“Ask Me Anything” with Golden Krishna

Author of “The Best Interface is No Interface”

This AMA took place in the UX Community on Slack, a community of over 5000 UX design and research pros. Not yet part of the community? Join here to participate in the real-time UX discussion and upcoming AMAs.

Golden, can you tell the community a bit more about yourself, what you do, and your book?

Absolutely. I’m currently working at Zappos Labs, before that I worked at a new products division of Samsung, and got my start at Cooper, a fantastic design consultancy in San Francisco. I recently published my first book, The Best Interface is No Interface. I’ve also been lecturing about the idea around the world. I’m hoping to speak at SXSW again this year, and would be flattered if you had a moment to vote for the talk.

The description of my book, “The Best Interface is No Interface”

Our love affair with the digital interface is out of control. We’ve embraced it in the boardroom, the bedroom, and the bathroom.
Screens have taken over our lives. Most people spend over eight hours a day staring at a screen, and some “technological innovators” are hoping to grab even more of your eyeball time. You have screens in your pocket, in your car, on your appliances, and maybe even on your face. Average smartphone users check their phones 150 times a day, responding to the addictive buzz of Facebook or emails or Twitter.
Are you sick? There’s an app for that! Need to pray? There’s an app for that! Dead? Well, there’s an app for that, too! And most apps are intentionally addictive distractions that end up taking our attention away from things like family, friends, sleep, and oncoming traffic.
There’s a better way.

What is the main reason for “screen obsession”?

Around the world, almost every smart kid out of school, the majority of startups are trying to solve all your life problems with a screen… it’s no wonder our days are spent starring down into the light. There are plenty of articles about how you can stop looking at your phone every five seconds, but it’s really the makers and marketers that determine our technological future. When we decide it’s time to make better tech, it’ll happen. It’s like Abraham Lincoln once said,

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

In what ways are you implementing this at your work at Zappos?

I know, it sounds insane. Join an e-commerce company founded during the dot com boom where the entire company exists on screens and tell them that screens should be avoided. But the great thing about Zappos is there is an internal cultural understanding that what’s great for the customer is what’s great for the company. So anything we can do in the journey to make it better, we do. And great companies understand that. What’s best for the customer is what should be done. At Netflix they would still be mailing DVDs in red envelopes if they didn’t understand that customer needs have changed. And in today’s world, our customers don’t need to be spending any more time distracted by screens. Recently, and to answer your question, I worked with a team to implement an RFID powered self checkout lane at the huge Bay to Breakers race. RFID tags on 17,000 products, and a mat that could scan them 700/sec meant people could checkout without all the annoyances of a normal touchscreen self checkout experience. It was unbelievable. A huge percentage of people checked out — end to end — in less than 20 seconds. It was a big achievement for our team. I was invited to speak about that project at the Delight Conference in Portland this fall.

How do you start about bringing a change in mindset, the sort you talk about in your book, in a big organization where the design team is lead by a non-design background managers?

I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s not easy. Convincing the client or your organization of a great design solution is an art form. But that art form does have some techniques. There are some things that you could try to improve your chances. One of the most powerful things you can do is present strong evidence. Rule of thumb: quotes are weakest, photos are better, video is best. Say I was trying to convince you that wires behind the TV were an issue. And it was difficult to plug in the right stuff. I could have a quote from user research — “wires behind my TV are awful!” — but that’s not as strong as a photo:

And a photo is not as strong as video evidence.

Now that take that same approach to a #NoUI solution. Show video of someone tapping, swiping…and then show a #NoUI solution. You can convince people faster than you might imagine.

This is a personal question! What is the origin of your name?

My dad is actually math obsessed. He also doesn’t trust calculators, so he loves to do math by hand. He created — no joke — a formula that determined the starting letter and total number of characters for myself and my two brothers. They ended up with G _ _ _ _ _ (six letters), and voila! Filled it in with GOLDEN.

