Buzz Usborne - Principal Designer @HelpScout
This interview with Buzz Usborne is (I hope) the first of a long list of many. Starting with Buzz is important to me because I’ve been following his work for years now, and have always been a fan of his work… he’s one of those inspiring people who can both design and develop. We talked about his career, his product Prevue and his new role at Atlassian.
What are some things you’ve learned that you wish you’d known when starting your career?
Ooh good question! I wouldn’t be surprised if someone gave me this exact advice when I started, but I either ignored it or didn’t fully understand — "slow down!". I’ve learned that it’s important to focus on being a good designer and to focus on my craft, and allow the maturity in my role to develop over time. There’s no rush!
In my early career I was far too focussed on seniority — for some reason I wanted to be a Creative Director by the time I was 30. I didn’t stop to consider that management wasn’t really my thing, and that focussing on actual design might have been a better alternative. Hindsight is 20/20 I guess. So all that time I could have spent really enjoying being a designer, I instead spent trying to prove how I deserved more responsibility.
I succeeded and was running my own studio by the time I was 30… but by that point the move to management had inevitably taken me further away from hands-on design work, which is the stuff that makes me the happiest. Since then I’ve returned to being a full-time designer — now I leave the management to people who are really passionate about that side of design. That said, I don’t regret pursuing seniority, as it ultimately helped me see that mentoring and leading by example was what I love doing.
What are you most proud of?
I’m seriously proud of the design teams I built whilst at Campaign Monitor. Over the course of several years I had the fortune of gathering the nicest, most talented bunch of designers, developers and managers together, to produce some really beautiful and effective design. I learned so much from that experience, and it still brings me great pride looking back on what we created as a team.
From a personal craft perspective, I’m still super proud that the icons I designed for Skype back in 2010 are still in use today — they don’t look too dated, even if I do say so myself!
You worked as an Art Director at various agencies (Mentally Friendly, Story etc). When did you realise that you wanted to work on a single product — and how did you make that choice at a time when working for products wasn’t as popular as it is today?
I loved designing for agencies — the opportunity to work with a variety of different briefs and visual styles was such a good way to learn. But after a while I found myself wanting to spend more time on the problems I was trying to solve — I was craving more time on testing, iterating and involving customers to see whether my design solutions were effective over time. That wasn’t something agencies at the time were set up to do. I was initially quite reluctant to commit to one company though, so I went freelance to test whether I was cut out to be a product designer.
Whilst it wasn’t particularly sexy working for software companies at the time, the thing that attracted me most was talented teams of people who were driven by customer success, rather than money or short-term gain. I fell in love with those environments, where the whole team, from engineers and designers, right up to directors were as obsessed as me in producing the best possible experience for customers. So for me it was more about finding companies who shared my own values, rather than making a conscious choice about product vs. agency.
In all your work we can see a lot of attention to detail. How do you acquire it? Do you think that working at agencies helped in that area?
Yeah, I think agencies helped me practice working fast without compromising quality — they’re also a great environment to try a variety of different visual styles and mediums without falling into the trap of pushing a personal style or following trends. Attention to detail came pretty naturally for me, but learning where to put my effort and what details to focus on took quite a lot of practice.
As a designer, who or what inspires you?
I’m most inspired by seeing and hearing how designers in other disciplines approach problem solving. I come from a traditional Graphic Design background, so I tend to be a bit more interested in the process and conceptual development than the outcome itself. I find it fascinating to learn about the different ways people approach creative briefs, and how solutions evolve over time to produce something clever — the work of designers like Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Alan Dye, Stefan Sagmeister and Michael Bierut are consistent sources of inspiration. I’m also inspired by designers in the digital space who advocate for customer experience — people like Julie Zhuo, Dustin Senos, Jason Fried, Eoghan McCabe and Kathy Sierra.
But in a more day-to-day sense, I find myself most inspired when I’m working and collaborating with other people. I find my best ideas come when I’m chatting through problems, listening, sketching and riffing ideas!
You were a freelancer for a long time, was it difficult going back to a full-time job?
