Inspiration

Episode 60 with Guest Bill Flora

Hosted by Sean Flaherty & Mike Thone

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About Bill Flora
Product Momentum Guest Bill Flora
Bill Flora
Blink

Bill Flora is an award-winning design director and strategist with more than 20 years of experience in leading teams and shipping products. In his current role as Chief Creative Officer at Blink, he leads projects for clients including NASA, Nike, Mastercard, Facebook, and HBO. Before joining forces with Blink, Bill founded Tectonic, a strategic experience design firm, where he worked with the world’s leading companies envisioning next-generation content platforms and expressing brand through software. During his two decades with Microsoft, he led design efforts for Xbox, Windows Media Center, Zune, and Encarta, and he was the design force behind Microsoft’s “Metro” design language. Flora’s influences can be found in the design of software that lights up millions of screens around the globe every day.

As product people, how do we know when the time is right to “color outside the lines”? Maybe experiment with a new design approach or re-create some of the early Wild West days when design standards were the exception, not the rule. After all, isn’t that a fundamental piece of the innovation puzzle – standing convention on its head by doing something that hasn’t been done before?

In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, award-winning product designer and strategist Bill Flora joins Sean and ITX’s Mike Thone (a designer/disruptor in his own right) to chip away at the question. 

“I always feel like it’s our job to push,” Bill explains. “There are so many opportunities to innovate. But I also think there are areas where we can innovate within established patterns. You know, ‘let’s not try and reinvent here.’ At the end of the day, our job is to make sure our customers are happy.”

Bill’s resume includes stints with Microsoft, Nike, MasterCard, and NASA. And he is currently the Chief Creative Officer at Blink, a user experience consulting and usability research firm. So if you’re keen on  defining your brand through UX design and collaboration, Bill shares some key insights throughout the pod. He also defines design language and explains the key role it plays in boosting company culture and user experiences.

Listen to hear more from Bill, including –

  • Enhancing wonder and discovery through communication and design at NASA
  • Scrollytelling, the art of creating interactive experiences using content in multiple media to make stories come to life
  • Setting priorities as a designer, making time for things that fit in your vision

Sean [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. This is a podcast intended to entertain, educate, celebrate and give a little back to the product leadership community.

Sean [00:00:32] Hello, everyone, and welcome to the product of the podcast. Today, Mike Thone, a designer at ITX, and I will be interviewing Bill Flora, who’s an incredible soul and just has a tremendous amount of experience in our space. It was such a great recording. We talked about some incredible things like where to find the signature experiences in your product. What did you think about that, Mike?

Mike [00:00:55] Oh, I thought it was really cool trying to figure out how to prioritize when to be innovative versus when to follow established usability conventions. I also found it really challenging to figure out whether or not to talk about the Microsoft design system that he had such a big hand in and some of the current work that he’s doing with NASA. So that was, that was really cool.

Sean [00:01:15] You know, he was involved when design was like making it pretty. It was a secondary thought to the product. And, you know, now we’re design-led or product-led in most cases. So he’s seen the whole evolution.

Mike [00:01:26] For sure.

Sean [00:01:27] Well, anyway, let’s get after it because I can’t wait to share this with the audience.

Mike [00:01:30] Sounds good.

Sean [00:01:31] All right.

Sean [00:01:34] Well, hello and welcome to the podcast, today, we’ve got Chief Creative Officer and partner at Blink, Bill Flora. He’s an award-winning design director and strategist with over two decades of experience leading teams shipping products. His current role as the Chief Creative Officer Blink has enabled him to work with companies like NASA and Nike and MasterCard, some companies you might have heard of. Before joining forces with Blink, he founded a company called Tectonic, a strategic experience design firm. I think he grew up pretty much at Microsoft, starting the design process there, really, and helping them to create their design system, which I’m excited to talk about. So, Bill, welcome to the show today.

Bill [00:02:11] Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Sean [00:02:13] Yeah. So what’s got you inspired these days? What are you excited about in design?

