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Design at Medium

Tackling meaningful online discourse

When thinking about Medium there is a certain mysteriousness about it. At first glance you might call it another blogging platform, but that feels like an oversimplification. Some might refer to it as an online publication where everyone is a contributor, but that doesn’t seem right either. However you decide to describe what Medium is, it will most likely fall a little short of the truth. The topic has been under great debate over the past few years and googling ‘What is Medium?’ illustrates this quite clearly. All the mystery and labels aside, the platform is doing something unique with how we communicate online. Amandah and I had the pleasure of visiting the Medium headquarters to get an inside look at what the team is trying to create. We met up with the design team to chat about how they work and discuss the challenges of creating something new and evolving it to match their envisioned future.

We made our way to the flatiron building located at the intersection of Market and Ellis St. in downtown San Francisco. We entered into the lobby of Medium's office–which took up an entire floor of the building–and waited for Brad Simpson, one of design team members we’d be shadowing that morning. Brad greeted us and gave us quick tour of the office. As we walked, we got a glimpse of the company culture and staff that made it all happen. The south side of the office space was relatively empty and earmarked for growth while the north side was a flurry of activity. Brad showed us through the various nooks and crannies in the office, each one with its own character. The first impression of the office space was one of beautiful utility. Every space had a purpose and seemed well-designed with that intention in mind.

As we walked, Brad introduced us to Tyler Howarth, another member of the product design team. The four of us continued through the space and stopped to look at a wall covered in printouts with various typefaces on them. Brad explained that as part of their recent rebranding, the team went through a fairly rigorous typeface feedback process. Anyone at the office could highlight things about the font they liked and things they didn’t like. This attention to detail to the user experience and product design was a clear indicator that the team thought very deeply about all aspects of what they were doing, right down the descenders, bowls, ligatures and whatever else any hardcore typeface junkie would be concerned with. I couldn’t help whispering “that’s awesome” as an armchair typeface enthusiast myself.

“Nuances like making smart quotes go the right way, and drop caps and all these like tiny, tiny things that kind of pay off over time. They can seem tedious in the short term but people start to notice those details and those subtle moments of lack of friction where it does exactly what you want it to do. ” —Brad

Brad had to jump into a meeting so Tyler carried on the tour in his place. We ended up in the staff kitchen–which felt more like a cafe–to have some coffee and talk about their team structure. We were discussing processes and Tyler mentioned that they had an internal version of Medium called “Hatch” that was used in a couple of different ways. Practically it was used as a company wiki that housed guides, onboarding tips, and operational things. More interestingly though, Hatch was where ideas were shared and discussed around the product and its evolution. It was a place for employee reflection and to write commentary about what they learned from experiences they had with the product. Others in the company would read, comment and formulate their own thoughts on the topics posted. Hatch was a central hub to collect company ideas in written form so they can be argued, debated, refined and distilled into their essential parts. From those essential parts the team would build the product upward and outward. Zooming out a little from Hatch, this processing of ideas into its most valuable parts appeared to be what Medium itself is enabling for others, except with a much broader scope.

From the conversation about Hatch we started to discuss some of the nuances of how the team evolved the product and how new features came to life. Tyler mentioned an interesting element to their stand up meeting. Beyond the typical, "this is what I’ve done, this is what I’m doing, this is where I’m blocked", they had an additional step called ‘1 thing about anything.’ It allows the team member to express 1 thing that really bugs them about the product at the current moment. Tyler added that those ‘1-things’ will usually steep in the product manager’s head and then will be batted around in Hatch to see if its worthy of pursuing further. Beyond those, Ev Williams–Medium’s CEO–and other product team members will bring in longer term functionality requests that will shape the core product in bigger ways. Those bigger ideas would then be broken down into smaller parts and implemented slowly over time. Tyler explained that they don’t get too bogged down in process, and some features are simply taken from conversations and implemented while others go through some planning in Hatch and are then implemented. Overall product features are coming from all aspects of the company and the process for distilling it all happens via in person conversation and through posts in Hatch. In a given day the product will generally see numerous updates and fixes pushed live to its audience.

