Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Invisible lines

Everyday, I teeter on an invisible line at work. I oscillate between my passion about my product/work being my biggest asset - to being a thing that actually stands in the way of progress of myself or my team. When does this passion for the product start harming it?  

You all know the type. Been at "company x" for a zillion years, been through all types of launches... has "already tried that and it didn't work." Maybe even some of you are on the other side of that and get annoyed when new hires try to re-invent the wheel. Deep down, we all reaslise that everyone is just (hopefully) trying to do the very best thing for the product. I struggle with this invisible line all the time. I'm a naturally passionate person, but occasionally (in extreme cases) it causes me to talk, act and feel like the world's biggest asshole &  the world's worst colleague. I don't like feeling or working that way. But do truly great products ever get built in perfect harmony? 

How can anyone distinguish what is truly worth putting yourself out there for? Do you advocate for it even at the expense of co-worker's discomfort? Or do you spend a reasonable amount of energy arguing a rational path and going along with a decision after it's been made even if it's not the one you would prefer. 

For me, it's a sliding scale of the following:  
  • If someone is clearly better/more knowledgable than me: Defer nearly completely to them. 
  • If I have thoughts and feedback, but ultimately not in my domain: Give constructive feedback, defer immediately. 
  • If I feel somewhat strongly: Spend some time debating, understanding each side, arguing pros & cons and come to a mutually (slightly uncomfortable for everyone) way to move forward.
  • If I feel very very strongly: Don't let anything stop me from advocating for what I believe is fundamentally the right path. 

It's this last one that puts me into uncomfortable territory at least once a quarter. I know that having someone on your team who cares deeply about the product is usually a huge asset, but you have to take the good with the bad and this is what comes along with passion. Passion cannot only remain on the positive side. Strong passion is not compartmentalizable. All in or all out. 

I guess I'm just lucky enough that my colleagues ultimately understand where it's coming from and still generally like working with me, but it doesn't make me feel any less dreadful at the end of the day. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Neutral, Open, Malleable & Agnostic - Can a strong brand be built on these attributes?

For the past few months, I've been working on a big project at YouTube that I've been very excited about. It's been a hectic few weeks, and it's only now that I'm stopping to reflect on what we've accomplished and how far we've come. I'm very proud of the exciting new thing we've built (I can't tell you yet!), but I can't help but look at it and wonder about what does it mean for content to appear "on YouTube" and how will what I'm building change or shift that perception (if at all)? 

There seem to be generally two camps of "YouTube-as-brand" 

1) YouTube is an extremely strong brand, and it's almost as important (if not as important) that a certain piece of video content "went viral on YouTube" as what's actually contained in the video itself. 

2) YouTube is a neutral platform - a repository for all the world's creativity. That the UI should recede into the background and let the content (and creativity) shine with it's own voice and the voice of the community. 

Unlike most false dichotomies that seem to be presented when talking about UI models, this one actually seems to be legitimately mutually exclusive. How can a property have an extremely strong brand within a UI while still maintaining a neutral voice and canvas for content of all types?

I've been struggling with this split in the path of the YouTube UI for a few weeks now, because I believe that YouTube's core differentiator is ultimately the community (for mostly better and sometimes worse). That YouTube *feels* approachable, *feels* community made and *feels* malleable to it's visitors. Can this DIY feeling, in and of itself, be a strong brand attribute? Maybe even the strongest? Can YouTube's brand simultaneously recede and strengthen? Should we be more heavy handed in the visual design and the UI to strengthen YouTube's brand? Or should "YouTube" remain more of an abstract concept that can be lightly applied to all hosted content, with an open community and a neutral canvas? 

After many weeks of pushing in a certain direction, I feel that YouTube's brand (and market differentiator) is strongest when the community shines the most. When the community takes ownership of the content and the discourse no matter what container it shows up in. The mere fact that YouTube allows (nay, encourages) its UI & content to escape it's main container (embeds all over the Internet) is evidence that a strong ecosystem can easily trump a heavy-handed branded UI. The trick now is to discover a UI treatment that uses *clean*, *modern* & *professional* to enhance (not overpower) *neutral*, *open*, *malleable* & *agnostic*. Tricky.