Design For The Rest Of Us

John Maeda's plan to bring WordPress to the people.

It’s a new challenge for a man whose career has taken him from a director at the MIT Media Lab, to president of RISD, to design partner at Kleiner Perkins. In each role, Maeda has stressed the increasing importance of end-to-end experiential design to business success.

At Automattic, Maeda has identified inclusive design as the next game-changer. By designing inclusively — by creating products the technologically inexpert can use and love — Automattic aims to make products that work better for everyone. Since WordPress quietly powers 28 percent of the internet, the results could make the web a friendlier and more lucrative place for millions.

Why did you join Automattic?

The more ways you look at a problem, the better you understand it. I spent a lot of time advising companies, and I still do as a board member. But after getting an MBA, running a school, and working as an adviser in a venture capital firm, I thought working at a tech company would be the right thing to do. Being on the inside lets you see why things are the way they are.

You’ve emphasized that design should be a high priority for CEOs these days. Why now in particular?

Because of the smartphone. When everyone has a computer in their pockets, everyone has higher standards for user experience. At the executive level, not having a voice representing that experience means leadership doesn’t fully understand a critical factor for success. I should clarify, though, that design is not the most important factor. Product, engineering, design, and the financial underpinnings all have to work together to make something wonderful.

You like to separate design into three categories: classical design, design thinking, and computational design. Why?

One of the problems in design is the word design is poorly designed. It covers everything. Those three buckets are not a perfect framework, but they’re useful because they provide a vocabulary to describe types of design. A classical designer designs like you would for the physical world — it’s the design philosophy behind a chair or vase you see in MOMA. Then there’s design thinking, popularized by the management consulting world, which helps organizations work faster and more creatively by applying the design toolkit — things like prototyping and user profiling — to business problems. And then there’s computational design, which involves digital technology. The materials aren’t concrete, aren’t plastic, aren’t paper, aren’t ink. They’re this new kind of material that touches millions of people at the push of a button.

Are there companies out there that are killing it in the computational design department?

Facebook, Airbnb, Google, Amazon. Apple is also doing really well, but it leans hard on the classical design side — and not just for physical products. For example, it still doesn’t believe — unlike Google and Facebook — in spying on our information all the time to make products better. That partially explains why they’re not very good at making software. I think Apple, over time, will move towards Google, Amazon, and Facebook’s more invasive data approach because they’ll have to in order to survive. It can’t just compete on beautiful cases.

How can design help small businesses compete with the likes of Facebook and Google?

In my work at Automattic, I’m going to a lot of socio-economically depressed communities, whether it’s urban Detroit or rural parts of Kentucky. These regions all need jobs, and, if we don’t design with these kinds of communities in mind, more of the country is going to look like them.

Many folks are coming to tech these days by retraining themselves for new jobs. Closed systems only let them become users of technology — open systems let them become owners (and modifiers) of technology. So former coal miners who are learning PHP or JavaScript can’t use their knowledge within closed systems like Facebook — but they can put them to full use in open source ecosystems like WordPress.

How does inclusive design factor in?

I believe that if you involve many types of people in making a product, it’s going to become a more successful product. Because most technology products are made by particular kinds of people with certain biases, the market that they can address is limited.

I grew up around regular people. My parents didn’t go to college. And as I got more “important,” I grew more distant from the world that I came from. Every consumer isn’t an Ivy League grad carrying around an expensive phone. If I can bring more of our designers to that world, they’re going to start designing differently.

The traditional way of designing products has been successful — I don’t discount that. But look at a company like OXO, which designed inclusively — creating products that even someone with arthritis can easily use — and discovered a $60 million revenue stream, by making better products for everyone.

We didn’t go in this inclusive design direction so people would say, “Oh my gosh, that’s so good that you’re helping all these poor people.” We went in this direction to grow our total addressable market, to be more financially successful. And our products are improving as a result. I now see more of our designers and developers speaking about the people whose lives are being improved by having a website of their own. It’s sharpened our purpose and helped us identify with customers who are unlike ourselves.

What’s an example of a product you designed inclusively?

Just yesterday we launched a simple payment button. In 2017, that sounds so rudimentary. But we discovered many website creators needed an easier way to take payments. So we created a drag-and-drop payment button, that turned the 15 minute process for adding a PayPal button into an under-a-minute task.

I don’t think there’s anything special about the technology of this button. The interesting part of is that it came from ethnographic research based in non-techie communities. For a tech company, that’s an important direction to take.

You design with a different urgency once you understand that your customers are real people. It no longer makes sense to design the ultimate experience for someone in Brooklyn who drinks $6 lattes.

What’s your vision for Automattic in the coming year?

What I’m looking at this year is to focus Automattic on understanding small business owners. We’re developing products and services that can better serve them through this inclusive style of design that I introduced to all of our designers, developers, and customer support people

As for my vision, the products and services we offer will be easier to use a year from now. They’ll be more meaningful to customers financially. There’s a big difference between getting likes for a photo and getting $5 for that photo. My goal is to give small business people more financial freedom.