Experience ↔ Design ↔ Policy

People often ask me how I ended up working in venture capital, and more specifically in a role that deals with policy issues (“policy” broadly speaking, including public policy, legal, “trust & safety”, content & community policy, etc.).  Coming from a background as a hacker / entrepreneur with an urban planning degree, how I ended up here can be a little bit puzzling.

The way I like to describe it is this:

From the beginning, I’ve been fascinated with the “experience” of things — the way things feel.  Things meaning products, places, experiences etc.  I’ve always been super attuned to the details that make something “feel great”, and I’d say the overriding theme through everything I’ve done is the pursuit of the root cause of “great experiences”.

From there, I naturally have been drawn to design: the physical construction of things.  I love to make and hack, and I geek out over the minor design details of lots of things, whether that’s the seam placement on a car’s body panels, or the design of a crosswalk, or the entrance to a building, or the buttery UI of an app.  Design is the place where people meet experience.

But over time, I came to realize something else: what we design and how we design it is not an island unto itself.  It’s shaped — and enabled, and often constrained — by the rules and policies that underly the design fabric.  That’s true for cars, parks, buildings, cities, websites, apps, social networks, and the internet.  The underlying policy is the infrastructure upon which everything is built.

This first really hit me, right after college (16 years ago now), when I was reading Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown, a book chronicling the revitalization of many smaller downtowns across America, written by my old friend Norman Mintz.  Before I started the book, my main thinking was: “I want to be an architect, because architects design places”.  Norman had told me “you don’t want to be an architect.”  But I didn’t believe him.  But I distinctly remember, about halfway through the book, having an a-ha moment, where I scrawled in the margin: “I don’t want to be an architect!  I want to do this!”.  Where this was engaging in the planning and community engagement process that ultimately shaped the design.  It hit me that this is where the really transformative decisions happened.

I spent the next three years at Project for Public Spaces, working on the design of public spaces across the US (including Times Square and Washington Square Park in NYC), with an emphasis on the community process that shaped the policies, that would shape the design, that would determine the experience.  The goal was all about experience, but the guiding philosophy at PPS was that you got to great experience by engaging at the people/community/policy level, and letting the design grow from there.

Being a hacker and builder, I’ve always been drawn to computers and the internet.  During my 6 years leading the “labs” group at OpenPlans, a now-shuttered incubator for software and media businesses at the intersection of cities, data, and policy, I made a similar journey — from experience, to design, to policy — but this time focused on tech & data policy and the underpinnings of that other world we inhabit: the Internet.  I started out building product — head in the code, focused on the details — and emerged focusing on issues like open data policy, open standards, and how we achieve an open, accessible, permissionless environment for innovation.  The most satisfying achievement at OpenPlans was working with NYC’s MTA (which operates the buses and subways) to overhaul their data access policies, and then helping to build the cities first real-time transit API.

So the common thread is: great places (physical AND virtual) are a joy and a pleasure to inhabit.  Creating them and cultivating them is an art, more than a science, and is a result of the Experience ↔ Design ↔ Policy dynamic.

To apply this idea a little further to the web/tech world: I think of the “policy” layer as including public policy issues (like copyright law or telecom policy) which affect the entire ecosystem, but also — and often, more importantly — internal policy issues, like a company’s mission/values, community policies, data/privacy policies, API policies, relationship to adjacent open source communities, etc.  These are the foundation upon which a company (or community, in the case of a cryptocurrency) are built, and the more thoughtfully and purposefully designed these are, the easier time the company/community will have in making hard decisions down the road.

So if you think of companies like Kickstarter, or Etsy, or DuckDuckGo (all USV portfolio companies), they’ve invested considerable effort into their policy foundations.

But it’s not just “feel good” or “fuzzy bunny”, mission-driven companies that this applies to.  USV portfolio company Cloudflare announced yesterday that they’ve been fighting a National Security Letter from the FBI, under gag order, since 2013, in order to protect their users’ data, reinforcing their longstanding commitment to their users.  This **very hard** decision was borne directly from the hard work they did at the founding of the company, to ground their activities (and the subsequent design of their product, and the experience they provide to their users) in foundational policy decisions.

Or look at all the trouble that Twitter has been having recently combating the abuse problem.  Or Facebook with the fake news problem.  Policy in the spotlight, with a huge impact on product, design and experience.

Or look at the internal turmoil with the Bitcoin and Ethereum communities over the past 12 months as they’ve dealt with very difficult technical / political decisions.  Lucky for us, there is so much innovation in this space, and every new cryptocurrency that launches is learning from these examples — take Tezos, an emerging cryptocurrency that explicitly ships with mechanisms to handle future governance issues (democracy, coded).

So I guess the purpose of this post is to draw that through line, from Experience, to Design, to Policy, and show how it actually shapes nearly everything we encounter every day.  What a profound and exciting challenge.