Wilson Miner on social music design

Wilson Miner has designed for Apple, the original Django, and was until recently head of design at Rdio (he’s just joined Facebook). Here he answers your questions on designing for social music, using Photoshop and more …

@viborc: What were the main differences in design approach at Apple and Rdio?

WM: The way we worked at Apple was unlike anywhere I’ve ever worked before or since. There’s a level of iteration, and a commitment to building prototypes that work and feel like finished products, that I honestly don’t think would be sustainable in very many other places. It’s certainly very foreign to the startup culture of getting something out the door and pushing features out very quickly. We had high standards for design at Rdio, but it was still a small team in a very competitive space, so we had to have a pragmatic attitude about getting things built that people could use, knowing we’d be able to come back to it.

One thing I learned at Apple that had a lot of value in an environment like Rdio was to think a few steps ahead all the time. At Rdio, we’d often push the design of a feature a few steps beyond what we thought we were ready to build right away. Even if what we released had some compromises, if we’d already thought through the next iteration and the one after that, we could set up a continuity in the product that made each thing we add feel more natural and considered, rather than a series of fixes bolted on.

@TobyHowarth: How did you use design to compete and exist alongside Spotify and Grooveshark?
JB: It was a lot of fun working on a music product. So much is changing with the music industry and social networking right now, and it’s actually possible to make a good experience with streaming and mobile apps that just wasn’t possible a few years ago.

At the moment, the music catalogue is the most important ingredient when consumers compare different services. People want to know, “Do you have the albums I want to hear?” But the way things are going, everybody who’s still around in a few years is going to have essentially the same catalogue of tracks. What’s going to set one service apart from another will be the product: how it works, feels, and fits into their lives.

Design is an important part of that, and Rdio has a great design team that takes the smallest details of the experience seriously. But that goes beyond design. The reason I came to work at Rdio was that everybody puts the product first, from the founders to the engineers to the support staff to the CEO. It was great to work on something that we used every day and that we all really wanted to make better.

@jarederondu: What was your first proper design job? When was the first time that
you opened up Photoshop?

WM: I got my first ‘real’ design job when I was 16 and still in high school in Wichita, Kansas. My dad introduced me to a graphic designer in town, called Dana Britton, and I convinced him he needed somebody to design websites for his clients.

I remember when the first beta of Adobe Dreamweaver came out, I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world. We sort of turn our noses up at those WYSIWYG editors now, but those early versions of Dreamweaver really made an effort to connect the visual web page editor with the HTML code in a way that opened my eyes to what was going on under the surface.

Later I discovered A List Apart, and then Designing With Web Standards came out. I slowly started to ‘get’ it. I feel lucky that I started out when web design was still emerging. It gave me a chance to learn along with everybody else.

@itsmatthewj: Is your recent talk at Build available online?

WM: The talk I gave in October at the Build conference in Belfast is available to view now on Vimeo. I feel very lucky to have the chance to be a part of such an excellent event.

@TweetySant: What one book would you recommend to us?

WM: One of my favourite books about the creative process is by Lawrence Weschler, based on his interviews with the artist Robert Irwin. It’s called Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. It was recommended by my friend who is a painter, and with a title like that, I’ll admit I let it sit on my shelf for a while. But it’s full of amazing connections and insights for anyone who makes something and puts it out in the world.

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