Mark Kawano talks Adobe, Apple, how best to beta test, hamburgers and basements, and flat vs. rich design

Mark Kawano, former user experience evangelist at Apple, talks to Marc and Rene about working at Adobe on Photoshop, at Frog on client work, at Apple on Aperture and iPhoto, on presenting your ideas, how best to beta test, and about the proper time and place for everything from hamburgers and basements to flats and textures.

Here's the audio, again, in case you missed it. And now, for the first time, here's the full transcript! (Yes, we're doing transcripts now!)

Iterate 44 transcript: Mark Kawano and evangelizing experience

Rene Ritchie: Welcome to Iterate. Joining me, as always, is Marc Edwards. How are you, Marc?

Marc Edwards: Going very well.

Rene: Our very special guest this week is Mark Kawano, former Interface Evangelist at Apple, amongst many other things. How are you, Mark?

Mark Kawano: Doing well. Thanks for having me on.

Rene: We've got two Marks today, and I'm going to try to avoid confusion because one of you is Marc with a C, and the other one is Mark with a K. It should be really clear. I hope.

Marc: That'll be really easy to distinguish.

Rene: Mark Kawano. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, how you got into design, and what twists and turns your career path took?

Mark: How I got into design. Was always pretty interested in computers. As a kid growing up, my dad had computers in his house early on. It was always something that I spent a lot of my free time playing around with but was never really a good programmer. I took a CS class when I got to college and didn't do too well on it. But I always liked building stuff and found out that design is more of where my skill set and interests laid anyway. That was a really great time when I was in school, which is when the Internet was really just getting started in the late '90s.

Worked on a lot of web stuff and a whole bunch of software design-type of activities. Then as I left the university, I was offered a really great opportunity to go work at Adobe. Through college, I had interned at software companies in Silicon Valley, and so I knew a little bit about what that process was like. That's how my career got started.

Rene: At Adobe, you worked on photography sort of stuff?

Mark: I worked on a couple different projects. I've always been really into photography my whole life. Again, this is something that my dad was passionate about. I would always go on photo expeditions with him, either just on the weekend or when we were on vacations we'd take a lot of photographs together. He was always teaching me about that. I took photography classes in high school and college. It was always just a passion of mine, and so when I had the opportunity at Adobe to start working on Photoshop I definitely expressed a lot of interest and did whatever I could to get myself into that position. It was just a really great time because it was right when digital photography was getting serious.

It was when the first digital SLRs were starting to come out and were actually a viable option for commercial use. I started working on the first versions of Photoshop. I actually designed with the interface designer for the first version of Adobe Camera Raw, which was around the Photoshop 7 timeframe, I believe.

Rene: What was it like working on the tools that as an artist you would use?

Mark: It was really interesting, of course Photoshop being a tool that every designer loves and also hates, mainly in the hate category. It was... It's also really confusing sometimes to have interfaces up where I'm not sure if I was actually in the tool or just looking at a comp, which is always a fun challenge. But for the most part it was great. I think most people don't understand how complex the problem that Adobe has to solve with Photoshop is, mainly supporting thousands and thousands of legacy users that all want the apps to do something different.

Really thinking not only about my Internet workflow as an interface designer, especially. It's not really that big of a market compared to graphic designers and photographers. Really being able to separate who the target users are and what the important problems to solve in each specific release is.

Rene: Where did you go after Adobe?

Mark: After Adobe I wanted to take a break. I actually just took a year off and traveled the world taking photos. It was a really great time. It was the equivalent of a gap year, except I was no longer in university. I just got to travel all around eastern Africa, central and southeast Asia, and then I actually moved to Japan for a little bit and was expecting to stay there for a while, but that didn't really pan out.

Rene: What do you like shooting with? Because I'm going to forget to ask you this later on.

Mark: I like to shoot primarily these days with the 5D Mark III and then the iPhone. I've tried a lot of the in-between cameras, the beyond the point and shoots and the Micro Two Thirds and the X100. But I've really found that there's just too many tradeoffs. I ended up just going with the iPhone and the Mark III.

Rene: Any particular lenses you like?

Mark: Yeah, I mainly keep the 35 1.4 as the-that's pretty much on my camera I'd say 80% of the time. Then I also go with the 85 1.2 a lot. I tend to stick with primes, that's what I like to shoot with most of the time.

Rene: If the quality is worth the sneaker zoom.

Marc: Just as a quick aside while we're talking about all this stuff, what do you see as the future of digital SLRs? Do you think the mirror mechanism is something that's going to stay with us forever, or is... It seems, based primarily on the way things used to be rather than the way things are now.

Mark: I think the-as far as the mirror technology and the sensors, that stuff is incrementally getting better. Where I think the big disconnect is is just on the actual software side of things, what you're able to do with the firmware, the lack of any type of connectivity. Those are some of the interesting things where it's funny how often I see a lot of my more hardcore photographer friends shooting photos of the back of their LCDs with their iPhone and then sharing that out, which obviously just hints as a huge opportunity for someone to get this right.

Although I think, again, that's one of these problems that a lot of consumers just estimate-they can see how that can work without really thinking about how hard that problem is to solve with huge RAW files and lack of connectivity and all of those really fun things that are easy to ignore when it's easy to just imagine being able to shoot this great photo and then getting it anywhere.

Marc: Hopefully it's something that a lot of the new mobile devices, iOS devices are getting pretty, pretty powerful. Being able to share things-these are problems that have been solved really well in mobile, even if they're not dealing with the same file sizes. Hopefully there are solutions coming for those things. Because you're right, it does seem insane. You use your iPhone if you actually want to do something with the photo immediately, or you use your SLR if you want something better, but something you can't really touch for a long time.