Thanks for dropping by and answering our questions! Jan Tschichold created a new way to think about design with his book in 1928. I think we are currently in a similarly pivotal point in time for web design. Do you think that we will have our own “Web Neue Typograpy”, or does the technology on which we design change so fast that it is nearly impossible to define?

Fucking love Jan Tschichold. I was actually thinking about that book this week — yes, really — because I don’t think we’ve really embraced how dynamic and fluid interactive experiences could be implemented. Simple things like time of day, place, etc., could be huge influences on any interface. Yet, we are still essentially building static templates for the interfaces we do make. That kind of thinking — completely adapted for context — could take visual design a huge leap forward. And, if you listen to my insanity, it could lend itself to more situations in which we have no interface at all. As far as the comparisons about web design adapting print design principles, I think you’re merely seeing the design principles in execution. It’s not print design or web design. It’s design. And now we think of smartphones and webpages, but in 5–10 years it’ll be new mediums with the same principles.

Do you have any suggestions on growing design leadership? Is it more seeking opportunities to lead, or creating them?

There is a lot not to like about Steve Jobs as a person. But I think he paved the way for a large number of companies to embrace design leadership. How you personally grow into that position could be the sleazy way — a bloated resume, a friend of a friend of a friend, etc. — and that happens sadly far too often. But if you want to do it in an honest way, practice your mentorship, your critique skills, and take the opportunity to lead a project when it comes time. If you’re doing the right things, your leadership opportunities will increase. If you try to accelerate your career by deceiving people, you’ll become a leader quickly, it will work, but you’ll probably just become a bad leader for the rest of your career. We have plenty of those already. Learn and grow.

Do you come across crazy questions such as “what’s the problem with having interfaces? They have shown great results for us in past”

Thank you for joining! And yes, of course. People like to talk about change, but when it comes to being the person to implement or fight for it, most people shy away. Because you don’t get fired or get in trouble when you do the safe thing. But being safe is a sure fire way to make sure your company never innovates. I did a writeup for UXBooth earlier this year about backpocket apps, I think it compares screenless and screen-based thinking nicely.

Are virtual assistants the future?

You know, for a few decades people have been narcissistically intrigued with recreating another human-like personal assistant. But I think we should evolve past that thinking. Because those personal assistants often make more work for the end customer, not less. You have to memorize what works best for Siri in order to really use it well. I think that direction is dated. Instead, we should try to recreate nature. When I move my pencil, it moves. When I walk into a room, the furniture adapts. Like nature. One action causes another in a predictable sense.

I know Google came out with their Nearby API, allowing people to build simple interactions between devices and people in proximity, and Apple is working with iBeacons. In order for these screenless interactions to gain popularity, what do you think needs to happen? Educating the public, more tech options for developers, designers pushing for these interactions, or ALL OF THE ABOVE?

Location aware beacons, and the platforms that power those kinds of experiences are absolutely a huge part of the next generation of computing. But your question is: how do we get there? A great screenless product needs to give a talented team time to discover how the solutions can fit into the customer’s typical processes (shameless plug: page 84), understand what machine input makes it possible (shameless plug: page 126), and if there are ways for the system to grow and adapt over time (shameless plug: page 160). It’s not the path is inherently difficult, what’s hard is that it’s a different methodology to a better solution. I wouldn’t put the pressure on the public, I’d say it’s our chance as makers of tech to do something bold and new, and our challenge to make so that a huge number of people find utility and joy from those experiences.

Seems like these systems you’re describing will have to know even more about us individually than they already do. How do the people who make these things make money without crossing the line? Or will it require a major social change regarding perceived and actual value or privacy?

Privacy is a huge issue. When speaking around the world, I really get a sense of cultural priorities. And without a doubt, privacy is always an issue. I felt that way no greater than when I spoke in Moscow not long ago where privacy was clearly the number one most talked about issue. Look, we’re scared and I have bad news: we should be. There are a lot of companies who don’t have our own best interests in mind. And companies fail fast or get purchased by other companies, so our personal data can live in places we don’t even know exists. In order to have success in a data-driven future tech companies are going to have to be more transparent with what they collect, and have clear places where we can see what they collect and how to erase it. Studies show next generation doesn’t care less about privacy, they care more about privacy. Because they have their whole lives online, and they don’t want someone to exploit it.

