Dan Saffer: The Want Magazine Interview

Interview conducted for Want Magazine in Spring of 2010.

Dan Saffer is a man with strong opinions, varied interests, and quite possibly, a distaste for the term “User Experience.”

Mind you, Saffer is far from “anti-usability.” His track record as an Experience Design Director at Adaptive Path, a founder/principal of design consultancy Kicker Studio, and the writer of Designing Gestural Interfaces, should put paid to that. He merely feels the term, when applied to an industry, bites off more than it can chew.

We traveled to SF’s South Park neighborhood to interview him in Kicker Studio’s echo-rich, dog-friendly loft offices. It was late on a Friday, he’d had a crazy week and casually nursed a glass of Bourbon as we talked about UX, robotics, magazines on tablets, and how good usability should help us forget that computers areeverywhere.

User Experience, Defined

Want Magazine: Beyond the textbook definition, what is user experience to you?

Dan Saffer: What is User Experience? Well, there’s a lot of different ways of thinking about it…User Experience for me is kind of the overall picture, what used to be called “creative direction” is now called User Experience, because it contains everything from architecture to industrial design to visual design to interactive design to sound design. A very kind of holistic umbrella term that encompasses all of those things under it.

All those disciplines to me are in service to an overall experience. To me there aren’t very many actual user experience designers. There are people who are doing different disciplines sometimes at different times under this user experience banner.

It sounds like what you’re talking about is it’s a much bigger tent than it used to be–so big that you don’t find people that have a skill set that encompasses it anymore. I think that’s definitely true. It’s very hard to be very good at disparate fields like architecture and content strategy. There’s a pretty broad range of skill sets in there depending on the kind of product that you’re building.

If it’s an interactive product, for instance, you may have an industrial designer, you may have service designers, sound designers, all kinds of things, or if it’s a website, you may have visual designers, architects, content strategists, copy writers, all those people. So it can be very different people working at very different kinds of ways, all under User Experience.

Robotics: Keeping Us Clean and Sane

DS: The next big wave after touch and gesture is probably going to be robotics. That’s my guess, anyway.

What are you seeing at the consumer level currently that is interesting?

Currently the one that’s really out that people just adore is Roomba. That’s the one that everyone loves, everyone names them, puts stickers on them, talks to them. They really think of them as being family members. And it’s just a really kind of fascinating item.

Certainly there are other cultures, Japan, Korea, that are far, far ahead of us. Korea has a whole department of robotics, like a Ministry of Robotics or something, where they want to put robots in everyone’s home by, I think it was like 2015…Because they are facing, as we are here, a glut of people who are becoming old, who are becoming elders. And in order to care for them, they see robotics as a real solution to that.

An automated solution.

Right—do small automated tasks that are difficult, or can help provide things like security and communication…and mobility tasks that become difficult for people as they get older. So I think there’s a real growth market there that’s untapped.

We were just at CES last month, and there was a really amazing, this robot seal that they had there. It was mostly for autistic kids. And it was really beautiful. I thought it was going to be really creepy, but it was actually this really great seal that they could hold, and it purred and it felt warm. As you stroked its fur, it had touch sensors so that it really woke up and responded in a very kind of real way, and they say that it’s really great for kids with autism. That they really start to respond to it. And for elder care. People who just need comfort.

How To Build “Want” Into an Experience

DS: If something’s not usable, it’s eventually not going to be desirable, certainly not for the kinds of tools that I make. For jewelry or something, all that matters is that it’s desirable, but for interactive products, eventually if it’s not useful, you’re not going to want it, eventually. It’s going to go away.

But how do you create that desire is a really tricky and hard question. And some of it is about creating products with personality. What is the personality of the product, and how does that personality manifest itself? And is that something I want, as a consumer, in my life? Does this somehow reflect me or who I want to be? Or is it simply appealing, something that I want to spend time with?

That was what was so great about the site Mint, was that it had this really conversational tone. It had a kind of friendly, appealing, easy to understand, jargon-free persona about it that was just refreshing when it came time to think about financial service. So it was like, “Oh, this is something new, something that I would want to spend time doing…” Other banking sites may be more useful or usable, but they’re certainly not more desirable, because it feels like spending time with them is spending time doing work. It’s a chore. To slog through them and put in your data and all those kinds of things. It’s not a pleasurable experience.

