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Design

Expressions of Love

Why users and fans should be part of product design

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A Lego hypothetical of Uncharted by Either-Art on DeviantArt.

Wikipedia defines fan art (or fanart) as “artworks created by fans of a work of fiction (generally visual media such as comics, movies, television shows or video games) and derived from a character or other aspect of that work.”

Climbing up a rung of abstraction, fan art is just a form of fan labor. Fan labor is loosely defined as “creative activity engaged in by fans.” Fan fiction is another form of fan labor.

If we step away from clinical definition and classification, fan anything really is just an expression of love for something. If you care enough about something that you commit your creative energy towards expanding it, that’s a pretty big deal.

Deviantart has been hosting fan art for years now. If you’ve got time to kill and just about anything you’re curious about, it’s worth your time to get lost in the back alleys of Deviantart. However there really are some back alleys on Deviantart, so you may not want to be browsing at work.

There’s fan art for video games and TV programs:

Law & Order: SVU fan art by NuclearKitty on DeviantArt.

And for just about anything else. And of course, expressions of fandom don’t just take the form of visual art. Fan fiction is a world all its own (there’s tons to explore on places like Wattpad). If you’re into just about any pop song or artist, it’s a virtual guarantee that there’s a ukulele version of it on Youtube or a remixed version on Soundcloud.

Digging a bit deeper, sometimes fan labor (we’ll go with this term for now) isn’t just love and adoration, it’s outright necessary.

“You didn’t properly finish the thread on that character. Let me finish a chapter…”

“Man, that’s a killer song but you can do a lot more with that beat. Here…”

“There’s more to Character X than what he lives through in that video game. Here’s a glimpse into his life over here…”

And then there’s apps.

I don’t think the public redesign of apps on the web necessarily represents fandom or even respect for a given app. It may actually just be borne out of frustration or a desire to showcase “how I can do it better.”

Just about every major app has been redesigned.

LinkedIn:

Zero Agency took a crack at redesigning LinkedIn.

Facebook:

Fred Nerby redesigned Facebook.

Twitter:

Grégoire Vella redesigned Twitter’s web presence.

As someone that cares deeply about design (Postlight is in many regards a design-first shop), I love seeing stuff like this. As companies get big and complicated and political and as user bases get big and sometimes massive, it becomes nearly impossible to introduce meaningful change from inside the company. Or, put differently, when there’s more at stake it’s harder to venture out and innovate.

As users of these products and as designers ourselves, we oftentimes badly want to move stuff around and rejig things, but we can’t—for obvious reasons.

But sometimes you just can’t help yourself. A few weeks ago, Nabeel Khalid wrote a Medium post entitled Why Spotify’s navigation is broken. The article isn’t actually an angry rant. Instead, he puts forward concept designs that he feels would improve the Spotify mobile experience. Most notably (for me, at least), he attacks Spotify’s hamburger button and just lays out the main facets of the app in a bottom menu bar:

The moment I saw this interface change, I wanted it badly.

And just yesterday, Spotify pushed out an update that implements this change practically verbatim. The Verge summarized the update. Here’s a screenshot of the actual app:

This is the actual app update. Coincidence? Who knows. I’m just happy it’s there.

For all we know, Spotify may have been cooking up this change for a while now. But it’s still satisfying to see external voices — not just fans but users who’ve invested thousands of hours in something — be part of the product conversation.

App interaction design needs more creativity, or more specifically: more room and support to be more creative. “Design” is usually associated with style and expression, but interaction design over the past decade or so is represented as a more rigid, quasi-scientific discipline. Leaning on convention is good. We just need more risk-takers willing to try and create new conventions—risk-takers that can actually influence and affect change in the products many of us use today.

The bigger the app, the less risks taken. That’s just good business. Thank God for the fans.

Rich Ziade is a co-founder of Postlight.