Bill [00:02:18] Wow. Well, you know, I think some of the same things that have always inspired me about design. I’ve loved this career, you know, from the big corporate Microsoft… Well, two decades there to running my own shop, it’s still been the same types of things that really drove me and inspired me. I really see design as a tool to bring content to life, to connect to people, to help them connect with each other. So I really think it’s one of the strongest tools out there to do that type of thing. So for me, this recent NASA project really hit all of those notes, being able to work on their communication strategy, how they can really reach and connect with their audience, how they can better understand their audience, and create the types of experiences and content that really, you know, motivate the public. So that, I did work like that long ago with Encarta Encyclopedia. So I think the NASA project for me is just a continuation of that and it’s been really inspiring.

Mike [00:03:26] That’s really cool. So I’ve been digging into some of your old stuff as well. In an older talk, you mentioned the Microsoft Design Language rising from the ground up rather than coming from the top down. Should product leaders be doing more to see design culture?

Bill [00:03:43] Well, it’s interesting, at Microsoft, that was just a way that we could get things done, especially from the design side. It was absolutely from the bottoms up, but it came from design and kind of a pent-up desire to have some consistency across our products and help them interoperate. Initially, we tried having common patterns across interaction design as well as visual design. But really, it only happened once we decoupled those things and focused on visual design standards that really started making the big moves within the company. And I think there’s no one prescription for how product leaders can make this happen within an organization. Like, this work in Metro has allowed me to work on a variety of different design languages and no process is the same.

Bill [00:04:41] No corporate culture is the same, and a lot has to be done with the corporate culture in the considerations. Like Amazon could be fully distributed or maybe there’s just one strong leader and it has to go through them. So I think you need to calibrate your approach and be sensitive to the design culture and make it work within the design culture.

Bill [00:05:04] But, you know, I think what drives a design language in a culture is the need to differentiate within that particular product. And I really think of it through the lens of brand that, you know, anymore, a lot of these digital experiences are the primary brand touchpoint for most companies. So we approach it that way when we tackle the design system and really get in and clearly try and articulate, “how do the brand values, the brand attributes, how do we boil those down and create the types of keywords and points of view that really drive a design exploration?” So we start there. I think the brand can really inform the look and feel, and it can also inform the types of signature experiences that you bring into a given product. So my focus has been product design, I think with a brand and values perspective, and now, having been a part of Blink for quite a few years, really deep into using evidence and key user insights to help drive the direction. So it’s the combination of both of those things that I think really makes a big difference. I’ve got lots of recommendations and experiences for getting the design language through culture. Maybe you’ve got some more specific questions on that.

Sean [00:06:34] Sure. So you think design language is really about combining the brand with these signature experiences to make sure that you’re differentiating?

Bill [00:06:44] Yeah. And differentiate in a way that feels authentic to that brand. And, you know, I define a design language also as the look and feel. I really think of it as visual design, motion design, and interaction design that is thought of as one gesture, not separate things that you layer on top of each other, but a holistic approach. Because I think, you know you’ve got motion design that allows you to maybe be more simple in the visual design or it really informs interaction design. So my approach is to really integrate, integrate those three things.

Sean [00:07:23] I’ve got so many questions, I’m not sure where to start. So you touched on a bunch of things that I have a deep interest in. So the first one is, you know, having seen so much, like within Microsoft, arguably a company that’s really driven a lot of the design decisions that are still in play today, what are some things that you learned over that long period of time? Like what are maybe traps not to fall into? And when I ask that, the motivation behind it is really around cognitive dissonance and, like, expectations of users.

Bill [00:07:56] Well, you know, one of the main things I’ve learned is I do think the design discipline is one of the most powerful disciplines to help change organizations. And just a design process itself can help change organizations. I started way back when design was just about making it pretty and, “oh, we’re all done, can you make it look nice?” And so my very first project at Microsoft was to design the indent toolbar button, which I’m very happy about. Still in use.

Mike [00:08:30] Love that.

Sean [00:08:32] Still there, right. So that’s an example. We know exactly what that symbol means and every product that uses indentation uses something very, very similar to that.

Bill [00:08:41] I know it’s crazy, but that was the level, you know, and I’ve been able to see it transform into being something that can lead organizations and lead products by having the process that synthesizes all of these inputs from user insights, market trends, business needs, brand values. So I would say the thing the product managers can really think about and do for design to help with this process is to allow your design groups to really think forward a bit. So many are, you know, pulling their hair out, trying to keep up with, you know, devs. You know, “we can’t have devs be idle,” so always a little bit behind the ball.

