Spencer Thurston He/him — Uber
Spencer Thurston is a lead product designer at Uber focused on enabling anyone to go anywhere & get anything across …
The urge to make something. My uncle did repairs on old AM/FM radios and TV sets, and I would get parts from him to play around with, soldering and making my own “gadgets”. Similarly, my grandfather was a carpenter and I loved going with him to the workshop and make wooden objects. Could be a knife, a stool, a small table, etc. That feeling I got once I had successfully made something; it was the best thing in the world. And it still is.
As I got older, and we got our first family PC (this was in `95), I was immediately fascinated by the internet. That someone could make a website and anyone in the world with a connection could see this exact same page, that got me very excited. So I instinctively started looking at the source code of other people's web pages and learned from them. That same feeling I got when making physical objects also came when making websites.
So fast-forward a few years, I found out companies needed websites and would pay to have them made. By now, I had made enough “homepages” for myself to be able to make something decent for others. This eventually lead me into art school and then my first internship at a design agency.
When working from home, which is most days, I start by making a lovely shot of espresso and prepare a simple breakfast. Usually a slice of bread with ham and cheese. Then I head upstairs to the office and start by going through any unread Slack messages, which are usually quite a few. This will in many cases dictate what I do that day if anything urgent comes up.
If nothing urgent appears from looking at Slack logs, I always have a set of grouped tabs open with my current Jira tasks, which is what I'll be focusing on.
Besides my tasks, there's usually at least one meeting per day, either with my other product-designer colleague, or other teams I'm involved with. We discuss everything from bugs, new features, user feedback to upcoming releases and general product planning. As well as totally random, fun thing, of course. The company is pretty distributed, so these discussions typically happen on Whereby, but every now and then we meet up in the offices, which is always fun.
My home office setup is a desktop PC and a MacBook Pro that I plug into the same monitor. Working on a cross-platform product, I think it makes sense to spend time on more than one platform (we're too small a team to have dedicated people for each platform).
Back when I worked at a design agency doing graphic design, I would look a lot more at design magazines or magazines in general. They were a great source of inspiration. Posters as well, and airport signage always interested me. But as I have shifted toward UI design, the inspiration process is different. There are so many design systems and standardized components/patterns that it does not make sense to re-invent everything all the time. This is a whole different discussion, though.
So where I am now, we are heavily involved with the people using our product, and a lot of the ideas and inspiration come from talking directly to those using the browser. There's our community with blogs and feedback, threads on Twitter, Reddit, etc.
This is a great way to get a real sense of what people are struggling with, or what's missing. It's usually not a direct idea, but we can see an outline of what type of problem they are trying to solve, and this will get us thinking. So not as much inspiration for visual direction, more problem-solving.
Besides this, going for walks or just time away from the computer is a good way to get my brain thinking more broadly and reflect on where I want to move things forward.
I recently came across the Newton BRUA, which is a minimalist manual espresso maker. I love the simplicity, use of colour and form. It's so basic looking, yet very powerful in its appearance. Form and function in perfect harmony.
Having worked at Vivaldi for 8 years now, I'm obviously very happy with the work I'm doing there. The desktop browser has been my biggest focus, but in the last few years I've also worked on the Android version, and just recently started work on the coming iOS version. Being a small team can be challenging, but it also lets you get hands-on with a lot of different things. I enjoy having a lot of impact on what I do, and that's definitely the case here. Before I joined Vivaldi, I had no idea how complex a web browser could be.
- "It's just an address field and a few navigation buttons, how hard could it be?"
This could not be further from the truth.
If you then add in a full email client and a calendar to the mix, things get exponentially insane. Despite all this, and my ignorance at the start, I'm very proud of what we have achieved so far, and there's so much more to come!
I also have to put in an honourable mention for my old baby, Subtle Patterns. The project is now acquired by Toptal, but back when I launched in 2011 and up until 2016, it was pretty big. The patterns published are used by countless projects worldwide and picked up by companies like Adobe, Google, and Microsoft. It opened up a lot of doors and exposed me to connections I would not have got without the success of this side project.
Also, there's even a Figma plugin made recently, so it's still alive in spirit.
With a ratio of roughly 24 developers to 2 product designers, it's clearly a very tech-heavy company. This means we need to spread our attention quite widely, and with as many product surfaces as we have, this is a challenge, to put it mildly. Keeping things consistent and up to our own quality bar is not easy, but we do our best. Getting more product designers onboard is high on the priority list for sure.
A second massive design challenge is in the product itself. I don't know of many products with the same level of customization options as Vivaldi Browser. People can literally move anything anywhere, be it individual buttons, tabs, panels or full toolbars. As well as colouring things to any colour you like.
This means we need to design building blocks that are rock solid, which will work no matter how or where you put them. All this flexibility sets a lot of constraints on what we can and can't do, making many seemingly simple changes exceedingly hard or complex.
Create a lot, all the time. It does not need to be great work, just produce. In the beginning, it's all about doing. The more you do, the more efficient you get at picking up what works and what does not. Then study why certain things work better than others. This refinement will make you a master of the craft eventually.
Also, ask a lot of questions. Find mentors or colleagues that will guide you. Ask on Twitter, there's a lot of willingness to help in the community.
Stop comparing yourself to others as well, nothing good comes from that. You do your own thing and don't think the grass is greener on the other side.