Daniel Burka

Daniel Burka is a San Francisco-based designer who is currently a design partner at Google Ventures. He works with Google Ventures' many portfolio companies to solve their design challenges.

Previous to Google, Daniel co-founded silverorange a Canadian web agency where he got to work with Mozilla (where he helped draw the Firefox logo), Ning, Sloan, and did lots of e-commerce and government work to boot. One day Kevin Rose called up silverorange and had Daniel and his team design the early stage designs of Digg Soon after Daniel moved to San Francisco to become Digg's creative director as the site grew from a niche technology news sites to a leading news entity. Five years later, Daniel left to join a gaming startup called Tiny Speck. Then, with Kevin Rose free to pursue new ventures, he and Daniel teamed up again to form a mobile labs company Milk… which got caught in the vortex of Google a year later.

When he's not obsessing about interfaces and the conundrums of mobile design, Daniel tweets as @dburka and speaks at conferences around the world.

Published Thoughts

In design, words matter. “Copy is interface” is more true today than ever.

Most designers consciously know writing is important, but too often we only pay lip service to it. We jam some “lorem ipsum” into mocks, we hand wave about what the title of a screen might say, and we often copy/paste whatever our client sends over. Even Dan Saffer’s otherwise excellent graphical mapping of UX skills sorely underplays the importance of writing – look way down near the bottom of the diagram to find “writing” hiding away. If I drew a designer’s skills map, I’d make writing, editing, and proofing a third of the diagram.

Over the past year, I’ve worked closely with a designer at Google Ventures who loves to write. He loves to edit. And he loves to craft language. Writing is never the last thing he does on a project, it’s frequently the first. The more I’ve observed his meticulous technique, the more I've been impressed. And most importantly, when we run a user study comparing several possible solutions to a problem, more often than not his designs work most effectively because his writing is so clear.

What can you do to design as well as this amazing fellow I work with?

  • Take ownership of your own writing. Don’t throw up your hands when there isn’t anyone to provide you with finished copy.
  • Write before you start “designing.” Words should never be filler.
  • Writing is part of your brand. You wouldn’t settle for a blurry-edged logo, so don’t scrimp on tightening your writing and establishing a clear voice.
  • Micro-copy is just as important as prose. Choose your words carefully.
  • Empathize with your reader. Avoid jargon, be direct, and don’t bury the lede.
  • Edit. Edit some more. Then edit again.
  • Be consistent with your language, consistently.

We all know someone who’ll tell you that “no one reads on the Internet” in a flippant, off-handed kind of way. Don’t believe them! I’ve sat through dozens of user interviews that would wipe that smarty pants’ smirk off their face.

I know I may be preaching to the choir here. But, really, truly, make yourself a New Year’s Resolution for 2014 that you’ll give a little extra love and attention to those lovely words.

I’m in the last few days of a medium-sized project. It’s gone over time by a couple of months. And, even with the extra time, we’re scrambling like mad to get the important parts complete and to make sure the duct tape is going to hold.

I’m juggling a lot of stuff on top of this one project, so I have lots of solid excuses why we’re late. Other concurrent projects fragmented my time and unforeseen, unrelated tasks popped up out of nowhere. On this project, one user study taught us some hard lessons that took time to change. And, we had difficulty with an outside resource that set us back a bit. We’re also our own worst critics, so we tinkered and edited a bit more than was strictly necessary.

This whole experience has rudely reminded me how difficult it is to ship. I remember a conversation from about five years ago with Dave Morin (founder of Path) when he was still at Facebook. Dave and I were talking about what makes a great designer at Facebook and he clearly stated that the truly valuable designers are designers who can ship products.

We had both seen plenty of designers who could brainstorm, sketch seemingly great ideas, and create lovely comps in Photoshop. We had spent time with a heaping of designers who could talk a good game about typography, Swiss grids, and color theory. But a surprising number of those same designers struggled to tie off loose ends and ship products.

In the end (as I am again bearing witness to) it’s really difficult to ship a coherent product. Shipping requires a messy combination of pragmatism, perfectionism, politicking, time management, coordination, and sometimes pure blood, sweat, and tears.

In the end, I can pile up all of the excuses in the world but we’re still finishing a bit late. There continues to be plenty to learn in the art of shipping.

I’m about to write some hippy-dippy shit. As you may have noticed from my previous posts here, I’m more inclined to write about work and less about personal issues. So, I’m going to fucking swear a little bit so I don’t feel so self-conscious.

My wife, Sharon, has recently pushed me to be more wholehearted. Not just wholehearted, but a kind of capital W maybe followed by a mother effin’ trademark Wholehearted™. Ok, enough with the faux tough guy swearing.

