Q&A: Elan Kiderman, Senior Product Designer at Quartz

Elan was the design lead behind some of Quartz’s most well-known products, including the Quartz Obsession newsletter, Quartzy newsletter, and Quartzy website. The Idea caught up with him to learn about what he does as a product designer and what he’s working on now.

Want Q&As with media innovators like Elan delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to The Idea newsletter, out Monday afternoons!

The Idea: Can you give us an overview of your role as a senior product designer?
Elan Kiderman: We are a teeny product design team (only three designers and counting), so all of us touch basically anything that Quartz builds that isn’t the ads themselves — our various news products and brands, data visualization platforms, conversational apps and newsletters, bots, bespoke editorial experiences, as well as internal tools for journalists.

We design how they look, but more importantly, make sure they’re easy and pleasant to use. Most of it boils down to giving our reporters and editors the tools they need to tell good stories, and our readers the tools they need to read them. 

Occasionally I also write.

You were the lead designer behind the Quartz Obsession newsletter. Can you take us through your design process?
The journey to the Quartz Obsession was a long one. I was asked to design a newsletter product by the same name that I felt in my gut was a bad idea, so I went back to my desk for a week and turned it into something that I thought was great. This also ended up being bad. But it was intriguing enough that I was encouraged to keep at it — I had long conversations with people all across the newsroom around obsessiveness, and tried to take advantage of existing resources and story opportunities that I saw being underutilized. We probably tore down and rebuilt the foundational concept a dozen times. 

Then-interim editor Adam Pasick and I knew we were onto something when we saw how fun it was to write the sample newsletter — there was something energizing about a format that didn’t require the writer to pick a single angle, but instead encouraged weird side narratives that nevertheless managed to tell a unified story. We doubled down on this by indulging the cutting edge of email interactivity (thanks to product engineering director Micah Ernst).

Then we hired editor Jessanne Collins, who continues to reinvent the narrative tools that we gave her every day, and superstar product manager Eva Scazzero, who keeps us on track.

It’s still a work in progress.

How do you distinguish between a good and a bad idea?
Seeing that an idea is bad is like evaluating whether food is good to eat — you need to use all of your senses, as well as a healthy dose of historical knowledge and intuition. In the case of a product, different people on the staff have tremendous institutional knowledge that will allow them to anticipate what parts of a new workflow that is being designed will throw sand in the gears, in a way that I can’t personally access just through a smell test. And of course we do a lot of talking to our readers, testing interfaces on them, and listening to feedback (which we get in droves whether we ask for it or not).

You mentioned taking advantage of underutilized resources and story opportunities as one way you improved the Obsession email’s concept. Can you elaborate on what resources you saw as being underutilized?
The great underutilized resource that I observed was a very specific kind of untapped obsessiveness, in which someone would bring up a subject on the office Slack (say, paperweights), and the brilliant, nerdy minds that are our reporters would contribute a million interesting facts, asides, patents, links, charts, the works. There was simply no outlet for this specific kind of non-linear, non-timely storytelling, but we knew that there were compelling and important stories to tell.

What is one of the most important or surprising things you've learned about product design during your three years at Quartz?
Two lessons that are especially true of my work on the Quartz Obsession — firstly, much of what I do as a designer is slowly chip away at a bad idea until it is a better idea, which is a testament to the need to foster non-bureaucratic spaces where people feel comfortable saying “that’s a bad idea.” That includes other people calling me out on bad shit that I make (and I make plenty of bad shit)! And it means having the patience to throw things out and start over.

Relatedly, what I have long known, but always continue to be surprised by the magnitude of, is that everyone—editors, reporters, marketers, programmers, readers—have powerful contributions to make not just in their given crafts, but as designers, and my biggest design failures have taken place because one of these people have not been involved early enough or often enough.

What is a cool project you've worked on recently? What do you hope to learn from it?
At Quartz, we try to support ambitious editorial projects with worthy containers, so we often find ourselves designing and building visually-distinctive, technologically-demanding sites around a particular series of stories. (Some examples: Map of the Internet, How We’ll Win, Perfect Company.)

Although building much of the infrastructure for each project from scratch allows us to really experiment with finding the perfect vessel for our stories, it is also incredibly time-consuming, which prevents us from doing as many projects as we would like. 

Something that I am excited to be working on is a platform for Quartz editorial series that is both turnkey and customizable, so that our journalistic ideas are not restricted by the number of developer hours we have available at a given time.

What is the most interesting thing that you've seen from a media outlet other than Quartz?
Blockchain is a sexy, often empty word attached to products these days, and I’m usually skeptical of prescribing it as a band-aid solution for the world’s problems (since, like most technologies, it can be used for both good and evil).

That being said, I am extremely intrigued by Civil, which is trying to use blockchain technologies to address many of the challenges that face the news industry: questions of truth, ownership, privacy, and revenue. I see promise in how transparently Civil communicates its values, and in some of its earliest participants, who represent some of the most endangered species of news: local and investigative journalism.

That being said, I think Civil has some work to do when it comes to talking about blockchain in a way that is accessible, and I hope the community remains self-aware in how it addresses questions of truth, and avoids perpetuating a tyrannical majority.

This Q&A was originally published in the July 9th edition of The Idea. For more Q&As with media movers and shakers, subscribe to The Idea, Atlantic Media’s weekly newsletter covering the latest trends and innovations in media.