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Derek Powazek

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In: Interviews

By Nick Finck

Published on August 14, 2001

Digital Web:

Derek, first I would like to thank you for taking the time to answer our questions for this interview. As always it is a pleasure to "hear" a storyteller like yourself tell his story. For our readers, could you tell us about your background and how you got into design?

Powazek:

I never really got into design - design got into me. Even as a kid, I remember thinking about the ways that ideas spread, whether it's the sound of top 40 radio or the design of a newspaper.

That obsession lead me into a darkroom in college, but I soon lost patience with the art majors. So I took my camera outside and shot for the local papers. That got me into journalism, writing, and editing. When I bought my first mac in 1992, it was so I could design and produce a small Santa Cruz newspaper. I can trace my entire current life back to that pizza box-shaped LC III.

 

Digital Web:

I feel that every designer has their own touch and style much like how each renaissance artists has their own unique way of conveying their ideas. I could recognize a Powazek design a mile away because of its uniqueness. We see it on the {fray}, Blogger, and SFStories. Could you explain your approach to design, tell us about your visual style and why you chose to design sites that way?

Powazek:

Heh. That's like asking me why I love DJ Shadow or why dark blue is so interesting to me. I have no idea. These things just resonate with me.

But, if I had to name one guiding principle, it's would be this. I try to design sites that create a unique experience, without ever letting the design upstage the content. In {fray}, the story is king. Nothing should get in the way of the user's experience of reading it, feeling it. The design is there to make it unique, and to seduce the reader into reading, but once that's done, I think the design should take a back seat and let the reader just experience the story.

 

Digital Web:

Not only are you a talented designer, but you have another trait that became abundantly clear when I sat in a crowded café and heard you tell a story for the Fray Café in Austin Texas. Investigating further and looking into your works on the {fray} and your comments on your personal web log it reinforces your ability as a storyteller. Do you have any formal background in writing?

Powazek:

Do high school English classes count as a background in writing?

I had this teacher at Claremont High. Madam Adam. She was this tidal wave of a woman, who really nurtured me. And she took no shit. When I came in empty-handed, she'd say, "Where's your story?"

"Oh, I couldn't finish it, I was overwhelmed. I had this horrible day, and..."

"Then write about that," she'd say, handing me a pen.

Madam Adam taught me that everything was a story, if you looked at it from the right angle.

Then, in college, Conn Hallinan, an Irish spitfire troublemaker if there ever was one, taught me about journalism - research, interviews, that independent muckraker spirit. I went on to run a gonzo newspaper, The Fish Rap Live!, that combined the best of both worlds into personal journalism.

I've always wanted to be a writer, but even after all that, I still never had much confidence as one. In many ways, I'm a member of the generation of writers that the web has created. Without the web, I'm not sure I would have ever written what I've written, or told the stories I've told.

 

Digital Web:

This is a big month for you, your book, Design for Community, is about to hit bookstores. Could you tell us what we might expect to find in the book? What are some of the key points you mention in the book about community web sites?

Powazek:

Here we go. I'm going to summarize 300 pages in one run-on sentence. Ready?

"The web offers an incredible opportunity to connect people, but for it to work you have to offer compelling content, elegant tools, and clear navigation, all wrapped up into a beautiful design that creates a memorable experience."

Phew!

I am so proud of this book. I just printed the entire thing out from pdfs and read it three times and I still love it. It's not like any book out there. It's not a do-it-my-way manifesto, it's not a dry academic book, it's not a pretty content-less design book. Mostly it's a collections of lessons learned the hard way - personal stories about websites that have succeeded (and failed) in creating community online, as told by me from my experience, as well as a collection of some of the most impressive people in the community space: Steven Johnson, Rob Malda, Howard Rheingold... people who have been in the trenches longer than anyone else.

 

Digital Web:

What was it like to write the book? I imagine it was a pretty seemingly endless experience. Is there anything you would like to say as advice to someone who is considering writing a book?

Powazek:

Writing the book was easily the hardest thing I've ever done. Because, to write a book, you have to face down all those demons that whisper in your ear, "Who are you do write this? What makes you so smart?"

I mean, books are things that are written by Authors, right? And I'm not an Author. I'm just some guy who makes websites that never make any money!