I’m often sarcastic about, well, anything. I frequently err on the critical side of critique in my design career. I smugly make comments about other people’s attire when I’m in the safety of my car. Heck, I’ve tweeted plenty and as we all know Twitter is greased with the bile of cynicism. And when I consciously stop and think about it, it’s almost always totally unnecessary.

I guess I get a short sugar rush of superiority by belittling someone else and cynicism masquerades as cleverness. Also, there’s nothing wrong with criticism when you’re critiquing someone’s work, but it’s so easy and encouraging to point out the positives too. More often than not, sarcasm, criticism, cynicism, and snarkiness stem from either knee-jerk habit or come from a truly destructive place that most of us forget is hiding inside us.

So, I’m trying to stop doing it.

As Sharon has encouraged, I’m trying to consciously be more wholehearted. When we’re in the car and I make some brilliant quip about a hipster’s ironic flood pants, she kindly reminds me, “That’s not very wholehearted.” And, as corny as that sounds, it’s totally working. Often, I still form a sarcastic thought in my brain before consciously quashing it, but over time I’ll hopefully nip it in the bud.

A few months ago, I thought this was the cheesiest, most crunchy thing I’d ever heard. But now I’m wholehearted in my support of attempting to live a more wholehearted life. I have a ways to go, but I already feel better for it.

The thesis for Richard Sennet’s book The Craftsman is wonderfully simple: “Making is thinking.” I love this.

I’m constantly meeting people who claim to have the next great idea. You express the idea in a presentation with plenty of charts explaining how the idea will disrupt everything we take for granted. You have irrational confidence in your idea before the making process has even begun. You don’t have an idea — you just have an inkling.

It is in the making that your little, encouraging inkling will mature into an idea. Over the first few months that you’re making, you’ll decide a thousand big and small questions that will fertilize your inkling. You may graft one inkling to another. You may plant a few inklings, grow them for a while, and then choose to focus on one.

And the best part is that it’s easier than ever to fertilize an inkling. Prototyping tools put power into the hands of non-engineers. Coding is easier to pick up than ever before. User testing and analytics are approachable to anyone. And, the cost of all of your tools has been driven way down. Don’t gingerly hold onto your inkling, waiting for funding or for someone else to build it for you. Jump in with both hands, ready to make your inkling into an idea.

What do Doug BowmanJeff VeenMark Trammell, and John Zeratsky all have in common? Well, on the surface they’re all four handsome, talented, well-respected designers. But look deeper into their pasts and you’ll notice that each of them studied Journalism earlier in their careers.

When you get old and crotechety like me, you frequently get asked by younger people what schools or programs you’d suggest. As the careers of Doug, Jeff, Mark, and John attest, you could certainly do worse than J-School (or, as I did, a History degree).

Particularly now that there are numerous programs specifically tailored for digital design, why would I recommend studying Journalism?

Telling stories
As trite and overstated as it sounds, design is all about telling stories. Journalists fundamentally learn not only how to tell a story, but how to identify which stories are worth telling.

Copy is interface
Copywriting is the most underappreciated component of digital design. Every time you stick Lorem Ipsum into a mockup or wait for your official copywriter to provide you with words, you’re cheating a little bit. I would not hire a designer who couldn’t write. Journalists, pretty much by definition, are writers.

Don’t bury the lede
One of the keys to telling a strong story in journalism is to capture your audience’s attention early. Like on the web, readers are fickle and have short attention spans. Great journalists know how to use a great lede to hook their reader early in every piece.

All good journalism is built on rock-solid research. Even journalists who work within a specific subject write a huge volume of work on tight deadlines. They learn how to do research on a subject quickly and thoroughly.

Know your audience
In journalism, as in design, you’re creating for an audience. Knowing your audience’s interests and knowledge level is crucial to being successful.

Manage constraints
Word-counts, timelines, styleguides, budgets, editors, internal politics. Journalists balance all of these constraints to be successful.

Work on a deadline
Journalists are frequently writing under extremely tight time contsraints. Unlike us lucky History students, the kids in J-School rarely had the leisure of producing a term paper over a 3 month period. Executing well under pressure, over and over again, should never be under-estimated.

Design is all about relationships. Unfortunately, many designers don’t fully appreciate this. Some of the best design work I’ve ever done was drinking coffee or beers with engineers, marketing people, and business development hustlers. And I wholeheartedly mean design work.

I often hear designers moan because their incredible design work remains stuck in graphic files, collecting dust. The engineers won’t answer the designer’s emails, the executive team won’t take ten minutes to see their design brilliance, the business people don’t think design is important to the bottom line, the marketing person wants other designs that have ‘pow.’ I should feel so sorry for you, you poor unappreciated designer, but your lamentations touch not my heart.

