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Business Report

Disappearing Act

The creator of Twitter and cofounder of Square talks about the nature of good design.

Jack Dorsey is the creator and executive chairman of the popular communications network Twitter. In 2009, he cofounded another company, called Square, which lets people accept credit-card payments with their smart phones. (See our March/April cover story on Square, “The New Money.”)  At both ventures he emphasizes the importance of good design; there is probably no aspect of product development he values more. But design for Dorsey has a very particular meaning. He does not stress the visual components of design; he is happy enough if a product’s typography is simple and straightforward. Instead, Dorsey emphasizes the user’s experience—and believes that the measure of good design is that it should “fade away,” allowing the user to find serendipity in 140-character microblogs, or to quickly buy a cup of coffee with a credit card. Dorsey spoke to Technology Review’s editor in chief, Jason Pontin, at Square’s San Francisco headquarters.

TR: What is good design?

Dorsey: A good design is naturally transparent.

How so? When you talk about Twitter and Square, you sometimes speak about beauty, which is not the first word many associate with software. What does “transparent” beauty look like in a website or smart-phone application?

I think a lot of folks consider design to be a purely visual thing, like the layout of text on a can of Japanese tea; but to me, design is not visual but editorial. I ask, “What can we take away to get to the essence of what we’re trying to do?” What we’re trying to do with Square is accept payments. That’s it, simply. So we want to remove every point of friction between a user and his or her desire to get paid.

Good design disappears from the user’s point of view?

What I really love about a well-designed product is that you don’t think about it. It just becomes background.

You mean that how a product is used should be intuitively obvious.

Exactly. The phone in front of you on the table doesn’t have an Apple logo on its face. You know it’s an Apple phone because it’s so well built and has certain design characteristics. But when you’re actually using it, the phone fades away. It’s all about communications or the content. I want that for Twitter, too, so that when you’re using the service, you get the immediate value. If Kanye West is your thing, then Twitter fades away and it’s just Kanye.

Square is the same way. We have two sides we have to address. We have the merchant side—our users—and there are their users, the actual customers. We want the experience to be amazingly simple and beautiful for our users so that they never have to think about taking a payment: they’re just focused on selling whatever value they have. For the customer, I want it to be equally simple: I should be able to walk into a coffee store and order a cappuccino, enjoy it, and then walk out and eventually question if I’ve paid or not. It should feel that effortless.

The behavior of Twitter’s users provides all sorts of metrics that tell you whether the service’s design is good: you track how often people follow links, how frequently they post, and other interesting things. Those metrics have suggested important refinements to the service. For instance, “Who to Follow” was a response to the fact that many new users didn’t know what to do after they signed up.  What are the metrics you follow at Square to refine the service’s design?

We can tell how long people are spending on the payment page, or how long it takes them to swipe a card, or how long it takes them to find the charge button. But the most important number we follow is the transaction time. Currently, with existing technology, for a merchant that accepts a credit card with a normal machine, the transaction time is probably one minute to even three minutes.

And Square?

Our average transaction time is 45 seconds. We want to get it down to 30 seconds, and then we want to get even faster. Because, again: if we can get transactions really quick, then paying just fades into the background and the customer is focusing on coffee or a piano lesson or whatever is important. 

Are there any models for managing a company to emphasize the importance of this kind of transparent design?

I’ve studied the magazine and newspaper culture a lot, because at the end of the day, I think my role is purely editorial. I don’t really run the company.  I’m like you, an editor in chief.

That’s very flattering, but what do you mean? As an editor I make choices and I build processes.

That’s what I’m getting at. There are a thousand different things you could write about, and there are a thousand different features we could build. All of them might be good by themselves, but in our case, there are just one or two that would really form a cohesive narrative of what Square is. The product is the story we’re telling the world.

Who does that well?

I think Steve Jobs is probably one of the best editors ever. When he got back to Apple [in 1997], he didn’t just kill some products; for two years he killed a bunch of great products. And then, around the world, he put up posters of all his heroes with the tagline, “Think Different.” They had nothing on the market at that time—nothing. They just had posters of Jim Henson. That was it. And then, suddenly, there was this beautiful unfolding story with wonderful pacing: iMac, iPod, OS X, iPhone, and the iPad. It’s amazing to me how they went about that: Apple has such patience about building products. We’ve got a lot to learn.

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Next in this Business Report
Design as Business Strategy

In Business Impact this month, we are exploring good design–of products, services, and the entire customer experience. How has design become a competitive advantage for businesses? How does it help to foster innovation? We’ll explain where good designs come from and how technology is changing the way they are carried out.

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