It was pretty easy for me. Freelance worked fine at a practical level and was great in giving me flexibility, but I found that I really missed the collaboration part of being in a team. I really notice how much easier it is to design when I’m learning from and being challenged by others — which is so much harder to achieve when freelance. I also find myself motivated by the mission and strategy of the companies I work for — so when I’m full-time I know that everything I’m producing is working towards a long-term goal. That’s quite important to me
How do you look back at this freelance period?
Fondly! Freelance gave me the skills and the discipline necessary to run teams, and my own business — so it’s been invaluable to my career. It also gave me a greater appreciation that visual output was only one very small part of being a designer — and that building skills in communicating, presentation and copywriting were critical in my professional development.
I hope people don’t see freelance as a glamorous or lucrative alternative to office life though — it can be much harder than it seems. Personally I found it difficult to stay motivated, and can be isolating at times — so it’s definitely not for everyone!
You joined Atlassian last year, what’s your day to day role there? What it’s like to work in a company that has several products with multiple teams?
Working for such a big company is definitely a change up for me — but it’s awesome to be surrounded by so many talented people! My day-to-day is very much focussed on the craft and visual design side of the business — I help designers develop their ideas and improve their creative habits through mentoring. Because it’s such a distributed and rapidly growing design team, I also spend a decent amount of time writing articles for our internal wiki — stuff like how to sketch effectively and where to look for inspiration and research… basically anything that’ll help designers improve their craft.
Working in a company that has multiple products is also new for me, though it’s something Atlassian do particularly well. In my opinion, the key to design success in this kind of environment is to make sure there’s lots of cross-collaboration happening between teams — that’s certainly something I’m pushing. Consistency of message and visual language is obviously very important at this scale too.
Could you share more the story behind Prevue? I read somewhere that you needed a tool like it, so you built your own. I guess it wasn’t that easy though.
Yeah that’s right — Prevue was originally built just for me when I was a freelance designer in London (back in 2007). I needed a super simple way to present web design work to clients, but nothing at the time existed that did the job well. People were sending images via emails or sharing PDFs with clients, which I didn’t feel did justice to the work, and wasn’t particularly collaborative… so I learned how to code, and built my own solution.
Pretty quickly the agencies and designers I was working with also wanted to use Prevue, so I opened it up as a private beta. It grew to about 300 people before falling apart, which is when I had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch. Fortunately I’d learned how to code a bit better by that point!
Building a product can be hard, especially when you’re alone. How did you deal with the struggles?
The most difficult thing has been deciding what features and improvements to focus on. Prevue has never been a full-time job, only a weekend and evening thing, so I’ve had to be really careful about what I spend my time building. It’s really easy to fall into a trap of releasing things that only a few users want, or building features purely because they’re fun or easy — but that’s a pretty fast way to create a lot of complexity. It gets really easy to lose sight of what’s important when you’re working on a hobby project late into the nights — so my way of dealing with the lows has been to focus on customer support.
Watching and listening to real people who use Prevue to communicate with their own clients, and improve productivity and collaboration amongst their own team is a hugely rewarding thing — it makes the frustrations and late nights worthwhile! Ultimately Prevue is an outlet for me, I do it because I love making software… so when I’m struggling, I just need to remind myself why I do this.
How did you manage to get traction with so many users & teams?
The most important advice I’ve followed since day one has been to simply focus on just doing one thing, and doing it well — Jason Fried of Basecamp is a big advocate of that, and is someone whose opinions have greatly influenced how I run Prevue. So instead of worrying too much about marketing or growth, I’ve focussed on producing software that serves a very specific need (concept sharing and feedback) to a very specific audience (small to medium design agencies) — which has resulted in pretty decent traction. It’s been a very long-term strategy, but I genuinely believe that if you focus on creating a useful product that serves genuine user need, then success will follow.
When and how did you learn code? I assume that it wasn’t an easy process, I’m curious to learn more.
I learned exclusively through building Prevue. I learn best when I have a purpose, when I’m designing or coding for a reason — so Prevue has been a good excuse to improve my backend skills, or to experiment with animation or various UX patterns. This style of learning “on the job” invariably involves a lot of trial and error… I certainly couldn’t have done it without StackOverflow!
I’ve also learned a great deal from just talking about my frustrations and challenges with engineers at the various companies I’ve worked at. My colleagues have always been really helpful and willing when it comes to suggesting smart ways to approach various coding challenges, or resources to use.