Dear designer, this is your job. You must work to build trust, engage and involve other people on your team, and most of all you need to listen. Have an engineer explain why some queries are more expensive than others or convince your biz dev person to explain how a deal is closed. Do this consistently and frequently. Over a long period of time. Your effort will pay back in spades months later.

Fail to do this earnestly and you only have yourself to blame when your Photoshop ‘design’ work gets ignored or bastardized. Heck, you might even learn all the important stuff that will inform your product design work in the process.

One of my colleagues on the design staff at Google Ventures recently wrote an article that featured this lovely pullquote: “It’s not uncommon for designers to confuse a beautiful looking product with one that works beautifully.” How true.

I love beautiful things. I have lovely designer furniture in my house, I own more fancy shoes than I’d care to admit, I have a magnificent-looking dog, and… you get the idea. When I’m designing apps, identities, and interfaces I have a predilection to create beautiful looking products.

Particularly since coming to Google a year ago, I’ve been chewing over the place for beauty where it applies to branding. I now work at a ginormous company that is fronted by a sort of shockingly designed logo that’s full of bevels, shadows, oddly shaped characters, and painted with a… uh… curiously chosen palette.

I’ve met many designers both inside and outside Google who would just love to get their hands on that logo and flatten/color/alter/edit/replace it. This would certainly satisfy our egos as designers, but would it actually create a better identity?

The current identity is wonderfully unassuming and truly unique. It certainly doesn’t look like it was created by a marketing team with an army of designers and focus groups. It exudes geekiness. It eschews manipulation. To me it screams: “Google is honestly a bunch of geeks who just want to make awesome software that makes your life better.”

Another example to consider is the Walmart brand. Only a truly brave designer would choose heaps of dull grey, burgundy, and navy for a brand. Let alone facing about 8500 gigantic stores in asphalt shingles and cinder blocks. Every designer I’m familiar with would have come up with something more akin to Target’s hip(per) look. Yet, when you’re speeding down an eight lane freeway, there’s no doubt whatsoever that the “ugly” Walmart store that sits miles away on the horizon contains the cheapest frozen chicken you’ll find anywhere in your region.

Wonderfully designed > beautifully designed. Any day.

PS: It feels like this article is just the tip of an iceberg. The real meat here is the “why?”. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to percolate on it, ideally with your input, and explore this further in the future. Please do tweet to @dburka with your own thoughts.

Three pieces of advice that have stuck with me for many years.

“Do good work and everything else will follow.”
Tom Hughes c. 2001

When I was barely out of my teens, I luckily got to know Tom. He’s someone who has done everything... co-founded Idealab, ex-Apple, ex-Lotus, ex-Polaroid etc. etc. He can talk about doing projects with Andy Warhol! The advice he gave us that stuck was that doing good work was the spine on which everything else could be built. A little trite-sounding maybe, but it’s worked out ok so far.

“Politely decline once, then take an offered gift.”
Raymond Burka c. 1997

My grandfather (who we called Opa) was kind and generous. Once, during a visit in my high school years, he offered ten dollars each to my brother and I as we headed out the door to the movie theater.

Opa: “Here boys, let me pay for the movie.”

My brother: “No, no, we don’t need it, thank-you so much.”

Opa: “No, really, let me pay for the movie.”

My brother: “It’s ok Opa, we really don’t need it.”

Opa: “Politely decline once, then take an offered gift.”

“Design something like you mean it.” [heavily paraphrased]
David Carson at FITC conference Toronto in 2005.

I’ve been to a zillion conference presentations over the past eight years and twenty seconds of David’s talk has still stuck with me. He showed a photograph of two garage doors in an alley. One had a professionally designed No Parking sign bolted to it — big P in a circle with a slash through it and a perfectly typeset warning that ‘violators will be prosecuted.’ The neighboring garage had NO PARKING hastily scrawled across it in blood-colored spray paint. In a pinch, I’d definitely avoid the axe-murdering psycho door.

Nine years ago, I sent a tentatively worded email to Doug Bowman asking if he’d meet up for a coffee when I visited San Francisco for work. At the time, Doug had just launched the new Hotwired site, which was the most incredible, amazing, mind-blowing achievement in web standards at the time. No way did I think that Doug would agree to get coffee with a handful of nobodies from Eastern Canada.

And then he responded. And said yes! And even knew some of the work we’d done (or was generous enough to look us up on the way to the café). And he didn’t talk down to us. And he treated us like COLLEAGUES, not like disciples. And he was just a human.

I’m not exaggerating when I describe this as a seminal moment in my design career. The fact that Doug Bowman treated me like I belonged in the same league allowed me to believe that maybe I really did play in the same league. What a wonderful boost of confidence!