Mark: What I'm really excited for is some type of breakthrough on the physics side of just-you imagine that the actual sensors getting small enough and the actual processors on the cameras getting to a small enough place where all you really need is a really tiny body. But, at the same time, then are you just holding a big piece of glass around similar to what a Lightro camera is or just a really heavy-that still seems like it's just too bulky for the way you want it. Until that problem is solved, you can't really change those physics. At least we don't know how to right now. It seems like just, if I wanted to shoot with a 1.4 or 1.2, how would I do that without having this big piece of glass?

Rene: I'd be OK with a WiFi direct tether between my iPhone and my Mark III that I could just beam selected photos to it to do interesting stuff with on the go and leave the big management to a tethered connection.

Mark: That'd be pretty neat.

Rene: After your sabbatical, after your walkabout to put it in Mark Edward's terms, what did you do from then?

Mark: I moved back from Tokyo to San Francisco and I started working at Frog Design in San Francisco. That was a really great experience, to just work in a company where the entire organization is just dedicated to design and really great, interesting people. I spent a year there working on various client projects, helping them with their interface design.

Rene: Was it different transitioning from doing stuff for the company you worked for to doing client work?

Mark: I think that that divide, especially at a company like Frog, which is pretty big and gets pretty big clients because of that, is, the experience is very different. I think typically it's rare that people go back and forth between the client services roles and the in-house. I think it really does take a different personality and a different skillset.

Rene: I think after Frog is when you went to Apple, is that right?

Mark: When Apple started getting serious about digital photography and they started building Aperture is when I got connected to some of the folks over there. It was a really great opportunity then to go work on another digital photography product, as back in those days, that was one of the more exciting things that Apple was working on. This was pre-iPhone and this was one of their 1.0 type of software that they had created in a long time.

Rene: And you were back to in-house.

Mark: I actually missed building products in-house quite a bit. I think that one of the key differences of in-house is that you're around for the whole shipping the product part of the software development cycle. That's where a lot of the really key decisions are made where you've set out the ground work as far as you know the temple features and you now have an idea of how they are going to work. Now it's just massaging, well what are the different compromises?

This animation might not be able to work, or this performance isn't able to be as great as you thought it would be when we were designing this out and now we need to come up with some type of solution that's still elegant but isn't what the ideal design is.

It's all those little decisions that the user needs to make that ends up making an OK product or a good or really great product. A lot of times it's just really hard for client service types of companies to be involved in that part of the process. For me, I actually enjoy that part quite a bit.

Rene: I guess also the difference between Apple and Adobe is at Apple you were building stuff for Apple's own platform, where at Adobe you were building stuff for both Windows and Mac. Maybe those had different tradeoffs.

Mark: Yes, definitely. It's very nice to live in Apple's little fantasy world of just having to think about the Apple ecosystem.

Rene: How did you go from working on a product at Apple to becoming an evangelist and helping people work on products as part of Apple's ecosystem?

Mark: It was a really great opportunity that came up. Eric Hope, who was in the user experience evangelism position before me, had left almost a year before I learned about the position. I was just, at the time, working on iPhoto as well as Aperture as well as some other photo things that were going on in iOS. I was really just looking for a new type of experience. When this position was presented to me, it just seems like something, a great experience where one of the things that I love to do is just interact with people quite a bit.

Having worked on the product side where you're at Apple for five years just-with a couple different product teams here and there, it's mainly a set group of people. I wasn't ready to leave the company, but I was ready to do something really new and learn a whole different set of skills. It worked out really well. I really enjoyed my time.

Marc: As part of that, obviously there's a very, very large public speaking role. That's what a lot of the evangelists do. They get up, they present at WWDC and they really have to interact with people a lot and discuss in public forums. That seems like a completely separate skill. How did that go?

Mark: In some senses the scale as far as presenting to not only a development team of say 20 to 50 people and now having to sometimes present in front of thousands of people at once is very different in thinking about that varied audience. But I do think that actually going back to my time at Frog, that was a great experience. One of the great things about client services is you do get this experience just constantly presenting work to people that you've never met before, getting that type of confidence to really get up and put yourself out there.

You do that quite a bit in-house too where you're always, as a designer, I think it's really important that anyone really learns how to communicate well, whether that's in front of other people in a live presentation setting, whether that's through email, whether that's through different mockups or specs or whatever needs to get done.

Communication is just so key. I had definitely presented quite a bit. It was just really tweaking those skills to really match the specific audience that now I was targeting, which was iOS developers. Then also just to the scale of many different cultures as we had in the evangelism team traveled all around the world as well as just the number of people.

Marc: I think you're making it sound way easier than it actually is. Obviously all the stuff you've mentioned is things you need to consider in the actual audience. But I still think you've done such an amazing job of getting to the point where you can actually talk to thousands of people is surely a big step. There have to have nerves along the way.

Mark: I think for anyone that does do this quite often, I think they'll tell you that they still get nervous going up in front of this many people. It's really just like many things, the ability to power through those nerves and just know that there's something to do. Then of course it's just like anything else where you just have to practice. You don't want to go from zero to a couple thousand people. But just the more you present, the better at it that you get. I think it really comes down to just start doing it for anybody. I think there's a lot of amazing opportunities for any designer, if they want to get better at presentation skills, to go to different meet-ups or do something, present some type of material to different folks. It just gives you confidence to get that much better at it for the next time.

Marc: Do you think that that is an essential skill? Do you think you can be an exceptional designer and developer and get to a very high level without learning to speak publicly? Obviously there's a lot of developers and designers that end up speaking at conferences. But that's-is it required?