My advice to anyone looking to learn how to code, is to learn for a reason. Building your own little app, even if it’s just for your own use, will be so much more rewarding than reading a book! The same applies to design — if you want to get better at something, try to build that into your day-to-day practice.
What are you looking when you hire people?
I wrote an article about this a few years back that explains this in more detail, but the main things I look for is the ability to problem solve, and a genuine passion for design. Within reason, I believe things like effective use of design tools and visual design competency can be taught on-the-job — but critical thought and a burning desire to produce meaningful work are solid foundations I’m looking for in designers.
When I was hiring at Campaign Monitor, cultural fit was also a big deal for us. “Soft-skills” such as the ability to work well within a team, empathise with others, communicate, compromise and collaborate were just as important as design sensibilities. Ultimately I believe that when you bring a group of genuinely nice, talented people together who share similar values — amazing work will follow.
What are some of the failures you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
I’ve certainly made some mistakes, and done some things that I’d probably do differently the second time around — but I don’t really see any of it as failure… more incentive to learn and improve.
That said, for quite some time I put way too much emphasis on pixel perfection and visual output — rather than focussing on customer need. I suppose it might have been a result of working at agencies, but for far too long I was more preoccupied with creating visually stunning work than identifying whether I was actually solving customer problems through design. It probably wasn’t until I started working at Skype and began talking directly with customers, measuring results, iterating on solutions etc that I really realised this.
Looking back, accepting help and advice from people around me was the hardest, but most successful driver to my learning and progression as a designer. Letting my peers tell me how to improve and accepting that I didn’t have all the answers was tough to begin with, but has made a huge difference in the long-term. I definitely owe a lot to the people who mentored me back then, and hope that I can provide a similar service to the people I mentor today.
Actually, wait — I remembered a huge failure. I used a bunch of images in an ad campaign that weren’t properly licensed (not technically my responsibility, but I should definitely have checked)… which ended up getting my agency sued. That wasn’t a good move!
What's a skill that you'd like to develop?
Whilst I already spend a lot of my time mentoring, I’m always looking to improve the ways I listen and give feedback. Recently I’ve been focussing on developing my ability to guide designers to forming their own solutions and conclusions, rather than providing answers or giving traditional “art direction”. Part of that has been learning how to listen better, and try to really understand what motivates others, rather than seeking to interrupt or force my own opinion. I’ve been reading the book ‘Search Inside Yourself’ by Google engineer, Chade-Meng Tan which covers some really useful techniques in this area.
I’m also trying to improve my writing skills — language and effective story-telling fascinate me, so I definitely see value in improving my own abilities there.
What’s your favourite/random thing on the internet you keep coming back to lately?
Every so often I watch this video by Michael Beiruit and it literally turns my day around. Michael is one of the reasons why I chose to study Graphic Design in the first place — so it’s always good for me to remind myself every now and again. Also the amazing horse never gets old.
What’s your top 3 favourite digital products and why?
- I really love Dropbox Paper for the same reason that I’m a big fan of Medium and IAWriter — it’s perfectly crafted to encourage writing, and not much else. I love how they’ve stripped everything back to the bare essentials, and haven’t felt the need to add lots of features that distract from the main task.
- I can’t really function without Soundcloud, I even changed my phone plan specifically to allow for the huge amounts of data I churn through in streaming music! I really like the discovery aspect of it, and always seem to be listening to a new artist every day.
- Slack for both the product itself, and the way their team goes about building software — just an all-round awesome company. I wasn’t historically a big fan of chat apps, but somehow they’ve nailed the experience to keep conversation flowing without overloading you with noise. Also their release notes and copy-writing skills are perfection!
Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?
One of the key lessons I’ve learned over my career is the importance of switching off — shutting down the computer, putting away the phone, and doing something other than design. It’s not only useful for your mental health, but having new experiences also helps you grow as a designer. It’s made a huge difference to me. Travelling, learning, being out of your depth, experiencing new things, making mistakes — immersing yourself in different cultures and meeting new people will all deeply influence how you approach design… you might even have a bit of fun too.
Our design solutions should embody diversity, inclusiveness, empathy and cultural understanding — we need this now more than ever before!