The best advice I could give a first time author is this: Stop thinking about what you're doing as Writing A Book. Writing a book isn't anything special. It's a job, like plumbing is a job. Just get up in the morning, drink some coffee, and go do it.

Then, when it's done, you can go back to thinking that books are special again.

 

Digital Web:

What is a typical day on the job like, for you?

Powazek:

Ten percent inspiration, ten percent perspiration, and eighty percent email.

Seriously, when did email become this bane? I remember liking email once.

The problem is, I guess, that I have so many projects going on at once, personal and professional, and email is the primary conduit for all of it. Sometimes I feel like I'm playing tennis with a hundred people at once. I'm lucky when I can hit back a fraction of the balls.

But outside the digital world, life is very good. When I get overwhelmed I can walk out my door and find anything I need. The coffee shop is around the corner, Golden Gate park is four blocks away, the beach is a 15 minute drive. I love my neighborhood, my city.

 

Digital Web:

Considering that the economy is struggling and everyone is fighting for exposure, it's very important to build "users" instead of mere "visitors." How does one build a user base for their sites? What can we do to keep them coming back?

Powazek:

Such a lob! Conn would not approve. ;-)

Why, community functionality, of course! There's no better way to build repeat visitors, because as soon as you give your users the power to leave a little bit of themselves on your site, they become very attached to the place.

But let's clarify our terminology here. "Community functionality" doesn't mean you have to recreate the Well, with all its endless scrolling pages of threads and comments and posts. Community functionality can be small, tightly-focused feedback loops (like {fray} questions) or projects that invite a highly-specific kind of contribution (like The Mirror Project).

 

Digital Web:

How did the idea for the {fray} come to you? Did you have epiphany one day and decided that you were going to build a site that would take full advantage of the interactivity of the web... or was it more of a concept that developed over time?

Powazek:

Well, telling and hearing stories has been a life-long love. My dad is a psychologist, so he basically listens to people's stories for a living. Maybe it's genetic.

In 1995, I started my first web zine, Tweak, which included a section devoted to personal storytelling called First Person. That was basically a proto-{fray}.

Later, in 1996, I went to Burning Man for the first time and, like most first-timers, had a watershed experience. When I got back, I had this hunger to connect with other people who had gone, to share our stories. So I put up a collection of photos on fray.com, a domain I'd bought a few months earlier and was still thinking about what to do with it.

Lots of people had photo galleries of Burning Man. But I wanted to actually get people to talk about their experiences. So I added a quick and dirty guestbook script to each image, so that visitors could post their stories of what they thought of that moment I captured on film.

And that was the first {fray} story.

We've continued on that theme ever since - seeking connection through personal stories.

 

Digital Web:

One of the great things about the web is that everyone can have a voice. I am seeing more and more sites with weblogs... Not just personal sites; but corporate sites, Intranets, music sites, and other types of sites besides. Do you think that weblogs are an important aspect of the effort to keep a site's content fresh and current? Do you think that every site should have a weblog?

Powazek:

Well, without diving headlong into the What is a weblog? debate, I'd say, sure, weblogs are important.

But "weblog," to me, simply implies a format: one page with short bits of content arranged reverse-chronologically. I think, by now, the term is content-agnostic.

It's a format that works very well on the web because of the way bookmarks and browsers work. It's convenient. I know I can always go to one URL and easily see what the author (or authors) are thinking today. Easy.

But should every site have one? Of course not. I'm the last guy who would ever tell every site that they should do anything. All sites have different goals, different audiences, different content. If you're looking for someone to make blanket pronouncements for all websites everywhere, you've found the wrong guy. I have no use for it.

 

Digital Web:

You spoke at SXSW this last year about designing for the web (building) community. You mentioned ways that designers and developers can take full advantage of the web as a two way medium by integrating things like online fora and publicly-viewable comments and feedback. I've been anxious to add such features to digital-web.com. As someone who can speak from experience with doing this, what would you say is my first step?

Powazek:

Free consulting! Sneaky boy.

Okay. You're in a good position to add community features to Digital Web because you've got the first two pieces already firmly in place: content and audience. The number one mistake people make is to just toss community features out into the web without any content, or to add it to a site that already has content, but off in a corner disconnected from everything. And you've already got an audience of people who care about that content, so adding a way for them to talk back is a natural evolution of what you're already doing. Two down.

