Inside Design

Inside Design: Meerkat

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Meerkat is a livestreaming app that lets anyone with a mobile phone and a Twitter account broadcast live video to subscribers. These InVision customers only launched the app in late February, paving the way for a new medium that’s all about live participation. I chatted with Jakub Swiadek, designer at Meerkat, about keeping things simple, why you should fail, and how the app came to be.

How’s your team set up?

Meerkat’s an 11-person company, and I’m the only designer. I work closely with the front-end developers, VP of product, and our CEO, Ben, who’s very hands-on.

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Even though I’m the only designer, we try to involve a lot of people in the process—it’s a very open, inclusive environment. Everybody brings a different kind of expertise to the table. For example, if we involve developers early on in the process, we’ll better understand their limitations so that we can design around those things instead of just going totally off the cuff with designs that aren’t possible given the timeframe.

Is there a formal structure for your design process?

I’m sure we’re using parts of various methodologies, but we don’t have a specific or by-the-book process in place.

What do you spend most of your time doing at work?

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A little bit of everything, though my strengths are in interaction design and basic behavioral design of the app. I’m spending most of my time working on the app. We do have a web component, but the main focus is on the app.

What’s the reporting structure for you like?

Our VP of product prioritizes my tasks and maintains an overall road map so I always know what to work on next. If I ever feel like I want to do something that isn’t on that road map, all I have to do is talk to him.

What’s the design culture like?

We don’t really subscribe to any specific ideas—we just try to be open with our thinking about the product, including the design aspect of it.

Generally, I like things that are nicely executed, clean, and well-behaved, but those things aren’t necessarily priorities. I just try to do my best in whatever the constraints are and work around the constraints.

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“I put everything I’m doing on InVision—it’s our box for design, talking about design, and the language of the app.”

What’s the biggest challenge with your team structure?

Keeping the product evolving, aesthetic-wise. We’re working so hard on new features that it’s tough to prioritize things like how something looks. So what we decide to do next isn’t always the coolest thing. Prioritizing is always a struggle.

Do you have any insights for someone who also has prioritization issues?

Talk to your team about your idea and figure out how to find time to do things that you personally believe are important.

“Figure out how to find time to do things that you personally believe are important.”

How do you design features?

Typically, feature ideas come from the top. I’m involved in the early stages, like coming up with what we should do, but it’s not entirely up to me. Once we know how we want to proceed, I break the project down into specific tasks and create cards for each one on Trello.

From there, I start wireframing on paper until I’m ready to upload mockups to InVision and get team feedback. At the same time, I’ll start working on animations and behavioral stuff. There’s a lot of back-and-forth at this stage, but as soon as we feel good about it—or we run out of time to iterate—I push it out to our developers.

“I start wireframing on paper until I’m ready to upload mockups to InVision and get team feedback.”

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In your opinion, what are the best ways to make sure that handoff to developers is as smooth as possible?

Zeplin’s been a game-changer. It’s still in beta, but it lets you import your design from Sketch, and then developers can just open Zeplin and check out the design—size, color, position, and anything else you might have included.

Before, I’d have to write down every property of every element—it was painful. We have a giant dry-erase board wall where we write down details connected to the feature that might go missing in static mockups.

I hand off animations and behavioral things in Quartz Composer files and form files, and I encourage the developers to take a look at how I built the animation and how it behaves. They’re not always very interested in doing that, so I wind up just talking to them about it. It’s easy to do that since we have such a small team—plus, I sit right next to our front-end developers.

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How do you think your design process differs from competitors?

What I hope is that we’re more collaborative and that we have more open-ended conversations about every part of the product. We want everyone to participate—even if that means our office gets noisy from 6 people shouting over each other about 1 thing. In the end, we’re able to make features the best they can be because of that collaboration.

“We want everyone to participate—even if that means our office gets noisy from 6 people shouting over each other about 1 thing.”

Can you tell me about how you identify feature requests and how you validate ideas?

Our VP of product manages feature requests, and we use Trello to stay organized. If I ever have an idea that I feel strongly about, I’ll start to develop it on my own.

We communicate using Slack, so during the day we exchange links of cool stuff we’ve seen on Twitter and other places, as well as share ideas for new features for the app. Our team’s great about coming up with ideas and pinpointing things we could improve.