Rene: I don't think it's required. I think it really depends on what the designer's goals are. I think the important thing is just to figure out what you're aiming for. There's plenty of designers that I know and really respect who would never get in front of a huge crowd. What they're more comfortable with is just working by themselves creating awesome work and then sharing that in a very modest way. That's fine. It just... Although if you know that you're going to be a lead on a team or need to represent a certain organization or need to do any type of sales or pitching for either your individual company or on behalf of a service, I think you also need to know that presenting and being able to communicate to a large number of people is an important skill for that type of role.

Rene: I've found that when I have to teach or present on a subject, it really forces me to organize and break down my approach to it and my thinking around it. Did you find that at all as you were framing all these things to communicate to other designers?

Mark: I think one of the-in many ways designing a presentation is very much similar to designing a product where the first thing you think about is who's the audience? Who are the users that you need to target, and what's the best way to communicate to that group of people? That's often the hardest part is not knowing the audience that you're going to talk to. Whenever you're doing blind presentations, that's really challenging, certainly. But I think, in many ways you're putting together a storyline, you want to communicate a certain set of information, and you want to tweak that to the people that you're actually targeting.

Rene: Did anything ever surprise you in your presentations? Or did it pretty much follow the course you wanted to set?

Mark: I've been surprised many times, whether that's speaker notes or second monitors going out or just really poor room organization where you get there and the slides that you might present are being shown in a terrible way or not visible at all. A lot of, I think what the... You need, to get through those situations, just the confidence of being really well-prepared for anything might happen and what's the best way to get this information and get through those situations in the best way and feeling confident.

Being not too serious about it. Acknowledging that one of these things might not be at ideal, but not harping on that and letting people see that you're uncomfortable with that. I think there's nothing worse as an audience member to see somebody on stage or to see someone in front of you that's already uncomfortable. It makes the viewer just feel terrible, it's super distracting.

Rene: See the reason I asked is because you also have a reputation, and I don't know if this is urban myth or not, of being someone who has perhaps beta tested more applications than anyone else currently in existence.

Mark: I don't know-definitely on the iOS side, on the iPhone and iPad side. I've seen quite a lot of apps. I was... that's also an interesting role of just being prepared for anything and just never knowing whether someone showing you something is going to be amazing and just blow your mind away, or if it's just like most of the other apps out there that aren't that great.

Rene: I know people who have taken their apps to you and gone to get your advice. People have different reactions to criticism. Some people get very defensive, and then it makes it really hard to learn or take advice. But some people really appreciate constructive criticism and it helps them make better products. I think if they have a chance to talk to somebody like you, or at another company, someone in a similar role to you, and they are open to that kind of stuff, it can really help them focus their app or move their app in a direction they maybe hadn't considered previously.

Mark: I think a lot of it is just the framing of the expectations that each person goes into the conversation having. Whether they are talking to me because they really think that I needed to go reach out to the editorial team and say, "We need to feature this." If that's the reason they're talking to me, then they're probably not going to be too happy with some of the feedback that they get. But if they're actually coming to me as a fellow person building something and that has worked really hard on a specific problem and they're showing me their solution and want to know how to make that solution for who they're creating it? Those are the types of high-impact conversations that I think both people will walk away feeling good about.

Rene: When you start dealing with apps at a massive scale is there anything that you start to look for? Any way that you can start to quickly sort out problems or areas of focus from just apps in their entirety?

Mark: There were definitely things that I looked for. One is just how much the person really cared and thought about the problem a lot. You'd be surprised how many people just are going through the motions because they, it's just the way everyone else has done them and isn't passionate about the problem themselves or hasn't really dedicated themselves to the thing or the unique way to tackle these problems.

Rene: Because I've watched some people, when they do-well some people at Apple when they hit apps is just they look for scrolling, they look for consistency of experience, they look for things that break when you start doing them multiple times. There seems to be this internal checklist that they go through to make sure that an app is not only robust but meets the expectations that the app itself sets up for a user.

Mark: I guess the first thing that I would typically look for when I would look at some of these apps is just what level of polish they're at. A lot of times it's tricky because they're showing them to me in the state before they've gotten to that polished state.But assuming that they're either on the app store already or are about to be submitted, that would be the first thing I would look for. Are there typographical icon issues? Are they doing things just to be different, or have they really thought of ways to be smart? Just, does this look like a decent app that I would want to buy without even just playing around with it? Does it look like it's been designed? You'd be surprised how many apps don't fall into that bucket.

Marc: You just mentioned a second ago that some people give you beta apps quite early on in the development stage. Do you think there's a sweet spot of when you should give someone a beta? For us, and I don't know if this is a terrible idea or not, but I'm not really willing to show anyone anything that isn't pretty decent, like it's basically finished. Betas are more like release candidates. Is that a bad idea? Should you be showing people things earlier? When do you think's the sweet spot?

Mark: It think it really depends on the type of app and solution you're trying to create. Certainly if you've got an idea that there's a distinct problem for a distinct user and there's no question whether this is a problem and who you're targeting, and that you're providing a good solution for that person. I think it makes sense to wait until it's more polished and present the app to users or testers at that point and say, "Is this meeting your needs?" I think there's other types of problems where those questions aren't so well-defined. It really does help at early stages to just put some of these designs in front of other people, just to get a general sanity check. Is this an actual problem? Is this the high-level way for someone to think about the problem that I might be having?

To give you an example of this, Rene is one of the few people that actually doesn't know what I'm working on. We're not at a polished state by any means, but that's some of the validation that I was looking for when I saw him last week and showed him some of the new stuff that I've been working on.

Marc: I guess just to summarize, you're saying early beta is when you're questioning the question and a late beta is when you're questioning the solution.

Mark: That's right.

Marc: That seems like great advice.

Rene: What do you think about the classic almost 10-3-1 design approach? What is it, Marc? 10 prototypes, 3 betas, 1 final?