The Value of Advertising and Marketing

How much importance would you put on marketing and advertising towards achieving product infatuation?

Marketing and advertising plays a huge part…And as much as we try to, as designers, there’s this reflexive, “Oh, God. Marketing and advertising.” A lot of times it is a core component of what we’re trying to do. I think one of Apple’s secret weapons over the years has been its marketing and advertising. There’s no way that Apple would have had the success that it had with the iPod and the iPhone and stuff like that without its advertising partners.

It doesn’t matter really how usable or useful something is if no one’s using it! If no one can find it, or no one’s heard about it, you can have the greatest product in the world, and it may not matter. Sites like social media sites are a perfect example of this: Unless you have enough people to populate it, it just withers on the vine. You could create the next Facebook that is so much better (and some would argue that that wouldn’t be very hard to do). But if you don’t have that core group of people, then it just doesn’t matter. And I think that’s where marketing and advertising can play that key part.

Now, certainly, designers can make it easier on them by creating products that are beautiful and display their functions in a beautiful way and are approachable and all those good things that we really strive to do.

A lot of what we do here at Kicker are new technology [projects]. People come to us and say, “We’ve got this [brand new technology]. What can you do with this? What is the product here?”

And so some of that is figuring out: what is going to make people want this thing? What’s going to drive it? And for us [our priority is], what’s the personality of it? How is that going to make people want to even think about adopting it? How am I going to try this for the first time? With new products, especially with things like touch screens and gestures, which we do a lot of, there’s this hesitation, like, “Am I going to break this thing? I’m afraid to try it because I’m going to look stupid doing it.”

But [our job is] really to make [people think], “No, it’s really fine. Just try it. It’ll be okay.”

That’s really important with new technologies in particular. Because people come to it with expectations that may or may not be met and how you’re able to meet those expectations and hopefully exceed them. Or, when the expectations aren’t met how, do you fail in a way that’s not off-putting? Failure is really a chance to product personality.

Flickr does a great job of this. When something doesn’t work, it tells you why. It offers a suggestion, like, “Hey have you tried this?” There are ways that failure can be a place to show personality.

Is Usability for Conversion, or Retention?

Is the interaction designer’s job to influence initial adoption, and purchase, or is their job to make the user experience enjoyable for the long run?

It’s definitely some of both. Alan Cooper has a great thing about this, where he says, we spend way too much time on those initial moments when people first start using it, and then we neglect all the people, once they get past that, when they’re intermediate or advanced. It’s like we’ve given them no tools, and then the product seems too simplistic for them.

So it’s a hard balance to strike. How do you give enough meat for intermediate users, which is where most people end up being, while not being too intimidating for someone coming at the site for the first time?

You have to build up a product knowledge that leads people as rapidly as you can into being intermediates. But you still have to design those [adoption] hooks into the service.

I think one of the great things about Blogger back when it started 5 or 6 years ago;  it seemed just like this FTP service. “What is this thing?” And when Jeff Veen and some of the guys at Adaptive Path [took it on], they said, okay. It’s three things. And they really aligned it, you do one step, two step, three step. And they made it so very straightforward that all of a sudden adoption just took off. Because there was this three simple steps that led you into becoming a blogger. And I think that was brilliant.

You can do those kinds of things that are basically little attractors…that really get people hooked in. And the history of that goes back ages and ages. Think about old video arcade [games]—they would tease you as you walked by the video game. It would be playing a little movie. And you’d be like, “Hey, that looks interesting. I can put a quarter in and start to shoot or move the joystick around.” That little attraction affordance to draw people in is an important piece to design.

Building for “The Long Wow”

DS: Now certainly that’s not all you should design. Then you get into the meat of, “Okay, now you’re here, you’ve got all this. You have tasks that you need to do.”…No matter how entertaining it is, you still have to get stuff done.

