All posts by jmorrow

Joining Amazon to Talk to Some Robots

Alexa holding note that says "I hear you"

On Monday, I’m joining Amazon to work on the experience of Alexa within households.

I’ll be based in Lab126, Amazon’s hardware and R&D base in Sunnyvale, California.

The interaction between humans and technology has always been my core interest, and what that interaction looks like has changed fundamentally in the last few decades. A person using a machine used to be an interaction between two entities: 1. the person 2. the machine she is yelling at. If there were others involved, they were in the world: the coworkers, the system, the factory.

Technology itself is now collaborative, and every person’s use case more tailored to them: my music, my friends, my content. For a household, and even moreso a family, people bring their unique interests but share devices, technology, noise, plans, and daily life.

For a family, technology both isolates and connects. On the isolation end, every family member can have their own tailored experience that they don’t have to share. If you remember flights when a single movie was shown to every passenger, you’re grimacing right now.  Untailored, broad experiences leave nearly everyone unsatisfied.

On the connection end, technology can serve the family’s collective needs by coordinating schedules, providing the right information at the right times, creating opportunities for fun together, and largely getting out of the way. The balance of technology between isolation and connection is a deeply interesting to me.

Having worked at Google for the last few years, I brought a Google Home into our living room before the birth of my daughter. I was initially skeptical of its benefits. However, I found I kept asking Home for things: weather, podcasts, lullabies. Caring for a baby, my hands were usually full and moving. During a diaper change, the difficulty of four taps on a smartphone mirrors that of launching a car into space.

Now my baby is a toddler, and she is starting to have her own desires. She wants to listen to this and watch that. She can’t yet use technology, so I’m the middleman for her access to content. That will change. She’ll grow up with smart assistants, and she’ll learn that they serve her, too. The battle over the remote becomes the battle over the smart assistant. Rather than a surveillance system, kids need the independence to learn, experiment, test boundaries, and screw up. What does that look like with smart assistants? Who does Alexa serve? Will Alexa keep my daughter’s secrets? Will she keep mine? How will she handle negotiations over music, temperature, food, and information? She can’t easily live with us and stay neutral.

These questions surrounding smart assistants meaningfully shift family dynamics. Right now, I’m embracing my ignorance on families. Each family and culture has different expectations regarding technology’s role in the home. Luckily for me, Amazon has fantastic researchers, and I plan to annoy the hell out of them.

Onto New Challenges

Reddit Burning Man Meetup 2015. Photo by /u/umdmatto

Reddit Burning Man Meetup 2015. I’m at top right wearing horns. Photo by /u/umdmatto

After a wild and wonderful time at Reddit, I’ve decided to move on.

And when I say wild, I mean it. The past year has been the most tumultuous in Reddit’s history. I joined the week of the Celebrity Photo hacking scandal (aka The Fappening) and stayed through two CEO changes, user uprisings, a moderator-driven Reddit blackout, and enough drama to run the Eastern seaboard dry of popcorn.

That’s the bad.

The good was, simply, amazing. I worked with some of the most talented, kind, creative people I’ve ever met. People like Josh, who thought up and implemented The Button, the internet’s most devastatingly crafty April Fool’s day prank. And, people like Heath, who couldn’t imagine why shipping boxes couldn’t be colorful origami cat homes.

We also didn’t let the turmoil stop us from getting stuff done. I’m thrilled to have shipped features such as responsive mobile web, embedded comments, improved mod tools, and better mechanisms for combating online harassment and abuse. Most fun was designing Reddit’s first Android app, which is now in beta and launching to everyone soon!

What’s Next

Tomorrow, I start at Google as Lead UX designer on Project Fi, working out of the San Francisco office. Fi is a tremendously exciting initiative that offers an alternative to the traditional model of cell phone network plans. Right now, the average American is paying a single cell phone company over $100 a month for service limited to that company’s coverage. It sucks, but you have no other option, right? Fi’s another option. For a Fi plan starting at $20 a month, your phone will invisibly switch among Wi-Fi and cell carriers to whatever connection is fastest at your current location.