Marc: I think there was an interview-I can't even remember who it was with. But it was, this is how the folklore of Apple builds. It was, yeah, 10 rough prototypes, 3 final pixel-perfect mock-ups to then become 1 product. That was apparently the way Apple worked on a lot of products, which you may or may not be able to confirm or deny, anyway.

Mark: I guess the funny thing is that people expect Apple to have a lot of set processes. The reality is, I think, they work in a much more organic manner. I think that makes a lot of sense. Not only because each product is different, but each release of every product is also different. There's a different set of constraints, there's different goals that you're trying to go after. There's actually different people on those different teams or different releases. It's really about knowing what you ideally would want to do, and then figuring out what you actually can and should do for this specific product release. I've found that it varied quite a bit. Anyone who tells you that this is the way Apple's process works usually hasn't been at Apple too long and has maybe just seen a very limited version of the product design workflow.

Marc: I guess the basic theory is right, anyway, where you have a funnel. It's very wide at the beginning where you can do some wild experimentation and then eventually hopefully you'll end up with one product rather than many versions of.

Mark Kawano

Mark: Because I've seen the 100 to 50 to 3 to 1, I've seen the 1 to 1 to 1. It just keeps on working. Or the 1 to 100 back to the 1. I think it really does vary. But I think in general the mentality that is a little bit more unique to Apple is that willingness to possibly go to 10 or go to 100 if needed to get to the right solution. Whatever it takes to get the perfect design is really a little bit different from most other companies where if it works-they're just not willing to experiment and push as much and give that much emphasis to the development cycle towards design decisions.

Marc: It definitely seems like there's certain problems that have apparent opportunity. You may not know what the solution is, but you know the way you're doing it could be better or that this is an area that deserves a whole lot of exploration. I guess a lot of the time things feel very natural and there's really not much point in-well, I mean maybe there is point in reinventing, say, a login window or something. But you'll come to a certain point in a product where, really, you can and should spend time exploring to try and innovate.

Mark: Right. I think one of the other things that Apple does a really great job of is letting the designers and the developers really experiment with different fun UI interactions. Knowing that if they have this library of just interesting widgets-whether it's the shake animation, and then figuring out, well that's kind of cool. Then leaving it there and letting people work on that type of experimentation. Then when you come along and you're building your feature and you're saying, well, we need some type of login rejection UI. Being able to then pair that with some of those experiments and say oh, remember when we did this? This would work well for this. I think a lot of that happens-I'm not sure actually that is what happened with the login, but that's just an example of the type of thing that does happen at Apple quite a bit.

It's a lot easier to go about that way when you're just experimenting for experimentation's sake and you've got time in certain people's schedules to do that, rather than to say, "We need a login thing and we need to come up with the sexiest way to reject a user." That's typically when it's hard for designers or developers to really innovate in these new ways.

Marc: That's probably my favorite user interface animation of all time. It's just so simple and it's just-uh-uh. It's great. Love it.

Rene: Transitioning slightly, the first time I heard the words hamburger and basement were in a tweet that you made during last year's singleton conference. But I believe you'd been using them earlier. I'm really curious because by now, thanks to the Facebooks and all the different Google apps, we're all really familiar with the three line menu button and the sidebar just chock filled with often-unrelated stuff. But how did that happen? How did you end up nailing the terms for that so precisely?

Mark: I don't remember exactly where the hamburger came from because that was, I know, in a review with somebody else so I can't take credit for that one. The basement, it was in a similar conversation where we just talked and I've heard other people refer to it as the junk drawer, I think. That was one of the conversations Foursquare designers, they call that thing the junk drawer. I was like it's more of a basement. It's dark and people put stuff that they don't want to see and get lazy about just throwing stuff down there.

The combination of them, they'd kind of been around. It was sometime at the beginning of 2012 where that trend started, you started seeing that all over the place, so it needed some type of term for us to come up with.

I also tweeted at the end of 2012 that I really started predicted that 2013's the year that we're going to see at least the hamburger all over the web and that has totally proven true so far. Almost every site that I've seen go through a major design has added that to the web. There, it's even weirder because the expectation of what's going to happen when you click on that on the web is all over the place. It just means click on here and you're going to get a menu of some sort.

I guess that's also the nature of the web, is not really a consistent UI for anything.

Rene: I think the Facebook app now has basements on both sides. You're bouncing back and forth between them. What do you think inspired that solution? Was it just that people started having too much stuff to fit into a tab bar or was it the easiest path of less resistant to fitting stuff into an app?

Mark: I think it came from pretty good intentions and the first apps I remember seeing it on were the Facebook app and the Gmail app and both of them are dominated by UOIs where there's infinite scroll and there's constant new information and so the idea of a tab bar getting out of the way so you could see more of the data coming in made a lot of sense. In both of those apps, there's one of those sections that you live in I would say 90 plus percent of the time, whether it's the timeline in Facebook or your inbox in Gmail.

It was a pretty elegant solution, I think, for those specific apps. You don't need a tab bar. They're not really peers, 90 percent of the time is one of these items so defer and hide that UI from the user. I think it works OK for that. I think where it started getting kind of funny is where people were just using that all over the place when a user did have to switch between different sections and were having to tab multiple times or were lost as far as figuring out which section they were in.

It became one of these things where it was a trend so everyone did it without thinking too deeply why they were doing it.

Rene: The height of it is probably Louis Mantia on the magazine app when you press Marco Armand's hamburger button enough and in the right way it actually turns into a hamburger.

Mark: I love that little Easter egg. It's great.

Rene: Do you think this is a sustainable trend, it's such a convenient solution we're going to be stuck with it? Or do you think it'll be too boring or too monotonous or too widely implemented that people will desperately seek a more creative solution again?