One of the things that interaction designers can do is what Brandon Schauer calls “The Long Wow,” where over time, you keep building in these things that you discover, not your first time using it, but your fiftieth time using it, your hundredth time using it. Those things that are really important over time, so you keep getting reinvested in the service, because they keep giving you something. They keep rewarding you for being a long time user. If you can think about them and really design them in from the beginning, It’s a really great thing.

I mean, obviously, some of that stuff comes after people have used the product for a long time…People start to suggest things: “Why don’t you have ‘x’?” Or, “This would be really helpful,”…which is of course it’s own danger. And then you start adding stuff, and the product can drift away from what it was originally done for.

The “long wow” you just described is very similar to what makes a good multi-level game. Everything from the shelf appeal to the hooks that you’re talking about. I think there’s so much that interaction designers can learn from game designers. There’s always that idea of a reward. What am I leveling up to? Or, what am I resourcing here? In some cases it might be money. In some cases it’s time. In some cases it’s effort…It’s interesting.

Because…the things game designers think about first are the emotion, and “What is the aesthetic appeal of this?” And then they say, “What are the game mechanics that can cause that?”…More thinking like a game designer, thinking, “What’s the aesthetic appeal? What’s the emotional appeal that we’re trying to do, and then how can we start to structure the product to achieve those goals?” Is an interesting way to start thinking about designing products.

On Mag+ and Touch-Screen Magazines

There’s a project that you guys have worked on recently, the Mag+ demo. That is something that we’re particularly interested in, especially because we’re a magazine entity, and we’re interested in moving to a format like that.

Mag+ is a really interesting project. It’s with the magazine publisher Bonnier, who are Swedish and they do every kind of magazine you can think of, from cooking magazines to Field and Stream, to PhotographyPopular Science…this pretty wide range of magazines.

They worked with our friends in London, a company called BERG, and they did kind of a concept video of how magazines might work in this kind of new world of e-readers. But they didn’t want the [usual] kind of e-reader experience. And they didn’t want the .pdf experience. They really wanted to capture what it was like to read an actual magazine. Because magazines have evolved over the last 250 years, 300 years, something like that.

Actually one of the first things I did when we got the product was actually go back and read the first magazine.


Yeah, that was the first thing. And surprisingly, there were a lot of the same things. There was still a table of contents, there was still an appendix. There were still lots of short articles, those kinds of things.

So…our job was actually to take that concept and really prototype it and make it into something that would actually work. That would actually go ahead and would eventually be built and that had buy in from all the magazine’s editorial staffs at these magazines and from readers. That it was something people actually wanted to sit down and curl up and read these magazines like they would a normal magazine, a physical paper magazine right now.

That’s why right now currently our walls in the studio are just covered with magazines that are torn all to bits. It looks like a magazine stand has exploded in here or something like that. But [we’re] looking at all the content types that we needed to support. Everything from table of contents to long articles to short articles to timelines to graphics to advertising to classified ads. All different kinds of content that we really had to support.

And then we had to say, what are some of the–what’s it like to actually do page turning in this kind of digital world. Do we still have to have a physical page turn? How can you tell when you’re done reading an article?…We really wanted to keep some of the structure of magazines. And so some of that was finding out what that structure was.

One of our mandates was that it didn’t feel like a piece of software. It wasn’t something that you booted up and had to download and read this whole thing. It wasn’t a chore. It was a magazine. It was something that you’re going to flip through as you’re killing time, or you just want a little bit of information, you want to immerse yourself in it. You don’t want to think about all the parts of it, or how do I then flip a page, how do I do all these…You just want to read the magazine.

It’s really kind of a fascinating project. How do you turn something that was previously, I don’t want to say dumb, but without the digital intelligence, and how do you turn that into something with a kind of intelligence—but not ruin the experience? How do you translate the experience in a way that doesn’t feel wrong, that doesn’t feel like work, it doesn’t feel like I’m reading a .pdf.

So that’s been the real challenge with it. And we’re just finishing up prototyping right now. So I imagine by the time people hear this… Bonnier will have released it.

What’s the next step for it? Would Bonnier offer it as hardware? Would they offer it as an app for the iPad, or…

I think they’re figuring that out. My guess is, from what I know…that it’s something that will be delivered on various platforms as some kind of pay in service.