Next you need to think about the kind of response you want to enable. How much control you want to keep, versus how much power you want to give your users? My work with clients is ninety percent about setting expectations.

 

Digital Web:

Do you have to be a "web programmer" to know how to set up a community feature such as a comments area or a forum? Are there any tools that people can use to add these kinds of features to their site?

Powazek:

No you don't need to be a programmer, but it helps to know one. I've been lucky enough to have some very talented friends who've been there to translate my ideas into Perl. Shoutouts go out to Christian Mogensen who coded the {fray} functionality, Greg Knuass who created Kvetch Chat, and Ben Brown with whom I've been working closely on the upcoming Design for Community site.

The number one thing to remember about tools is that they're there to make your life easier, not harder. The perfect community tool should seamlessly integrate with your site's content and design. The user should not have to think about how to post, only what to post. The tools should surface where they're needed, and stay in the background when they're not.

I recommend to clients that they build a static prototype of their community features before they even start looking at a tool to power it. That forces you think about all the problems you need to solve before you get a tool that may have its own solutions that aren't right for you. Having a prototype makes the whole process easier. If you're coding your own tool, then you have something to show the programmer that clearly articulates your vision. And if you're going to buy a tool, you've got something to compare to the sites that use the tool you're considering. Every tool comes with limitations - UBB sites always look like UBB sites - so the trick is to pick one that starts out looking and acting like your site.

 

Digital Web:

What are your favorite community sites?

Powazek:

I like community sites that don't seem like communities at first. I've seen enough long scrolling threads to last me a lifetime - after a while, they're all the same. What differentiates the sites is the people involved and their passion for the project.

Right now I'm really into a few sites that are all about blending virtual community tools with real life adventure. Nervous Industries is all about using the web to connect with people to exchange real things. Send me a mix tape of your favorite music and I'll send you one of mine, for example. And Geochaching, where you can download the coordinates of a geocache near you into your GPS device and go on a trasure hunt - and then, of course, come back to the site and talk all about it.

 

Digital Web:

What inspires you?

Powazek:

Passion. I'm into anything that I can feel that people are passionate about. True stories, personal media... anything where you can hear that heartbeat coming over the wires. That's what fuels me.

 

Digital Web:

In your own words, how would you define creativity?

Powazek:

Ghosts that whisper in your ear when you're not paying attention.

 

Digital Web:

If you had to define it, what would you call beauty in design?

Powazek:

It's the little things that matter. Attention to detail. Consistency of design. Empathetic user experiences.

 

Digital Web:

Where do you see "community" on the web in, say, two years from now? Do you think more sites are going to follow though and develop fora, chat-rooms, comment areas, and feedback tools?

Powazek:

I think that, more and more, the idea of "virtual community" is losing it's novelty status, and that's a good thing. It's not enough to be a member of a virtual community if you've got nothing in common with anyone there.

I see a future where there's no such thing as "virtual community" anymore - just personal communities with real and virtual elements. Right now I have a bunch of people who exist in my head as friends. Some I see in the café on the corner every day, some I see in my inbox. They're not the same, of course. But they're all friends just the same.

 

Digital Web:

If there's something you could say to the next generation of web designers and community builders, what would it be?

Powazek:

You are blessed with one of the most important opportunities in human history. You have the chance to create a media that goes two ways, that connects people based on whatever criteria you decide to put out there, that empowers individuals and groups. Use it. Use it well.

 

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Related Topics: Community, Web Design, Web Guru

 

 

Nick Finck is a 13-year veteran of the web and considered a web craftsman by trade. His skills traverse web design, web development, user research, web analysis, information architecture, and web publishing. Nick founded his first web consultancy in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, and has since created web experiences for various Fortune 50 and 500 companies including Adobe, Boeing, Blue Cross / Blue Shield, Cisco, CitiGroup, FDIC, HP, IBM, Microsoft, PBS, Peet’s Coffee, and others. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington and is a co-founder of Blue Flavor, a web strategy company that focuses on people-centric solutions. More information about Nick can be found on his web site, NickFinck.com.

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