Tag Archives: design

Lawnmower Man

Lawnmower Man is a low-budget (5M) independent film released in 1992. It was the top-grossing independent film that year, and the the first film that I know of to use full-frame 3D animation for key plot scenes.

It’s also the one motion picture I’ve worked on.

For Lawnmower Man, I managed a small team that designed and animated simulated (i.e. fake) user interface for the characters to interact with. This was a side project when I was still working at Apple, conducted in the evening and during strategically chosen vacation days.

My work got an unusual amount of “screen time” for a first effort, and the director shook his head as he told me what other directors were stuck with for their screen graphics. The Northern California interactive media boom had made a lot of new stuff possible: interactive 3D, 32-bit graphics, transparency, animation and compositing were way ahead of hollywood’s UI thinking. For many years after, movies were still cursed with command line UI and super-crude graphics. It was fun to solve the problems with real interaction design tools, even if the UI was completely made up.

In those days, directors didn’t want a computer anywhere near the rolling camera as a locked-up computer could hold up shooting, costing hundreds per minute. After animating all the user interface in advance, I used a special video recorder, controlled by computer, to record one frame at a time onto Betacam tape cassette. The result played back beautifully and smoothly – quite a treat for those of us used to the stutters of real-time animation in the 90s.

On camera, this tape was then played through the fake computer monitors while the actors pantomimed interaction with the user interface. The UI would move and change on its own; to appear to be using it, the actors (Pierce Brosnan and Jeff Fahey) memorized the timing  and positions so they could move their hands correctly.

An interesting note: video (in the US) and film have different frame rates. Video is (around) 30 frames per second, and film is 24 frames per second. If you just point a film camera at a video monitor, the difference in frame rate will cause moving black bars to appear on the video screen, ruining the visuals. To fix this, they have special tape players that synchronize with the film’s shutter speed. There are companies that specialize in this, and you see them in the credits as “24 frame playback.”

For production, we used the 3D workhorse of the time for the Mac (the ‘040 era:) infini-D and everyone’s favorite animation and interactivity authoring tool, MacroMind Director. This was a time when the ability to composite images with an alpha channel (transparency) was somewhat new in the personal computer world – the first time where you could seamlessly blend output from 2D and 3D graphics programs, and Director was a great tool for this type of work.

It was a great experience visiting the set to do the final transfers; it was my first view into how large-scale creative endeavors can be organized to maximize creative freedom and personal expression while tightly controlling cost and delivering a compelling product. One “all nighter” as I recorded a few fixes to some of the animations, the set crew built an entire house – with paint and wiring – on the soundstage outside the art department. I was amazed at what this industry does on a daily basis. As the software industry becomes more design-driven, we are similarly challenged to be creative at scale – to maintain a coherent creative vision while coordinating the actions of thousands of individuals, many with their own creative sub-domains. But that’s another post.

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Hybrid Software Design at eBay

Designers and engineers often approach product design differently. Designers might focus on research or narrative, while engineers might talk about frameworks or the algorithm that defines a particular behavior. To an engineer, designers can seem superficial: “thunder without lightning”; to a designer, engineers can seem reductive, as though they are prematurely “leaping to solution.” Even with best intentions, misunderstandings can be major and translation between these disciplines can be error-prone and expensive.

Regardless of cost, improving communication between design and engineering is critical. In an increasingly consumer-facing software enterprise, design quality correlates to bottom line profit. Design quality is in turn strongly influenced by a team’s ability to review a wide range of designs quickly: its iteration speed. This iteration speed is in turn largely driven by the communication quality – the bandwidth – between design and engineering functions. I call this latter the design bandwidth.

At eBay, one approach we’re taking to improving design bandwidth is to cross-train individuals in technology and design, and to deliberately hire people who have already trained intensively across disciplines. Because these individuals comprehend both design and engineering aspects of a problem, they are more able to resolve constraints, access efficiencies, and find synergies across domains – all essential to converging on an optimum experience efficiently.

