AOL?!? Really?

· AOL, Best Practices, Business, Design, Information Architecture, long story short, Teamwork, User Experience, Web Gossip

By now most of my friends and colleagues and readers know that I resigned from my job at Yahoo! nearly a month ago. The meantime has flown by like a dream. B and I went to New Orleans and I was able to enjoy Jazzfest with no “homework” on my mind for the first time in years. I spoke in Minneapolis on the Web App Masters Tour, returned home, and last week I spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco.

In the midst of all this, a week ago Friday I started my new job at AOL.

I’ve started joking with my friends that I must have joined a company called “AOL!? Really?!?” because that’s the first thing out of most people’s mouths. (The ones who can speak, that is – some just boggle their eyes at me.) To be honest, when my friend and mentor, Matte Scheinker, first told me he had come out of retirement to take a new role at AOL as VP for consumer experience I reacted in almost exactly the same way.

For anyone who’s fought the good fight at Yahoo! against a headwind of Bay Area techie-insider scorn, it might seem like moving to AOL would be a matter of taking on more of the same.

But I listened to what Matte had to tell me about his new gig, and the more I heard about it the more intrigued I got. First of all, I like the idea of a company embracing a turnaround effort head on. At Yahoo! we were winning in enough categories that I did not always feel a sense of urgency in the culture about fixing and improving the areas that needed it.

At AOL I feel a bracing awareness: “now or never, do or die!” The new management team has wasted no time remaking AOL, taking it public again, refreshing the brand, repositioning the strategy, and challenging its employees to excel and win.

At some point while we were talking I realized that Matte was recruiting me to join his team, to help him place design thinking and a laserlike focus on customer experience at the heart of the (digital/software) product development process. In some ways, this is a designer or UX guy’s “put your money where you mouth is” moment, where the leadership of a major corporation says, “OK, you’ve been arguing that the customer is key and that design is a tool that is relevant to a company’s strategy and business processes, so now prove it.”

While I enjoyed my role curating the Yahoo! pattern library immensely, and it provided me with plenty of ego-boosting attention in the user experience design community, I did not always feel like I was able to exert my influence within the company in a concrete, effective way. I was there to offer advice and set an example, but I did not always have the ability to put into action ideas about how to make better products and how to employ better processes.

Further, AOL is aggressively interested in reshaping the world of media, publishing, content, attention, and advertising. This has been my wheelhouse since before the web. I came from book publishing, where I was astonished at the 19th century business practices I saw. The upheaval ripping through the worlds of publishing and journalism are messy and frightening for those being tossed about by the rapid changes, but I’m convinced that new models will emerge to connect people with the information and ideas and art and entertainment they want, and people will be compensated for their talents, yes and empires will grow up around these new models of weaving it all together.

AOL is playing in exactly that space. For example, AOL’s Seed beta and the Patch startup AOL recently acquired both represent (to me) very interesting experiments:

  • Rethinking the “content” business and the infrastructure (is “supply chain” too industrial a term for creative work?) for cultivating high quality writing.
  • Exploring the capabilities the web offers and the types of flows the web favors.
  • Sourcing small pieces of content.
  • Targeting hyperlocal geographies.

I honestly believe AOL has a shot at turning around its fortunes and rejuvenating its illustrious brand and I’m excited to have the opportunity to help the product teams at AOL perform to their highest abilities and succeed at delivering content and experiences that are better than the best of what the Internet has to offer (we call this goal “beating the Internet”).

Are the odds long? Yes, of course they are. That’s what makes the challenge so ambitious and so exciting.

So, yes, AOL. Really!

My talking head interview from O'Reilly booth at Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco, 2010

· Design, Social Design, User Experience

“Play allows me to think about how to get into the open part, the part you’re not going to control. How do you make that part work? You establish rules and goals, you borrow from game design, from musical instruments… and things that are playable”:

My Yahoo! years

· Design, long story short, Patterns, Social Design, Teamwork, User Experience, Web Gossip, Yahoo!

This post has turned out to be a lot more difficult to write than I expected. Last Tuesday was my final day at Yahoo! I wrote a valedictory post for the YDN blog as my official signoff.

It wasn’t easy resigning from Yahoo! I started working there more than three years ago and had a splendid time throughout. I met a slew of incredibly talented, brilliant people. I learned a lot about the pros and cons of large companies (and what can happen after a startup experiences hypergrowth). I expanded my network and became a much more visible member of the global user experience (aka “UX,” although I’m leaning toward describing it as “digital design” these days) community.

I’m leaving a lot of friend behind there and I expect to keep in touch with all of them. These days with the twitters and such, that shouldn’t be too difficult.

Beyond my work on the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library, and the social design patterns project, I’m most proud of my involvement with Yahoo!’s Open Strategy, from the earliest days of formulating and fleshing out the strategy, to the difficult, slow, but fruitful efforts to rewire Yahoo! and expose more and more of the underpinnings and utility features to the large web developer community. If you haven’t checked out YQL, for example, you really should.

Right now, I’m on a very brief hiatus between jobs. I just got back from a long overdue return to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, today I’m speaking in Minneapolis on the UIE Web App Masters Tour, and on Friday I start my new job. More about that in my next post.

Social design preso from Beyond Findability workshop presented by the IA Institute at the IA Summit

· Design, Information Architecture, Patterns, Social Design, User Experience

Erin posted the latest version of our “5/5/5” talk, as given in Phoenix last week, to Slideshare:

Also, Erin has also posted a blog entry on our poster shown at the Summit, on our evolving efforts to map and visualize the social design space. You can download a PDF of the poster there if you like.

Note, my presentation at BayCHI last night was very close to this one, with a few very minor tweaks, though I may upload the version just so I’ll have it in my own Slideshare account too.

Back to BayCHI

· Design, Patterns, Social Design, User Experience

About two years ago in April I spoke at BayCHI for the first time. Rashmi Sinha, who was co-hosting the monthly program asked me to come speak about the Yahoo! Design Pattern library and the social patterns research project I had recently begun in earnest.

It was my first time airing a lot of these ideas in public and I discovered that I felt rather passionate about some of the key points. It was scary but it was a great experience. I believe the podcast of that evening will be out in a little while (I shared the program with the legendary game designer and writer Amy Jo Kim, so it was an honor as well as a privilege).

In the meantime, the project turned into a book and wiki and I actually succeeded Rashmi as Paul Sas’s partner in booking the monthly program.

On April 13, I’ll be back at PARC in Palo Alto closing the circle and reporting to BayCHI on what we (Erin Malone and myself) learned from the effort. I’ll still be behind Steve Portigal and a few other multi-time presenters at BayCHI – maybe we can get a little Saturday Night Live type thing going (“Hey everybody, I’m so happy to be back here speaking at a BayCHI program for the eighth time!”).

See you there?