“The other week I wrote a 100-word Hatch post where I explained why I felt we should be able to copy and paste images into the editor and why that seemed broken. Then the next day I worked with an engineer on it and we built it and it was live.” —Tyler

After finishing our coffee Tyler, Amandah and I headed over to the design team’s work area and met a few of the other team members. We then headed into the team’s daily DCT which had various meanings based on the day of the week. Sometimes it was design critique time and sometimes it was design chill time or design collaboration time. The day we visited it was design critique time and the team was going to discuss product features that they were working on and get feedback from the rest of the team. After speaking with Tyler about Hatch, it was interesting to see the next layer in the process. Now that ideas were vetted and selected for development, the team brought the ideas to life through mockups and prototypes. Each designer would present their ideas and explain their thought process on the decisions they had made. Input requests from other team members were pointed instead of being of the general “so what do you think?” type. It seemed that once ideas had made it through the ‘Hatching’ process, the individual designers had a sense of autonomy to bring it to life. They were allowed to use their intuition and design sensibilities to add their own touch to the product. Of course, it always had to go through an approval process, but from where we sat there appeared to be a lot of trust in the design team to individually make the right calls.

Throughout the DCT we got to witness more of the same attention to detail in all aspects of the final product. We heard Tyler discuss slight adjustments to the navigation and talk about other details like drop shadows. When it was Marcin Wichary’s turn to speak he went into his thinking process about how to visually round follower counts to make it more interesting to the user. He talked about when to round the number and when to break it out into more detail. For example, instead of the user seeing simply 10K followers, when the tally got close to a big milestone they would change the way it was visually represented to give a little more weight to the occasion. Instead they would show 9.95k instead of showing 9.9k just to give the user a little more excitement about reaching the milestone. While a feature like that might go unnoticed, when you think this way about all aspects of the product, those little pieces start to add up and make an impact on the overall experience.

“DCT stands for Design Critique Time, or Design Chill Time. Tuesdays and Thursdays is Design Collaboration Time, Mondays and Wednesdays it's Design Chill Time which means we all get in the same room and we design together, sometimes listen to some Drake - Drake Chill Time.” —Brad

After the DCT wrapped up it was time for lunch. Everyday there was a catered lunch for the entire company. It’s one of the company perks that’s become common in the San Francisco area and beyond. Throughout the day we hadn't got a sense of how many people were in the office, but over lunch it became quite obvious just how many people were there. As the staff poured into the lunch area, everyone filled their plates and chatted away. The lunch room sounded more like a busy restaurant with the volume rising as people spoke louder so they could be heard over the crowd. Amandah and I filled our plates and sat down with the design team.

The conversation turned towards the recent massive rebrand the company went through and what it meant on the whole. The team referred to the shift as ‘Medium 2.0’ and with that change was a whole new sense of the direction of the company. They mentioned that through all the learning they’d gone through in Medium 1.0 that they felt that the transition represented a better version of themselves and a clearer path to what they wanted to achieve. In a way, the change was a shedding of the old aspects that didn’t work and from that change came a whole new envisioning of the company’s identity, both literally and philosophically.

We then turned the conversation over to story responses and how that component of the product was a huge move forward in Medium 2.0. Tyler explained that what they are trying to do is create a platform on the Internet that is a positive, safe place to visit to hash through ideas without the noise of spam accounts, troll commenters and other disruptive things like that. Tyler added that they are very intentional about having people's personal profile and social graph attached to the words as a way to keep people honest in addition to using it to shape how content is displayed. Marcin agreed that they want it to be honest, positive, and safe but added they don’t want it to become an echo chamber. It meant that they wanted Medium to be a place for potentially intense discussions and inevitably disagreements but with the tenets of positivity and safety firmly in place. Curating the conversation and keeping it all civil is, no doubt, a big challenge but the team doesn’t shy away from it. Sasha Lubomirsky, the design lead, says “it’s crazy, but that’s what makes it exciting.”

