Interview with Doug Bowman
Published on January 22, 2007
I first met Douglas Bowman in person in 2004, when he very kindly took up an offer to come and speak at the first conference I helped organize, Web Essentials ‘04, in Sydney, Australia. We hit it off right away—so much so that Douglas and I spent a few days snowboarding in New Zealand after the conference. One windy day, we drove right across the south island, and despite boring Douglas senseless for hours covering the basics of the rules of cricket (hey, he did ask), we also talked a good deal about the present and future of the web. It really reinforced for me just how big- and forward-thinking Douglas is, as did his comments on a South by Southwest panel I organized in 2005, and his return appearance at Web Essentials ‘05 in Sydney later that year.
We’ve managed to get him out of his self-imposed retirement for Web Directions North, in Vancouver this February. Douglas kindly fielded some questions from his lair in the Googleplex.
John Allsopp: Douglas, it’s been a while since we’ve seen you on the speakers circuit, after some hectic globe-trotting for a few years there. Where have you been?
Douglas Bowman: I’ve been bundled up on the wraparound porch of a remote farmhouse in Iowa, sipping a tumbler of thirty-year-old single malt, flipping through the pages of old Saturday Evening Posts, wondering where the hell all the rest of you have been.
Okay, that’s stretching it a bit. Maybe that’s where I would like to have been. With many life changes hitting this past year, I decided to stay mostly unplugged from the grid. For a couple of years there, I couldn’t believe how much I was traveling and speaking and meeting new people. After speaking in Sydney for my second time at Web Essentials in 2005, and then at Webstock in New Zealand a few months later in 2006, I decided to taper off the speaking and long-distance traveling for a while to focus on life at home.
In the Spring of 2006, I accepted an offer to come to Google. Despite the attraction and benefits of working for Google (as just confirmed by Fortune magazine), accepting that offer was a major decision that took me a while to make. It was difficult to put Stopdesign on hold, especially since business as an independent contractor was going so well. Later that year, I got married to the love of my life. We honeymooned in Kauai for a couple of weeks, then my wife and I moved to a new place a couple of months later. Not long after, we brought home a 9-week-old chocolate Labrador Retriever, named Jackson, to add to our family. We knew dogs took considerable commitments, but a puppy is really a lot of work! So I’ve been a little busy outside the speakers circuit.
JA: Let’s look back quickly over 2006—any changes out there that have excited you?
DB: Yes. Several of these are going to seem biased because of my association.
Two of my very few blog posts last year covered the launch of Google Calendar. The launch of Calendar delivered one of the most significant web apps I’ve seen to date. Drag and drop interaction, overlay of multiple calendars, easy calendar sharing, and event invitations. And I can access it all from anywhere. I really like the highly visual nature of calendar interfaces. Varying grids, positioning, colors, and layout—they’re all of equal importance with text showing what the data is. If I hadn’t helped with the design of Calendar, I would have wished I had. My wife and I use Calendar extensively to share our work and personal schedules, upcoming holidays, and vacation planning. Even our puppy uses Google Calendar. Well, he doesn’t use it. But we have a separate calendar for him that tracks his age (in months), vaccinations and flea treatments, and the dates he gets to go to the park or play with other dogs. We can show and hide his calendar anytime we want. So the release of Calendar was a major event for me this past year.
Other significant apps from 2006 include:
- Six Apart’s Vox, for its ease of publishing text, images, video, and audio, and sharing it with a limited set of friends. While I still value open publishing viewable to the world, I really like the idea of sharing certain types of content with a limited set of people.
- Google’s Writely and spreadsheet applications, which have merged into Docs and Spreadsheets. Storing structured data files online, accessing them from any machine, then sharing them and collaborating with other people—finally.
- The new Yahoo! Mail, for bringing all the interaction metaphors and gestures of desktop email clients to a web app. Yes, Y!M is slow as molasses, feels really unstable, and it mimics Outlook’s unfortunate design. But that’s what people are familiar with, and you’ve gotta start somewhere.
- The new Google Reader, for stability ten times greater than its first incarnation, and the way it allows me to zip through feeds faster than I can wade through email. Staying up to date on feeds across any computer or mobile device gets a little easier.
- Microsoft’s IE7, just because it’s great to see Microsoft get back into the browser game after five years of absence.
John A: Speaking of IE7’s release, what was your professional opinion of the impact? Did it make life easier for you? Harder? A non-issue?
DB: Had IE7 come out two or three years ago, it would have made a major impact on my work. Back then, I coded much more of what I designed. So it was imperative that my work rendered correctly in all browsers. Truth is, I don’t code much anymore, at least not on a daily basis. Most of my work is design or design direction and decision-making. Someone else generates the production-level code. I may write some code just to demonstrate or prove something can be done. But I work on a Mac. I use Mac browsers. If I code, I code on the Mac. I’ll check it in Camino, Firefox, and Safari, then I’m done with it. But again, I’m not generating final code. Whatever I write will most likely be rewritten, optimized, and compiled into someone else’s code.
For Stopdesign and other personal projects, I still care about craftsmanship and clean, semantic markup and simple style. I run my work through the standard set of Windows browsers once the work is near completion, but Windows browsers only become relevant to me at the end of the process, as sort of a check on QA. IE7 has been a pleasant surprise when it comes to this—for the most part, what I do just works (just like all other non-IE browsers have done for a couple years).