Individuals who are skilled in both design and engineering can offer unique efficiencies in a corporate design environment. Some benefits of hybrid design individuals include:

  • evaluating feasibility and cost in real time during the design process
  • recognizing experience opportunities arising from technical issues
  • unearthing unforeseen issues through rapid prototyping
  • increasing usability research quality through prototype fidelity and rapid integration of usability findings into the prototypes
  • dynamic design deliverables – such as stylesheets, markup, and code – that eliminate specification ambiguity

Many engineers would like to do more design. Many designers would really enjoy doing more programming. Companies appreciate people who can do both: individuals possessing both design and coding skills can accelerate iteration speed and the depth (completeness) of design evaluations –  resulting in increased code velocity, greater volume of usable ideas, faster integration of usability findings, and higher confidence in “buildability” earlier in the design lifecycle. Many companies recognize these benefits and are actively seeking individuals who can both design and code. If you’re in the software experience industry, you know this already. If you’re one of these people, you may have noticed recruiters major tech firms specifically looking for this hybrid skill set.

Historically, large-scale software development organizations (of which I have worked for Apple, Microsoft, and now eBay) tend to inadvertently discourage internal development of such cross-disciplinary talent even while they actively recruit for the skill set externally.

To understand why, consider this: The top level of your typical major software organization is divided along discipline boundaries very high up in the enterprise. At eBay, we have “Marketplaces” and “PayPal” and, within each, separate Design, Software Engineering, and Program Management. (we have a lot more at eBay too but that’s a different discussion)

For a hybrid individual in such an organization, there is a strong organizational and cultural incentive to “choose sides” and seek to rise within a specific discipline – in particular, experience design and engineering are typically quite distant organizationally.

Last year (my first at eBay,) I designed a new job family at eBay called Design Engineer. This is a job family within the  Design job ladder, which I collaborated with our HR team and executive leadership to create. The Design Engineer track goes from college hire all the way up to Design Fellow – a VP-level position. A Design Engineer is someone who is skilled in both experience design and software engineering and is continuing to make progress in both disciplines. This latter part is very important – it’s all too easy to lose touch with the leading edge of a discipline as you focus more on management. By having VP-level Design Engineers who are not required to be people managers, we provide a career path for those who want to continue to become deeper and more powerful designers as they grow in responsibility and impact. While I do manage a team, I strive to continually update my IC skills; I don’t need to be the best in my team at coding, typography, or any specific IC skill, I think it’s important for leaders to maintain currency with the creative landscape. Otherwise one runs the risk of missing major “sea changes” in what our creative organizations are capable of producing.

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the Wild Coast

Here we are back in Santa Cruz – very very happy.

I’m now at eBay working as a Senior Director of Design at the corporate headquarters. Sounds fancy, but I’m not building an empire – currently I’m hand-picking a very small team of interdisciplinary design innovators to make cool stuff as quickly as possible. We look at trends, predict where they’re leading, then build stuff that will be useful in that predicted future, and ideally hasten that future’s arrival. Sometimes this sort of speculative design gives you something that is useful today – but that you might not have found if you hadn’t been daydreaming about the future. This is the latest iteration of a design innovation framework I’ve developed at Apple, MediaX, and Microsoft Research.

Since this blog is intended to be more permanent than previous company-specific blogs, I also get to talk about things that are outside of my current job, like old projects from the past and interesting trends that affect all of us digital creatives.

This new year marks six months since I departed Microsoft and began at eBay. One day one, I began  full immersion in open web standards (especially HTML5 and CSS3) What I’ve learned has been eye-opening; we have reached an inflection point in design expressiveness, providing huge leverage via what is becoming a core design literacy. More to share here soonish.

conference room with multiple temporary workstations and a pretty view of the outdoors

My team currently shares a conference room at eBay. We're about to outgrow it but the view is great and the company is fantastic.

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