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Medium’s Secret Weapon: Design

How Twitter cofounder Evan Williams is shaping the future of digital media.

Medium’s Secret Weapon: Design
Medium CEO Evan Williams [Photo: Christopher Michel]

“I like those shoes.”

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That’s Medium CEO Evan Williams’s icebreaker as we sit down to chat at my Roadmap conference last November.

“Thanks. You like this sole?” My blue tasseled slip-ons have purple ones. “A sole nobody sees . . .”

Williams completes my thought: “But you know it’s there.”

Williams has spent more than 15 years creating Internet communications tools—Blogger, then Twitter, and now Medium—and this is what has made him so successful: He notices the easily overlooked elements which often make everything else possible.

Medium has become the talk of the tech, media, and design communities, in part because it’s Ev and also because a lot of people love debating whether Medium is a platform or a publisher (it’s both). But the unappreciated reason Medium is so compelling is that it has brought experience design to digital. Because of the transient and replaceable nature of the web, it has lacked anyone willing to go beyond aesthetics and into experience. Great design is about crafting a complete vibe, not just trendy features or cool packaging. You can see Medium’s influence almost everywhere you read online, from Politico to personal blogs. Not bad for a two-year-old startup.

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The core of Medium is its tools for writers. When you are ready to write, you see nothing but a place to enter your title, and white space. A simple plus symbol is all you need to add a photo, embed a video, or add a line. Select text and a menu pops up to help you add flourishes or hyperlinks. It’s an inviting space to write. “It’s nothing if it’s not a good place to publish,” Williams says.

By making it so pleasurable for writers to create, Medium could then focus on designing pages that enhance the reading experience. There’s more white space, bigger photos, and better typography. Williams has lately come to believe that Medium may have gone too far and was “too sparse and precious.” It’s now working to put a little more on the page.

Williams’s mission is for Medium to be a place where “ideas and people build off each other,” and you can see that goal rendered in thoughtful and clever features. Visitors can flag a typo for a writer so that reading that story will be a better experience for the next person; a writer can respond to a piece on Medium with a story that has the same weight as the original. These features emanate from a simple question: What do we want? “Test it because you like it rather than you think it’ll drive more clicks,” Williams says. “And if not, then we don’t test it, because I don’t care.” It’s that mind-set that helps make stories “better because they’re on Medium,” as he puts it.

The next steps for Medium are to help people find other great stuff to read and generate revenue in a way that’s in sync with the reading experience. Page-view-driven metrics are turning out to be the death knell for media brands because of the rise of programmatic advertising and cheap and abundant web pages. Medium measures attention and engagement, focusing on what it calls “total time reading” rather than page views or monthly active users. Williams admits it’s not a perfect metric, but it’s the best proxy he has for whether he’s delivering value—which is also what brand advertisers appreciate.

Experiential design has long been needed on the web. Apple reshaped our expectations for great design, and hybrid services such as Airbnb and Uber that use tech and design to facilitate a real-world event have elevated a transaction into something more. Williams considers high-quality design for digital-only experiences a “natural evolution of industry. It’s value moving up.”

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We’re all fighting for more attention. And experience design may be the best tool to get it.

About the author

Om Malik is a partner at True Ventures, an early-stage investor. He is also founder of Gigaom, a Silicon Valley–based, tech-focused publishing company.

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