What’s a typical day for you like at Meerkat?

In the morning, I’ll catch up with Uri, our VP of product, and figure out 2 or 3 tasks I could knock out that day. And then I start working on those.

I bounce ideas off him throughout the day, so we’re in constant communication. I also talk to developers a lot, just to get feedback about whether something’s possible given our timeframe—and if we can figure out a better, smarter way to do something.

At the end of the day, I have another meeting with Uri to go over what I accomplished and start to plan out the next day.

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What do you think is the best part of your design process?

While I love designing, it’s frustrating at times—there’s this deep discontent with what you’re doing as a designer. I think lots of designers yearn to do something more, to be bigger than what they’re capable of.

Sometimes you achieve that, and sometimes you don’t.

“I think lots of designers yearn to do something more, to be bigger than what they’re capable of.”

As far as my process: I love designing the actual interactions and behavioral stuff. Not just having an idea of how something will look, but also taking into consideration how it’ll behave and work.

What values are important to you when you’re designing?

  • Focus on the user
  • Keep things simple with a short, easy-to-understand flow
  • Functionality

Can you tell me about how you make decisions regarding your design?

Conditions, limitations, and constraints can all influence decisions about design, so it’s tough to generalize. I make my designs as easy to understand and as logical as possible.

I like to think about Jony Ive’s Apple videos and how he talks about things being so obvious that they couldn’t be more simple—almost to the point of being stupidly simple. But when you reach that point with design, where it’s basically a no-brainer, that’s when it becomes great.

Do you watch any metrics while you’re designing?

Any time we release an update, I use Twitter to fish out reactions to it. They’ve been overwhelmingly positive so far.

When we plan to do a new feature, we typically think about which metrics we’ll want to see, along with KPIs. And once we’ve released something, we’ll monitor whatever we’ve set out to achieve. It just depends on the feature.

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How does your team collaborate in the design process?

I talk to and collaborate with developers all the time—it’s important to understand their technical limitations, and I’m able to do that thanks to a little bit of programming experience.

“I talk to and collaborate with developers all the time—it’s important to understand their technical limitations.”

Assumptions are almost always the opposite of reality, so you have to talk to your developers about your design in order to have a healthy workflow.

Outside of Trello, how do you document your processes?

I put everything I’m doing on InVision—it’s our box for design, talking about design, and the language of the app. We use Hackpad to take notes.

Trello helps us manages our tasks and archive everything we’ve done, but we don’t have a specific tool just for documentation.

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Do you have any advice on working cross-functionally?

Use Slack. The ability to chat with everyone and have a chat room for each department and team is brilliant. At first it’s overwhelming, but it gets better the more you use it—immersing everyone in all that’s going on is a good thing.

One of the best things you can do is understand that everyone has different needs and expectations for what you’re doing. Be mindful of that along the way, and don’t assume that you always know what’s best.

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How has your team dealt with the viral growth of Meerkat?

Meerkat was a side project developed by 1 person—we didn’t expect it to take off so quickly. Within a few days of its release, the entire company got behind the project, making us reevaluate our organization’s priorities to reflect Meerkat as our focus.

We’re working constantly to release new features and make improvements.

What do you think was the largest contributor to your adoption so far?

We didn’t do any marketing. Our success is likely due to a mix of the simplicity of the app, good preparation, and luck. We’ve always treated it seriously despite it being a side project.

“Our success is likely due to a mix of the simplicity of the app, good preparation, and luck.”

How do you stay engaged and creative?

We had a couple of livestreaming apps before Meerkat, but this is by far the most successful. Because I designed Meerkat in a day and half, I wasn’t able to spend as much time thinking about it as it deserved. So I feel like I couldn’t possibly be more engaged in it—there’s so much to do and so many things to improve and iterate on.

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How has your user base changed since launch?

People use Meerkat in creative ways we never expected.

An example: a real estate agent livestreamed his showing of an available Upper East Side apartment in New York, and potential buyers watched as if they were there.

There are so many use cases for livestreaming that we don’t know yet because it’s such a new thing.

How do you keep up with constantly changing web standards and opinions on what good design actually is?

Standards seem to naturally evolve, and I don’t think that web standards are changing very much. Internal conversations about them are healthy to have, especially when there’s a focus on functionality, usability, and accessibility.

