Quip CEO talks the future of interfaces

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Session Name: The Future of Interfaces

Chris Albrecht
Om Malik
Bret Taylor

Chris Albrecht 00:07
Next we have my boss, Om Malik, coming back out to stage. He’s going to be talking about The Future of Interfaces with Bret Taylor; Co-Founder and CEO of Quip. Please welcome Om and Bret back to the stage.

Om Malik 00:29
That was pretty cool to talk about Tesla. Friends and I were talking about cars and interfaces and cars having interfaces too and it was pretty interesting so it’s a good transition from there to Quip and Bret. Just have an introduction. Bret and I met long time ago – six years. He was working on Google Maps. He was one of the few people who helped bring Google Maps to life way before anybody realized that it was cool. Then he work started a company called FriendFeed which became part of Facebook when Facebook acquired it and he went on to become the CTO of Facebook and left a year or so ago to start Quip which is a new kind of productivity applications. Bret has a big canvas from where he can speak, he knows maps and he knows dense information flows and he knows real-time information flows and now he is working on the interfaces for productivity in the new age of devices. So, thank you for making time for us, Bret. Tell me a little bit about Quip. Where you guys are? I know you launched a few months ago.
Bret Taylor 01:55
Yes. So, we launched Quip about three months ago and it’s essentially mobile-focused word processor. It works on tablets and phones and the PC, and our focus had been, if we were to create this sort of corporate activity application in this era of this connected devices, what would we differently if we have the luxury of designing it from the ground up. So we spent a lot of times on things that aren’t really related to typesetting and our documents are non-virtual, it would have by 11 pieces of paper like most traditional word processors. I would spend a lot time thinking about real-time collaboration, how push notifications integrate with the author in process, and a lot of the experience is very much focused on mobile and collaboration as opposed to being focused on just typesetting words on a page. It’s been really a thrilling ride especially after being on Facebook for so long and working in a completely different area. We have lots of people signing up for it, lots of companies adopting it. It’s the first time I ever sold a product in my life. All of my products before have been ad-supportive and so it was really thrilling for me. And I think a lot of the core PCs that we had coming into this about having all these devices work very well together have really been proven, just some of the interesting stats from just a few months of our launch is that, about 35% of our users only use it on top of some phones, they’ve never even visited the website and almost half – about 40 to 45% – use it on multiple devices, and which actually exceeded my expectations. Then similarly, about 48% of people have used it on their tablet. We all know about the Griffin smartphones and it’s been really, really interesting to me to see where the tablet comes out and all these new interfaces because it sort of straddles that middle ground between a phone and a PC, and it’s certainly had been the focal point of our product design but it have been very interesting to see it sort of come true and the numbers as well, so we’re really focused on sort of building that out and I’m really excited for the coming year, reach out some scale.
Om Malik 04:06
So I’m guessing a few thousand people may be using Quip right now?
Bret Taylor 04:12
A lot more than that actually. We’re going to wait until probably early next year to give our concrete numbers but a couple, I think we’re at magnitude or two–
Om Malik 04:22
That sounds good. What have you learned from those behaviors like the people, how they use it? What have you guys learned about the product and how it’s going to change the product?
Bret Taylor 04:36
When we came into it, there’s a couple of things that we were right about and a couple of things that really surprised us. We went into focused on collaboration as a primary part of the authoring process. We actually added printing like the week before it launched and I go, “Man. I guess we needed– A lot of people print these things.” Which is kind of amusing given that we’re making a word processor and that has been the reason why most of the companies who have adopted– have chosen to adopt it. Actually our first paying customer was really out of the field. There was asbestos removal company in Colorado. There was a 25-person company and about 10 or 15 of those people are always on the field and they basically needed to communicate with their home office about the list of information about the buildings they’re inspecting. And they had nothing that worked in real-time across these phones and tablets, and they sought us out explicitly for that. And they’re not the traditional early adopter company. Then the thing that I think we– they kind of surprised was I think there’s a depth to word processing that will take a long time to catch up. People had very specific keyboard tricks that they relied on. Very specific idioms that they were using and they’re existing word processor in a very specific way and I think the flood of feedback we’ve got largely from our happiest customers or most engaged customers was just a list of keyboard tricks, add some features, and actually I think one of the challenges for our company has been trying to figure out, word has a 30-year sort of head start of features and how do we sort of maintain the simplicity of our product and maintain the sort of mobile focus of our product. We’re not making it disadvantage as a word processor and disadvantage in the sort of core functionality. I think, a little next year, we’re trying to figure out how much are we going to build out our word processor and how much are we going to do these new things, take advantage of the microphone and the camera on your iPhone and iPad versus make sure that you can format your document in this way which word hasn’t been able to do in 25 years and that one customer is really about, and I think that’s going to be a really interesting challenge for us. I think it’s true of a lot of company working on new product areas and trying to be innovative as how much you sort of like create that art from the old products to the new versus how much do you do new things, and it’s an interesting product design challenge for us.
