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Bringing Excellence to the Field of UI Engineering

Exclusive Q&A with Bill Scott, Director of User Interface Engineering, Netflix

"My mission has always been to bring excellence to the field of user interface engineering," says Bill Scott, Director of User Interface Engineering at Netflix, which has 8+ million users, in this Exclusive Q&A with SYS-CON's AJAX & RIA Journal in the run-up to his session on October 20 at AJAX World RIA Conference & Expo in San Jose, California (October 20-22, 2008).

AJAX & RIA Journal: When asked to prove to doubters that user experience matters, also to the bottom line of a company…what companies (in addition to Netflix!) do you tend to reference?

BILL SCOTT: I love Pandora. Pandora is dead simple. You pick a song or artist and immediately a radio station is built for you. The player is easy to use, easy to rate songs and does a great job of integrating advertising into the player space. The Pandora player and its companion iPhone application demonstrate the power of simple, rich interfaces that don’t get in the way of the experience but enhance it. Understanding that it is the experience of music listening and not the site experience directly is what focuses a team to build an experience for the user and not for themselves.

AJAX & RIA Journal: What would you say to those who contend that while “Rich Internet Application” had a very clear meaning at the time it was coined in the early 2000s, when an RIA was a clear contrast to the prevailing mass of applications on the web, the contrast is largely gone – leaving the term less useful. Has the entire web really evolved that dramatically, already? Is “Rich Web” now a given do you think?

SCOTT: It is not a given. It is getting to be more common. But the idea is not to make everything “rich”. The idea is to give the best experience. Sites have really messed up when they forget what the user really wanted from them. A popular TV site was primarily used for TV listings. When they changed it to be “rich” they made it harder to do the primary thing—get a TV listing.

I think the term is still useful as most of the techniques, patterns, etc. are still being fleshed out. I continue to see sites launch rich interfaces that are an abuse to the user – so there is still a lot to learn. The more capabilities, the more dangerous it is. Chain saws are great for quickly cutting down a tree, but they can also saw off a limb.

AJAX & RIA Journal:
Your title at Netflix - “Director of User Interface Engineering” – bears testimony to the importance of front end engineering at Netflix. Are you surprised that there are not more ‘directors of UI engineering’ than there are?

SCOTT: Yes and no. If you really understand that crafting a good user experience requires solid engineering then it makes sense. If instead you think that creating a web interface is what developers who can’t cut the backend work then no it wouldn’t occur to you.

My mission has always been to bring excellence to the field of user interface engineering. What impressed me most about Netflix was their deep understanding of the criticality of this role. Think about it. From an engineering perspective, taming Java, JSP, HTML, CSS & Javascript into a cohesive framework with proper the proper software architecture while at the same time being perfomant for our 8+ million users is a worthwhile challenge. And then recruiting and keeping the talent to pull it off – well that deserves the attention of a Director of UI Engineering.

AJAX & RIA Journal: How did you get started in the world of user interface and user experience?

SCOTT: In 1984 I bought a Macintosh 128k. By the end of the year I joined forces with two of my fellow co-workers (from the Apple store where I worked) to write one of the first games for the Macintosh – GATO, a submarine simulation game. Designing and building the interface to this game completely hooked me on the joy of creating software that people wanted to use. From that moment forward I focused solely on user experience design and engineering.

AJAX & RIA Journal: What role do open APIs play in the business and software universe, in general terms?

SCOTT: In 2006, Netflix launched the Netflix Prize. The idea is to award $1 million to the team that can improve our recommendations engine by 10%. Why did we do this? We believe innovation is bigger than us.

Just this month Netflix announced its open APIs. By opening up APIs to the public we invite the talent of the masses to make Netflix a better experience. Open APIs foster innovation, provide an economic space for smaller development shops to thrive and allow businesses to host their services on a wide range of devices with fringe feature sets that otherwise would not have been supported.

AJAX & RIA Journal: Does Netflix make use of this trend towards open APIs?

SCOTT: Yes, with our launch of the public APIs on October 1, 2008. We are planning a soon to be announced Open Hack Day to invite developers onto our campus to hack for notoriety and fame!

AJAX & RIA Journal: What technologies does Netflix use in-house?

SCOTT: Our primary technology is Java running in a Tomcat/Apache configuration. For the user interface we use JSPs and the normal DHTML stack. We are in the process of re-architecting the presentation infrastructure utilizing: JSP tags, Struts2, Tiles2, YUI CSS framework and jQuery.

AJAX & RIA Journal: How about Cloud Computing: do you see it to be a useful product category?

SCOTT: Cloud computing is very interesting as it provides elasticity and cost benefits. We are looking carefully at all of the solutions in this space. Regardless of our direction we are busy architecting our infrastructure so that we have the flexibility to move to whatever makes the most sense.

AJAX & RIA Journal: Your latest book is called Designing Web Interfaces: Principles and Patterns for Rich Interaction – what goodies await your many fans in that?

SCOTT: The book is about interaction design: specifically, interaction design on the Web. And even more specifically, about rich interaction design on the Web. It is a distillation of best practices, patterns, and principles for creating a rich experience unique to the Web. In the book I discuss 6 principles for designing rich interactions (my talk follows this outline). There are 75+ patterns, a number of anti-patterns and over 250 examples from various web sites that illustrate these principles.

AJAX & RIA Journal: “Crafting Rich Web Interfaces” is the appealing title of your session at the upcoming AJAXWorld RIA Conference & Expo in San Jose CA. What is in store for attendees, and for those following it online during the simulcast of your session on SYS-CON.TV?

SCOTT: I will be sharing some the 6 principles from the upcoming book. The talk is chocked full of screencasts & animations that illustrate the good (patterns) and the bad (anti-patterns) when designing for rich interfaces.

AJAX & RIA Journal: What are the biggest meta-trends you see in terms of the Rich Web space in 2009?

SCOTT: One large trend (that has already started) is the way the Web (and its technologies) will be the platform for all kinds of environments. Starting with the iPhone and continuing with a host of new devices, web applications are now becoming prevelant in the mobile space.

With the iPod Touch, the web made its way onto my MP3 player – and it feels natural.

The desktop is already seeing this blending with Adobe Air, Microsoft Silverlight, Prism, Google Chrome’s application shortcut feature, Fluid and other products that bring a distraction free browsing experience into the desktop as well as bring the internet and social communities to desktop applications. Google Chrome basically introduces a Web OS onto the desktop setting the stage for online office applications to compete head to head with Microsoft Office products.

The Nintendo Wii successfully blended the web with its embedded Opera browser (Opera for devices). It is only natural that this will contine into other media spaces such as set top boxes and TVs. I will take some time for the devices to be powerful enough while still cheap enough, but it will happen. This will finally bring in web technologies onto the TV. Some will bring parts of the technology but eventually browsers will be fully integrated into these devices. Some of this has been realized already with the introduction of the Netflix player by Roku, the LG Blu-Ray player with Netflix, and the X-Box with Netflix streaming movies.

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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