Mark: I don't know. It's tricky. I think it's become a trend so people are using it somewhat irresponsibly, but I think it's ground in a pretty good intent and solves certain problems, certain design problems, in a decent way. I can see it staying around as long as it needs to. I think the trend part of it will probably taper off as people go on to the next UI trend in menus and the people who are using it in the appropriate ways will hopefully just wait until a better way of doing something comes about.

Rene: It's interesting because we've seen it in Google apps, we've seen it in Facebook apps, I believe it's in some of the new Blackberry 10 apps. I haven't seen it in any Apple apps yet so maybe there's still some unmenued places.

Mark: There's stuff like that in the reminders app, I think. It's not quite the same implementation as far as what happens when you tap on the icon.

Marc: I actually don't mind it as an application representation of a menu. There's certainly one prominent place I can think of where Apple have used it and that's on OS10 for the notification center. It's not necessarily exactly the same but it seems to be a similar theory. It's not really a menu, obviously it's notifications, but it's still the idea of hiding content behind a hamburger.

Mark: It's always interesting when something gets so used and overused. Is the original thing really that bad? No, it actually works well for certain instances.

Rene: Besides hamburgers and basements, the other big trends we've been seeing last year was flat versus richly textured. You have examples of Find My Friends game center and then on the other side you have something like Windows Phone Metro or some of Google's new flatter, less gradient filled designs. Is that another example of trend or do you think that's just a movement away from the rich textures?

Mark: I hope not. I think it's been blown up. That whole debate back and forth has been blown up quite a bit by chatty designers and media wanting to have something to talk about and then it's easy for people to put their camps or pitch their tents in one camp or the other. From my perspective, you do what you want to do for the intent of the actual product. If it calls for a flat design or not or a more textured one, you evaluate. It makes sense to probably mock up a few versions of what a specific work flow or a screen looks like in either of those styles.

I hope to think that that's what then influences the final design rather than the external debate of it's Apple-like or Microsoft-like or Retina-like or Android-like or what type of person I am.

At the end of the day, most users that are not designers or tech geeks like us really don't care about that stuff and if you tried to get them involved in such a conversation you'd really probably bore the hell out of them. For me, it is interesting.

I think Microsoft with Metro, they did make a really big statement on the flatness and I'm very interested to see how that UI is going to scale across all their apps by saying it needs to be one way or the other.In general, we'll see how long this debate goes on. In my mind, let's just evaluate one product at a time.

Marc: It does seem strange, as you mentioned. There is a tendency to be one camp or the other whereas when you look at even iOS there's only specific apps that are rich and the standard UI components. Sure they have gradients, they're not flat at all, but they're certainly not schemorphic or they're not hyper realistic. It does seem strange where the world is being divided. It seems like design has never really ever been at either end of the spectrum. It's typically been somewhere in the middle for most good apps. Which is bizarre. Do you think flat design is really just a response to the needs of the platform? Obviously Windows Metro and the web have such a diverse range of targets that certain things that you would possibly be able to do on iOS or on the Mac don't seem as easy.

Mark: It is an interesting question. I think that's where things get complicated is when you are having a deep philosophy that one is better than the other. It seems, from my conversations with some of the folks that were involved on the Windows 8 effort, were told that everything needs to be flat or were part of the decision making process saying this is part of our style, this is what makes us Windows and it needs to go this way. I think that's where things get into trouble. Whether that actually happened or if that was just what some of my friends at Microsoft have said is another story. Again, I think it comes to the different app and the specific design. The interesting question for me is how is Windows going to deal with more media based apps when they've got this very flat design?

I've looked at some of the magazines that they have in their Windows store on their new tablet on the surface and just seeing, where everything is flat and nothing has any type of raised texture, including the buttons, how easy it is to distinguish just illustrations from interactive elements.

I, myself, have gotten confused but I'm not sure if that's really a fault of the design style they've gone with or if that's just poor design in that specific app. That's what I'm really curious to see as they grow that out and start to have different types of apps.

It's not just about specific software. So much of content and having illustrations that's now moving into this app world is going to be challenging when you've got non-interactive graphics mixed with interactive graphics that look very similar.

Marc: Obviously one solution to that is to remove anything that remotely looks like a button that isn't and then you end up maybe changing your content. It ends up being quite forced whereas adding a couple of shadows and a few lighting effects, like you were saying, it solves the problem and you can see what can be interacted with. Do you see this lasting? Do you see it's something that's going to be with us forever?

Mark: It'd be a mistake to assume anything in software is going to be around forever. It seems like the pace of innovation and things changing is just accelerating. That always gets me excited, to think about where we're headed. All it takes to get me excited is to look back at some of the designs that I've worked on and some of the apps we've used even just a few years ago, how different they are in some ways, sometimes stylistically, sometimes it's the actual paradigm of the way the UI works. Then thinking about what are some of the common elements that have kept around because there hasn't been a better way to do this.

Rene: One of the things that I found interesting in this discussion is it seems to me to be these two sets of people that are both panicking at the same time. One says that Apple went the wrong way with richly textured designs and that now someone's going to wave a magic wand and course correct them back to a more conservative, restrained interface paradigm, and the other one is panicking that Apple is going to react to people saying the first one by going towards a more conservative design. That strikes me as awfully reactionary and I like to think that designers make choices based on usability and not so much based on trend or reactionary responses.

Mark: I think it makes a great story when you can then say four sells out, this is the implications, Ive is in and this is what's going to happen now when the reality is nobody knows. Johnny Ive doesn't know. We're all just trying to figure this out. I think it is going to be a much more nuanced approach of we need to update this specific app. What do we need to do? We need to update iOS 7 or 8. What does this look like? What are some examples? Let's look at both sides of the spectrum. Maybe this is a flat UI. Maybe it is still highly schemorphic. What's right? I think, again, it's going to be much more of an organic process of just making the right decision, like you said, for usability but also for the company. Yeah, maybe this is a better usability solution to do it another way but the ROI of solving this little thing in this one app, why should we dedicate any time for that problem right now?