In a world with no interfaces (e.g. mostly voice or haptic interaction) what design considerations would we need to take into account to keep from all looking like the crazy people in airports all yelling on their bluetooth?

Ha! If we’re yelling at computers, the people making those systems are, well, terrible at their jobs. It’s what we see in scifi and moves b/c it’s what works for screenplays. I wrote a chapter in the book called Proactive Computing. It’s a term that Apple now uses (over a year after I wrote it, ahem) for their Google Now competitor Proactive Siri. I think Apple is exactly on the right page by choosing to go in that direction.

What is your opinion on A/B testing? Should we rely on this for UX?

There’s nothing wrong with testing. It can be incredibly insightful. But here’s the thing about A/B testing or tracking clicks: most people have no idea how to do it well, and often draw awful conclusions from the tests. For example, say you love dogs, and hate cats. I could learn that through user research. Pretty simple. But instead, say I was a lazy tech company and decided to test it on a webpage. I make a page that has two links: one that says CATS in huge letters and DOGS in tiny letters. You’ll probably click on CATS because it’s huge and takes over the page. You may not even see the DOGS link. So a lazy data person might say, “our users tend to click on CATS, so they must love cats.” That doesn’t work, but it’s sadly how some companies try to imply intention.

What other things do you have in your pipeline? Any other books?

Right now the book is being translated into Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. So that’s really exciting. The publisher has also completely sold out of the first print run, so we’ll run a second one soon. And, and I prepping for another possible SXSW talk. I’m hoping to speak at SXSW again this year. Would be flattered if you had a moment to vote for the talk.

What do you think about Google’s own Interface Guidelines of Interface “Material Design”?

Material took Android a huge step forward. Huge. But far all the positive press, it could go a lot further. It’s a relatively simple language. But it can’t be easy, in fact, it’s nearly impossible, to roll that kind of effort out across so many products in such a short amount of time. So that’s what’s really impressive. The consistency and getting everyone on board is far from simple. It takes a lot of political power.

What the Microsoft team did to roll out Metro, to me, is more groundbreaking. They were years ahead of the curve, what we think of as “flat”, they were doing as far back as 2003. But while that was impressive on a visual front, the other part of the Windows experience were just not ready. And it was far too difficult for partners to execute on such a different experience than what iOS offered in a skeumorphic, “lick your screen” world that dominated the mind-share of starups and frankly, the design community as a whole.

Consistency is good, but a sophisticated system allows for uniqueness with that system. This is where criticism of both Metro and Material often fall. Email, calendar, maps…those are all very different use cases, but are limited in their execution by the system. It takes incredible knowledge to design a system that can be flexed so widely.

Look, stop adoring the giants. These guys can revolutionize the world through their powerful platforms, but their visual systems are hardly ever new. What the giants have to do is pump out pop hits. They’re Taylor Swift, not the indie band that the musically inclined understand have more to offer the music discipline.

Years ago, someone asked me about Apple, and said that I must love them because I’m a designer and they sell so many phones through design. I told him it would be like me saying the new blockbuster — say the new Jurassic Park — was the greatest movie ever made b/c so many people went to see it. It’s not. Ticket sales, downloads, units sold…that doesn’t mean they are the best, they just found a way for lots of people to enjoy it. And that’s a good thing for them. That’s a hard thing. But sales and best are not 1:1.

Has Holocracy in any way had an impact on design at Zappos?

Holocracy has changed a lot of our internal processes, no doubt. The effect on design has to be seen only b/c it’s so new. I may have a better answer in a few months. Well, one nice thing holocracy has done is provide transparency across the org. So I know more about what’s happening elsewhere.

It was a huge honor to have Golden for an AMA. You can grab a copy of his book, The Best Interface is No Interface, and follow him on twitter!

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