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Tobias is the Experience Design Director for Minecraft in Stockholm, Sweden, where he leads the user experience design for the second best-selling video game of all time (second only to Tetris). When he’s not working from the Mojang headquarters he’s spending his time as an Industry Leader at the digital business school Hyper Island, and as a judge for the Swedish Design Awards.

Prior to Mojang, Tobias was one of the first designers at Spotify, and was early on responsible for the UI design of all their apps. He went on to work as a Product Designer and Developer at GitHub in San Francisco, and later lead the design for the user testing company Lookback.

You can follow him on Twitter: @TobiasAhlin

He will be live on Sep 21 starting at 930 AM PT for one and a half hours during which he will answer as many questions as possible.

  • ST

    Stanley Tan

    7 days ago #

    Hey Tobias,
    What are your core values when it comes to designing Minecraft's user experience?

    • TA

      Tobias Ahlin

      3 days ago #

      I'll give you two of them: 1) don't make things more simple by dumbing them down, and 2) enable players to play Minecraft in their very own way. Let me try to explain how I think these values are different from my other experiences.

      Minecraft is a complex product, and you can express yourself so freely with it because of its complexity. In my mission to make things easier to use I have to track very carefully to never dumb things down. Rather, I try to make them powerful and complex, but convenient. It's a product that's often closer to Photoshop, than to Spotify, in that way.

      It can be easy as a product designer to design for the average, and to design for what the majority of people find easy to use. It was easier for me to design for the average with a consumer product like Spotify, because people are there for the music, not the product in itself. But when the product (Minecraft in this case) becomes the core experience, not just a proxy that delivers it (like how Spotify delivers music), enabling players to bend the experience in their own way becomes way more important. That means that with Minecraft, I try to listen more carefully to every single player's opinion, and take that into consideration, rather than just listen to and design for the majority.

      4 Share
  • AL

    Arsene Lavaux

    4 days ago #

    Bonjour Tobias- Merci for doing this AMA.

    Among all the gamification principles that apply to sustainable growth for a gaming app, if you had to only choose one, what would it be?

    :)

    • TA

      Tobias Ahlin

      3 days ago #

      Gamification is a phrase that makes me think of using a selection of mechanisms from games, like simple rewards systems, without properly considering how they can fit naturally with the experience of a product. Maybe the word has gotten a bad wrap, but, this is what I think that we can really learn from games: think more about emotions. Think about how it feels to use a certain feature, not just what the feature does. Think less about utility, more about feelings. Look for natural reward mechanisms, or narratives, in your product, and then look at what games do to make similar mechanisms or narratives express a certain mood or feeling.

      For example, if you're building a banking or savings app and you're letting your users track their goals: don't just show a progress bar. Same with health. Don't just show the data. Make the data express something! If it's a happy moment when you've saved more, make it a happy moment! If it's a happy moment when you've taken a run, make it a happy moment! We should be less afraid of adding those particles, happy animations, and sound effects to achieve a certain feeling. We should be less utilitarian, and more expressive.

      3 Share
  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    3 days ago #

    Hey Tobias - so cool to finally have you on!
    What does "Experience Design" mean to you?
    How do you know when you've achieved a good experience design?

    • TA

      Tobias Ahlin

      3 days ago #

      Hey Anuj! Happy to be here. To me, experience design within the gaming world is very much like traditional digital product design, but it ends where game design begins. Thinking about how to make something easy and efficient to use is a very different think from making a game fun and engaging.

      When it comes to the success of Minecraft's design, I try to listen to the community. We're all on reddit, looking at Twitter, and listening to streamers. We've got quantitive data too, of course, but we're lucky to have such a vocal community that's constantly sharing what they think about the game. In our case, it gives me a better idea of how good of a job that we're doing, compared to keeping a close eye on our dashboards.

      2 Share
  • MD

    Mark Anthony de Jesus

    3 days ago #

    Hey Tobias,
    As a European, does the UX that appeals to Europeans differ from that works with the US audience?
    If yes, what do you think the key differences are?
    On a related note, all the products you've worked on are used all over the world. How do you account for the differences in all the UX preferences for such a diverse audience?