I think it's mainly a narrative that's been created by the outside media because it is a narrative and it's something you can get people very passionate about and talking about and feel like they're experts on. That stuff works great on tech blogs and podcasts and articles. It's a lot of fun to debate, too. Don't get me wrong. I love having a couple beers or drinks with folks and just getting into these conversations, but it's mainly for the conversation's sake.

Rene: I just think the idea that any English Knight is walking the halls at Apple with a sandblaster ready to decimate any longstanding software product is maybe not that realistic.

Mark: Even if he does have some of those intentions deep down, he's a smart enough guy and been around the block at Apple in his career to know that that's not the prudent way to go about building great products. They don't need to do any radical changes right now. The company's doing pretty well. Stock price taken out of that, they're still making a ton of money and really successful.

Rene: Maybe just to round out this topic, we saw the podcast app, which I always enjoyed the podcast app. I think the podcast app got a bit of a bad rep. It was recently updated and it was maybe a little more conservative, arguably a little more conservative, but it seems to me like that's just the natural progression of an app. As it goes from 1.0 to 2.0 and starts doing more things you're going to have to adjust the way it does it along the way.

Mark: I think it was very interesting timing that while this debate is going around and the interface and tech sphere that podcast gets updated and now that Ive is there the tape reel is now gone. What does this mean? How much can we look into it? It's hard to say. It's really interesting there. I haven't talked to my buddies that work on that stuff and they probably wouldn't even tell me now anyway. Interesting to hear what the decision process was. I have a feeling it just came down to they tested a lot of designs with it in and with it out and just had to make a decision on whether it was worth it to keep it on versus the tradeoffs of having some of the buttons in the new place where they weren't before. I like to think that's what happened but who knows?

Rene: I don't think Apple's trolling us.

Mark: I think the other thing that people who haven't worked on software for millions of people in big companies realize, any person that hasn't shipped products themselves and had to think about what goes into it and spent a lot of time with varied designs before shipping, it's easy for people to easily say why didn't Apple do it this way or why didn't X, Y, Z company implement this? This is clearly a better way. Look, I'll mock it up. It looks prettier. You guys are idiots, I'm so much better.

The reality is a lot of times the good companies have tried some of those things and while they did look nice on paper they just didn't feel right or maybe they just couldn't get that in time to get the product out the door on the date they wanted to get it out on. They had to make those tradeoffs.

That goes full circle to what I talked about earlier. When you get into that needing to ship a product on a specific date, a lot of the decisions that you are making are just certain tradeoffs, where you need to put your foot down and say no, it needs to work this way versus no, we need to figure out something so that we can actually get this product out and start making money from it.

Rene: We're living in a world now where we all walk around with little Unix boxes in our pockets and multi-touch interfaces in the palms of our hands and it seems kind of magical, but there's also things like natural language on the horizon. How do you see multi-touch working as an interface now? Do you think it's got a long lifespan ahead of it?

Mark: For sure. Whether it's multi-touch, I assume in that is just touch screen in general whether it's multi or not, just direct manipulation, I think that we are setting a precedent that will last quite a while. I think anyone who's seen a toddler or anyone who's never interacted with computers, you hand over a device with multi-touch and just see them go through interactions that are actually pretty natural to them and have them work pretty well. I think it's just proof that this thing is a great way to interact with a computer interface.

I can see other new, interesting things coming about, maybe like Google Glass or like Leap and without touching anything, just movements, but I think very much those will supplement and be in addition to the multi-touch that we have now which is a big glass screen where your fingers directly touching different objects that the software designer has put into their interface.

Marc: It is amazing seeing two, three year olds using iOS devices, whatever, as well as 50, 60 year olds, or even 30 year olds. Definitely being closer to the content, direct manipulation, is a huge advantage and it's just so much better and more natural than mouse and keyboard for a lot of things, but it kind of makes me wonder, is this something where we can take that next step and what would it be? Obviously it's still glass so there is a future, there is something beyond that. It's a matter of when do you think that's going to happen? Do you have any idea on what it might be?

Mark: I wish I did now.

Marc: Honestly, it's a really tough question.

Mark: I think the one thing that is interesting to think about is it took how many years for us to go from the mouse and keyboard interaction to the touch? 30 plus years. I don't know if the next thing that's going to come along is going to replace the touch screen and I'm not sure the touch screen has necessarily replaced the keyboard and mouse in many instances. Whatever this new thing is, it's going to come about probably less than 10 years from now. Whether it's going to replace the touch thing versus just supplement it or create different types of use cases is an interesting question and what those things are.

What are those specific scenarios where we're not using touch screen anymore? Is it for communication, is it for looking up information? All these different things. It obviously gets you think about the way software is going to continue to disrupt almost everything we do while we're alive.

Marc: As you said, the time between those innovations and iterations of the input devices seems to be getting smaller and smaller. That means that a new thing, and maybe that's natural language input and maybe they are going to augment. As you said, keyboard and mouse hasn't really died, it's just that we had multi-touch as well. It kind of points to the next thing being really, really close, but it doesn't feel like it is because it's very difficult to try to work out what would take over or what would augment what we have. Maybe it's a proliferation of sensors everywhere.

Mark: For me, the big barriers are a lot of these social interactions. It's fun to geek out and think about how you would use something like Google Glass or what Siri might be like in another five years when it gets better. I still have big, fundamental issues with myself just being comfortable using those technologies. I still think it's very awkward, for me personally, interacting with Siri and talking to a computer. I don't know what the big leaps are going to be for me to get comfortable with that scenario where that's a normal thing to do.