Digital design is so young—it’s a given that people will go back and forth about what the right way to design something is.

Discussions about design style can get hairy if you believe your own opinion is the universal truth. Still, I value that type of discussion—it’s just our community trying to figure things out that we need to figure out. At some point we’ll reach a more stable, evolved conclusion, but it’s too early for that to happen.

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What was the original concept for Meerkat?

Our company’s been working on livestreaming products for almost 3 years. The first app was Yevvo, which was done without a designer on the team, and it evolved into a complex, feature-rich product.

We started to diverge from Yevvo’s simplicity by adding features like profiles—features that weren’t at all related to live video. We wound up killing it off and introduced Air, our first attempt at making a simpler and more approachable livestreaming app.

While we were working on Air, we started working on Meerkat as a side project that was essentially a bunch of experiments in 1 package. We kept things totally bare bones and tested out things like connecting everything to Twitter and allowing scheduled streams.

I designed it in a day and half, and our developer built it in 8 weeks. We had more experiments in the pipeline, but Meerkat just stuck—it worked.

Why did your team choose to build a livestreaming video app?

I’ve only been here a year, but I think that when the company started out 3 years ago, the world wasn’t ready for a livestreaming app. Now that LTE is everywhere, we have powerful smartphones with great cameras, and we’re more receptive to a synchronic way of communicating, this new participation medium is taking off.

For the last few years, we’ve been posting and sharing things. The next logical step involves a new way of experiencing things through participation in whatever the piece of content is. Live video will be a huge part of that.

How would you compare yourself, design-wise, to some of your competitors?

We’re striving for simplicity and ease of use. I don’t think of other apps as competition, but this area of participation will be huge—we’ll see tons of apps dedicated to it. We’re all figuring things out, and nobody’s got it just yet. 2015 is the year we’ll figure out this new medium of real-time participation.

How’d you come up with the branding for Meerkat?

Accidentally. We’d spent a significant amount of time branding Air, landing on something simple, elegant, and geometric. While we did that, we tried to come up with other ideas for what the product could be. We asked ourselves questions like: if the product were an animal, what would it be? We landed on Meerkat.

It was Uri who first suggested Meerkat because they’re funny, cute, social animals that usually stick in groups and tend to just stand and look at 1 thing together.

I mocked up the icon in 20 minutes, and even though it came out okay, it didn’t feel right for Air. When we started thinking about the new project, the icon was a natural fit. So that became Meerkat.

Do you think differentiating UX and visual design makes you more effective against future competition?

Many of our users comment on how cute the icon is and how much they love the animations inside the app. This product is out of my comfort zone—I normally lean towards clean, simple designs—but the design is working.

Even though the app’s UI isn’t polished, there’s a lot of encouragement for us to continue doing quirky, fun branding and design.

What is success to you and your team?

Everyone on the team is grateful for what’s happening and excited about what’ll happen next, and we think the world of our users. But I don’t know if any of us ever know what success is. If you strive for something and achieve it, that’s your new mundane reality. You can get bored of anything, so you shouldn’t have the mindset that once you accomplish a certain thing, you’ve made it.

“You can get bored of anything, so you shouldn’t have the mindset that once you accomplish a certain thing, you’ve made it.”

It’s more about being present. Success is an abstract concept that everyone wants, but nobody really knows what it is.

What insights or advice do you have for other designers who are tasked with reimagining ingrained experiences like video?

Stick to what you’re doing and constantly iterate.

The entire team understands what a livestreaming video product should be. We never wrote that down or talked about it—it’s just a visceral understanding of what we’re doing. Once you have that, things naturally come to you. You know the answer without even thinking about it.

A lot of Meerkat’s success is connected to the fact that we’ve been doing this for so long. We’ve had failure after failure, but we’ve stuck to it. You have to believe that you’re doing something that will work in the end.

But things never work the first time. Stick to an idea and keep evolving it.

Dima Shapira-8495 “Things never work the first time. Stick to an idea and keep evolving it.”
Dima Shapira-8524 “We’re striving for simplicity and ease of use.”
Dima Shapira-8474 “We’ve had failure after failure at Meerkat, but we’ve stuck to it.”
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Author

Clair Byrd
Former Director of Content Marketing at InVision.

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