That being said, there certainly could be [opportunities] where they could sell their own reader…maybe there [should be] a special Bon Air reader…that’s customized for magazine reading specifically. That maybe has things like, it can get wet! We found that an amazing number of people read in the bathtub.

On His Book, Designing Gestural Interfaces

I read an interview where you said that you wrote Designing Gestural Interfaces because at the time, there was no substantial resource on this particular subject.

Right. Because I started writing it, probably…two-and-a-half, three years ago…Prior to that I had mostly done web work. But I suddenly started finding myself doing a lot more touch screen work…So I started trying to research the subject, and was finding it very difficult to get good solid information about it…just the basic stuff. Like, how big should the touch target be on the screen for someone to reasonably tap. And I couldn’t find it.

So I said, “There’s clearly this hole in the market.” And I just set about writing the book. Because I knew that if I didn’t write it, someone else would.

The Rise of Touch Screens

DS: It’s an interesting time because we’re definitely in an interaction revolution…A lot of the paradigms that we’ve used for 40 years now, things like cut-and-paste, we still have them around. The laptop’s not going anywhere quite yet. But now we have this new language on top of it that is the language of gestures and the language of touch.

So projects like Mag+, a couple of years ago, would have been totally different. You would have had buttons on the side like you did on the early version of the Kindle. And that’s how you would be flipping pages. You couldn’t just swipe and flip a page. You just, it wasn’t going to happen. And now it just seems like a natural thing.

I mean, granted, touch screens have been around for almost 40 years at this point, but it’s really taken that long for the technology and the market to mature to the point where—getting back to that desirability thing—where people really want them. They see the value in it and can then say, “Wow. I want that in my stuff.”

And now we’ve almost gone overboard with it. Now it’s like, “Let’s put touch screens in everything. Your toilet now has a touch screen on it.” Someone actually called me about having a touch screen in a shower.

The less said about it the better. But it’s interesting to think you can have computing power in places where you never had it before. And that’s both good and bad, of course. Why does my shower have to be invaded by my email? It doesn’t. I like that five minutes in the shower where I don’t have to think about anything.

Fear of a Blank Tablet

DS: [With touch-screens], there is this kind of like, “As soon as I’m touching it, I’m already doing something. Oh wow. I didn’t have to click on it. I’m touching it. Now something’s happening.” Which is both good and bad.

There is definitely this odd fear factor, and it’s kind of a physiological one. Some research figured out that people are actually afraid of being electrocuted as they touch electrical objects. It’s like a fight-or-flight thing. And getting people over that is a major concern. Which is why that really nice slide to unlock thing on the iPhone is really nice. It’s this really simple thing like, “If I can do that…” “Oh! It unlocks!” and “Oh, there’s some other stuff here I can touch…”

UX: The Front Line of Modern Life

Do you think that in this heyday of touch screens, with the iPad coming out, with Microsoft Surface, is this heralding a new era in user experience?

Yeah. It is an interesting turning point in time. Because all of a sudden, computing power is so cheap it can be disseminated everywhere. It’s on surfaces, on walls, on tables. It’s in our pockets. We’re just surrounded by it all the time.

And user experience and interaction design is playing a big role in that introduction of this new technology, what we can do with it, and how it can hopefully make our lives better—and not make our lives suddenly overburdened or crushed by information.

All those things that really could happen. We could lose all of our privacy. We could lose all these things that we now take for granted, but could easily be taken away from us, thanks to the technology that we’re trying to get people to buy.

So it’s an interesting time. And really, I kind of see user experience people being on the front line of keeping technology, and what it can do for us, really making it for human beings. And I think that the good that we can do for the world, is really make this stuff useful, usable, desirable, and not overburden us—and treat us with the dignity and respect that we should get as human beings.

It’s kind of a hard thing to [realize] when you’re in the middle of a project, and you’re cranking out these deliverables and doing your wire frames or your site map, your CAD drawings…But this stuff goes out in the world and it makes a huge difference to people. That’s why I do it, really.


Thanks to David Gomez-Rosado for his assistance with this interview.