IE7 is not an immediate replacement for all the other bastardized IEs that Microsoft left behind years ago. Regular, normal people are still using IE6, or worse, IE5, and they’ll be using those browsers for a few more years. Google still supports IE down to version 5.5 for many apps. But I have no idea if that lower bound will be upped to a higher version anytime soon.
From another perspective, IE7 is getting a good reception in the design and development communities. It may fall short in a few areas, relatively speaking, but for anyone who’s been paying attention, IE7 feels much more humanized than any previous Microsoft browser release. From various blogs, news sites, and conferences, we finally sense that IE7 came from a team of real people who care about creating the best product for those who use it and develop for it. Last year, I met Tony Chor (Group Program Manager for the IE team) at Webstock, and had several very pleasant conversations with him. He demoed an unreleased version of IE7 and wowed the crowd with new features. He also publicly apologized on behalf of Microsoft for taking so long to update its browser. Tony, Chris Wilson, and the rest of the team members who speak at conferences and post regularly on the IE Blog are responsible for humanizing IE7 and creating a deeper connection with their user and developer base.
JA: It’s customary at this time of year to look ahead at the next twelve months. Can you see any significant changes having an impact on the kind of things web designers and developers are doing?
DB: Every year reveals a new crop of designers and developers, and with them, new possibilities. Those people enter into the industry with higher expectations, more relaxed notions of privacy, and even more ubiquitous connections to the grid. Social software is now cliché, so what’s beyond that? Product ideas that focused on traditionally non-social content and transactions, then blended them with social network and web-of-trust paradigms gained significant traction and interest last year: Newsvine, Cork’d, Yelp, Extratasty, Last.fm, and Wesabe to name a few. This year?
I think we’ll soon start seeing Gesture UIs pop up everywhere. (The new GUI.) We already experience gestural UIs on very low levels: click and drag to pan around on Google Maps, drag and drop in Yahoo Mail and software vendor sites like Panic. But we’re starting to see broader use of unhinted gestures: interactions for which there are no visible cues on screen. Two popular and very tangible examples from the consumer world: gaming with the Nintendo Wii, and the cool interactions we just saw demoed recently by Steve Jobs for Apple’s forthcoming iPhone.
In 2002, when Tom Cruise was dragging and pushing videos and data displays across a transparent screen in Minority Report, colleagues on a mailing list bashed the film for suggesting something like that would or could ever be possible. A few years later, his interactions don’t seem that far-fetched. We’re now seeing very similar interfaces in mainstream consumer products. We’re even seeing them in public spaces where they gather the attention of every passerby. Reatrix is making a killing, implementing reactive, immersive displays for advertising that you may have already seen in a location near you. All of this will heavily influence public perceptions, user expectations, and where we, as creative forces, push the web in the very near future.
JA: You’ve always been a bit of a big thinker about things related to the web. What’s keeping you awake at night these days?
DB: My general interest (and without a doubt, my current position at Google) is pushing me to think about scale more often. Small scales and large scales. One of the components of my talk at Web Directions North will deal with scale of impact. Using our skills and innovation in technology and design to impact the greater good. The web reaches approximately one billion people now, and that number grows every day. Put one page or one application out there for the world to see, and, given the right factors, millions of people could potentially see it, experience it, or be inspired by it within days.
How can we use that power for good? Can we harness our collective knowledge and skills to impact and make a difference both locally and in remote parts of the world?
One Laptap per Child (OLPC) is a non-profit humanitarian project intending to distribute low-cost custom-designed laptops to children in need around the world. OLPC is getting increasing media coverage as its ideas evolve and major players contribute to the project. But the project’s website is the major source for information updates, contributor information, and the means by which OLPC’s mission and purpose spreads to people worldwide.
Save Darfur, Red Cross, Oxfam, Unicef, Katrina’s Angels, Amnesty International, and other websites of organizations like them are raising public awareness of suffering, poverty, and human rights violations. They are enabling and empowering communities like never before to respond to natural disasters and human-caused atrocities. They are driving people, groups, and companies to act and get involved as global citizens.
Even closer to [my] home is the philanthropic arm of Google: Google.org. The existence of Google.org is one of the huge reasons I decided to join Google. It has committed one percent of profits and equity toward making an impact on world issues. Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, hope the efforts of Google.org “will eclipse Google itself in overall world impact…” With focuses on global poverty, energy, and the environment, Google.org is combining Google talent, technology, and other resources and partnerships to face these issues head-on. It is my hope to somehow get involved with Google.org while I’m here at Google, perhaps as part of my 20-percent time.
JA: Thanks so much for your time—and I look forward to seeing you on the slopes of Whistler in February!
DB: Always a pleasure. To find me on the slopes, just look for a snowboard sticking up in the air, since my face might be planted in the snow.
Douglas Bowman is an preeminent web designer with a history of high-profile website redesigns that many designers envy, including Wired News, Blogger, and Adaptive Path. Bowman’s consulting firm, Stopdesign, puts into practice his philosophy that design should simplify and facilitate everyday life. In 2006, he put work for Stopdesign on hold to join Google full-time as Visual Design Lead, where he is attempting to change the world, just a few million users at a time.
John Allsopp is the head developer of Style Master, the leading cross-platform CSS editor, and founder of Westciv, an Australian web software development and training company. Westciv provides some of the most widely read and respected CSS resources and tutorials on the web. One of the earliest members of the Web Standards Project, he’s also cofounder of the upcoming Web Directions Conference in Vancouver, BC.