Bill [00:09:31] And as soon as you can give room to, I think, design thinking and strategy to think out ahead, that really starts to move the needle. A lot of organizations and companies get that now, but still, a lot of them don’t. And I think that’s my biggest lesson from Microsoft, is, ultimately create a North Star like vision pieces for different groups. It turned out to be, I think, the most impactful thing. It was maybe 10 percent of my job, but it had 90 percent of the impact. So I would start by creating the vision pieces in high fidelity that really embodies the goals of the product and the process in a way where key stakeholders are involved. They’ve got skin in the game. They’ve helped to shape what these experiences are, and it makes socializing them and integrating them into the culture that much more easy. And ultimately, I think it inspires stakeholders and ultimately aligns teams. So many groups I work with are siloed and it’s hard to work between different divisions within the company. But this design discipline has, in its process, ways to bring those key people together, grounded in what the user experience should be and grounded in evidence and user insights.

Mike [00:11:01] Yeah, so you mentioned creating a North Star and allowing designers to think forward. How do you get there? What’s some of the common resistance you get when you’re trying to advocate investment in UX design?

Bill [00:11:16] Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve had to make that case because most people I’ve been working with lately just totally get it, and they already know to invest in it, especially as a consultant. We’re really usually only approached once organizations have made that calculation. I think InDesign created a fabulous white paper on just that topic and how to sell that within the organization and the value of strategic design thinking over time to an organization. So, people that are interested in that, I would encourage them to go into the InDesign back publications and you’ll be able to find it pretty easily. But I think it also depends on the organization. Do you need to make a business case for it in some organization? Or maybe some organizations are really driven by the competition. Show what the competition is doing and, “oh, OK, we need to do that too.” So I think it depends.

Mike [00:12:20] Sure. Yeah. So, you know, if you’ve got to work with different types of organizations, somewhere you’ve got to create that high-fidelity vision piece. And I noticed that that was a thread throughout when I was reading some of your stuff: using vision to sell the idea and get past resistance. Where do you find the time for that? Do you steal the time? Do you get people to pay for the time? How does that go?

Bill [00:12:43] Yeah, you know, I’ve been fortunate enough to, back at Microsoft, work for executive leadership that really made the time. They invested in a design org that had time to do that. That was a part of our charter. So I think my approach was identifying that leadership, which I knew would give room for that type of thing. A design org can really run ragged if, let’s say, every PM feels they need to have a designer, you know, then…

Mike [00:13:17] Yeah.

Bill [00:13:17] They all get used up. I have a friend who runs a big design org and he was forced to cut 60 percent of his design staff and he ended up being more productive, which was fascinating because the design group really got to help set their own priorities. And by doing that, putting more power within the design group to set their priorities, they’re not expected to bend over backward for every request. They can kind of set that strategic goal with leadership and use vision pieces really to help set those priorities and use design processes to help set those priorities.

Sean [00:13:59] So I want to go backwards a little bit and pull on the thread a little more about this concept of cognitive dissonance in design. We want to create design systems because we know the consistency is important, for all kinds of reasons, like trustworthiness, alignment with the brand, you know, expectations that are set. But you also mentioned the need to create signature experiences. And if you’ve worked with enough designers, you know they all want to kind of put their mark on it. So how do you know when is the right time to kind of move beyond the standards to try something new?

Bill [00:14:36] Yeah, that’s a great question and I’ve struggled with that in my career. When I started out, there weren’t many standards. It was kind of like the Wild West. It kind of felt like when the car was being designed, we hadn’t figured out the steering wheel yet or an accelerator or a brake. So that was really exciting, fun, a lot of opportunities to innovate. And then I started seeing patterns get established and not moved away from and I always found that frustrating. Like when iTunes came up with this left-hand navigation, I just thought, “oh, that’s boring, that’s not very elegant.”.

Bill [00:15:15] My DNA has always been to disrupt and innovate, try new things. So when I started seeing the world kind of land on this left-hand navigation, for example, I’m like, “really, are we done? Can we do no more here?” And I’ve used it and I’d recommend it for projects, for sure. But I think there are areas where you can continue to innovate even within established patterns. Like, let’s take a cell grid, like an Excel or something. There are some really interesting innovations happening in those types of products, the ability to integrate other media within those cells or different layers of content and different ways to view that information.

