Restructuring the web
I recently changed job, moving from Head of UX at a large company of over 130 people to Creative Director at a Hoxton-based startup, import.io, with less than 20 in the entire team.
There were a number of triggers leading to my decision to move. I’d been at my previous company for over three years and slowly found that working in a larger company gradually meant less accountability for what I was doing and I felt very under-challenged. It eventually seemed like I could have done an amazing job or an utterly appalling job and it would have made no difference to anybody.
I spoke at Euro IA about the case study of something we were building last year which aroused a lot of interest but felt like the work I had to do there was done and I was very unlikely to see the rest of it through any time soon. It was more about laying a foundation. Things improved, declined, got better again, then things got a lot worse and it felt like I was putting a lot of energy into something that, at best, would take years, not months, to improve. I didn’t mind this and was happy to work towards a long term product vision but after three years (spending the best part of the first two years championing UX and validating the product vision) despite some significant wins, the end goal seemed to be getting further away and more unrealistic.
I also wanted to do something more meaningful than incrementally increasing conversion over and over again.
An additional factor in the decision to move was that, like a fool, I accidentally replied all “LOL” to a sensitive announcement from the CEO addressed to the entire company. After desperately trying to retract the email at 9pm on a Friday night or cast the Exchange server into the Thames, the cringiness eventually died down I came to terms with this fail and simply assumed I was going to be fired, or there be some other more serious outcome. But the mistake was taken well, I wasn’t fired and strangely somehow was disappointed that I wasn’t. At this point I thought it probably wasn’t a healthy place for me to be if that’s what I was thinking… and deep down actually hoping.
The only outcome was that from that point in time everyone in the building replied to every single email and announcement ever, directly to me, with “LOL” in various font sizes and colours.
Time to go.
My initial thoughts were around going back to freelancing and I was thinking of leaving to do this in early 2014. But as a UXy product designery guy I felt like my input into building a great product as a freelancer would have been relatively shallow considering most contracts I was looking at were for only around 2-3 months. Freelancing, as a product designer, seemed more about short-lived deliverables than anything else and by definition UX processes can only really be practiced well in the long term with iterating over time and responding to evolving data. I had mixed feedback on this from UX people and some really great advice and support but for me it didn’t really sit right, unless of course a long term (10-12 month) contract appeared.
I liked the idea of having more of a multidisciplinary job. I don’t ever want to be a “User Experience Designer”. As a freelancer I would be switching from coding a responsive web app to doing user research and another day animating a music video or illustrating an article using some really nice fancy pens. I kind of wanted this but I also didn’t want my life to be about work, which as a freelancer always felt like I was thinking about the next project or working late on an idea to show somebody. I definitely didn’t want to be running a business.
I met a friend for a drink after I’d excitedly applied for a job at the BBC and spoke about how it seemed like something I really wanted to do. Then a couple of days later I met another friend and said how it really made sense to be freelancing right now. The following weekend I said to another friend that I’d had some really interesting startups contact me on hiremyfriend.io. I was really starting to faff around now (but at least I have three friends).
Incidentally if you’re ever considering exploring new avenues hiremyfriend.io is a great way to do this. I even had a job request from Clearleft (which I printed out and put on my wall). The concept of Hire My Friend is largely based on the friends you as a candidate may have in common with a company but is more human than creepy “connections” on Linkedin or other creepy networks. People endorse you as a person rather than creepily endorse you for skills they think you have and anonymously promote you. Design and tech is a small world but it kind of makes it smaller, tangible and relevant.
However, being cautious, I looked at some studio space and spoke to a few agencies and had some interesting things lined up for the early part of the year. One contract was long term and for something that was quite interesting and both tempting and secure enough to consider taking the leap.
Then out of the blue Matthew Painter (co founder of import.io) messaged me. We went for a coffee. Then a beer. Then a burger. All of a sudden I was Creative Director at import.io. (Not too dissimilar to that Craig David song.)
I’d heard of import.io a couple of times and liked the idea of being able to turn any website into an API and was inspired to build a few things of my own.
People often perceive it this way but import.io is not really a scraping tool. The tools import.io gives you firstly help you extract and gather data, but secondly allow you to structure and mix this data and a lot more.
Some case studies:
Oxfam have created a structured data model using import to monitor spikes in prices from food market web sites, news sources, existing research projects and other data sources which don’t have any structure in order to predict food shortages in Africa.
Journalists use import as a research tool.
Retail companies use import to maintain prices, price-match with competitors and prevent bootlegging or piracy of their products.
Hackers and data artists are doing some incredible data mashups.
The use cases were endless. It seemed like anyone could use data this way and from any unstructured source. It’s never been impossible, anyone could have done this kind of thing in the past, but they would have had to have been able to code or have access to a team of very smart developers. The processes and the pains involved in some of the scenarios above would typically be very time consuming, costly and horrifically painful to scale.
What if you could structure the web without needing to code?
I found the concept of restructuring the web on this scale mind blowing. One of the biggest flaws of the way the web has evolved is that it’s centred around documents and accessing data is dependant on these entry points. Tim Berners-Lee’s semantic web promoting a common data format is a great idea but it will never happen because it relies on, well, everyone getting on.
Creating structure from the chaos?
Ordinary people need data and businesses rely on data in order to make decisions. Data saves lives, data improves lives, we should be able to access and interpret data in order to make sure our government is accountable, know what time a shop shuts on a Sunday or know we are buying a product at the right price.
As a designer my mind was already racing about the things a fellow designer could do with the product. Information Architects and Content Strategists can use import.io to very easily audit a web site’s content without even needing access to a database. A designer could use live content within a simple prototype or simply bring data from several sources into an app. Hackers could mash up data for small compelling projects. People are making art with data and APIs.
A product like import.io could be for anyone and this is a design challenge in itself. It certainly felt a lot more meaningful than what I was doing before and I really wanted to be involved in something from the beginning, to help shape the product, experience and strategy from early on. We’re already winning awards and changing business and lives. Some businesses are even dependant on our APIs. The devs and engineers are smart and the engine behind the product is rock solid.
And as for previously feeling under challenged, well, within two to three weeks I had done the following: a couple of small front-end hacks, coded pages, mapped out the next six months’ OKRs, user research, burnt through 3 sketchbooks, researched and tested some front-end frameworks, built a web prototype, started the foundation for brand development and style guides, covered over 10 square metres of whiteboard wall in scribbles, some animation, some video editing, some audio editing, a photoshoot, building a rudimentary recording studio out of sofas and boxes (pictured above). And I even rode a horse bareback.
Yes, I actually rode a horse bareback.
More posts will follow around some ideas and things of my own I want to do with data. But for now, have a look, sign up for free. I’d love to hear what you’re doing with the product, let me know @benbrignell or say hi to the guys on twitter @importio.