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A Look Inside Design at Ask.com

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We're tracking down InVision users inside the world's most amazing companies to discover their favorite tools, books, methods, and the philosophy behind what makes them so awesome. This week we interviewed Matt Binkowski, Senior Director: UX, Design, Strategy and Execution at Ask.com in Oakland, CA.

What are the top 3 essentials in your workspace?

  1. Clean Workspace: I can’t stand seeing a mess in front of me. I fill my head with information and I don’t want my desk filled with crap.
  2. Light: I’m not a cave dweller kind of person. I like seeing what time of day it is because I don’t always look at the clock. When you’re sitting in a cave and there’s nothing to tell you what happened, it can be three days and then you think, “This isn’t good..”
  3. Window: I like to be able to look away, and look out for a minute just to change my depth of field. It's easy for us, as designers, to get caught up in our own world inside.

Tell us about some of your favorite tools for the creative process.

  • OmniGraffle Pro: We use custom Ask OmniGraffle Pro stencils to quickly create on-brand designs for all our products.
  • Keynote: I love Keynote and have used it since the first day it was released. I use Keynote for many purposes because it’s so easy and flexible: taking notes, animations, diagramming simple things out really fast for people, etc.
  • Skype and Fuze: We use Skype and lately Fuze for remote team members. I have a flatscreen TV turned portrait especially for Skype calls.
  • InVision: We have lots of different tools to stay in contact about any given project, but it all comes together in InVision. We can’t be fast if our feedback is coming from too many sources. If a designer is trying to keep up with the latest project conversations, they’re quickly overwhelmed, often don’t have the latest updates or input or even have a sense of the whole conversation. Before I came to Ask, it was a flurry of paper and handwritten notes, decks, IMs, emails. I would go to meetings to get caught up, and it seemed unnecessarily difficult. I wanted to contribute but we’d waste the first 15 minutes trying to catch me up on what happened. We’re all striving to be more efficient and the big thing for us was, “If you had to be the person to capture all that feedback, you wouldn’t like your job, would you?” So we looked at options for helping us streamline our process. Now visual design is done in Photoshop and Interaction Design is done in OmniGraffle. The wireframe is what goes into InVision where we do user testing, and all the comments are there too. We try to not email comments back and forth anymore. If someone does, we write back: “Please put them in InVision.”

Our team required almost no training to get up and running with InVision, which was awesome.

Tell us about some of your favorite books.

A fascinating journey into the hidden psychological influences that derail our decision-making, Sway will change the way you think about the way you think.

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What music do you listen to when you’re designing?

Born Ugly
–The Muggs

I’m starting a band, so I listen to my own stuff as I’m figuring out how to put it together. Some of my other favorite bands include:

What is your beverage of choice?

It depends on how the project is going, but usually it’s a Starbucks mocha.

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As a designer, you need to know how to talk to people, how to listen, and how to put yourself in the user’s shoes

What is your ritual to "get in the zone" when you're working on a project?

  • Define the problem: We look for the user's problem. Then we ask ourselves, "Should we fix that? Does it fit within who we are and what we’re trying to do? Is this problem relevant to our business in any way?"
  • Listen: I encourage people to tell me everything they can about everything they do. I ask them not to leave anything out. I do a ton of listening up front. And then I go to the next person and do it again and again. Designers need to have the complete story: Listening is essential for that.
  • Environment: I also try to pay careful attention to all the things going on around me - in and outside of the office. I even pay attention to all the interactions in video games that I play and I take note of it in case a learning can be applied to a project I’m working on. Sometimes I frustrate my kids when we play games because we’ll play, and something cool will have happened and I’m like, “Do that again” so I can note it. I ultimately had to get my own Xbox and leave the Wii for my kids.
  • iPhone photos: I’m ridiculously visual. I’m always taking photos with my iPhone because I like to do things that keep my mind active.
  • Find similarity: I really pay attention to the things I use frequently and compare them to see if there is a particular feature, functionality, or other characteristic that has attracted me. A large part of design is discovering patterns about how people think and behave.
  • Find limitations: I like taking things that should function a certain way, and trying to make them do something else. It helps you see the limitations in things. For example, I was telling my 8-year-old daughter (who loves building weird structures in Minecraft) about my experiments with The Sims when it first launched. I used to build two-story houses and then delete the first floor to see if it would float in the air (it did). I do the same thing with technology at work. Maybe I should be a QA tester in my next life.
  • Art:I went to school to be a portrait painter and illustrator, and art has always been inspiring, so I try to make art when I can.
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How does InVision help you in your design process?

