said:

If you review your first site version and don't feel embarrassment, you spent too much time on it

Take chances and release, build with expectations of change and listen and iterate. Burka told the audience of Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand's book, How Buildings Learn. A book about architecture but entirely relevant for technology. He discussed "high road architecture" and "low road architecture" and due technological parallels to both of those - from complex nested websites to simple and flexible websites- With low road architecture we can build a castle in no time.

Desire paths - don't waste time trying to predict everything, get out and watch the way people interact with a system a physical design concept equally applicable to technology design. Burka used the examples of Pownce and Digg, web properties he's involved with where they watched peoples usage and developed accordingly.

Realign, don't redesign. Don't tear things down and start from scratch. A redesign may be "beautiful" in its aesthetic, but if it changes the user experience fundamentally, it is a failure. Subtraction is iteration too - "Try to remove as much as you add - don't be afraid to prune".

Really listen to your users. Both explicit and implicit feedback is crucial. Go talk to your customers and ask them how they use the system but simultaneously listen to the implicit feedback.

The Digg comment system - a case study. Burka told of the design, over time, of the Digg commenting system:

  • Step 1 - They got it out there
  • Step 2 - They added sophistication
  • Step 3 - They kept revising, set goals and measured their success
  • Step 4 - They gathered feedback

Stay fit - Adapt to survive and thrive. If iterative design isn't instinctual, be convincing.