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Author: Steve Jenkins
14th May 2009

Behind The Scenes with Digg

Digg brings together submitted news, video and images from the web community at large

Behind The Scenes with Digg
Digg brings together submitted news, video and images from the web community at large. We exclusively talk to creative director Daniel Burka to find out what working life is like at a dotcom giant.

Digg is a site that quickly established itself as a leading light across the web, with its message spreading far and wide. Nowadays, it has around 35 million monthly visitors and is a recognisable brand across the globe. We talked to creative director Daniel Burka, who has been at Digg since its very early days, joining way back on 29 March 2005.

Behind The Scenes with Digg
Daniel Burka | creative director at Digg 

WD: Digg has become an established part of the new web order. Can you tell us a little about the history of the site?

DB: Kevin Rose originally conceived Digg in 2004. At the time, he was reading a lot of technology news sites and saw an opportunity for the readers to choose what others should consider important, instead of leaving that job up to editors. Digg really began as an experiment to see if the wisdom of the crowds could allow people to discover the best content on the web, and we’re currently pushing the possibilities of that original concept. Initially, Kevin worked with a developer to create a bare-bones website to vet the basic premise. Once he realised that this kernel of an idea had merit, he started the process of putting together a team to build out the vision. I got involved in the project to design the user experience at this point. Since then, Digg has grown significantly (nearly 35 million monthly unique visitors to date) and the site now covers a wide range of content across a spectrum of subjects. The site’s user interface has adapted significantly along the way as thousands and then millions of people began participating on a daily basis.

WD: From a design perspective, Digg doesn’t conform to many web trends. Who controls the design and are there any plans for an update in the near future? 

DB: I like to say that the design of Digg is heavily influenced by our users. We spend a lot of time listening to them, watching how they use the site, testing things with them and explicitly asking them how the site is working specifically for them. In the end, Digg is powered and managed by our audience, and the design must reflect and embrace that balance. So who designs and marks up the user interface? Originally, it was just me, Daniel Burka, working on the user interface of Digg. Now, I’ve got a great team with Mark Trammell and Danny Trinh joining me in the user experience group. Our small team works with many other talented folks at Digg to make sure the interface is easy to use and that it meets our goals. I’m pleased to hear you describe Digg as nonconformist. We’ve tried to avoid ‘trendy’ design and really focus on the user experience. Pretty much every design discussion is focused around usability, and Digg is a very user-centric organisation. As for updates, we plan to make hundreds of them. Digg generally advances iteratively. That means we improve small parts of the website over time. Iterative design allows us to test out concepts in the real world and quickly adapt them to actual usage. We avoid designing an idealised user interface over a long period of time. That path leads you to make a lot of false assumptions and changes take a long time. We have no false illusions – we’ll make a ton of ‘mistakes’, but that’s kind of the point. Iteration means learning quickly from your mistakes and adjusting things out in the wild. We rarely take large leaps in design. At several points in the past there have been major revisions of the site that everyone noticed. In between those milestones, however, we make many revisions that often fly under the radar but that subtly improve the user experience. It’s not certain when we might make a huge leap like that again, but until it becomes necessary we’ll continue making changes and improvements.

Behind The Scenes with Digg

WD: There are obviously a lot of back-end technologies pushing Digg to users. What are the primary technologies used throughout the site?

DB: As Digg’s creative director, I don’t have the most sophisticated understanding of the site’s infrastructure. We have a very strong group of people in Operations and in Development who consistently push Digg’s technology. At the core, we run a pretty basic LAMP setup – Debian Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP – but obviously tuned for large-scale deployment. On the front-end, we’re clearly using standards-based XHTML and CSS, as well as the jQuery JavaScript library.

WD: The Digg website is a massive presence. It must have a big team looking after the design and development. How many people regularly work on the site and what are their roles?

DB: Digg has grown a lot over the past four years. There were only four of us when I first started working on the site, and I used to crash on Kevin’s couch whenever I was working in San Francisco. Things are just a little bit bigger than that now and I no longer have to crash on Kevin’s couch! The company now has a nice, modest office in the Potrero Hill area of San Francisco, and we’ve been able to attract stellar talent from around the world to join the effort. On the design side, there are three of us. We work closely with people in product, marketing and business development. On the development side, there are several teams: site operations, back-end development and frontend development. The site ops people run our server infrastructure, keep our databases running smoothly and, among other things, work with us to optimise the performance of the site. The developers, as you’d suspect, work on site features, but they also do considerable work building the back-end services that make the site work.

WD: The Official Digg Tools set boasts an already impressive selection of options, including Google Gadget and Official Firefox add-ons. Are there any plans to work with Microsoft and specifically Internet Explorer in the future?

DB: The simple answer is yes. We have got a great relationship with Microsoft already as our ad partner, and we work with its browser team to find ways to make Digg great within Internet Explorer. We are constantly looking for ways to integrate the Digg experience into all other parts of the web: browsers, devices, gadgets, widgets and a number of other bits and pieces.

