Dave, Jason, Tina, and I were in the middle of brainstorming when Tina stopped us.
“This isn’t how you brainstorm.”
Tina had a point. We were caught in a loop of pitch and critique rather than producing new ideas. We weren’t going to cover much ground—certainly not new ground—if we forced every idea back to reality.
“Neat, but that’ll take too long to build.”
“How’s that going to work on mobile?”
So we changed our approach. No idea was bad nor critiqued. We had two choices: to whiteboard a new direction or build off an existing direction. We set a fixed time for anything-goes brainstorming.
We could propose anything—and it was liberating. It’s common to only brainstorm within the bounds of what we know can be built. However, when there are no constraints, and most importantly, you know no one is going to critique your idea, you often come up with your best work.
When the time ended, we teased out the promising ideas and decided how to explore them further.
Having questioned something as simple as brainstorming led me to capture other learnings during the redesign of Medium.
Ask the right questions at the right fidelity
There’s a lot of talk about design process—how to go from a sketch to a shipped product. While defining process may improve your work, nothing trumps momentum. How do you keep momentum? Knowing when you’re swaying from the path,when you’re repeating yourself, and when to ask questions—the right questions.
What does fidelity mean? It can mean the level of visual completeness: paper or Photoshop? The level of realness: mock or prototype? The level of understanding: do we know what we want, or are we still exploring?
It’s easy to critique color when you’re discussing layout, typefaces when you’re choosing border-radii, and copy when you’re exploring interactions.
You keep forward momentum if you actively acknowlege you don’t need to answer all of your questions immediately. Always know the question you’re trying to answer, and don’t get caught up in the wrong details at the wrong fidelity.
In regards to Medium, we put off a lot of intricate visual design until we were actually building it. We have the fortune of designers who can code, so we iterated much more quickly and broader than we could have in Photoshop.
Bloom and Focus
One of the main goals of the Medium redesign (internally named Cocoon) was to future-proof ourselves—to build a foundation that easily grows with the product.
We took a step back from the first iteration of Medium and took a holistic view of the product. What have we learned since we first built Medium? What features are we currently building? What features do we know we want? How have people been using Medium? What do we dislike about the product?
We bloomed. We bloomed huge.
When we started the redesign, we took into account all of the items on our product backlog. In doing so we were forced to build a framework that supported the forthcoming iterations of Medium. From there we focused by dialing back our prototypes and designs to only include the aspects of the site that would be launching. The key was to find a happy medium (pun intended) where the design wouldn’t fall apart if we were to remove a feature, and could easily grow to support future versions.
Define principles. Don’t write them down
We started off the Medium redesign very far from pixels. We did brand research and paper sketching and produced mood boards and lightweight personas. But we kept this process as short as possible, as we knew we’d learn the most as soon as we started to build our ideas in code.
One outcome of our explorations was a set of six product principles, including:
Direction over choice
Both direction and choice can be great options to give to users. Microsoft Word would be an odd word proccessor if you weren’t able to choose a typeface that matched your corporate branding. In contrast, Instagram wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if it gave users the editing ability of Photoshop.
Medium focuses on direction over choice. Through thoughtful constraint, we unblock creativity. People are coming to Medium to write, not to play with kerning.
Opposed to what you may want to do, don’t write the principles down. When you write them down, they become a checklist rather than a direction. You want the principles to come up in discussions, in planning meetings, and in the hallways. If they don’t surface in day-to-day thought, ask yourself: Are they actually helping you ship a better product? If not, revisit them.
My favorite aspect of the Medium redesign was working with the team. Medium has done an excellent job at gathering an exceptionally talented and humble group of people whose focus is on what matters: Creating beautiful, rewarding products.
I’d like to acknowledge the great work that Dann, Geoff, and the folks at Teehan+Lax accomplished with the first version of Medium. With their help, we learnt a lot, and shipped Medium at a time where we were still figuring out what the product was. They did a great job capturing their involvement with Medium on the Teehan+Lax site. Also, to Leigh Taylor, who returned to the UK for personal reasons during the design—thank you.