Tim Parsey , senior vice- president and head of user experience design at Yahoo! Inc., is a veteran in the world of design. In his past assignments, Parsey designed Hot Wheels and Barbie brands at Mattel Inc., the world’s biggest toymaker, and Motorola phones. He also ran Apple Inc.’s design studio in the early 1990s. At Yahoo, Parsey is attempting to create unique user experiences and trying to ensure that designers play a part in shaping the future of the California-based Internet firm. “I would like to see the shift to a much bigger mobile presence and an experience that goes beyond devices become realities,” Parsey said in an interview. Edited excerpts:
What’s changed from the time you joined Yahoo!?
I joined Yahoo a few CEOs ago, or about 18 months ago. Design had been sort of pushing into the service mode within the organization with people saying ‘tell them what to do’. It’s a journey about how do you get out of that (trap), and that’s what I specialize in, and that’s what we have been doing.
On a design level, it’s really been about understanding talent around the world including India; understand how that talent can complement each other. I see some incredible skills here in India and it’s been about managing these skills that you may not find in other locations. It’s been about developing a higher level of process, vision, strategy and ultimately bringing together what we call design language. How do you express the brand through design, what is the language you use and at a crude level, it’s about asking what colour should we have for the header. At a more nuance level it’s about how do you bring a dynamic change and expressing value of the brand.
I would say we have done pretty well in terms of creating an infrastructure for higher level of design with the talent calibrated in line according to the vision and strategy. At Yahoo, it really is about coming together as a design community. There is an increased effort to push innovation and a lot of that is already happening, you may not see them in the market yet.
I am not allowed to tell you the ship dates or any other specific details. Yahoo is an amazing opportunity for the design leaders in terms of serving over 700 million users that the platform offers but there’s an opportunity to modernize different elements and make it (design) fluid across all devices, there is an opportunity to introduce newer paradigms in Internet design. It’s increasingly getting to be about how you enable that emotional design. For instance, emotional design for Yahoo Finance should be about trust, credibility and reliability. And if you go to an entertainment section, it becomes more about that ‘wow, look how cool’ expression.
What’s it like designing on the Internet?
On the Internet, design is becoming even more critical. There are different attributes reflecting different value positioning for each of the players. There’s positioning on creativity, sense of belonging, trust and transparency—they are all values that you may hold for your best friends, for instance.
You look at the big players. For Facebook, it’s sense of belonging, it’s the meaningful value for them. You think of the early nineties when a sense of loneliness was at its peak—I don’t hear that anymore. You look at Google that stands for democratization of information; you can have the same information that a rich guy with fancy car has down the street.
I think Apple is the perfect example of an emotional and rational values driven design company. There is no better example in the world. You need both (rational and emotional design experiences). You cannot have an emotional experience until your rational experience is world class. In other words, you have to have ease of use, intuitiveness, one plug instead of seven, etc.
How do you balance hundreds of features and utilities with aesthetic design?
I love the way you use the word balance because that’s the way it should be. If you have like a thousand features, there’s got to be a core functionality, a core need you are trying to solve. And that core need has to be the one that is the epicentre of feeling really, really beautiful, intuitive. There is kind of a mastery associated with how you choose to focus, prioritize what the experience is going to be about for a user, and Apple is really good at that. They will not compromise on the core experience even if something leaves the door.
Then there is another theme at play that goes by ‘less is more’ and keeps striving for even less chasing better performance. But that world is changing with more capable devices and better bandwidth. There is an opportunity to create rich experiences on the Internet.
The job in design is to help people navigate through complexity in a simple way. There are times when it’s all about respecting industry standards and there are times when it’s worth provoking and leading a new wave, which is also a part of the mastery of the game.
What design lessons does Apple offer for Internet firms?
There are two big things about Apple, both corny, but real. One of them is the user focus. That’s profoundly easy to say and profoundly difficult to execute in any company. The value system of decision making is user focused. There’s always this temptation to say hey, we could create that product, expand a market and make a few extra million bucks. But then they ask this question—is that what the user really wants? Their very strict discipline of being user focused is unique. If you get that right and world class, everything else falls in line including money and engagement with communities.
The second thing about them is the focus on core experience. In any new Apple product when you get to peripheral experiences, there are some little shabby stuff here and there, but the core experience is always perfect. It does not leave the door until that core experience is perfect. It’s like a quality control thing but it’s also about getting perfection in that core experience that their products offer. It’s exact opposite of the PC-Windows mindset that was more about ‘ship it and we will fix it’.
But this does not mean everybody should emulate Apple.
Designers face more business and boardroom pressures today than before…
But look how exciting it has become for designers. When we did the Razr phone at Motorola, we had to make a collective gamble that what we had was perfect and it was going to change the world. There was no way you could change the shape or anything else once it was launched. It was quite a rigid gamble. Today, you have a wildly rich, informative context in which to create—you try this and it will change something by 2.58%, that kind of precision. That’s why these are exciting times to perfect because you are not gambling like before.
It’s tougher in the sense that you are dealing with more complex variables and information fields but it’s much more exotic in the sense that you can get much closer to perfection. The pressure is there, and you better get it, or get the hell out. But designers live in this insane, naïve optimism thinking they will change the world no matter where and which company they are sitting in. In that sense it’s less scary and more a journey.
Today brands are built inside out; no longer can you apply a brand, create one and force it. You can’t hide anymore. The board room yearning for that value proposition is truly resonant about the user. There is more design sensitivity at the board level than before. It’s become a competitively critical aspect.
What would you like to see in few years at Yahoo?
I would like to see the shift to a much bigger mobile presence and an experience that goes beyond devices become realities. It’s almost like getting the chunkiness out of the industry. Pioneering a new level of delightfulness that has not been created yet is also desirable. Things like fluidity, naturalness are important in the Internet design and we will do more on that.
Anything you could share on the new Yahoo design…
Why would I be there if we were not working on something? We are aggressively adding value to the design to help Yahoo find its future.
Software product entrepreneurs in India struggle with design and user interfaces, what can they do differently?
You need to get designers early at the senior leadership level. If you try and do that later with low-level design—it will be a really tough cultural change to pull off. Put designers at right level and learn design thinking from the very beginning.