Google Fi Box

Project Fi is still fairly new. It’s only available on a few devices in an Early Access Program for now, but I’m excited to see how we can build and grow it. Newer projects carry more risk and more potential, which are characteristics of the challenges most fun to tackle. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

reddit Stands with Charlie Hebdo

We’ve changed our alien Snoo logo today to show solidarity with those who support freedom of speech and condemn violence.

alien snoo logo holding je suis charlie sign from

Bigger version:

Five Things I’ve Learned About redditors (so far)

This is my reddit avatar. All employees get one
About a month ago, I took a gig to design the user experience of reddit. It’s a pretty exciting challenge!  My first projects have been mostly on mobile, and they’ve been a blast.  Check out our recently released AMA app on iTunes and Android and recently acquired Alien Blue iOS app.

The first step towards better user experience is better understanding of the users, so the quest begins with understanding redditors. And, there’s a lot of them: 6% of all online adults! ((Pew Research: 6% of Online Adults are reddit Users)) Understanding so many people requires attacking the problem at multiple angles.

One of the most direct ways to learn about a large user population is through surveys. The benefit of surveys is that they can be deployed broadly and analyzed statistically.  The main drawback is that they skew results towards the users who choose to complete them.

A few weeks ago, I released a test survey the subreddit ((subreddit: a sub-communities within reddit focused on a specific topic)) called /r/samplesize, which is dedicated to posting and taking surveys for other redditors.  I received 226 responses. Bearing in mind the enormous grain of salt that these results are comprised entirely of self-selecting users, here’s what I learned:

1. Twice as many men responded to the survey than women.

While I don’t know how representative this ratio is of reddit as a whole, this is already far more gender-balanced than previous self-selected surveys from three years ago. ((Who in the World is reddit? Results are in…)) ((I made a basic Reddit Demographic Survey. Let’s find out who we are…))

2. Most active users have been redditors for 1-3 years.

This isn’t too surprising considering the survey was given to a subreddit that only longer-term users would be aware of. However, given the site’s high bounce rate, it’s likely that reddit could improve at welcoming and retaining newer users.  After all, if reddit can’t create core users at a rate at or above dropout (churn) rate, its population will gradually decline.

3. Reading favorite subreddits is redditors’ most valued activity.

I asked users to rank their activities on reddit from not very important to extremely important: here are the responses only for extremely important.  As you can see, reading favorite subreddits was by far most commonly marked as extremely important.  User’s front pages was the second most marked as extremely important, which isn’t surprising since 99.2% of survey respondents have accounts which they use to modify their front page.

4. Users primarily want reddit to entertain them. Their secondary expectation is for community.

Here, I asked “what do you expect of reddit?” with a freeform response.  The tallies are per response rather than per user, such that if a user said she expected “community and humor,” I’d give one tally to community and another to humor.

Wanting reddit to be entertaining isn’t surprising: it’s the front page of the internet, after all.  What’s particularly interesting is how often community and communication were cited as expectations.  Discussion, particularly through comments, was the second most frequently cited expectation.  What’s reflected in “free speech,” “openness,” and “local content” were mainly variations on the idea that reddit content is different primarily because of its community.  Of these, about half of the responses mentioned the value of varied perspective – that reddit provided content and stories that users might otherwise not have found (or answers to questions they were afraid to ask).

5. What frustrates redditors most are other redditors.

For this freeform question, I simply asked redditors what frustrates them about reddit. The majority of responses could be summarized by concern that reddit is or is becoming dominated by negative viewpoints. Most common were concerns that homophobia, racism, and/or misogyny were unduly influencing the community. Second most common were concerns that reddit culture was becoming homogenized. Words such as “hivemind,” “groupthink,” and “in-jokes” appeared frequently. The most common frustration not related to the community was that the site itself was ugly and/or poorly designed.

It’s fascinating to get some insight into how these longterm users think about reddit and its future.  The challenge from here will be to learn more about the people who may not self-select to take a survey: newer users, non-users, and the population of reddit overall.  We’re planning user tests now to learn about newer redditors, and in-person interviews can help give more in-depth data on behavior.  But we’ll continue using surveys too: here’s the next if you’d like to take one!

Looking Ahead: Challenges for the Open Web

Mozilla at the 2008 Summit in Whistler.  Mozilla Community at 2008 Summit. Taken by Gen Kanai

At the end of this week, I’m moving on after six amazing years at Mozilla. On August 25, I’ll be joining Reddit – another global open source project – as their first user experience designer. I’m ecstatic to help shape and design the future of another incredible community.

