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Alexis Lloyd

Interviews

Alexis Lloyd: Small Design Choices Can Change the Internet

The new VP of Product Design at Medium on designing with a playbook, team building as a remote manager, and the future of ethical design.


A few years ago, a notification popped up in Alexis Lloyd’s DMs. It was John Maeda. 

“Hey,” the design luminary (and then head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic) said, “I am a fan of your work.”

“I said, ‘The feeling is mutual,’” Lloyd recalled.

Pretty soon the experience designer, who had started as creative director of the New York Times R&D Lab and left the legacy company to be employee number two at Axios, was installed as Head of Design Innovation at Automattic.

In all of her roles, her work has centered on designing experiences for how we read and write on the internet. As the sky-high stakes of that work become ever more apparent, Lloyd has recently launched the Ethical Futures Lab, a design community and newsletter that looks at how small choices impact the future in a big way. 

“Designers have the opportunity to intentionally shape how we communicate and how we understand the world around us,” says Lloyd. “That’s what’s really powerful that keeps driving me forward.”

We sat down with Lloyd, now VP of Product Design at Medium, to talk about design ethics, how to manage a crack design team, and how designers can build an internet that empowers rather than exploits.

It turns out that, just like John Maeda, we are a big fan of her work.

***

Q. You spent nine years at the New York Times R&D Lab from 2007 to 2016, which must have been a fascinating time to be innovating how we consume journalism. 

A. It was a super interesting time to join because a lot happened at once in 2007: Twitter had recently been founded, Facebook had just opened up beyond universities, the iPhone had just launched. The mission of the Lab was to look at the challenges and opportunities presented by emerging technologies and realities and start conversations about how we approach them as an organization and as an industry.

Q. From the New York Times to Axios to Automattic to Medium, you’ve always focused on the experience of writing and journalism online. What is the involvement of a designer in that work?

A. Many people hear “design” and they think it’s putting the pretty face on work. It’s so much deeper than that. User experience design is designing systems. And those systems shape the possibilities and expectations of how people engage with the world around them. So, designing experiences around how people read and write is to create the framework for how we understand the world and each other.

Q. Why is it important that designers be involved in that conversation?

A. We’ve seen the kind of impact the design of systems can have. For example, Facebook and social media platforms have largely been designed to optimize for virality and reach as the default. That’s had profound effects on the shape of our personal and political discourse. Designers can really consider the impact of small decisions like those defaults and how we can use them to facilitate the long-term effects that we want them to have.

Q. There are agency designers, and then there are in-house and R&D. What’s the value of each experience?

A. The advantage of working for an agency is you get to tackle new things with every project, so you’re constantly learning about a new company or industry. But you’re often handing over a set of recommendations and you don’t get to do the iterating, testing, and learning part of the design process.

“Give the people the space to surprise you.”

When you do in-house work, you get to go deep with your users and the product. It allows for more long-term thinking. And R&D is about having a group of people who can think a little further out and be the vanguard to understand what’s possible in the future and how we might get from A to B.

Q. You ended up at Automattic because John Maeda slid into your DMs. Was a call out of the blue like that exciting?

A. It was exciting for a number of reasons. One was that I’d been working in a developing industry for a long, time so I was often the most senior person doing what I do. I’d never really had the mentorship that comes with reporting to someone who deeply understood my craft.

Q. In working with John, did you realize anything about what makes a good mentor or manager?

A. Give the people the space to surprise you. You can try to drive a really direct path toward the outcome that you want. Or you can plant a lot of seeds that maybe don’t seem related to each other and let them grow. Then you’re acting as the gardener for the environment, figuring out levers you can pull to help the whole organism come along with you.

Q. Is that why you made a design playbook for Automattic?

A. I think that playbooks and design principles can be a useful way to have a common set of principles to evaluate our work. Most importantly, it’s a tool to facilitate good conversations centered around the users’ experience. At Automattic specifically, we kept it at a high enough level that it wasn’t prescriptive, but it helped to build culture and expectations.

Q. What would you suggest to someone looking to make a playbook for their own company?

A. It’s about really bringing people into the process so that it’s not a top-down exercise. I gathered a lot of the writing that designers on the team had been doing and acted as an editor to pull out common threads and synthesize those into principles and best practices. That allowed me to say, “This is a distillation of what we have all been doing together,” rather than, “This is my idea of what could work. And now you have to go to it.”

Q. Speaking of people management, Automattic is famously a fully distributed team. Do you have any advice for managing remote teams?

A. It can be easy for the time you spend with people that you’re not co-located with be very transactional. One of the most important things for culture and team-building is building space for non-transactional relationships to develop.

“One of the most important things for culture and team-building is building space for non-transactional relationships to develop.”

One tactic is “coffee break time,” which is just a remote hangout where everybody gets on, has a cup of coffee or tea, and it’s explicitly not talking about work. It’s a way to recreate those casual moments where you run into someone at the water cooler, which where you really start to build trust and relationships. At Medium, the whole design team does it for half an hour every couple of weeks. The conversation leads to all different kinds of things, from people’s tattoos to their travel plans to what insects they’re afraid of.

Q. You and your former NYTimes R&D co-lead, Matt Boggie recently started the Ethical Futures Lab together. What about that conversation is exciting to you?

A. It’s easy to talk about ethics in broad strokes, like doing good or evil. I’m more interested in levels of decision-making; what’s the default? What’s the expectation for how people use this? How do we make explicit all the choices that are built into those frameworks and designs?

There’s this sense that the path of technological progress is inevitable. But it really is a set of explicit choices made by people. The more we can reflect on that, the more we can imagine other choices made in a more intentional way. Those are choices that lead to systems that empower people rather than exploit them.

“There’s this sense that the path of technological progress is inevitable. But it really is a set of explicit choices made by people.”

Matt and I started writing a newsletter every couple of weeks called Six Signals, where we would find signals of emerging futures. We want to move into more community-building, more making, and bridging that gap between theory and creation.

Q. How do you build that kind of ethical thinking into the initial stages of your work?

A. It starts with thinking about people who aren’t your default user. We tend to design for the ideal state of what we’re creating and plan for the user who understands the system and uses it as we intended. The most basic, low-hanging fruit is to ask, “What’s the worst thing that someone might do with this?” That should encompass everything from accidental misuse to intentional malice.

We can get pretty far by simply having diversity of experience when we’re creating products. We’ve seen terrible misuse of software and platforms because those systems were created by a homogenous set of people who never considered questions that might have be obvious to someone else had they been in the room. For example, how social platforms can be used for stalking and abuse is something that, if you’re not in a position where you’ve ever had to consider that, it might not come to mind. It’s a matter of seeing what’s possible, both good and bad.

More Posts by Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. 


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