Daniel Burka on Beautiful-Necessary-Useful Design

Daniel Burka

In this interview we ask Daniel Burka, lead designer at digg.com, the following questions:

  1. What is the design process at digg?
  2. Are you influenced by graphic design or interaction design?
  3. What are five quick wins to overhaul your user interface?
  4. And more …

Editor’s Note: Daniel is teaching “Design Secrets of digg.com’s User Interface” at his 1-day workshop.

How did you get involved with the web?

I luckily stumbled into web design when I was in high school in the late 1990s. A few friends and I were messing about with HTML and early versions of Photoshop, then discovered we could make decent money during the summer holiday doing web projects sponsored by the Canadian government.

We built several sites for museums and learned a lot about developing user interfaces and dynamically generated websites. We segued those experiences into forming a company called silverorange in 1999 where we honed our skills doing a variety of client work from e-commerce sites to enterprise level CMS development to intranets.

How did your project with Mozilla come about?

This is really a classic open-source story. Steven Garrity, silverorange’s creative director, wrote an open letter to Mozilla critiquing the branding of their browser (called Firebird at the time) and offering suggestions.

In true open-source fashion, a guy from Mozilla emailed Steven and suggested that he volunteer and get involved in making a solution. Out of that exchange, the Mozilla Visual Identity Team was formed, including Steven, Jon Hicks, and several others including myself. We worked together to build the Firefox brand and a consistent brand identity for Mozilla. It’s fairly mind-blowing to see something that we all came up with (and which I drew an initial marker-board sketch for) show up all over the world in so many different ways.

After the success of that project, we were tasked with improving the web experience for Mozilla.org. I took the lead on developing the interface. We basically overhauled the structure and visual appearance of the site and future evolutions of the .org site and later the .com site have extended that work.

What was it like working with Mozilla?

As you can imagine, Mozilla’s a fantastic client. They’re super passionate, smart people who believe in their mission to improve the web.

Mozilla also has an incredibly passionate developer and user base. This was back in 2004 and it was my first high-level experience working on a site where the community claims a lot of ownership. The Mozilla audience was certainly not shy about giving their advice while we were working on the site and it was a trial by fire I wasn’t quite prepared for.

I had poured my heart into redesigning the site and I naively expected a politely positive response. Instead, the community responded with a barrage of criticism and suggestions. Particularly after working on Digg for four years, the response of the Mozilla audience seems obvious, but at the time I didn’t fully appreciate the critique within the criticism. Despite my frayed nerves and bruised ego, we learned a lot from that feedback and launched a site enabled millions of people to come and download the browser we’ve all come to love.

What stage were Silverorange at when you left? How many people worked there?

Silverorange is still doing fantastic work. Five of the founding partners remain and I’m inactive partner, so it’s a durable company. There are currently thirteen people plus me as part of the company.

What was the attraction to working for Digg? Was it a hard decision to leave Silver Orange?

My work on Digg began as a contract project at silverorange, so the transition from silverorange to Digg was fairly gradual. I remember talking to Kevin at the outset of the project and it was some guy we didn’t know with a little bit of money and really interesting idea. We agreed to do something like one week of work to see how it went.

That went well, so we started working on Digg for one week per month, which became two weeks per month, which became a full-time gig and I moved down to San Francisco to work on it. After seven years at silverorange, it was a welcome opportunity to transition my focus to something somewhat different while keeping my connections and friendships at silverorange.

What is the design process at Digg?

Ideas come from all over the company, but Kevin Rose does primarily drive the focus of product development at Digg. Generally we bounce an idea around with a small group of people, whiteboard it, make visual comps, then sketch it out in markup.

We really use a wide range of prototyping methods. When we get to serious prototyping, we ideally have a small mixed-group together to scope and build any new feature or an iteration on an existing product. Also, each person in our small team of designers is a generalist, so we can all be involved in developing sketches, visuals, or code.

Are you more influenced by graphic design or interaction design?

I’ve really got a foot in both worlds. I’m primarily concerned with interaction design, but I’m also heavily interested in graphic design. Joshua Porter posted a fantastic quote from the furniture-making Shakers that echoes my design philosophy: “Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”

What’s your main goal when creating user interfaces?

My main goal is to develop an interface that’s a joy to use. That means that it’s intuitive, fast, accessible, attractive, and often fun is a factor as well.

What are five quick wins to overhaul your interface?

Oh wow, that’s a loaded question. I don’t want to arbitrarily come up with five, so here are four off the top of my head.

  1. Listen to your users
  2. Ask people about your interface
  3. Watch people interacting with your site. You’ll learn a ton.
  4. Remove half of what you currently have – subtraction is iteration too. Instant improvement.

Editor’s Note: Daniel is teaching “Design Secrets of digg.com’s User Interface” at his 1-day workshop.

[Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/thomashawk]

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Comments

0 comments on “Daniel Burka on Beautiful-Necessary-Useful Design

  1. Daniel knows his stuff. He’s always emphasized learning from your audience and he couldn’t be more right. The community will tell you what they want, you just have to listen.

  2. Daniel knows his stuff. He’s always emphasized learning from your audience and he couldn’t be more right. The community will tell you what they want, you just have to listen.

  3. As always it’s interesting to reading a interview, specially if it’s with someone who got a insight in a popular site like Digg. Thumbs up.

  4. As always it’s interesting to reading a interview, specially if it’s with someone who got a insight in a popular site like Digg. Thumbs up.

  5. Awesome post. I’d love to see a series that interviewed trend setting/advanced site’s and their UI/UX guys giving advice. That’d be rad.

  6. Awesome post. I’d love to see a series that interviewed trend setting/advanced site’s and their UI/UX guys giving advice. That’d be rad.