Tobias Ahlin is the Lead Experience Designer for Minecraft: the ‘digital lego’ sandbox game that became one of the best-selling video games of all time, second only to Tetris. Prior to Minecraft, Tobias spent 2 years leading UI design at Spotify, and a year working as a designer/developer at GitHub.

We caught up with Tobias to find out more about what experience design means, lessons learned at Github, Spotify and Minecraft and how startups should apply design thinking on a budget…

On problem solving at Minecraft

Tobias describes experience design as product design for gaming.

Data is basically the foundation of a designer’s toolbox

“A typical problem at Minecraft would involve asking ourselves what does your experience look like the very first time you play Minecraft? What is the thing that happens the first time you start the game? What do you see? A really popular example right now is mobile games that get you straight into game play, before they show you the main menu.”

One of the biggest challenges Tobias faces right now is retrospective data. Minecraft “became a huge success without any sort of analytics or reliance on data.” But data, Tobias says “is basically the foundation of a designer’s toolbox. We need to look at data and say either it’s working or it’s not working.”

Tobias draws a parallel between UI at Minecraft and Netflix.

“Netflix would be very similar, since they have an experience where you go through a set of menus or use an interface and then you hit a point where that just stops. Then you’re in this other type of experience, which in the case of Netflix is sitting back and drinking a coffee or a beer and watching a movie.

At Minecraft we’re always educating and speaking to a massive audience, regardless of if we want to or not.

“I imagine that the typical designer at Netflix doesn’t have any control of the movie experience, and I’m in a similar situation. My job is about helping our players enjoy the game in the flavour they want, and then I have little or no control over their experience.

Tobias’s role at Minecraft isn’t typical of product design in general and the bugs he faces can be, at times, “hilarious”.

When Minecraft first included parrots in the game in Spring 2017, they were attracted to cookies. This garnered a lot of attention on Reddit, with one post (upvoted over 38,000 times) asking Minecraft to “Please remove feeding chocolate to birds to make them breed. Millions of kids will play this game. You picked the one food in the game that will kill them to make them breed and tame them.”

“I woke up to this big issue of, ‘oh we’re accidentally educating kids to kill their parrots’” says Tobias. “The absurdity of that compared to the bugs or issues you’d have in a typical product like Spotify is hilariously different compared to my past experience, but also scary in a way that a regular bug isn’t. At Minecraft we’re always educating and speaking to a massive audience, regardless of if we want to or not.”

On Minecraft’s success

Minecraft reacted instantly to the parrot controversy, and this is a prime example of one of the reasons Tobias thinks is behind the game’s early success.

So what else could have made Minecraft the phenomenon that it is today? “The simple answer is we don’t know” says Tobias. “If I were to guess, I’d say it’s the endless creative sandbox, which in theory is what many developers have wanted to create for a long time, but it had the right constraints.“We are very connected to the community and I think that’s one of the things that Minecraft did extremely well in its early days. They were part of the community and really listening to them and taking their suggestions and their issues very seriously.”

You’re pushed to think big when you can’t think small

“For example, the block size… If you had smaller blocks, you could craft more detailed things. But that would also create the expectation that you have to pour time into the details before something is finished.

“The power of the bigger block size is that Minecraft doesn’t become a 3D-modelling tool. Rather than sweating the details, you’re inclined to create vast structures and impressive landscapes.

“When you play Minecraft you create things that are not just pretty to look at, but engaging to experience. You build a tall tower, a network of tunnels, and your dream mansion, because you’re pushed to think big when you can’t think small.…Minecraft nailed absolute freedom with the right constraints.”

On being a generalist

Tobias believes generalists hold the key to the kind of fast, innovative development startups and product teams need.

“If you’ve hired someone to do a job, you’ve already decided what the solution will be by choosing a person with a certain expertise. If you’ve got a headache and talk to a psychologist, they will focus on how you feel, and help you relax. If you go to a doctor and complain about your head pains, they will give you pills.”

If you’ve hired someone to do a job, you’ve already decided what the solution will be

The same thing happens if you ask a focused designer to solve a problem says Tobias, who uses his work at Spotify as an example…

A key part of Spotify’s value is recommending new music to people. “A visual designer will produce a visual design to tackle that problem” says Tobias.

“As an example, look at Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature that recommends you music every week.” Discover Weekly is a retention tool says Tobias. “You’re filled with joy and excitement every single Monday, at the start of your week, as you get this hopefully amazing set of personalised recommendations, formatted like a regular playlist. The concept is very simple and effective, but it took Spotify around seven years before they came up with that format.”

We would have succeeded to a better extent if we approached that problem without the bias of our expertise

Why did it take so long? “When we got the challenge of recommending music as a design team, we focused on creating visual solutions for that problem” says Tobias.

“We tried to redesign browsing music by focusing on the visuals rather than on Spotify’s unique strengths… Redesigned views was the go-to solution that we offered to the company and I think in that way we failed. I think that we would have succeeded to a better extent if we approached that problem or that challenge without the bias of our expertise.”

Design as a retention tool

Using Spotify as an example again, Tobias further illustrates how a product’s design can influence user retention…

The obvious thing to show users is a simple interface for playing music, after all, that’s what they’re there for, right?

“But if you’re thinking about retention, what you want to do is you want to communicate, for example, the breadth of the music catalog” says Tobias.

A big part of the experience is grokking what the app is about

“So say that you are most likely as a user to play Rihanna… We also might want to present music that we don’t think you’ll want to play, but that communicates the breadth of the catalog so you can understand the concept of Spotify… That can increase retention because it tells you that whatever music you like, you’ll probably find it in Spotify, because we’ve got this immensely broad catalog….. It’s a communication strategy applied to design.”

Tobias notes how it “used to be really popular to have a hamburger menu up in the top left of an app or page, based on the belief that the more real estate we have to show content the better. But what you forget is a big part of the experience is grokking what the app is about.

“With Spotify, when you enter the app and see the catalogue, search, browse, playlists etc, you understand straight away the entire concept of the app, whereas landing in an app and just seeing some music covers doesn’t really tell you much.”

On the balance between testing and trusting

For startups who don’t have entire product design teams, Tobias believes that, while testing is important, sometimes you just have to trust your gut…

“You’re either in the camp where you trust design as intuition and craftsmanship, or you’re in the probabilistic camp where you want to prove what’s right or wrong. What’s important is to have the mindset that design is difficult to get right, that you need to be very nuanced in your process, but you don’t have to prove every single thing.

“That level of testing can be very useful, but it also makes you move much slower. What you can do to create some nuance between these two extremes of working is to have a process where you always assume that you’re wrong. You always assume that you will measure the outcome, and you will produce a range of hypotheses to try to find the best solution.

You can avoid dogmatism without necessarily scientifically proving what’s right or wrong

“But then, when it comes to launching something, you say ‘we actually believe, based on our experience, that this is clearly the right solution and we’re going to take the risk and launch it without measuring the impact first.’ We can follow up and verify that we’re not seeing a decline in any of the key metrics, but you can trust your gut to gain some speed. The important part is being nuanced in your process and form your process around the intrinsic difficulty of knowing what is right and wrong.

“You can avoid dogmatism without necessarily scientifically proving what’s right or wrong. The important point is avoiding strong opinions without the discomfort of critical thinking, and embracing the scientific mindset without embracing scientific validation is a way to increase your pace of innovation, at the cost of taking bigger risks.

For more from Tobias, follow him on Twitter @tobiasahlin.

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