Om Malik 07:04
There’s a bunch of software out there and you have– Microsoft have its productivity suite which cost hundreds of dollars and Google charges you hundreds of dollars per year to use Google Office, and two weeks ago Apple made their software essentially free. Essentially taking away the reason to use Quip for many people, right? So how do you sell your product in that environment? What makes people buy in the age of free?
Bret Taylor 07:40
That’s a really interesting question. One of the interesting things about our Nest and sales process, I think it’s only really been out for three months, in a year, it may have more new on dispenser but price hasn’t been the focal point of our sales discussions it’s because the product that we’re building is very much – if you decide to use it – becomes a very core part of your day-to-day productivity experience and the companies that have chosen to adopt it, it tends to be something that people use all day every day, they use it on the go, they use it in the office or their PC and it’s so important that almost any amount that we charge in our case it’s $12 a month is relatively nominal on the grand scheme of business expenses, when you look at the personal cellphone bill and it’s order of 92 larger than that. And so really the challenge I think for our product is our product experience engaging and differentiating enough that people chose to use it over the very large number of competing options, and if they do, I think that it becomes so valuable that the price is not much of an issue, and the thing that I think a lot about is the relative strengths of some of these competing products. Look at iWork and I love Keynote, it’s a wonderful product and I think that it excels a lot of the certain presentation aspect of document creation for all of its products. And our focus is different, our focus is on collaboration and mobile and I think people who used the product definitely see that focus when they use it. I think that the challenge for us will be to continue to establish that brand and make sure that brand is differentiated enough for an ongoing basis and that makes sure that the people who use it find it valuable enough to pay for it but I think that as long as our product is that core thing that you use every day, I’m not concerned about it being valuable enough for people to purchase.
Om Malik 09:39
I think it’s a funny thing. One of my friends, Sean Gourley who started Quid not Quip, and he talks about the importance of stories and the importance of narrative in a business and it seems like what you’re talking about is that Quip has to have a story which resonates with other people and that’s your pitch. From what you have learned so far at Quip and going back to what you learned at Google Maps and then FriendFeed and then at Facebook, take us through the last six years in which we’ve seen information density increased pretty drastically.
Bret Taylor 10:28
It’s a very interesting topic. I think that this is something I think saw most in working in FriendFeed and Facebook, there’s an interesting sort of art of happiness that a person went through on FriendFeed and that translated very dramatically to Facebook where it did start off and they wouldn’t have enough friends in the service and a lot of people would not endure that time and the product just because it’s like, “Great. This one guy I met in high school is doing a lot of stuff. I don’t want to sit here all day and like see his kid feathers.” And then there’s a point at which the sort of your social graph saturated and you got enough people in there and there was a really wonderful experience. You could visit the site and see a lot of great content about the people you actually cared about. And then what often happen is: people would keep on friending and keep on following and their stream would just be inundated with content and it would often be a random slice in time. Here’s what these 2,000 people were doing in the past 10 minutes, which is rarely like a good experience and often people would churn out of the service at that point. Actually we spend a lot of time trying to find the balance between making things predictable and understandable to the end user which chronological order is and something that’s more algorithmic where we feel like we’re picking out some of the best content. And is very interesting to see people’s reactions to interface changes in Twitter, and interfaces to Facebook news feed where people say they want chronological order because it’s very predictable and complete but if you look at the way they engage with the content they may be wrong, if you actually trick stuff algorithmically, you’ll actually find that they’re like finds the stuff that they actually want to see, that photo from the person they really care about or maybe their aunts only post once a week and that content’s at the top now because it’s picked algorithmically. But those things are often not very popular with users. I think there’s a really interesting tension there that I don’t think it’s fully played out and I think it’s something that it’ll be interesting to see how Facebook’s been more aggressive on the algorithmic path. It would be interesting to see what Twitter does there.