Is it just this awesome experience I get because of it, and I don't get that from anywhere else? Is it that there's less false positives? What are those different leaps that makes me...OK, now I'm comfortable wearing this device around and having everything being recorded or talking to a machine or waving my hands in the air on the street and looking like a crazy person.

That's what I'm actually more interested in. It's easy enough to think about where the scenarios are good for specific use cases. Police officers, all wearing Google Glass all the time, or doctors. You're in the car, and you're telling it to make a phone call instead of keeping your eyes off the wheel. Those are easy things to say, "That's clearly a better scenario."

But where does it supplant some of the other things? Where does it replace, and you get more comfortable doing these things for everyday purposes that we interact with our iPhones or our computers? That's what I'm really curious about.

Marc: Surely part of that is because they're new. I completely agree, and it does feel a bit weird every time I talk to Siri or Google now or whatever. But our kids, they're not going to worry about that. It's going to be something that's always existed, and it's their own little digital friend to help them out. In the same way that our parents might feel strange or uncomfortable talking to someone via IM or Twitter or whatever. That stuff will get sorted out via attrition, if no other means. We're all going to die, and our kids will be around, and their kids' kids will be around. All this stuff, the social things will work themselves out, but it is weird having a camera strapped to your face.

Mark: You think it's more of an internal, innate thing rather than an external, company or solution happening or somewhere in between that?

Marc: For Siri, absolutely. But actually strapping a camera to your face, there may actually be more real concerns rather than...How do I describe it? Social acceptance. Something like natural language seems, and people talk all the time, it just seems weird because you're not talking to a person. If there was an actual real person there, you wouldn't think it was strange. I don't see why that wouldn't work out, but I certainly agree with a lot of the concerns around Google Glass, where I'm not sure I actually want to be in a room with someone who's recording everything that possibly could be streaming somewhere else.

Rene: We'd get in a lot of trouble.

Marc: I would.

Mark: It is tricky.

Marc: It's tough. I don't know.

Mark: At the same time, if you would have told me 10 years ago that...How comfortable would you be in a room where you're with five of your friends or even five of your close family members who haven't seen each other for a while, and everyone's just looking at this glass screen and not interacting with each other. I would also say that's an uncomfortable thing, but slowly that glass screen that you were looking at got so awesome and so fun to look at that you don't even think about that anymore. It's still not an ideal solution for a lot of people. It's quite embarrassing when the first person acknowledges it. It's like, "Hey, we're all here, guys," and everyone puts their device away.

At the same time, I do wonder, is there going to be that moment for Google Glass or for Siri or for a new technology that we haven't thought of where, yes it's awkward, but that thing it's providing is so cool or that everyone becomes accustomed to it.

I don't know what that answer is right now. Right now, it isn't that cool, and you think of more of the creepy things. It's going to be fun for the next few years to figure all this stuff out.

Rene: The interesting thing for me is...For example, my four-year-old godson can't write, but he can use Siri to text me stuff. He thinks it's his best friend. He talks to it. Siri has no idea what he's saying sometimes, but he talks to it. He presses the button, and he's talking to his iPhone or talking to Siri, or his iPod Touch. If I'm sitting at a dinner table and I want information, I can't press the Siri button and have Siri interrupt everybody at the table, so we still need an abstraction layer where we have this Siri type of query and response engine but maybe I can use Spotlight to enter my question instead of having to talk to it.

Until we have those kinds of options,exactly what you said, Mark, there will be cases where Siri is not the optimal way to communicate.

Marc: That's interesting that obviously language skill or speaking skills comes before written-that's, yeah. That's something I hadn't really thought about it much. Obviously you're right. Kids will be able to use Siri almost before they can use other things, which is kind of cool. It's a bit crazy. Also I think it's interesting where Marc, you mentioned that some of these technologies can drive a wedge between families that are in the same room and everyone can be doing their own thing. But the flipside of that obviously is that they also bring families close together. The...

My dad has never had a phone. My mom hadn't had a phone, but she was the kind of person that desperately needed one. Because she was always in different places. We finally bought her one. Now, because she has an iPhone, I can actually send her photos of her granddaughter and we can talk all the time.

I think, in aggregate we've won, even if we're both looking at glass screens when we're in the same room with. Overall it's been such a vast improvement in communication that I'm happy to take a few negatives there.

Mark: I think we're still in this awkward phase of we've got this awesome technology and we're still trying to figure out the best way for society to use it. But ultimately we know that it's a huge impact, just like any other major technology. An innovation like electricity or television or a printing press or anything like that. There's a lot of fear and awkwardness when those were just first introduced and made mainstream. But ultimately, cultures and customs will level things out and we'll figure out their place in the world.

Rene: I've got two really broad, general, aspirational questions for you, Mark, just because of your background. What do you think are the next big UI challenges? Is it better multitasking visualizers? Is it more predictive ways of getting data pushed to where we are instead of hunting it down? Are there any giant problems that you think still need to be solved?

Mark: Yes, there are so many of them. That's, I think, what's really exciting. One of the items that's been top of mind for me, and I think mainly because of the space that I've been working on on this, the new product that I'm working on, is just the amount of information and data that's now being created digitally is, it's all... We're living in a very topical, whatever's newest is kind of the greatest. But we're just creating so much data whether it's photos, texts, videos, and it's all just going into this integrated model, data model, for files and folders.

I think that that problem gets worse on a minute by minute basis, because there's just more stuff to deal with. I don't know anybody that has a well-organized photo library in whatever software they're using. I don't know many people that can find out their good bookmarks or things that they've liked around the web.