Bill [00:16:02] So one innovation we were able to do for a company called Stevo is really let their users dial in how much information they wanted. So there’s just a little slider that, you know, zooms into the cells and adds more information into those cells the larger they are. So different people might like to see a broad view of everything and then some just want to see a more detailed view. That was an example of taking an existing pattern and innovating within it. So I do believe there are a lot of opportunities there. But typically now it comes with, you need some new inputs, some new technology capabilities or new user needs that you’ve discovered to move the needle.

Bill [00:16:49] For example, some of the work on NASA, we came to the conclusion that, you know, some of the work that they’re doing like with The New York Times, with what we call scrollytelling, where it’s just a simple scroll and you can progress a presentation and there is video or content. And I don’t really want to figure out a new solution there. That makes a ton of sense. So there’s a lot of innovation within that pattern that we look for and especially with content presentation. But using the simple scroll to tell the story I think is a wonderful thing and we’d love to push that more.

Bill [00:17:31] We’ve done a lot of work in the past on television user interface design, from Media Center and HBO, and we just got to work on this new Atari console that’s coming out. And, you know, my first impulse was to do something amazing and innovative and we just decided, “let’s just follow that Netflix model, just like Disney plus did, you know, let’s not try and reinvent here.” That’s been worked through so much that we tried to find other places to innovate in terms of the look and feel. So I’m not sure that fully answers your question of how do I, you know, rationally decide, you know, which direction to take? But I always feel like it’s our job to push, but also at the end of the day, making sure our customers are happy.

Sean [00:18:23] No, that was a good answer. I think I’d like to hear Mike’s take on it, too. His role is right now is in the weeds as an incredible designer. So I’d like to hear tactically, like, what’s your take on it in terms of having to follow these design standards, but at the same time wanting to put a little creative juice in there and make your mark?

Mike [00:18:43] Oh, I struggle with the same thing. I like what you said about the earlier days being the Wild West in that, you know, not many conventions had been established. It was both exciting because you’ve got to innovate constantly, but how often were you coming up with something that could have been done better? And then when you saw it for the first time, you know, you smacked your forehead and you’re like, “oh, my God, it’s so obvious.” But then you can get stuck in that other space where you’re not being very creative at all when you’re working, you just keep going towards the same conventions over and over again. So it’s really a trick. It’s a hard thing to figure out. I feel you when you talk about that.

Sean [00:19:23] That’s why we have designers, right?

Mike [00:19:25] Yeah.

Sean [00:19:25] We want to create something unique in the world.

Bill [00:19:28] Yeah. That’s why back in the day, usability tests were just so excruciating for me to be a part of because we were so used to like, you know, being the designer that comes up with something new, and then to find out that users really didn’t get it, that was so painful. But I think anymore we all need to be grounded in just smart, good usability of our products. And that, at the end of the day, is kind of what it’s about. But I think you can innovate to make things even easier. So that’s what I like to look for.

Mike [00:20:04] Yeah. You know, I’ve got an art background, a fine art background, and I started out in the pure art space and then I swung into design and usability and UX and then I swung very far to the other direction where I stopped thinking big or stopped thinking creatively. And it’s been really validating to hear you talk about swinging back and forth between innovation and following a convention that’s established and obviously usable.

Sean [00:20:33] I think it can go too far to the right too. Like, you know, for a while you get trends, like, “everything is flat, flat design,” and then material design, “we’re going to copy Google and everybody’s going build things, you know using this.” And you see in the industry, I’ve heard it terms of like the dribbilization of design, where there’s a convergence, where things are getting more and more and more the same.

Bill [00:20:52] Yeah, I think it’s good for us to always battle against that. There’s kind of momentum behind, you know, efficiency and, “let’s get it out the door,” and a lot of the tools we use, I think, really help shape certain solutions. So for me, that’s why AR/VR is exciting because it’s back to the Wild West again. There’s new territory there to play around with. So it is a constant balance and you got to figure out which battles you want to fight.

