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Designing for Small

I recently left a big tech company that was trying to solve big problems, the biggest problems really: poverty, urban blight, cyberterrorism, endemics, you name it. The scope of such design projects was exhilarating, but deep down I think I knew we couldn’t possibly design our way out of the big picture. There is a temptation when your brain is full of grand scales to view design as if it is some sort of alchemy, where we can turn a few experiences into one-size-fits-all gold.

If you want to solve a big problem, solve it small first.

Now I work at Yieldmo, an ad tech startup in an era of publishers shifting to mobile. I’ve spent the last few months with a small team trying to solve one problem: a better mobile ad. As it turns out, this dramatic narrowing of scope from global super software to humble microinteraction is changing a lot about how I think about product design.

Psychological Effect: Daemon vs. Human

Designing when you feel like the world is on your shoulders is exciting, but also frustrating and exhausting. Trying to calculate every moment of a user flow, every nuance, every external factor at such a scale is an exercise in futility. And let’s be honest, in many cases when things go off course, design teams will shrug or talk about the next release or argue about testing results. That practice doesn’t sit well with me.

In the 19th Century, Pierre-Simon Laplace theorized that the future could be known by a daemon that possessed knowledge of every bit of matter and its properties. He postulated that if this daemon took a snapshot of a moment, calculated every force, every variable of everything happening and then stepped ahead to the next snapshot, it could, according to Newtonian principles of causality, calculate the next moment of the future.

Unfortunately, I am no such daemon. I can only predict a handful of factors, even with lots of time to research. Inevitably, things go differently than I expect. When you’re designing at scale, this is a catastrophic phenomenon. Projects like this are often called, “slippery problems,” because the problems change more as you narrow in on them. But when you’re designing small, the outcomes of your design are more predictable. You’re designing at a depth that’s right for your human intelligence, not some daemon.

A New Way to Make Big Things

Watching _The Karate Kid_ at 10 years-old, I was pretty annoyed that I’d signed up to watch a karate movie and I was watching some kid do chores instead. But Mr. Miyagi’s wisdom reveals itself, as Daniel is trained to turn the movements he learned in waxing cars, painting fences, and sanding floors into blocks, punches, and kicks. There is something sobering and wise about focusing on a single interaction, mastering it, and realizing its taught you how to do something bigger.

At Yieldmo, we still do big things. Our ads are seen millions of times per day and our optimization engine is collecting tons of data about how people engage with them. But as designers, we stay focused on individual moments, not magnanimous systems. I think this could be a new way to design large systems. Imagine an interface that wasn’t built in one large version release, but instead was hundreds of components which all change constantly based on the context of how you behave, what the time of day is, how you perform under pressure, etc. In effect, by focusing on microinteractions (waxing on and waxing off), we’re actually winning the championship and getting the girl.

It’s a lot more work to design hundreds of moments and string them together. Yieldmo is the first company of its kind to invest in a design lab like ours and we believe its the only way to do it. If we tried to make something for everyone with one blanket design, we’d inevitably alienate millions of users and contexts.

Early Lessons

There are two big areas that I’ve already learned quite a bit about from focusing on small contexts: motion and responsiveness. I’ve found that large motions work well in larger rich media formats, but subtle motions in the same size unit are often lost. In general, motion needs to be big on small screens.

Responsiveness is different at this scale too. Now, phones have higher resolutions and many tablets have higher resolutions than some desktops. All these shades of gray in device sizes has made it a necessity to design at many more breakpoints. The usual three (phone, tablet, desktop) won’t cut it anymore. At Yieldmo, we design triple the number of traditional breakpoints across a mere few inches of width change. This ensures our designs always look good.

It’s a lot more work to design small, but doing things right usually does take work. Sometimes there will be pushback about spending the effort on such a complex system of small design, but the truth is, can you afford to do it any other way? It is more costly to pursue shortcuts with one-size-fits-all solutions, than to take time and design it small.

Shawn Sprockett is a Strategic Design Lead at Yieldmo.
Posted by: Lucas Piazza, Director of Marketing