Ryan Freitas is the co-founder of About.me, a website where you can quickly build your personal profile page that points users to your content from around the web. You know the one – we’ve written about them before. The basics are listed in his about.me profile: he’s an interaction designer and an entrepreneur who loves travelling, reading, staying up late, running, and curing and smoking his own bacon (talk about unpredictable!). He is also a brand new dad to son Dashiell.
While well-designed and informative, the short blurb is a preview of sorts, merely touching the surface of his many interests and accomplishments, and directing readers to further content on the web.
Visiting his Tumblr blog already paints a better picture – of his passion for design and working with start-ups, his attention to detail, the thoughtfulness behind his writing, the patience for answering readers’ questions. Inspired by the success of About.me and one of the gurus behind the whole story, we’ve had a few questions of our own for Ryan:
You wrote that working on Sphere changed your “entire perspective on product design for startups“ – how so? What has changed in your perspective since?
Tony approached Adaptive Path (where I was working at the time) with an idea for a product, and a strong desire to differentiate it with the quality of its design and the user experience it provided. That objective was not a common one amongst founders at the time – and it brought me to an awareness of how deep the opportunity within the startup world might be for people with my background.
It was the beginning of my obsession with working alongside startups, and convinced me that interaction design would be a key differentiator for the next wave of products. I think that faith has been proven out, which has only strengthened my advocacy for interaction designers to start building their own products.
For a number of years, you left technology completely and cooked professionally. Besides giving you a different and broader perspective, how else has your experience in this industry influenced your present work? What are some unlikely lessons from the kitchen that help you in your current work?
Coincidentally, I wrote an article on this topic a few years back. My time as a cook also provided me with a fuller understanding of how hierarchies work. When I was in the kitchen, the only reason I was there was to make my chef look good. There is no glory for the line cook that does not come directly from the success of her chef.
In the arena I’m in now, that philosophy of allegiance is difficult to communicate, when the demand for individual talent is so high that people are more likely to ask, “what’s in this for me?” than “how do I make my boss look good?” Post-acquisition, I interpret the philosophy like this: Aol took a chance on my team, and so it is very much our job to make about.me look like the smartest thing they’ve ever bought.
What’s the one thing that working on about.me has taught you that was different from your previous experiences? What do you enjoy about it most?
Is it too vague to just say “everything”? I have never had an experience like about.me in my career – from working in consulting, to working in the kitchen, I was totally unprepared for all of the things I’ve learned in the last two years. Perhaps the most important thing to come from this experience is also the thing I’ve enjoyed most about it: the team we’ve built. What an incredible group of professionals. These are people I love working with, day in, day out. I look forward to being in our team chat (we are distributed, so we maintain an open forum during the day to communicate with one another), our calls, and our increasingly frequent opportunities to get together. It is hands down the most talented group I’ve ever been a part of, and I’m proud of the fact that we are all of us still together.
UX design is highly multi-disciplinary, incorporating everything from psychology, anthropology and sociology, to computer science and graphic design. What’s the most challenging aspect of working in this field?
I should preface all of this by saying that I don’t even know if I’m technically a UX designer anymore. I generally think of myself as a product designer these days. The UX community keeps shifting the definition of the role around, which I suppose is the biggest issue I have with the work we’re doing. In different forums, I have complained loudly that the UX field often feels cobbled together from all of these different disciplines. This results in inane turf battles over taxonomy and process documentation that I find not only useless but ultimately harmful to the direction the practice is headed in. Everything I know about people and systems is grounded in the neurobiology and artificial intelligence design I studied at university. That means I often feel like I’m speaking a different language than people who approach UX from an aesthetic or technical perspective. My general rule when building something is to get to know potential users and default to empathy. Beyond that, we’re just talking over one another.
Out of all the serendipitous friendships and decisions that you made over the years, what are some of your favorite personal or business “accidents”?
I sometimes feel like my career has been a series of serendipitous accidents. My father did his best to instill in me the belief that everything comes around – being a reliable person with a good work ethic eventually gets rewarded. And despite my early, unearned cynicism, much of what he communicated to me not only stuck, but proved to be correct. I work every day with a team of people that includes three individuals I knew 10 years before we founded the company. That I was able to maintain friendships with these guys and finally get another chance to work with them a decade after our last gig – that goes beyond coincidence, it just felt like it was meant to happen. Tony and I worked together on Sphere nearly four years before we did another project together. And the people we’ve been able to bring together as advisors and investors has been amazing. I know how hard I’ve worked to arrive at where I’m at, and to get an opportunity to work alongside the people I do – but I will never deny that I feel like the luckiest guy in the business.
How do you go about approaching a particular project, what’s your thought trajectory? How do you prioritize?
I finished answering most of your questions a couple days ago. This one I had to come back to. And then today in the New York Times there was an excellent piece on the industrial designer Marc Newson, who described his process thusly:
“The way I work is to try to get the idea out of my head,” he said, picking one of the charter-service-lunch petit fours off what he said was a vacuum-formed plastic plate. The French Alps were gliding past in the window. “I’ll be daydreaming in a taxi or in front of the TV, sometimes just staring into space, being quiet, but in my head I’m building something. Ideally I have the finished object in my head.”
That sums up how I work better than anything I’ve ever been able to say. When I’m in the depths of a really hard problem, I push away from my desk and I go to the SF MoMA (San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art). I go directly to the permanent exhibit of the photography collection, and I wander through the rooms. I let my eyes enjoy the pictures while my brain picks away at the problem. Sometimes elegant solutions emerge when you surround yourself with beautiful things.
In terms of priority… that’s always a collaboration with Andy Hao, our CTO. He’s the most talented product designer who doesn’t know he’s a product designer ever. I cobble together ideas around direction and what’s next and then I sit with him and take them apart, figuring out what can be done now, and what comes later. He understands what we’re doing at an atomic level, and collaborating with him is one of the best parts of the job.
What’s the best advice you’ve followed when you started out that you would like to share with up-and-coming designers and entrepreneurs?
The most important lesson I’ve learned from people like Tony Conrad, Om Malik, Phil Black and others is the advice I now share with the entrepreneurs I work with: “relationships are more important than anything else.” Money, recognition, negotiating position… I have watched people gain and lose these things so quickly that I’ve come to think of them as ephemeral. Treating people with respect, kindness and empathy (regardless of their position or ability to return the favor) is the easiest way to establish yourself as a far-sighted individual in a business where many folks let success go their heads.
Has becoming a parent changed the way you approach design, and if so, how?
I don’t know if my approach has shifted to match this yet, but since Dashiell was born, I am suddenly very aware of my own mortality. Not in an anxious or panicked way, more like “I’m here now, but later I’ll be gone and my son will carry on.” I’ve always focused on building for users in such a way that eliminates as much misery as possible, and increases joy. Now I feel like I need to take that focus, and make certain that I’m contributing it to projects that will endure. Thanks to things like Wilson Miner‘s recent talk at the Build Conference, I’m recognizing that everything we design adds up, and influences the next generation – it builds the world we live in now, and the one my son will live in after I die. It’s powerful, heady stuff, and I think I’m still trying to figure out the best way to put it into practice.
What I’m still trying to figure out is how in the WORLD this product designer, entrepreneur and full-time dad has the time to smoke and cure his own bacon — which undoubtedly comes out perfectly tailored to the consumer’s liking. Given all that Ryan has achieved so far, I’m excitedly awaiting another one of his serendipitous business accidents. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, check out About.me and have fun creating your very own personal splash page!