34SP.com Blog

Folletto on Design, WordPress.com and WordCamp London

Davide Casali, also known as ‘Folletto’ is a user experience director and startup advisor with a hybrid background in design, psychology and technology. He notably currently works within Automattic, the maker of WordPress.com. Folletto has also developed (along with Gianandrea Giacoma) Motivational Design, a method that provides a theoretical approach and tools to deal with social dynamics and design social environments. 34SP.com was able to get some time with Folletto and understand his role within WordPress.com and also a bit about his presentation at WordCamp London coming up in just a few weeks.

 

You are an award-winning designer and a product design lead on WordPress.com and related products. How does one achieve that position? What lead you to your current role? Give us some sense of your career path.

I find this question a bit difficult to answer because “career” and “achievement” are two words that suggest I aimed for them, and every time I look at my choices I can’t in all honesty say that’s what happened. What I pursued was a mix of my curiosity and the desire to craft something useful for other people, and in a sense… it just happened to end up being technology and design. Then of course, by doing that I also reached certain objectives, but they were almost a side effect of me following the things that interested me at the time.

I mean, at 16 I was in my room releasing Windows applications I developed with Visual Basic 6 and that made me stumble on a lot of problems, first and foremost the fact that these apps weren’t exactly easy to use, but also on how to publish these on the web. How could I do it better? Driven by these problems I discovered not just more advanced programming techniques but also that there were entirely different disciplines that would have helped me to improve the things I was building – like design in all its parts, psychology and so on.

That’s probably the reason why I’m more of a T-shaped professional, or a generalist, than a specialist. I studied whatever was needed for what I was building and this along the path translated in a professional career and specific professional roles that switched from development to design to director. I have no idea what will happen next. So I can’t really answer the “how”. I personally feel that every career path is unique and the important part is to follow your interests and build on them, while keeping yourself open to the possibilities.

 

What is the best thing about working directly on WordPress? What are the challenges?

My experience is more toward WordPress.com than WordPress, even if of course given the connection between the two I’m in touch with both. In both of them I think the best thing is also its biggest challenge: it’s a software that impacts millions of people worldwide. Trying to make it more powerful, easy to use, and effective for this incredible variety of people is both exciting and humbling, but at the same time you are always constantly aware that any error made will have the same level of impact.

The challenges come directly from this tension: innovating, improving something means changing the habits of that many people, and of course a good number of them won’t like it, even when in the longer term everyone would be better off. This can be difficult not just in terms of balancing correctly the designs, but also the personal stress along the road that gets you there. You can find an excellent article on burnout in open source written by Siobhan McKeown.


You have been known to agree with Leonardo DaVinci when he reportedly said: ”Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. What about this statement resonates with you?

It’s about how much experience is required to build something simple. It’s very easy to say that you’re doing it, but achieving it is an entirely different matter. Because it’s not just about design itself, it’s something that goes up to the foundation principles of the service or company. Simplicity is often achieved by removing features, or resisting the market and social pressure of certain things. It’s a business decision in a sense. Steve Jobs said in 1997 that “Focusing is about saying no“, and that’s one of the fundamentals to make something truly simple.

The other aspect that makes it difficult is that simplicity isn’t celebrated. When people see something really simple it’s like it’s not there. Bruno Munari, one of the greatest Italian designers, once said: “When someone says: I can do that too, it means they can redo it, otherwise they would have done it before”. That “I can do that too” is often the highest recognition of something truly simple. People dismiss it as trivial, even if it something that required a huge deal of work for the designer that made it.

As a team lead I try to catch these moments when I can, because they are important: when someone does something truly simple I try to notice and highlight it, to make it visible. It’s good for the individuals and for the team as well. It helps everyone to see how hard it is to make it easy, and nudges everyone to keep doing it. That’s why to me simplicity is the ultimate sophistication: requires a great deal of experience to get it right, and lot of focus.

 

You probably know as much about WordPress as anyone – how did you decide what to speak about at WordCamp London? Give us a brief preview of what you will be covering in your presentation.

Speaking at WordCamps was initially a hard decision for me because I expected the events to be way more focused on development topics than what they turned out to be. Just after a few nudges by members of the community – thanks Lance and Matt – I decided to look into it and propose a few talks that got a very good reception in the last WordCamps I spoke at.

At WordCamp London I’ll be presenting “Design With Personas: A Lean Approach“, a way to frame the design work that can be very useful to anyone, from individual theme authors to big agencies. Personas are an old tool, they have been defined more than 20 years ago, but they are still very misunderstood and this misuse leads to people trying them and saying “they don’t work”.

That’s why my talk will focus on the fundamentals and propose a lean way to include them in any project, from the very beginning. Personas can be very effective in helping achieve the right focus around the final user, and I hope they can turn out useful for many more people after my talk.

 

Anything else you want to add or direct interested readers to check out?

Just… we should all add some more psychology and behavioural economics to our work. These two disciplines aren’t very acknowledged in the development and design community, but they can be incredibly effective. I’ll suggest maybe to start with the book Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein.