I joined Prezi.com a bit more than 6 months ago. Prior to this I worked for frog design a company that "works with the world's leading companies, helping them to design, engineer, and bring to market meaningful products and services". Saying goodbye to a company like frog, which is regarded as one the best place for a designer to work, was obviously not an easy decision to take. I did it mainly because I was willing to experience an entirely different design practice. And the appeal of a small company, located in the heart of Budapest, willing to change the way the world share ideas was strong too.
So here are a few things I've learned so far from this new experience.
There's diversity in deepness.
The first thing I was curious about was, how is it to work on only one project? At frog in the last 3 years I got to work on many different projects for very diverse clients, from mobile phone applications to DNA analysis machines UIs. I loved this diversity, almost every project was an entire new world, with new people, new challenges and new contexts I got to be immersed into in order to deliver meaningful design.
At Prezi I discovered the pleasure of focusing on designing "only" one thing. It's surprising to see how many details or things you didn't expect at a first glance can be revealed when you take a closer look on things. This is something I experienced in many projects I did before, but it was particularly true with Prezi.
First of all, I never really thought about a presentation software before being interested in Prezi. Think about Powerpoint for a second, you might be surprised how many different design challenges can be found in here. Indeed, it's a fairly complex piece of software. Creating new content, editing existing content, presenting, sharing it… Think about how do you manipulate text boxes, draw shapes, organize content on your slides, restyle or resize objects, crop images, add transitions, manage slides, import content from other programs, etc.
For instance, Keynote '09, the last version available for Mac, was released on January 6th, 2009. Yes, this is more than 2 years ago, and now I know why.
Then let's think about Prezi, it's a web-based software (including a website where you can for instance login and manage your presentations), it's running on different platforms (today in browsers, desktop AIR application and iPad), it's collaborative (many people can edit simultaneously a same prezi) and it's based on an infinite zoomable canvas (no slides), which is actually introducing a different way of thinking how do we create and share ideas.
This is to say that Prezi hides an amount of complexity which is hard to imagine before you actually get to think about it. This is noticeably due to the zooming canvas environment (2.5D). There's not so many zoomable UIs for creating/editing content out there and so many things simply haven't been completely explored or not even designed yet. Unlike many design projects I've worked on, there's not so much experience or good practices to rely on. For instance, what does font-size means in a zoomable canvas? how do you draw in a 2.5D canvas?... Even the simplest things need to be rethought from a new perspective.
I never had the occasion to go into this depth while working on such a wide project. I realized that there's a lot of diversity into such a complex product. So even though this is a more vertical approach to design, I find a lot of pleasure in designing one thing, but deeper. This is not more boring, it's somehow just a different scale of diversity.
Designing for your own business makes a difference.
Until recently, I usually felt that a project was over when it was delivered, generally after a long time of passionate hard-work, and then, well... go design the next one! Of course I'm being a bit caricatural here, but this honestly was the big idea. I worked for months on some projects, sometimes the design team would even ask more time because we felt the design wasn't "perfect enough". Eventually the most successful projects might have been close to "perfection" from a design point of view, but, apart from a few great exceptions I rarely had a chance to follow projects further after they were delivered to the client. Generally, it simply wasn't our business anymore. This means that we had almost no control on what happen after delivery, which can eventually lead to... some surprisingly diminished impact.
In Prezi this is very different. We're not helping someone else to succeed with his projects. We're not hired for a pre-defined period of time. Companies like frog strive to convince and satisfy their clients with what they believe is the best for the final users and this is one of the things that makes design consultancy a hard and exciting challenge. But still, it's important to understand that as a design consultant, your primary goal is to satisfy the company that hired you and this is a slightly different goal than satisfying your final users.
Prezi is our sole project and our primary goal is to satisfy the people that use it and be good enough to convince more and more people to do so. We don't hand the project over to someone else at a certain point in time, we design it, we test it, we do it, we release it, we communicate it, we measure the impact, we observe how people actually use it... and then we think how to improve it again. In short, we do the real thing ourselves. We build our expertise from our own, hands-on experience and this is what drives the strategy of our company.
The strategical involvement of the company management level is essential for a great project to become a truly successful product. This is probably the only way design can have a real impact. And influencing the strategy of other companies is a really sensitive task, which is commonly perceived to be outside of the traditional scope of design. And even though smart companies like frog are already moving in this direction, this is far from being an easy task, partially due to the nature and context of the consultancy activity itself. As a matter of fact, companies that hire design consultancy services usually have a low or non-existing design culture. Consequently, the people around the table speak "different languages", this means that a huge work of communication is needed to explain and convince the client, sometimes about the design processes themselves, that might not fit within their current organization. This situation generates a lot of time-consuming extra work, typically spent on presentations, documentations and specifications rather than on the design itself. Indeed, delivering the best design to a someone which is unable to handle it would be like blowing in the wind.
While design consultancy companies are striving hard to be involved at a higher strategical level and develop longer term partnerships, I've experienced that there's nothing like working everyday together, within the same company, with people you know, understand and trust. It does make a huge difference. This is especially true for Prezi which is small company that was co-founded by a creative person, Adam Somlai Fischer, which still has an active part in the company management. Consequently, design in Prezi has a overall bigger impact, the entire process is more streamlined, less energy gets lost in translation and more energy is spent on the project itself.
Great design is not enough.
Prezi is an ever-changing product. It continuously develops, sometimes we release updates several times a day. Consequently, the design is never finished but evolves continuously step by step, release after release in a constant improvement. It was a rather hard challenge for me to accept this concept of "a never finished design". Compared to my previous design experience, this is a radically different idea. In the name of the sacrosanct holistic perfection of design, I used to think that this approach could only lead to bad, fragmented design.
I was wrong, or at least partially.
First of all, perfection is a tricky illusion. Trying to reach it is a great motivation but I don't believe anything can ever be perfect, in the sense that it couldn't be made better. Perfection is a theoretical and highly subjective goal, for instance what's perfect for a designer might not necessarily be perfect for someone else. There are things that are really difficult to figure out before actually seeing them for real, specific contexts of use that are impossible to guess and there's a whole lot of unforeseen things, sometimes details, that might make the entire design fail at the end. Properly driven user tests are obviously extremely important and can help the design a lot, but their artificial nature will never be like learning from a huge amount of diverse people using it for real.
This leads me to believe that working for months, or even years, on the "perfect" product prior to releasing anything is a very risky process, as it might turn out at the end that you missed out something important. It's almost impossible to plan or predict everything in advance, especially about such a complex product. I do sincerely believe that this continuous improvement it's a much more effective process and can potentially lead to a better product.
Said this, I have to say that, as expected, the risk of a fragmented experience is real. Fellow designers might argue that with this method the final product might be more of a collage than a unified, well-crafted product. Well yes, an ever changing product will probably never feel as unified as one that was holistically polished for a couple of years. Indeed one great challenge we face in Prezi is how to bring more consistency into the product within this approach. Releasing too many small bits is usually not the best thing to do, as it might create more inconsistencies and actually generate more work to resolve them afterwards.
So maybe it all comes down to the steps' size. Keynote and Powerpoint make big steps every 2 or 3 years. I think this is as a very static and "old school" process. We, at Prezi, try to make the smaller meaningful steps more frequently and continuously learn from them along the way. What I've learned is that this agile, small steps strategy can actually be combined with a longer term vision. Every six months we define a strategy, set precise directions where we want Prezi to develop and then we strive to release the minimum meaningful bits as soon as they're ready. When we have a good enough feature, well designed and meaningful in it, there's no reason to wait for an entire set of other features for release. It might help people to do what they want and be happier with this and finally I believe this is more important than seeking for a, somehow abstract, holistic design perfection.
I love the fluidity and flexibility of this process, it's agile and fits much better the essence of designing digital products. And to be a little more provocative, if I put my designer's ego apart, the goal is not the product itself but to help people share their ideas. When you stay too much in between passionate designers it's easy to lose focus and concentrate more on the means than on the goal itself. Honestly, this is eventually the most important thing I realized here. Prezi might never be as perfect as I could imagine it, but it's a real product used by more than 4 million people worldwide, in their company, at school or home. Releasing day after day, even the smallest improvement that would make them more happy is, believe me, quite a thrill and each time reminds me why I do this job.