Collaboration

Finding ways to collaborate, like using InVision, has been awesome here. Product Managers, UX Designers, and Engineers collaborate in InVision to come up with what’s next. The designers’ heads are less cluttered because they don’t have to worry about what the status of something is because we’re all telling each other to get in InVision and mark it up. Even when we’re sitting in different parts of the building, we can all contribute comments to designers’ ideas. My team is naturally a highly collaborative group of people, so it doesn’t take much prodding for anyone to get feedback.

User Testing

InVision solved both problems for us really fast: collaboration of designers, and clickable user testing. We like having users sit in the same room as our designer and product manager and use the product. Our team required almost no training to get up and running with InVision, which was awesome. The UX of the product is simple and powerful. I’m happy that we chose it and are sticking with it.

How important is collaborating with other designers?

Much of my job is centered around collaborating with other people. Being a good communicator is the big skill. As a designer, you need to know how to talk to people, and how to listen, and how to put yourself in the user’s shoes because you never really design something for yourself. It’s always for the business and the consumer, not your portfolio. I’ve found that if you can’t adjust to thinking that way, you’re not going to be very successful.

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We’re all here, we’re all capable, we’re all creative. We can figure this stuff out.

How do you present your work to your clients?

We don’t really have clients to present to... it’s usually fellow employees and management. I had a team meeting this morning where we primarily focused on how to present ideas to our executives in a way that would resonate with their interests and goals. Always consider the audience you’re presenting to and how best they would absorb the information. If you say it how you personally view it, they might not care or see how it fits in with what they’re worried about all day long. So we talk about what keeps them up at night, what are their biggest concerns, so we can then present our ideas through that perspective.

When we present ideas, we focus on communicating the benefits to our business and what will make the user happy, without going into the visual design weeds. We try to stay away from "how it looks" right away because then that’s all you’re talking about and you’re not talking about the bigger picture. We need to have proof that we can deliver on this thing we said we would do. The CEO needs to hear about the benefits to the business and the things that are going to make the user happy, without worrying about how it looks. We try to stay away from how it looks right away because then that’s all you’re talking about. You’re not talking about what it means.

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What is your favorite part of the design process?

Coming up with the idea. I’m not 100% responsible for actually sitting down and doing the execution part of it, but I love solving big problems.

What is the most frustrating aspect of design?

I don’t like when people quit. And I don’t mean quit the job; I mean quit on an idea. You can tell they’re starting to quit because they start saying, “No,” or, “This is difficult,” or, “I don’t know how to do that.” Well so what? Figure it out. It’s tough because it’s called work. We can do this. We’re all here, we’re all capable, we’re all creative. We can figure this stuff out.

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About Matt

Hi. My name is Matt Binkowski and I'm located in the San Francisco Bay Area. I spent my formative years in Detroit and then subsequently embarked on a trek that has led me to Florida, Kansas and the Bay Area. Currently, I am the Senior Director of UX, Design, Strategy and Execution at Ask.com which — ominous as that title might sound — it means I manage and lead an awesome team comprised of visual and interaction designers, as well as the underlying front end codebase. When I'm not thinking of ways to help you get better answers to your questions, I'm writing music and exploring the Universe with my wife of 16 years and our two children.

About Ask.com

Every day, millions of people come to us with questions - personal and professional, easy and difficult, silly and serious. At Ask.com, our mission is to answer these questions with the best information from the web and from real people - all in one place.

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