In looking back at all that’s changed in technology and the web since I joined Mozilla, I find myself humbled at the trials we’ve met and overcome. When I joined in 2008, we were smaller and scrappier. Fellow designer Alex Faaborg and myself stood before whiteboards, explaining how tabs on top of the URL bar were more efficient. The bug backlogs of Firefox 3 kept us up at night, but when we launched in July 2008 we made the Guinness Book of World Records for most software downloads in 24 hours ((Mozilla sets new Guinness World Record with Firefox 3 downloads)). Chrome didn’t even exist yet!

Of the challenges in Mozilla’s future, many are nearly universal for open source communities and largely unsolved. Here are three I find myself often returning to:

1. How do we protect users’ data when users consistently choose utility over privacy?

You can package it any way you like, but if your privacy-centric product even slightly hinders user enjoyment of the web, it won’t see wide adoption.

When prompted, users overwhelming cite online privacy (referring to data being shared with companies and governments) as a concern. A recent poll ((Right To Be Forgotten: Do Users Even Care?)) showed 26% of people were “extremely concerned” about privacy when using a search engine, with nearly 90% expressing some level of concern. And yet, 92% of those use Google and only 3% use DuckDuckGo, an explicitly non-tracking search engine. In the developing world and younger markets, users are even less concerned. Mozilla’s research team is currently investigating attitudes towards privacy in Malaysia and the Philippines, and most people they’ve spoken with don’t even have a concept “online privacy” aside from not wanting their friends and relatives to see all they’ve posted to social media.

Those of us who care about online privacy are increasingly at a values impasse with our users. The solution is not to simply inform, coax, or frighten users into taking security measures.

Most importantly, a world without the practical technological possibility of privacy is much scarier than one where users can choose, either actively or passively, to share their information.

2. How can global communities accommodate incompatible values?

Philipp asks if this is good for the company

Championing inclusiveness and diversity is an easy decision for most organizations. But when push comes to shove, members of any large community will still disagree fundamentally on many important values. The need to bridge fundamental divides is an inevitability.

As an example, open source contributors disagree vehemently when it comes to DRM. Is it better to follow the content industry and implement extensions so content owners can control how users share content? Or, is DRM’s current instantiation so harmful to an open web that it’s worth limiting user’s access to content to avoid supporting it? Both these views and many others exist amongst Mozilla contributors, yet ultimately decisions about what ships in Firefox must be made. When this happens, the community cannot simply shrink by the number of people opposed to the decision.

To successfully cooperate, global communities have to form a sustainable plurality. The key is allowing members to operate in a context of known responsibilities to each other, yet also generalized freedom to hold, express, and act on their views. Freedom of expression should exist by default, but the community will collapse if members don’t understand that they also have responsibilities that are defined and understood.

Furthermore, the balance of power between the community at large and its leadership is best when it is understood and predictable. Major organizational decisions are often be made by a few executives or benevolent dictators for life. Where and how these decisions are made as well as what was decided needs to be widely available for a community to cohere. The community must also know the difference between the organizational values which guide decisions and the personal values of leaders which do not. Realistically, the two are never wholly separate.

The question over “public vs. private” values in leadership has been addressed frequently at Mozilla. Perhaps the lines that separate public and private views cannot be entirely explicit, but acknowledging and engaging openly about differences bring strength to a community. Again, this is best where the role and position of leaders in making decisions is clear.

3. How can design culture embrace open source?

Affinity Diagramming with Firefox in Toronto

Within design communities, open source is still met with disinterest at best and derision at worst. This is hurting both open source and design.

The main barrier towards design culture embracing open source is a chicken-and-egg: few open source projects appear to value usability and design. Scratch-your-own-itch hacker culture assumes the creators of technology are its users, which deemphasizes the need for usability and accessibility. Additionally, feedback in open-source is heard mainly from a few power-users, and the temptation to appease them can thwart designs that would appeal to a wider audience.

Another reason design culture hasn’t embraced open source stems from designers’ wariness over being taken advantage of. I remember Mark Mentzer, one of my Carnegie Mellon design professors, warning his students to “never work for free!” This attitude runs deep in design circles, and for good reason: we’ve become used to requests for work where the only payment will be “another piece in your portfolio.” Honoring those requests devalues design work as a whole.

But, open source is different from free labor. Just as developers do, designers love their work and often consider it a hobby as well as an occupation. The transformative potential of open source projects excites designers as much as developers. By insisting on excellent user experience, open source projects can show designers that they are communities that value design.

