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Tumblin’: Buzz Andersen, Director of Mobile Development at Tumblr



Buzz Andersen is what we in the design world call “a total badass.” After co-creating the hugely successful Birdfeed Twitter client, and working on both OS X and Soundtrack Pro at Apple, Buzz came aboard the Tumboat in late 2011 to lead the platform’s mobile division. Equal parts philosopher and programmer, Andersen’s approach to and reflections on his work stand as an incredible example to anyone working in a web-related field.

Cornered for a few fleeting moments outside the Tumblr hive of whimsy, Buzz discussed meta-currents in design, the often misunderstood role of apps, and Tumblr’s facilitation of a new romantic self. Put your thinking socks on and join us for this very special edition of Tumblin’.

You have a panel coming up at SxSW entitled "The Right Tool for the Job: Native or Mobile Web?" Other than the obvious (your position as Tumblr’s Director of Mobile development), what sparked your interest in organizing it?

I’ve been developing native software for the Mac since 2002 and for the iPhone since 2008, and I’m as much of an Apple fanboy as the next guy, but I find the current state of affairs in mobile development pretty crazy and a bit unsustainable. Really since the introduction of the iPhone, but particularly after the advent iPad, this concept of “apps as content” has gained a lot of currency, and now every media company in the world feels compelled to be in the business of developing native software as a distribution channel. Despite the press’s tendency to portray this trend as futuristic, I actually think of it as a bit retrograde—particularly since we’ve actually been evolving an incredibly sophisticated medium for content presentation and distribution for over 15 years now: the web.

I think a lot of what we’re trying to do with the panel is give the media and business folks who attend SXSW a bit more perspective on the difference between native apps and web apps—how they have radically different capabilities, development cycles, design needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Ideally we will help people understand when it’s a win to invest the significant time and money necessary to build a compelling native mobile product, and when their needs would actually be better served by a top notch mobile web app.

Apropos of Khoi Vinh’s analysis, you recently remarked on the “fussy, post-Apple wave of ‘high design’ in tech products” as having a kind of dialectical relationship with accessibility and “breathing room.” Could you elaborate a bit more on how the currently heightened emphasis on “high design” has affected both mobile and native software development?

I think there are basically two poles of thought about design in the startup business: the Google School (where UX researchers and data wonks aspire to build minimalist, rationalist interfaces that adapt constantly to users) and the Apple School (where intuitive, perfectionistic auteur-visionaries are thought to produce gorgeous, perfect objects of desire users never even knew they wanted). Lately, after a long period of consensus on the Google approach (bolstered by the “Lean Startup Model”) and an accompanying emphasis on methods like A/B testing, it seems to me that the success of the iPhone and the “appification” of the web is swinging the industry’s polarity a bit more toward the Apple philosophy.

This is great in many ways—I personally dislike the Google approach and have little very desire to work on products designed that way. It’s nice to see what has essentially become dogma in the startup business called into question by Apple’s astounding success.

However, I think people have a tendency to internalize successes like Apple’s in a somewhat shallow way, and it seems to me that the conversation in the startup community increasingly equates novelty and visual flair with good design. Not to knock people who are doing interesting work and trying to push the envelope, but I think a lot of products are becoming overnight sensations at least in large part on the strength of flashy designs that get tech product types buzzing but, in my experience, often don’t age or serve the user as well as less exotic solutions.

Most people perceive Tumblr as a beautiful, well-designed product, but it never calls too much attention to itself. A lot of the history of Tumblr’s design has been a process of stripping things down to showcase the content as much as possible.

What’s more, I think Khoi is right that designers of content-driven social products in particular need to strike a careful balance between creating aesthetically compelling experiences and providing users a canvas for their expression. One of the things I love about Tumblr is that our designers, Peter Vidani and Zack Sultan, do such a great job of walking that line. Most people perceive Tumblr as a beautiful, well-designed product, but it never calls too much attention to itself. A lot of the history of Tumblr’s design has been a process of stripping things down to showcase the content as much as possible.

My brother Robert, who is the creative lead at Square and the guy behind a lot of the great design culture there, always says that his goal as a designer is to make the user feel like an app is his or her home. I think that’s a useful thing to keep in mind for people who are designing any kind of software. You need to make things look good, but it’s fundamentally about the user.

Upon even the most cursory perusal of your personal blog, it’s clear that you’re considerably attuned to the web’s social and political dimensions. How do you feel Tumblr has expanded or evolved the way people talk about people and the organizations, floes and networks in which they congregate?

To me, one of the most interesting non-obvious things about Tumblr, and the secret to a lot of its success, is its supremely flexible approach to identity. Tumblr is somewhat unique as a social network in that not only does it not require Facebook-style symmetric relationships and “real” identities, it also makes it really easy for users to spin off separate identities that can be as closely or loosely related to their main identity as desired. Not that this isn’t possible on services like Twitter, but Tumblr makes it so much easier than anyone else to spin facets of your personality off into separate blogs. I personally have a main blog with my name on it, a photo blog, a cocktail blog, and a number of others that are based on inside jokes or silly topics too inconsequential to mention.

