The magic design sauce: curiosity and serendipity

Khoi Vinh on "How They Got There," the cards interaction model, and designers as founders.

I recently sat down with Khoi Vinh, vice president of user experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Vinh was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), design director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. Our conversation included a discussion of career paths; the much talked about new interaction model, cards; and advice for design entrepreneurs.

Curiosity serves designers well

Vinh and I discussed the ever-evolving role of designers. He recently self-published How They Got There, a book of interviews with interaction designers who describe their career paths and offer advice and insight. Vinh explained:

How They Got There is kind of like the book I wish I could have read when I was just starting out in my career. The central thesis is that very few careers are truly planned out, A to B, to C, to Z, and it’s usually a lot of stuff that just happens by circumstance or blind luck, or through someone who knows someone.

“As I became more and more aware of that in my career, I started to find those stories really interesting, really revealing, because they say so much about the character of people who achieve notoriety in their careers; the circumstances that led them to where they are can be fascinating. In a lot of instances, the things that get these people onto these paths are very, very minor events or minor coincidences. … There’s a serendipity, but I think, one thing that comes out when you read these stories is what serves these designers really well is curiosity, a willingness to be available to opportunities, so to speak. They go with the flow. They let one thing turn into another through their ability to acclimate themselves to various situations.

“What’s that old saying from Branch Rickey — “luck is the residue of design”? These careers are somewhat serendipitous, but they are really the result of folks who are very conscientious about making the most of whatever situation they had and working really hard and applying themselves, and looking at the world around them with great curiosity and being really willing to study what it takes to get to the next level.”

Reinventing the mobile Web, one card at a time

Vinh is working on creating the next generation of the mobile Web with his company Wildcard.

Cards, the emerging interaction model perhaps made most famous by Tinder, provide a faster, efficient, and — some would say — more natural way of accessing and interacting with information. Vinh has a post that includes a presentation from Chris Tse on just what cards are. (Here’s another great talk by Chris Tse.) In our conversation, Vinh shared Wildcard’s goals and vision:

“The high-level message here is, we’re trying to build a better mobile Web. Our belief is that the metaphor of pages for navigating the Internet worked really well on the desktop Web, but when it comes to your phone, navigating pages can be really painful and inefficient. That’s why the mobile browser on your phone, whether it’s Safari or Chrome, or even mobile Firefox, it’s probably the least loved of the apps on your phone relative to how often you use it. That’s because Web pages on a phone are slow, they’re not particularly robust, they’re constantly reloading — they’re fragile.

“We want to bring a native-app level of richness in terms of interactivity and responsiveness, and robustness to the mobile Web; we want you to be able to call upon that kind of functionality on the fly without having to download a big native app from one of the app stores to do that. I think that’s one of the fundamental drawbacks of the native app ecosystem.

“We’re kind of trying to forge a third path, where we have our browser, it’s a native browser on iOS, you open it up and you can type in a brand or a publisher and grab just the content that you need from their website; we’ll pull it up and format it into what we call cards, which are standard and very fast — they’re built on native code, and they give you this access without all of the performance penalties of a Web browser. We’re working to create an index of countless cards both on our servers and also trying to work with publishers and merchants and brands out there to ‘cardify’ their content so that there’s a rich Internet of cards to call upon. That’s the big vision of what we’re trying to do.”

Advice for designer-founders

More and more, we’re seeing designers start their own companies. Vinh talked about the mix of skills needed for any designer-founder to have a shot at success:

“It’s more likely that a designer will start a company today than at any time before. I think that’s really, really wonderful because it signals that design is more necessary than ever, and if you have strong design skills, you have a better chance of making a successful business now than you did in the past 10 or 20 years. I think the call for designers to become founders, on the whole, is a good thing, but I think designers really have to understand what it means to become a founder and to take on the challenge of building a company, not just building a product or just designing a product. I think that’s a really important distinction that can be hard for a lot of designers to traverse. Understanding all of the implications of being responsible for a company, not just being responsible for a design, really understanding that making sure that company survives from day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month is a whole different challenge. Design can be a big part of that and can really help it, but it’s not always the complete solution. I think that’s important for designers, especially young designers, to understand as the drumbeat of designers becoming founders gets louder every year.”

You can listen to the entire interview on the SoundCloud player above or on our SoundCloud stream.

This interview is part of our ongoing investigations into Experience Design and Business and Experience Design and the Internet of Things.

Cropped image on article and category pages by Ted Eytan on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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