I think that mainly is a design problem. Technology-wise there's easy ways to query and get this stuff up. But I don't think we have a really great UI program for just how to deal with all the tremendous amount of data that we've been creating.

Rene: Exactly because of your background I was going to ask you-for example there's Photoshop on the iPad, but it's nothing that I can use to replace Photoshop on the desktop, yet. There's iPhoto on the iPad, but I still spend a lot of time in Aperture. Is that also a design problem, or is that still a different phase or scale of computing problem?

Mark: I guess we should be clear when we say design. Is it an interface problem or just kind of... I think that, the problem that you just described is a combination of software and hardware, a technology problem. I think there's definitely areas where the interface could help. But I think even with the most polished iOS interface there's just certain things with big files and not a strong processor on these machines compared to the Mac and not a pixel-precise way to render some of these things. Maybe the pixel-precise part is just an interface problem and we just need a good UI for that. But some of the other ones I think are more just technology-based.

Rene: It's interesting because, to bring it all full circle, you were working on in-house design, and then you did client work. Then you were back at in-house design, and now you're independent. You get to kind of do whatever you want.

Mark: It's super challenging. Now all the constraints that were put on me by other organizations, I've got to create myself. That's one of the biggest challenges as a designer. You talk to any good designer, and you tell them to solve a problem, and you don't give them the constraints. It's almost harder, if they've been doing it for a while, to come up with a good solution. Going out and doing your own thing, creating your own company, or creating your own product, that's the big challenge that I'm running into now is what are those constraints. I'm the one creating them, and I'm the one who has to work within them. I'm still trying to feel the right balance out there.

Rene: I know you can't discuss what you're working on now, but what's it like being independent?

Mark: I can. I'm just choosing not to.

Rene: Fair enough. What can you tell us about what you're working on? Are you having fun with it? Are you still in the early days?

Mark: It's been a couple of months. It started the middle part of January, at the beginning of this year. Having a ton of fun. It's definitely in the spaces that I am very passionate about, so I'm doing things with photos and videos, as well as working on iOS and possibly Mac stuff as well. I'd love to come back on the show when there's more to talk about and go through some of the decisions that we've made, and tradeoffs, and hopefully talk about some of the successes, if we have any. Right now, we're just at the early stages and looking to build a really solid team to solve some of these really interesting problems that we have.

Marc: I'm like you, Mark. I try not to be too opinionated with this stuff.

Mark: I'm very opinionated on a specific case basis, where I think that there is a good thing or it is a wrong thing. In general, having rules about design seems silly to me. There's no UI rule that makes sense for every situation. This is actually something that I struggled with pretty early in my career when I was working at Adobe on Photoshop. When we were first designing the first version of the Creative Suite, it was about coming up with a design language that was consistent across all the Creative Suite apps and also worked well both for Windows and Mac environments.

The truth is, that's not the way people work. They typically are on one platform or the other. They are typically in one specific app and doing very specific tasks in that app. It makes sense to design the best possible UI and interaction for that task for that user on that platform. Having these heavy rules of consistency can get in the way quite a bit.

That being said, when you have keyboard shortcuts for the same things not working in the same way, a lot of that stuff was legacy that should have been cleaned up but, for a lot of reasons, wasn't able to be cleaned up.

You want to be consistent where it makes sense, and that should be the general rule. But you should be ready to break the consistency if it means a better solution for a specific task.

Marc: That's definitely something Apple seemed to be really good at. They're quite happy to completely annihilate all legacy, like with Final Cut, for the benefit of the future.

Mark: A lot of times when I would meet people for different design reviews, and I would tell them they weren't adhering to standard iOS guidelines or not following the HIG as appropriate, they would immediately bark back, "Here's five apps that you guys have created that aren't following the HIG as well." The typical answer that I would always give is, "You have to know the rules to break them." There are specific reasons why these apps aren't following the rules. We can argue whether those are good reasons or better solutions, but this was stuff that was at least considered.

Marc: Yeah, absolutely.

Rene: So in the meantime, if people are interested in finding out more about you, where can they go?

Mark: Probably the easiest way is just find me on Twitter--first name Mark, last name Kawano. Mark Kawano is my Twitter name. Fancy that.

Rene: I'll put a link to that in this show so you don't have to worry about spelling it with "C"s or "K"s.

Mark: That's alright, I spell it the right way, with a "K".

Rene: Mark, thank you so much for joining us. That was fantastic, I really appreciate it.

Mark: Yeah, thanks a lot. It was a lot of fun.

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Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Mark Kawano talks Adobe, Apple, how best to beta test, hamburgers and basements, and flat vs. rich design

1 Comment

The words "flat," "rich," and "skeuomorphic" are drastically overloaded with multiple shades of meaning, pun intended. I happen to think that "flat" can also be "rich" with shine and/or texture and/or gradient and/or background patterns.

An example of "flat is rich": the iOS Reminders app. Not one trace of faux leather, stitches, torn paper edges, or simulated page turning. Plenty of subtle texture, subtle shading on the edges to give them a slightly rounded look, beautiful (here's that word again) subtle shadows to give the app depth and sophistication.

An example of over-the-top skeuomorphic faux reality: the iOS Compass app. Wood texture, semi-matte brass, subtle glints on the simulated glass, perfect reproduction of the compass face. It works just like a physical compass, like you'd expect, and that's a good thing. Sometimes it really is better to more or less completely simulate a physical object and its behavior in 3-dimensional space.

I think it depends on the information density of the app. There is a lot of information crammed into the Reminders app, from calendar grids to lists to sliding scales with dates and days to reminder lists to per-reminder notes to alert options etc. So a clean, simple approach is mandatory. No room to throw up too much UI.

There are only 2 things you need to know when you're using the Compass app: which way is north and your actual heading. Plenty of room to put up a very fancy UI.