Om Malik 12:45
What do you make of their changes could be? Twitter did a lot of redesign to their feed, what do you think of those?
Bret Taylor 12:54
I really like seeing photos on my Twitter streams, I’m really happy about that. I think the thing that is the fundamental challenge for Twitter goes back to the sort of storytelling and aspect of product design; so much of Twitter is about its simplicity. The fact that they have kept the constraint, you can only type 140 characters, I think is a really nice illustration of their strength they have on their product design and I meant that in the best possible way. I think that unfortunately because when simplicity is defining characteristic for your product, it’s challenging to expand the scope of your product especially for people who are coming new to the service and not familiar with it, and so I think that on one hand I’m actually really happy that they’re doing things more aggressive with the interface because I think they will make the service better and more accessible to a broader range of people. But it will be interesting to see five years from now ten years from now have they retained the soul of their products. Do you still think of it as a very simple, the thirstiness of it is very much wrapped up in its brand, and if that is lost, I think of it long term that would be a really bad thing, but I think they overall seem to be finding their belts pretty well.
Om Malik 14:08
So you look at Facebook in that sense. Facebook was a lot less complex product few years ago and now it’s just so – the word I can come up to describe Facebook is kind of laborious right? [laughter] Like you feel labored going there. It’s like, “Oh my God. So many people, so many things, the feeds.” There’s just so much weight of the Facebook, feels like it’s actually not social, it’s like work. And that transition happened after the requirements to make money came into play is a little bit… Do you think there is a risk for guys like Twitter that they’re on the risk of doing that same kind of thing?
Bret Taylor 14:51
I think social is not really necessarily a product that sort of a way of designing products and I think, the interesting about Facebook is there’s a lot of types of social interactions captured within a single product experience, there’s photo sharing, there’s messaging, there’s status updates, there’s the general active serve like friendly this social address book and reputation and it’s all wrapped up into a single product experience and I think the complexity of the Facebook product largely comes from trying to find a union of what had maybe on their won be sort of desperate product experiences but in the combination of them is often greater than some of their parts because they’re so much compelligence stuff to engage with that. But it is a very, very challenging product design problem. I wouldn’t necessarily couple it with pressure to monetize; I do read it as a much more structural issue, just the amount of content and amount of interaction happening within the Facebook network. One thing that I think a lot about at Quip that I think is interesting in this context is the influence of global on product design and how much it’s trickling back. I certainly think one of the reasons Twitter has been such successful is how idiomatic it is on mobile devices and I know that’s been a passion of Jack since they started the service but it is really interesting how the brevity of it makes it so easy to consume on a mobile device, and the one thing I’m really proud of Quip is that our tablet app and our desktop app look identical. I wouldn’t surprise me if as these services that are really dense, really complex try to make their interfaces work on these more limited touchscreen devices that as these devices become the primary way people interact with the service, that those designs make their way to the PC and make their way back to the web. Whether it’s for strategic reasons or just practical reasons, if 90% of your users are on the phone, you’re not going to a design that’s completely different interface with the PC and it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a trend towards lower density and towards simplicity largely driven by the necessity of making it work well on smaller screens.
Om Malik 17:12
Did you and Mark talk about all this?
Bret Taylor 17:14
We talked about this all the time. I think that’s a very interesting thing because I don’t think there’s a black and white answer dense is good or dense is bad, and obviously there’s some aesthetic and qualitative design decisions captured in that but given independently that there are some people for whom density is a very valuable thing. If you took off a financial spreadsheet and make it less dense, I don’t think an accountant would be happy about that. But if you are trying to browse photos, there’s something to the immersiveness and lack of density on the product like Instagram that makes it really delightful. And I think that there’s a lot nuance to this question and I do think that depending on how often you spend time on Facebook and what not make your tolerance and eagerness towards things like that definitely changes.
Om Malik 18:04
Right. Can I ask you about the types of data in an environment whether it’s like an application or as a social platform like Facebook, you just said that multiple kinds of interactions and data streams on Facebook, how do you design for that kind of an environment? Like the meaning of a status update is very different than the poke, right? How do you design? Should you design them differently? Should you think about designing them think differently?
