Interview with pioneering designer and technologist John Maeda [video]

8 min read
Oliver Lindberg

John Maeda, one of the smartest people in design, famous for his Design in Tech reports, joined Automattic, the company behind WordPress, as head of computational design and inclusion a couple of years ago. At WordCamp Europe, he gave a talk about inclusive design in the tech industry.

John pointed out that he considered it an amazing experience when different kinds of people come together, and the larger and more diverse the community, the stronger and more interesting it is. “Design tries to push the envelope of what’s acceptable,” he said. “Without stretching there’s no change, but when things change, you have life.”

By way of an example, John explained that the iPhone X defines design at the high end, and it changes everything, because other companies copy what’s good design. He then argued that the tech industry had an accident in the 70s and shut out non-male people, but that inclusive design is very powerful. He reminded the audience that 95 percent of the world don’t understand the things we take for granted as designers and developers and to think of them more when we design experiences.

John also announced he was launching the Automattic Design Awards, a celebration of great user experience in the WordPress ecosystem.

We sat down with John to find out more about his work to advance thinking around design and inclusion in the tech industry.

WordPress powers 30% of the web, yet you say that WordPress has fallen behind. What do you mean?

JM: The whole user experience standards have changed, and design plays a big role in that. But WordPress has been largely technology-led, and because of that the experience has fallen behind. So when Matt [Mullenweg] invited me to come in, he asked how we could improve the experience across the WordPress ecosystem. I realise it’s hard, and I like hard problems.

To what degree are algorithms and data sets to blame for the lack of inclusion in tech?

JM: All the research shows now that machine intelligence, which requires large data sets to power neural networks, is flawed because all of our data is biased. For example, in the United States there’s a company that sells pre-crime software that predicts where crime is going to be, but crime is predicted to happen in neighbourhoods that are poor. You never predict crime to happen in a rich neighbourhood! So there are biases in that data.

What are the benefits of inclusive design for businesses?

JM: I believe it makes them more profitable. Today a WordPress plugin author asked me how inclusive design can improve his business, and I told him that one of the largest growing sectors of customers is older people because of the boomer generation post World War II. So if you design your plugins, so that the type size is larger, it’s better for older people. And so you can increase your market base. It’s simple things like that.

What can designers – and design leaders – do to help make products more inclusive?

JM: That’s why I’ve been recruiting a lot of people from around the world to participate in the broadening of the WordPress world. One is Ashleigh Axios, who worked for Barack Obama when he was president. I’ve also just announced that we’re hiring Alexis Lloyd, who led the New York Times R&D division, as head of design innovation. They are all people who bring in new kinds of thinking, and I believe over time, we’ll see an impact on the software.

What kinds of skills does a web designer need in the future, and how can they prepare for it?

JM: I used to read about CSS and every possible standard. I think the problem right now is we always look for a technical solution to what is a human problem. The trick for designers today is to be with people who are not like themselves, people who don’t work remotely, people who don’t have a mobile. And by working with them, we can make products for a broader group of people.

What is deep design?

JM: I’ve been looking for a term to describe a problem. We’re living in a world of shallow design: we finish the technology and we spray on the design (colour, type, smell). And this kind of design is only useful if the technology is unique. Then people are buying the technology, not how it feels. It used to be ok, but because all the technology is the same across the board, how it feels matters much more. So deep design involves understanding a problem, and also how it’s solving the problem, whereas most designers focus on making. People love making, whether they’re in design or development.

A lot of designers also like shipping. Do we put too much effort into this stage?

JM: Look at how we went from Waterfall to Agile. Agile is about these fast cycles, and it’s iterative, and so you’re always shipping. But you know how mathematics work with a local maximum and a global maximum? If you start in a local area, you’ll never go to the global. And right now, when we stay on the shipping planet, we focus on one maximum and never go to the global maximum. In order to go there, we need to understand people’s problems. But we quickly stop working on people’s problems, we work on the shipping problem only.

What made you focus on inclusion?

JM: I came to the realisation that the software industry was making solutions that are for technically minded people who tended to be gender men. Let me give you an example. The modern commenting systems have your face and your name, and it’s assumed that that’s a good idea. If you tend to be a man, and you comment on things, it’s great, but it turns out that all the data shows that if you’re a woman, with a woman's face and a woman's name, and you comment, the way you’re reacted to is different to the same with men. It says that intrinsically the systems are designed to be better for men than for women. It’s a flaw, and we can only change it if everyone who participates thinks about the software and how it’s designed.

What does your role at Automattic look like in practice?

JM: Most of my day is talking to people. People who maybe haven’t discovered technology yet, and to understand what they need. They often don’t need a website, they often don’t need a domain. They have a problem. And the problem, part of it may include some kind of web service, some kind of technology service, and so by creating a narrative of the whole person and sharing that inside the company, you’ll change the emphasis to the customer. And my intent is to open source this for the whole WordPress ecosystem because it’s having the same problem. The customers are changing. They’re not the same customers they were five years ago for a website. They need something else.

How does being distributed make a company more inclusive?

JM: First of all it makes it much more geographically inclusive. A normal technology company, at least based in the United States originally, would have to be in Silicon Valley, and maybe New York but mainly Silicon Valley. But the neat thing about Automattic is we’re spread across 60 countries, so we’re inclusive globally. We’re going to recruit anyone from anywhere around the world. Recently, I’ve just recruited a designer from Tokyo, because they’re one of the top designers in Tokyo. If my company was in one place, I could never have done that. I could never have hired her.

Were there any findings in the latest Design in Tech report that surprised you?

JM: I think the biggest finding I was surprised about is how far artificial intelligence has come. Because in the 80s when I was an undergraduate at MIT I used to work in the artificial intelligence lab and I remember no one thought it could do what it does today.

What excites you most about the future of WordPress?

JM: I’m excited about the community. I’ve heard that over time it’s gotten much more diverse. There are more women in the WordPress community. It’s inherently internationally diverse, and I believe that as a community gets more diverse, more designers come in. Many designers cannot code and looking for a way to learn how to code. As more designers come in and more kinds of people come in, WordPress will improve radically because it has a different kind of DNA.