  • JP

    John Phamvan

    3 days ago #

    Hey Tobias
    a. What's in your design/UX/UI toolkit?
    Any new tools you've added recently? If yes, what and why did you feel the need for it?
    b. How do you socialize work in progress within the organization and ensure everyone is aligned and the appropriate buy-in has been gotten before moving to the next phase?

    • TA

      Tobias Ahlin

      3 days ago #

      Hey John! Great questions.

      a) I've focused more on getting data literate the last few years, as well as expressing myself more freely as a designer through front-end development. In that sense, I'd highly recommend Framer for any designer that hasn't tried it yet. It's an excellent high-fidelity prototyping tool. Once that starts to become an obstacle, move to something else. I've recently been playing around with using Jekyll and vanilla JavaScript for building prototypes, and I've found it a joy to work with.

      b) This ties in to the last question. Since we've been building some explorations with Jekyll, that means that we can host them internally and let anyone play around with the prototypes at any time. I also make sure that everything is available in our GitHub org. That makes the design exploration technically transparent, but only in theory. In addition to that, I love to just print out design and put it up around our working area. Yes—printed design quickly gets old and dated, but it's a nice way to pull people in as they walk by, and start talking about what you're working on.

      3 Share
  • GH

    Glen Harper

    3 days ago #

    Thank you joining us today, Tobias.
    Clearly Minecraft is a huge success.
    When the bar is as high as it is with a product like that, how do you look for opportunities for improvement? How do you know where to focus on that might move the needle measurably?

    • TA

      Tobias Ahlin

      3 days ago #

      Minecraft is a very special product, because it defies so many best practices in the design industry. The game is extremely complex. There's not always a proper on-boarding experience. The graphics look a bit dated. It almost seems like it's a success because of some of those quirks, but that's not necessarily true, either. It's just a correlation. It's easy to come to a product like that and start trying the usual growth tricks. On-boarding, clearer CTAs, focus on establishing habits, show less options, etc. For Minecraft, I entertain some of those more common techniques, but I try to listen more carefully to what the community is talking about. To a large extent Minecraft feels like a completely different universe, so some of my past experiences simple don't apply. I try to stay humble, trust my gut less, and listen to what our players are struggling with.

  • DH

    Dani Hart

    3 days ago #

    So excited to have you on today, Tobias.
    1. As you look back at your time at Spotify and Github, what was unique about the challenges you faced at each of them?
    2. How has your work there informed how you approach your role at Minecraft now?

    • TA

      Tobias Ahlin

      3 days ago #

      1) At Spotify I got a crash course in how to communicate design in a somewhat bigger organization (150-2500 people). To a large extent, I worked in Keynote and Google Slides (not complaining, I rather enjoy it!). At GitHub, I learned how to be a pragmatist. I communicated more with the community, and I could often ship things by myself. I didn't have to communicate as much internally. If I could figure out how to make an improvement, I could design it, ship it, and launch it all by myself within a day.

      2) Right now I aim to combine those two mindsets; I try to be a pragmatist when it comes to being efficient and shipping (which means, for example, that I encourage all designers to code more). But I also put tremendous value on communicating design and our process internally, as well as documenting everything that we do in detail. So while I want to ship things quickly, I aim to never just send an image or PSD to someone. There's always a document outlining exactly what we're doing, how it functions, what our hypotheses are, and what and who we believe that our design changes will affect. I then try to maintain those documents over time. Move fast and… document meticulously? :)

      2 Share
  • JD

    James Dunn

    3 days ago #

    How do you balance having great user experience while solving for business goals, and have those two ever clashed?

    • TA

      Tobias Ahlin

      3 days ago #

      I think that whenever a great user experience and business goals seem to be in conflict in a project, it's because you're optimizing for short-term business goals while designing for the long-term. Often, it's short-term acquisition or conversion going up against long-term retention.

      Are you adding a pop-up to make visitors subscribe to a newsletter? As a designer, you could argue that it's introducing friction and diluting the value of your brand, but as someone with an incentive to acquire more subscribers (for example a product manager), you could argue that the amount of subscribers is the important success metric. This is why it's so important for designers to think about and understand data and business goals. In this example, you need to be able to change the discussion. You're both trying to make as many people as possible consume your content. The designer is (maybe without knowing it) focusing on retention, while the product manager is focusing on acquisition. You can put a dollar value on both of these, and retention is usually extremely valuable.