Bret Taylor 18:37
That’s a very interesting question. One of the things that were very humbling for me when I went from FriendFeed to Facebook was the level of formality that Facebook and Mark thought about breaking down these social channels, and it was humbling in the sense that I felt dumb for not having thought of it that way before. And what’s interesting is there are very sort of formal breakdown of channels within Facebook: there’s notifications, there’s the news feed, there’s request where friend request come in, and when product designers are thinking about how to design a new product, they take into account all these channels and figure out what is the right channel for this type of interaction or this type of content. And I think it’s very interesting because I do think that one of the interesting aspects of mobile is how I think a lot of product designers are starting to think about communication channels in this formal way because of the growth of things like push notifications and I think there are a lot of social products have the concept of push, now I think that concept is coming into a lot of different products. And I think it’s something that’s a really interesting design trend, it’s like thinking about how to breakdown product design into these communication channels is becoming a much more mainstream way of thinking about product design even in the case of products that overtly social way equipped where we are very push-driven and very communication channel-driven more than most traditional productivity applications.
Om Malik 20:06
Can you elaborate a little bit more that? I’m genuinely intrigued by pushing notifications but more as an end user who gets annoyed by all these notifications.
Bret Taylor 20:17
I’ll explain the good side because I think that’s a little easier, I think there’s a lot of complexity in the– how people being inundated with these things, but one very practical example is that: on Quip, you share a document with somebody, the first time they open it, you get a push notification on your phone that said “Om opened the document you just sent him.” And you can tap on that and because there’s a chat thread attached to every document, you can walk them through the thing in real-time and by virtually have taken advantage of that push and on the fact that you almost certainly have your phone in your pocket, the vast majority of communication on Quip happens in real-time. Like the norm for our product is you’re there with someone else chatting in real-time. I think the reason that’s compelling is for like a decade, people have been giving demos onstage of real-time interaction but in practice or likelihood, you’re both in the same place at the same time in the internet to have that real-time interaction was basically zero. But because people’s phones are full featured computers now and you can pull people into apps via push notification, I think it opens the door for real-time product design in a way that was sort of demoed onstage but never actually existed prior to smartphones be existing, and I think that real-time communication, real-time interactions are like one of the most disruptive things to happen to products. Most of us probably introduced texting to our parent in this room. I remember when I first described texting to my mom, all she heard was it was a 160 characters. She’s like, “Why would I do that instead of an email?” And then she realized how bad I was at email and then every time she texted me, I reply instantly and she would actually text me: “Just wait for me to respond.” And then she got this sort of media sea and the social dynamic around that and sort of came to see the value of that interaction very differently. A lot of the mobile products that will be very disruptive will have that quality where on their face, you just see its limitations and what’s different, but in practice it’s a completely different social dynamic that’s much more real-time, much more informal, and much more lightweight. I think the challenge as you mentioned which I don’t have a clear answer for is that these channels are often abused by applications and the signals and noise ratios often very different. I don’t know exactly how that’ll be solved but I think the equilibrium will be that this will be a very high signal channel, whether it’s through people curating what apps they want to allow to send this notifications or something more sophisticated, but I do think it’s a really important part of the product design experience now.
Om Malik 22:55
How did you guys do it at Quip like how did– Did you start from just like when you were designing this that notifications were core part of your experience or was it like something which came later after the product was start through?
Bret Taylor 23:08
We started with it because when we were talking about– We started with the premise. Now there are people going on business trips with only their iPad. Now the norm in an office is that you have a tablet, a smartphone, and a PC. How will people’s productivity and collaboration change? And so we started by listing all the unique aspects of these devices whether it was the front facing camera or the microphone or push notifications. We actually talked about each of those individually and how they will change the experience and I thought that was a very interesting actual process to talk about product design. And then we took some of those things that we felt like were the most compelling and built the experience around it. We started from very early on that all these products have the promise of real-time collaboration but leveraging some of these unique aspect of mobile we can possibly make that an experience that you have given the norm and the product, and it was something that we are really excited about the results.
Om Malik 24:09
Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us and hopefully Quip will be a big success and we’ll have you back next year and talk more about the things you did in the next 12 months.
Bret Taylor 24:21
Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. [applause]