I learned two things that day:

  1. Go out of your way to make time for people and treat them as your peers – it can make a huge difference.
  2. Doug Bowman is a thoughtful, kind person. Thanks again Doug.

Recently, I was working on a project with the wonderful team at Blue Bottle Coffee. One member of their crew was talking about their (notably wonderful) in-café experience and likened it to a swimming swan: a swan presents a self-controlled elegant appearance above the surface even as her flippers are paddling like mad underwater propelling her forward.

I love how directly applicable the swan metaphor is to product development. Great product designers and engineers go to great lengths to make their products appear effortless. It’s truly incredible that my wife is nonplussed that a Google search with only the four letters “ZAZI” will give her directions, opening times, and a reliable rating of a restaurant a mile away… even though she mistyped its name… in 300ms… across the entire corpus of the internet! No big deal. It just took hundreds (thousands?) of engineers a decade to make this miraculous achievement possible. This is the quintessential swan. All of that effort underwater to make something appear eminently easy.

Look for ways in your own products to do the extra legwork on the design and engineering front to give people that effortless experience.

* Note that this swan metaphor isn’t a new concept. In fact, I feel like I might be the last person on earth to hear it, especially since it seems so obvious after little explanation. For instance, Danny Meyer, a well-known New York restaurateur behind Shake Shack, invokes it in his book Setting the Table.
** The swan metaphor has also been used to describe the negative behavior of masking one’s panic—see the Stanford Duck Syndrome. This is also very useful in the designer’s workplace, but probably another topic entirely.

A product designer looks at a reasonably complex problem. A family living in San Francisco wants to visit their grandmother in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is about 400 miles away, there are some high hills along the route, and traffic is quite unpredictable at several choke points.

The product designer anticipates all of the variables, maps them out, and comes up with the ideal solution. I know! We’ll build an F35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The F35 is the most technologically advanced aircraft to date. It can take off from the family’s driveway using vertical thrust and land just outside grandma’s in LA on a short stretch of road. It can traverse the distance in twenty-five minutes with the afterburners on full. It has the most advanced navigational system, so the family can’t get lost en route. And, I know it’s a little harder to fly, but we’ll put extra fuel tanks under the wings — if the mom changes her mind and chooses to go to Ecuador, the family could do that too.

Even if the product designer is able to get a great F35 built on time and on schedule, unfortunately it’s going to take two years to teach mom and dad to get the plane to Los Angeles in twenty-five minutes. No matter how hard the interface designer designs or a user researcher researches, the inherent complexity can only be relatively reduced.

The obvious alternative is to build a station wagon. It’s a reliable, tried-and-true vehicle. Many station wagons have traversed from SF to LA quite successfully. Plus, there’s certainly room to improve upon the station wagon and build a wonderful variation. A few years ago Lamborghini even manufactured a station wagon with an impressive V12 engine that could cut an hour off the commute (provided the family could afford the speeding tickets). It would be a great accomplishment to build the world's best station wagon.

But! A truly inspired product designer will make a teleporter. With no training whatsoever, the family steps through a portal and appears on grandma’s stoop moments later.

No one is all that bright when it comes to product design.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with a lot of smart people at small startups — a bevy of PhDs, a horde of successful entrepreneurs, a gaggle of elite designers. Together, we spent many hours debating how users would react to new ideas, product improvements, and design changes. As often as not, we were pretty far off-base.

At one startup in particular, we spent an inordinate amount of time discussing which of several paths was the ideal one to pursue. We whiteboarded, we whittled down feature sets, we discussed potential pitfalls, and we endlessly, passionately argued over possible outcomes. After two or three weeks of this mind-numbing debate, we finally tried one of the ideas and invested a few weeks engineering and fine tuning. Then, a month after we conceived the idea, we’d run a user study, multivariate test, or just go for it and release the idea into the wild. Sometimes things worked out great and sometimes we fell on our faces.

It eventually became clear that none of the preamble had much impact on whether our release was successful. When we were coming up with ideas, we generally knew that among three options ‘A’ was likely a terrible idea, ‘B’ was pretty good, and ‘C’ was decent too. Instead of rat-holing on which of ‘B’ or ‘C’ was superior we should have just picked ‘B’ by default, prototyped it, and validated it. If ‘B’ failed, fine, move onto ‘C.’ We could have easily built and tested two options in the time we took just to choose a direction.

This advice might sound trite and ‘fail fast’ is starting to become doctrine among product designers. But, remain vigilent. At times we all sucumb to feeling very clever sitting around with our peers pondering optimal outcomes. The next time you’re caught in a room full of smart people doing something dumb (like trying to anticipate what your users will do), tune them out, flip open your laptop, and start prototyping.