Another reason design culture hasn’t embraced open source is because code contributions fit more easily into open projects than design contributions. Any developer can jump into an open source project by taking and fixing a bug. Little context is needed beyond what’s provided in the ticket: current behavior, expected behavior, acceptance criteria. Patch written, reviewed, done, boom.

In design, more context and background is needed to “fix a problem,” which hinders potential community contributions. A design “bug” is harder to identify than most engineering bugs. Simply diagnosing them requires user research, collaboration, and context. Providing well-scoped design problems with dedicated mentors can help bring on contributors.

Mozilla Heart

To Mozilla, thank you for six amazing years. You’re my allies, my friends, and the most incredible people I know.

The Internet Says Goodbye

Humans are a Community-Centric

We evolved to rely on community to survive. From moment we stood on two legs, we have derived our identity, culture, and beliefs from the people around us.

Our communities started as tribes. With agriculture, they became villages and cities. But as communities adapted and grew, they remained rooted in physical proximity. We were together, so we could build a fire to gather around. We could construct a market, temple, or wall. We could protect each other from harm.

The Internet is Changing the Nature of Human Community

Increasingly, our communities are not made up of people physically around us, but those we connect with online. It takes only a shared passion to create and foster meaningful relationships on the web. Whether or not we’ve met in the real world, the internet is globally becoming the predominant tool we use to communicate.

Like physical communities, online communities share their whole lives together. But what of the cultural aspects of community? There are few online analogs to the customs and traditions that united our physical communities. Do we need them, now that we’re not constrained by proximity?

Culture Needs to Evolve for the Web

The culture that surrounds our online communities is still fledgling. As the first waves of internet users embraced social networking, too often online interaction was defined by cruelty and abuse. The addition of younger demographics brought bullying to a new platform, sometimes with deadly consequences. Anonymity often fueled the flames.

Lawmakers, educators, and parents have tried to curb the web’s unsavory cultural aspects. Their efforts have fallen short and will continue to do so. That’s because online culture isn’t a problem that can be solved through offline regulation. It’s a problem that must be solved within the communities themselves. We can curb abuse over time, but doing so is insufficient: we must also build communities that support and nurture.

What should community support look like on the internet? How can we show compassion when we’re digitally connected but separated by distance?

One of the clearest examples of offline community support is response to death. Our physical communities bury bodies, scatter ashes, erect monuments, and embrace the mourning. The shared rituals help us accept and move forward.

Can a Digital Community Support Each Other through Tragedy?

It can. It already has.

The internet itself – the people who build, protect, fight for, and love this new global interconnectedness – is its own community. I’m a part of it, and you likely are as well.

We lost two beloved members of our community recently. The positive responses to these tragedies could help frame a model of how online communities can support each other through grief.


Aaron Swartz. 1986-2013.

Aaron was many things: a programmer, hacker, activist, founder, and friend. He fought for the freedom of information with all his intellect and creativity: both were plentiful. His tragic suicide occurred amidst a grand jury indictment. Accused of violating federal hacking laws by downloading millions of academic articles in order to make them freely available, he was facing up to 35 years in prison ((Info-Activist Aaron Swartz Facing 35 Years in Prison for Alleged JSTOR, MIT Hack. Publishers Weekly.)).

How did the internet community respond to Aaron’s tragic death? With action. Last month, Brian Knappenberger released a crowdfunded documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy, about Aaron’s life and death. In January of 2014, Lawrence Lessig led a walk across New Hampshire in Aaron’s honor ((Lawrence Lessig Walking Across New Hampshire In Memory Of Aaron Swartz. Huffington Post.)). Yesterday, Lessig’s MayDay Super PAC reached its five million dollar goal, bringing action to the cause Aaron and so many of us believe in: removing the influence of money from politics ((About the MayDay PAC)). We lost Aaron, but we promised not to lose his war.

Aaron’s Community Lesson:

Advocate for the dreams and passions of those we love.
Respect their memory by carrying forward their vision.


Rebecca Alison Meyer. 2008-2014.

Eric Meyer is a beloved member of the internet community. His work and advocacy over two decades towards better web technologies and standards is renowned. Last month, Eric and his wife Kat tragically lost their six-year-old daughter, Rebecca, to cancer ((Photo: In Memoriam: Rebecca Alison Meyer. Myerweb.)). In the wake of the tragedy, the internet community sought ways to show its love and support.