My blog is linked from the Tumblr staff page now, which means I get an unending stream of random followers. I like to think this gives me a bit of insight into how people are using Tumblr. One of the things that fascinates me is the way a lot of young people seem to use Tumblr, which is basically as a positive, aspirational alternative to the social networking institution they’re accustomed to: Facebook. Rather than forcing them to represent themselves as they are, which I think is Facebook’s major goal, Tumblr allows them to represent the romantic self (or selves) they wish to be. I think this is a big part of the intense emotional attachment a lot of people seem to have to Tumblr.

Facebook is currently #1 in terms of time spent online, but Tumblr recently became #2. I think this is because they both appeal to intense human desires, but I would argue that of the two Tumblr appeals to the more positive.

You’ve worked for a considerable variety of larger and smaller companies. Of the many environments and schedules you’ve inhabited/held, which have you found the most conducive to development work (or work in general)?

Honestly, while it wasn’t a perfect place by any means, I think Apple was the best place I’ve ever worked. I’ve never seen a company that manages the balance between shipping perfect products and, well, *shipping* at all, better. Apple has an ability to balance long term and short term concerns in product development in a way I simply haven’t seen in many other companies. While a lot of people obviously associate Apple with the perfectionism of Steve Jobs, there are also a number of incredibly pragmatic, hard nosed veterans in the organization who hold incredibly complex product development processes together in a way that makes it look easy.

When I tell people about my time at Apple, the people I usually mention as heroes aren’t the executives people have heard of, they’re people like Ray Chiang, the OS engineer who could debug a kernel panic by merely stating at a series of anonymous hexadecimal addresses, or Brenda Ciccerone, an Apple veteran who miraculously pulled OS X updates together when things looked hopeless by triaging bugs ruthlessly and standing up to anyone who pushed back on her decisions to deny code submissions she deemed too risky. Apple is where I really learned how to ship software, and in my opinion they’re better at it than anyone because they have a perfect balance between idealism and realism, design and engineering.

"To me it feels like we’re living in a time where institutions are collapsing around us with increasing frequency. This can be a terrifying thing in many ways, but there is also a positive dimension to it: the opportunity to reinvent any number of once invincible industries has never been greater."

You’ve mentioned the entrepreneurial parallelism between food and design culture (i.e., prevalence of startups, renewed emphasis on novelty, etc.) periodically on your blog. In what other fields do you see similar or related shifts?

To me it feels like we’re living in a time where institutions are collapsing around us with increasing frequency. This can be a terrifying thing in many ways, but there is also a positive dimension to it: the opportunity to reinvent any number of once invincible industries has never been greater. One of the reasons I joined Square as the company’s eight employee was that I fell in love with the incredibly well-timed vision Jack Dorsey articulated about bringing the values of the web to one of today’s most reviled industries: finance.

As Square developed and I became acquainted with more and more small merchants, the power of unlocking excess capacity in the economy by tearing down barriers became increasingly intriguing to me. I was flying out to San Francisco every six weeks or so to visit the Square offices and the city was showing the first signs of what has become a full-fledged street food phenomenon, which Square became increasingly tied to. I was really struck by the ways the mere existence of democratized credit card payments was encouraging people who might never have considered selling their wares to give it a shot, and how it made a number of businesses that once might not have been viable successful.

I think Square is just one example of a trend (including things like Kickstarter, AirBnB, and my friend Chris’s new startup Kitchen Surfing) that is all about democratizing industries and unlocking excess capacity in the world. While I have as much trepidation about the future of the US and the world as anyone, these are the things that give me hope that what we’ve been going through in recent years is the painful painful birth of a new kind of capitalism, not a terrible death.

The threats of increased censorship and diminished privacy dominate current discussion of the web. Forced to make a prediction, what do you think we’ll be talking about/battling in ten years?

Wow, that’s a tough one. Like a lot of people, I often suspect that the tech industry is cyclical, and it seems to me like one of the big cycles is a movement between open/transparent and closed/opaque. It feels like we’ve moved into a period where the more or less open values of “Web 2.0” (which replaced the closed early web of AOL and “portals”) have given way to the somewhat closed values of Facebook, modern Google, and the Apple App Store. While I don’t want to sound like an astrologer or MBA type, it does seem like there is some economic evidence for the existence of something like the “Patterson Cycle,”, which posits that the tech industry moves along in 14 year cycles consisting of 8 years of growth followed by 6 years of retrenchment where the serious gains are realized. Maybe the “closed” phase tends to coincide with the retrenchment part of the cycle where companies lock on their gains? If this highly speculative idea happens to be true, it seems likely that we might be witnessing the beginnings of a retrenchment that will eventually give way to a sort of dialectical “Web 3.0” migration back to open platforms, renewed respect for privacy, and an emphasis on transparency (albeit with the standard of privacy permanently shifted).

Then again, what do I know—I’m just a programmer!

Buzz’s fountain of genius can be accessed at his personal blog, SciFi HiFi, and @buzz on Twitter.

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