Bill [00:21:23] But, you know, you mentioned signature experiences and my definition of that is kind of in the product planning phase. That helps you kind of identify those experiences and big key features that you really want to get an A+ in. It’s not just a pass and fail, you know, “we got that checkbox thing done.” It’s those experiences that really are pivotal for users and maybe also for a company’s brand. Let’s say a company is all about personalization. It might be a signature experience that lets you customize in a new way. You can’t find innovation everywhere, but, you know, the thought of signature experiences is kind of a brand filter on a lot of those ideas and that’s helped us figure out, “OK, where do we want to go that extra mile?” Like with the Stevo example, the grid is the thing, the cell and the grid, “well, how can we make it special and stand out and even more useful?” So that’s another technique we’ve used to help product teams zero in on the ones to really put more energy towards.

Sean [00:22:35] So let me summarize what I heard. Let the brand and what you want the brand to be the filter for which you determine which experiences should be the signature experiences. That’s a good idea. I like that.

Bill [00:22:49] Yeah. I think not only just with the look and feel, but with the experience overall, that’s the primary expression of the brand. So I think Chief Marketing Officers need to be thinking bigger about brand with regards to products. I think those groups need to work more closely together. And I think design can be thinking about the products through that brand lens to bring those things to life. I would call it the Capital B brand, like the big brand values and how those translate into the features you put the most energy in because that will help differentiate the experience even more.

Mike [00:23:31] Cool, thank you.

Sean [00:23:32] Bill, we talked a little bit about your project at NASA and I’d love to hear some more about that. It’s very salient right now with the new lander just making its way there.

Bill [00:23:41] Yeah, watching the Perseverence landing was really gratifying. I was able to see it being built a couple of different times at JPL and it’s just so inspiring to me. So any type of storytelling bringing that content to life, that’s the most inspiring thing to me. And what we found in working with NASA is new ways for them to really better reach their public through the types of content that they present and how that content is presented. So we changed from just your average persona as an approach to ground our content strategy really more into thinking style. So instead of categories like teachers and students and science enthusiasts, it became more how people thought. Like, there are explorers and learners and pragmatists and dreamers. Each of these types of categories really gets moved by different types of content and different ways that content is presented.

Bill [00:24:45] So that really helped us arrive at what I mentioned before about scrollytelling, making these stories come to life in a really simple way, finding that people are just inspired by science and space. So the main thing NASA can do is really enhance that sense of wonder and discovery and have that really inform a lot of the storytelling. So a lot of this work won’t be coming out yet, but it’s starting to be built and that was super, super inspiring.

Sean [00:25:19] That’s neat. What I’ve found is the more important thing to do when you’re thinking about your personas is figuring out the dominance hierarchy of the personas. Because I think if your team, especially the design team, if you have a clear understanding of the dominance hierarchies for who this page at the page level is here to serve, you can build a better product.

Bill [00:25:37] Yep. And different sections have, you know, different emphasis on the personas. For me, working on communication strategy has been really rewarding.

Mike [00:25:51] So wrapping up, we’ve got something that we do on this show that I wonder if you’ve prepared for. I’d like to know what your definition of innovation is.

Bill [00:26:02] Right. It used to be really simple, like something I’ve never seen before. I always get excited by things that are new and different. You know, that’s only part of the equation. I think, of course, the important thing is it benefits me in some way more than before.

Mike [00:26:19] Sure.

Bill [00:26:20] So if we go around what we do in customer benefit and through that lens, it’s got to be new ways to do things that make my life easier or more fun or more delightful.

Sean [00:26:33] That’s the key there.

Mike [00:26:34] That’s good.

Sean [00:26:35] Making life better. Last question. What are you reading these days? What’s motivating you and contributing to your mastery?

Bill [00:26:42] Well, I don’t read a ton. I find inspiration in other places. I’m reading Cloud Atlas right now. If you’ve ever read Cloud Atlas. I’m mostly inspired by nature. I try and get out and hike all the time.

Sean [00:26:56] Well, thank you so much, Bill, for sharing all this knowledge and during this time with us today. I really appreciate it. Can’t wait for this to go live. Is there anything else you want to promote?

Bill [00:27:05] No, just thanks for giving me the opportunity to share some of this. I haven’t gotten out and shared enough, so I really appreciate you bringing me on, so thanks.

Mike [00:27:16] Yeah. Thanks for joining. It’s been really fun talking to you.

Sean [00:27:18] It’s been exciting for me to hear your stories and to have the honor of tapping into your 20 years of experience, so thank you.

Bill [00:27:24] Great talking to you guys.

Paul [00:27:28] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps to show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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