One tribute stood out. Rebecca had a favorite color, and it was purple. Specifically, it was the shade of purple expressed by HTML hex value #663399. In her honor, a proposal was made and accepted to add a name to color #663399 in the CSS4 specification: “Rebecca Purple.” Just as sympathy flowers are grown from the land of the bereaved, the internet made a tribute in the very material it’s made of.

Rebecca’s Community Lesson:

Support each other in ways that are meaningful to your own community.
Show caring in ways that reflect the individuality of those we love.

In Conclusion

The digital nature of our communities does not make us any less human. Minimizing communication to text and emoticons does not (and will) not minimize the spectrum of our emotion. If we intend to live more fully online, we’ll need ways to support each other just as our cultural traditions have done.

Culture will surely look different for each online community. Let’s be explicit about its creation. Let’s not think of ourselves as individuals with computers, but as communities who use computers to connect. Let’s find new ways to support each other though life’s storms.

Try Out Fira Sans: a Free, Open Source Typeface Commissioned by Mozilla

As designers in open source, we’re constantly looking for opportunities to bring the principles of universal access and redistribution to new areas. While the term “open source” may still be mainly associated with code, the value in free collaboration benefits every discipline – particularly design.

In that spirit, the Mozilla Foundation commissioned famed typographer Erik Spiekermann to create a completely free, open-source typeface in 2013. Thus was born Fira Sans, a gorgeous san-serif font that looks great on the web. So great, in fact, that we’ll be using it in Firefox’s in-content pages such as Preferences and the Add-ons Manager.

fira sans preview

If you haven’t tried out Fira Sans, now’s a great time: version 3.1 introduces 16 different weights, a huge character map, and extensive language support. Also available is Fira Mono, a monospaced version of the original. Give it a spin on your next project!

Download Fira Sans 3.105 (3.6mb .zip)

Firefox’s Redesigned Preferences Feel More like the Web

Another great Firefox improvement is releasing soon!

Firefox’s Preferences, until now, have required navigation through a cumbersome floating window where it’s nearly impossible to find what you’re looking for. This window is a classic example of a common software problem: settings are slowly added onto the interface as new functionality is introduced, and eventually it sags under the weight.

The mess that is current Firefox Preferences

The mess that is current Firefox Preferences

Until now, that is!

The Firefox UX team is excited to announce that brand new, beautiful Preferences are now the default in Firefox nightlies and will soon be in release Firefox. In this redesign, the interface is visually consistent, the information architecture is improved, and the whole thing is rendered in content space rather than as a separate window.

Firefox’s new in-content preferences

Why is it important that Preferences are in the content space rather than a separate window?

  1. Consistency across devices. By using the content space, we no longer have to rely on the ability of a device to draw separate windows and dialogs. This is particularly important on tablets and phones, where window management is more difficult. Now, users of mobile Firefox will see a familiar interface when move to desktop Firefox, and vice versa.
  2. Consistency across operating systems. Windows, OSX, and Linux all create windows and dialogs differently, which means the user’s experience with Preferences was different depending on the OS. Now, as we draw this interface within Firefox, we can make it look and feel identical across systems.
  3. Consistency with the web. Ultimately, the browser is a doorway to the rest of the web. For the browser to behave like a dialog-heavy desktop application rather than the web itself was jarringly anachronistic. Beneficially, rendering like a website also means users won’t need to find and manage a separate window in addition to their open tabs.
  4. Space to grow. Not being bounded by a small, floating window means we can create richer customization experiences. The Add-ons manager has already  moved to content space, and we’ve been able to explore richer use cases as a result. Similarly, expect to see innovative customization experiments as well as the usual Firefox settings.

And before you ask, yes, the next step is absolutely a search field in Preferences to summon the exact setting you’re looking for. This is needed particularly so users won’t have to “learn” our interface, but can instead focus on their task.

A special thank you goes to Senior Visual Designer Michael Maslaney, who’s been spearheading Project Chameleon, the style guide behind this redesign. Another thank you goes to MSU students Owen Carpenter, Joe Chan, Jon Rietveld, and Devan Sayles for creating the award-winning first version of Firefox’s in-content Preferences in May 2012.