Yaron Schoen on making for humans

The Brooklyn-based designer tells Martin Cooper how a few, simple lines of code ignited his love affair with web design.

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Yaron Schoen describes himself a human interface designer. He makes machine interfaces that are pleasing and comfortable for people. By his estimation, over 300 million people have used his creations over the past 10 years. Before you continue reading, you may like to visit his site and use the handy pronunciation guide so you can get his name just right.

Why don't you introduce yourself?

I'm a Brooklyn-based interface designer. I'm also the founder of Made for Humans, a small design shop, Float, a project planning and team scheduling service, and Kiddo, that creates software for parents.

You created a tutorial to help people pronounce your name?

Yup! I get a lot of "how do you pronounce your name?", so I decided to help people out. The options were to either create a quick tutorial to help people pronounce it, or to completely change my name to Ron Stone or something. I chose the former.

Schoen founded Kiddo. It's a company that creates software for parents. Its first product is a baby activity tracking app that is launching soon

Where does the clan Schoen hail from?

I was born in Manhattan, moved to Israel when I was 13, and came back to NY when I was 27. My wife was born in a small Kibbutz in Israel, and I met her in the beaches of Sinai almost a decade ago. My god, time flies. Our two-year-old daughter was born in Brooklyn.

How did you wind up becoming a designer?

Mainly by chance. Even though I was always very passionate about art and illustration, I never really paid much attention to graphic design until I attended a few 'Multimedia' classes in my early twenties. It was there that I first embraced graphic design and discovered many of the tools that I use to this day: Photoshop, Freehand (Illustrator), Flash, After Effects, 3DS Max, you name it. I mainly focused on Freehand because of its simplicity and, unlike 3D or video, its zero rendering time. Plus I enjoyed experimenting with illustration.

And the web? When did it first make an entrance in your life?

The first time I surfed the web was in the mid-nineties. I was intrigued, but honestly I was way more interested in playing Space Quest 3. The real 'aha' moment for me was when I was introduced to HTML in my multimedia class. I remember this vividly, it was the first time I used the default Windows text editor to create a 100px table with a red background colour. The fact that a few lines of text in a text editor could create something visual in a browser blew my mind.

Schoen created a series of posters of sleeping animals designed for baby and toddler rooms to help convince them sleep is good. He's pretty sure parents will appreciate this

What's your style as a designer?

Honestly, I don't know. It's funny how you can immediately recognise the style of one of your peers, but when it comes to yourself, it's a lot harder. It's kind of like your voice; you have no idea how it really sounds until you listen to a recording of it. When it comes to design influences, I'm a bit polar. I was always into Art Nouveau, Tiffany lamps, stained glass and that sort of aesthetic. But at the same breath I'm a Swiss modernism junkie. So perhaps some of those influences are apparent in my work? Who knows. I just do my best to adapt my style to any given project.

Do you think a designer's role can sometimes become mythologised?

Even though 'design' is a hot buzzword, I honestly am not so sure that the tech community fully embraced the role of the designer as much as it likes to claim it did. We're getting there, but I still see huge gaps in basic design thinking within companies. All that said, things are definitely changing for the better.

Brooklyn Beta asked Schoen to design its 2013's event site. He tried to keep true to what the conference is all about: people

I enjoyed your blog post 'Real designers nurture'. What motivated you to write it?

Thank you! I sometimes have the tendency to jump from one idea to the other. Half building things and moving on, or shipping a feature and then immediately moving on to the next. So I wrote it as a reminder to myself that shipping is just the beginning, and success usually comes from persistence, iteration and nurturing.

When it comes to product design, is there space for soul?

I'm not sure how to define soul, and I don't think our industry has defined it yet either, so it's hard to answer that. I prefer music with soul, so I'm assuming the same applies to interfaces too, right? I definitely can spot a soulless design, and it's usually just an apathetic carbon copy of something else. So perhaps soulful product design is achieved by injecting some of your own emotion and experiences, or some cultural reference that you feel connected to? Interfaces are conversation frameworks between you and a computer, and I'd rather not have an apathetic conversation. So I guess, yeah there's a place for soul.

How did Float come about?

Float (www.floatschedule.com) is a cloud-based service for project planning and team scheduling. Glenn (CEO) and I worked together at Fantasy Interactive, and when he approached me with the idea of Float it was a no brainer. We both felt the pain point of managing teams and projects and knew that this was a huge and complicated problem that we were excited to find a intuitive solution to. In the beginning we focused on agencies but we now have pharmaceuticals, architects, consultants, publishers and universities all using Float, with more than 20,000 projects in 30 countries.

Since Schoen had a pretty nasty case of food poisoning a few years ago, he co-created Eatify with Sarah Lensing to present sanitation grades for restaurants in NYC

You worked for Twitter until recently. How was that experience?

Believe it or not, I'm not a huge web or app user. I use a very limited number of services on a daily basis. Twitter is one of them. So it was a huge honour to work on a product that I love so much. Twitter's design problems may seem simple from the outside (only 140 characters!), but that's thanks to the amazing work the design team has done in order to make it seem so. Throughout my time there I got to work with some amazing people, on hard problems, while building the satellite office in NYC. Overall it was an amazing experience.

What does it feel like working for a startup that's been acquired?

Startup life is a whirlwind in general. The rollercoaster of emotions isn't for everyone. You can feel like the master of the universe and the lowest scum of the earth all in one day. Being acquired is similar. The emotions are mixed between the excitement of new challenges and the nostalgia of the old ones. As long as there is a solid transition strategy in place, things stabilise quickly. The team gets acquainted with its new surroundings and starts focusing on the future.

Schoen has been collaborating with charity: water for years now. This year it was his privilege to design a poster for its September campaign with proceeds going to villages in India

Do you want to tell us a little about Made For Humans?

Made for Humans is a small design studio that I founded after leaving AOL back in 2009. I wanted a platform from which to launch my design and development projects. The company's thesis is that an interface is essentially a communication channel between people and computers, and our job is to facilitate that channel in a way that works best for both. I kept the company open while I was at Twitter, and its current team consists of myself and two former Fimates. We're taking on few select projects each year. I feel that client work keeps us thinking fresh and pushes us into new and different areas.

Beyond the web and design, do you have pixel-free hobbies?

Music was my first passion in life. I was obsessed with classical music as a child, up until I was a teenager when grunge became a thing. I even learned to play the violin but I wasn't really persistent with practice, so if you ask me to play the violin, well … don't. Today I produce and mix electronic music, I'm no professional but it makes me happy. When I'm burnt out on a design, music is wonderful for me. I try to work on my music at least two or three hours a week, though that isn't always possible.

Schoen is passionate about music and aims to spend two or three hours a week dedicated to creating electronic music

My dentist is lovely, but you seem to hold yours in uncommonly high regard?

Ha! Yeah, she's great. I like to find inspiration mainly from sources outside of our industry and I enjoy learning from other small businesses. My dentist thrives on customer service and a friendly face. It's a reminder to me that functional design isn't enough, there needs to be that extra something to get your customers hooked. Perhaps that's the soul in web design?

Words: Martin Cooper

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 253.