      I've found that designers usually focus on retention as their success metric (often without knowing it), since it naturally aligns with a great user experience. As designers get better at thinking about data, and discussing data, we'll get better at aligning great user experiences with business goals.

      2 Share
  • SK

    S Kodial

    3 days ago #

    What companies do you admire from a design/UX perspective?
    What are they doing so different (or so well)?

    • TA

      Tobias Ahlin

      3 days ago #

      I highly admire Framer as a product and as a company. Everything from how they communicate with the community, the quality of their marketing and resources pages, and to the product itself—it's all executed with a superb quality. And their doing great things for the design industry, too.

      I want to believe that a big part of their magic touch is understanding both technology and design so well, and how tightly they are integrated. Now, I don't work there, but it seems to me like they're all unicorns. It seems like they all know exactly what it takes to ship a product of high quality, both from a technical point of view, but also from a design point of view.

      I believe designers become better at design by coding, and developers become better developers by designing. That, I think, is a big part of it.

      2 Share
  • JM

    Joe Montana

    3 days ago #

    Hi Tobias, thank you for doing this. I really appreciate your time.
    Questions:
    1) UX vs Functionality. Which comes first and why?
    2) How to know what is good enough vs WAO effect in UX?
    3) On what do you focus when creating a UX? Can you tell us your three main pillars/objetives to aim?
    Thank you again!
    Best!

  • LC

    Lingling Chen

    3 days ago #

    Hi Tobias!

    Thanks for the AMA! I am curious what's the difference between a product designer & experience designer? Also at Minecraft, how does the design team interface with the marketing team?

  • EC

    Edwin Chavez

    3 days ago #

    Hi, Tobias. What was the most important challenge in your work, and how did you overcome it?

  • DF

    Daniel Foster

    3 days ago #

    Hey Tobias - I thought Minecraft was a dumb game until I spent an afternoon playing it with my (then-6-year-old) son. Now I understand the appeal and have spent many hours happily mining and building with my kids. I love that it is a relatively constructive form of together time.

    A co-worker showed me yesterday a model of the ISS he's creating in Lego's 3D builder. My first thought was that my son, who's now 8, would love going beyond the limits of my budget for physical Legos...to build virtual Lego creations like he creates fun, amazing things in Minecraft. Then I wondered why the Lego 3D builder wasn't put inside Minecraft. Seems like a 1st-person experience would be way more intuitive than the CAD-style approach.

    Anyway...what are your thoughts on other applications for the building experience you've created in Minecraft and how well it would adapt to other "media"?

    • TA

      Tobias Ahlin

      3 days ago #

      Hey Daniel! Great question. I think an under-appreciated value of Minecraft is how it discourages you from focusing on the details. Because of that, you're encouraged to communicate ideas within some fields efficiently and without any expertise, and without necessarily tumbling into the area of an expert.

      As a concrete example (no pun intended), https://blockbyblock.org is a project where children can visualize how they want their cities and environments to transform. It's such an amazing project. Minecraft is the perfect tool partly because you can't spend time on the details. In that setting, we're seeing how Minecraft is helping the people of a cities communicate effectively with the designers of it. I think that Minecraft is a great tool for bridging gaps between consumers and creators, and I hope it'll continue to find more contexts where it can empower people to express themselves.

    • AA

      Anuj Adhiya

      3 days ago #

      Love this Q!

  • TA

    Tobias Ahlin

    3 days ago #

    That's it everyone! Thank you all for the great questions and keeping me company. My DM is always open on Twitter—feel free to reach out.

    Thank you!

  • TN

    Tri Nguyen

    3 days ago #

    A follow up to Mark's question:

    What is the most interesting country where the UX strategy was completely flipped from what you're used to and what sorts of elements in the experience stood out as being drastically different?

  • DO

    Danielle Olivas

    3 days ago #

    Hey Tobias,
    a. Who/what teams do you work with to achieve your goals at Minecraft?
    b. Does Minecraft have a dedicated growth team as well? If not, why do you think that is the case?

  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    3 days ago #

    Have one more from a Minecraft-loving 8-year-old (who just found out you're here) which I'm paraphrasing below:
    How do you account for the experience of being able to play Minecraft on different devices (ie mobile device, desktop, Xbox). How do you keep that from being confusing as people transition between devices?

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