“There are a few things in the design already that try to account for more generic responses or troll comments. You don't see every response in a post. You only see the people you follow or what the author recommended.” —Brad

The lunchroom started to quiet down as the staff headed back to their workstations. Amandah and I were still deep in conversation with the design team about the challenges the team faced on a regular basis. Marcin explained that having a team of 5 can definitely be limiting as there is so much that needs to be thought through and created on any given day. He added that it can be a challenge to focus. Adding new members to the design team also presents challenges as the types of people they look for are hard to find. Brad described the design team as a very diverse group with different visions and varying opinions. Marcin and Brad explained that only through the combination and balance of all the different personalities and priorities does the true value come out.

The conversation turned back towards the vision of the company and what it’s purpose was on the whole. Brad brought up the conversation that happened between Amazon and New York Times and reflected on the reason why those writers chose to discuss the articles on Medium instead of their respective platforms. Brad asked “why Medium?” and the reason he proposed was that Medium was this neutral ground–or digital commons–where each party could discuss things openly and publicly without the bias or politics of their employers. Additionally, the community of readers were free to add their own perspectives and point of view on what was said. There hasn’t been a place to have a conversation like this in a neutral space that enables the conversation to unfold to a natural conclusion that's not burdened with bias, trolls and spammers. Beyond this occurrence, Brad explains that “people write on Medium now and shit happens in the world. That to me is the power I see. That to me is next level.” At first glance this digital commons sounds not all that new or different, but what Tyler, Marcin and Sasha mentioned earlier in the conversation regarding the elements of non-anonymity via your social graph, positivity and safety while at the same time encouraging different points of view really is unique and ambitious. Instead of avoiding the comments, like a lot of people recommend, Medium wants you to read the comments and get involved in the conversation with the goal of coming to a rational and progressive close.

Marcin added that everything they do within the company tries to enable mindfulness: mindful reading, mindful writing and mindful conversation. Being mindful means Medium enables readers and writers to focus on the present moment and consciously pay attention the details of that moment. Marcin cited a couple smaller features their thinking about to help enable mindful writing. He added, much like the visual design details, the mindful product features will add up to a whole that enables mindfulness in a very clear way. From an outside perspective, a clear example of this is Medium’s writing tool. When you open it there is nothing else on the screen but a blank canvas, a flashing I-beam and a ‘Tell your story’ prompt. As a writer you’re encouraged to be in the moment, free from distraction, and write what you’re thinking down. Hearing how intentional everything in the product is, and how all of these small details coalesce to make a greater whole really puts into perspective the idea of ‘mindful design’ and what it means when building a product.

“I've always liked this idea of if you don't understand the word when you're reading something, you should look it up. That's a super awesome principle because you're going to learn. You're going to be better next time you read something.” —Marcin

As we wrapped up our time at the Medium HQ that morning, we gathered our things and said goodbye to the team. When I first arrived that morning I didn’t have a clear understanding of what Medium was. However, after spending a few hours discussing the product design and organizational goals, it became clear that Medium is a digital speaker’s corner for sharing written thought and perhaps most importantly it’s a forum for sharing opinions, hypotheses and ideas so they can be tested and peer-reviewed by it’s community. Much like how Hatch is used to distill product ideas into their essential parts, Medium aims to enable this constructive process for everyone. Currently digital forums and comment threads have been left uncontrolled and conversations are allowed to unfold without guides. What we’ve become accustom to are conversations devolving into chaos lead by troll commenters with no real insight gained. It appears Medium is trying to fix this by enabling a controlled but mindful conversation of free thought that leads to a progressive and useful outcome. With these goals, it’s not hard to imagine a future where a coalescence of these positive conversations leads to the discovery of some greater truths that have an impact us all.

Definition of a forum: “a place, meeting, or medium where ideas and views on a particular issue can be exchanged.”