Behind The Scenes with Digg

WD: Who makes the decisions when it comes to developing new tools?

DB: Ideas for tools come from all quarters. Often developers will suggest or even prototype a tool they’ve always wanted. Business development will sometimes suggest we take advantage of a partnership opportunity. Users frequently suggest tools to us as well. More often than not, however, a tool is conceived when someone just says, ‘Hey, what if you could just do X?’ The best tools and features usually result when we’re solving a particular itch that’s common to many people. The decision to actually green-light a feature is made by a small group of people who guide our product road map. This is made up of representatives from each group within the company. In the end, though, this decision really reflects what our users want, so again our users are influencing the process.

WD: How does the process of creating a new Digg tool proceed? After the initial agreement to create a tool, what is the development path and time schedule for it to go live?

DB: It’s difficult to generalise about the development of tools. Obviously, some tools are simple and some are extremely involved. Sometimes we have to work closely with partners, and sometimes we even work jointly on the tool. At other times, we can work on a feature in guerrilla style, using rapid development and with complete independence.

WD: The Digg Townhalls and Meet-ups are a great way to interact with other members of the Digg community. How successful have they been and when is the next event in the UK likely to be?

DB: The Digg Meet-ups are outstanding. Digg is nothing without its community, so our Meet-ups and other community events like Townhalls are absolutely critical for us. Many companies in San Francisco suffer from what I call the aquarium effect. When you live and work in the area around Silicon Valley, it’s easy to assume that everyone else in the world is just like the people here. This obviously isn’t the case. Meet-ups allow us to talk with Digg users from all over the world to get their input on the site and new ideas. The Meet-ups allow Digg members to meet each other, and we get the opportunity to come together to celebrate Digg. I still find it incredible that millions of people can work together, often in isolation, to create such a diverse and interesting collection of current information that is the Digg homepage. It’s great to meet up with some of those people and raise a beer to what the community can accomplish.

Behind The Scenes with Digg

WD: Digg is a constantly expanding entity and is always on the lookout for new talent. What tips can you give to anyone who wants to come and work for Digg?

DB: Digg is constantly growing and we are always looking for people who passionately believe in our vision of the web. Designers who are interested in joining Digg must express a strong interest in user experience design and a love for solving complex problems. I really consider our design team the final guardians of the user experience, and it’s up to us to encourage a culture of user-centred product development in the company. We’re also looking for diverse skills. I’m pretty sceptical about the fracturing of the web design community over the past decade. In the last ten years, the web design profession has been splintered as larger teams have been built to do projects that used to be tackled by a web master or, that very usefully generic role, a web designer. Now we work in an environment with information architects, user experience engineers, interface designers, graphic designers, front-end coders, and on and on. I’m not sure that such specialisation has been especially useful for the web design profession, although such long titles certainly make us sound clever. At Digg, we’re excited to find people who know their IA as well as their CSS and who aren’t intimidated to run taskbased usability studies on the same day they’re debugging IE6 for a new feature. Younger designers often ask me how they can get noticed somewhere like Digg if they’ve got a thin portfolio of work. I think it’s an interesting problem. As a designer, you frequently rely on your work to get more work, but at the outset you’re stuck in a chicken-and-egg situation. In this common situation, I would strongly suggest that the designer work on fictional projects. Take a banking site and redesign it to solve all of the problems you’ve seen in it. Make the perfect UI for a fictional online retailer. These types of projects not only flush out your portfolio, but they also show you have got self-motivation and they clearly express your problem-solving skills. Many moons ago, even 37signals did several of these types of portfolio pieces called the 37Better Project. These are still online (I just checked).

WD: A great indicator of the success of Digg is that it has its own online shop. What are the core technologies used behind the scenes? And who gets to design the range?

DB: A few months ago, we finally got a new version of our store up with lots of new products. If you haven’t been in a while, check out the new one. We actually have a really informal process for coming up with products. Basically, someone comes up with a clever idea. If the idea gets booed down, we don’t do it. If people nod sagely, then we consider it. Different members of my team have contributed designs for products. We’ve also thrown around the idea of doing some sort of user competition and voting (of course) for Web Designer | 21 new products and designs in the future. I think it could be really fun to do a few T-shirts that have been created and selected by our users.

WD: To stay as popular and successful as Digg, it must have one eye on the future. Digg Labs offers an insight into current developments, and we really like the visual element of the pics. What future developments can you tell us about?

DB: Labs has been a great area for us to develop cutting-edge tools that explained the flow of activity on Digg in useful and interesting ways. We’re still working with Stamen Design on developing new and better visualisations in the Labs. In the future, I think we are also going to broaden the labs to house alpha features that we want to expose to our core users. We’re constantly working on new things at Digg that often don’t even get released on the website. The Digg Labs would be a great environment for exposing some of these projects to road-test them and get feedback from our users.

This article originally appeared in Web Designer Issue 154 

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