Flow’s Daniel Scrivner on the brave new world of asynchronous productivity tools

By now, the verdict is clear: our current health crisis has served as a flash-forward that will see the world work together across cities, countries, time zones, and even languages. So how should businesses respond?

Though technology has allowed us to work remotely for quite some time, companies have debated whether it’s truly best for business. Like it or not, however, we now have no choice but to adapt – and that means ushering in a new era of potentially more efficient products, if we can just figure out how to get through a difficult learning curve where we’re frantically switching between calendars, video chats, email clients, spreadsheets, and documents.

So what’s the solution? Daniel Scrivner believes the answer lies in asynchronous tools that allow people to get their work done without bottlenecks: send off a product at the close of play, get feedback overnight, apply revisions, and ship the next day. As the CEO of Flow, a flexible project management app for teams, Daniel is working to create a productivity tool that defies conventional metrics, meaning that it simply allows you to get your most important work done without monopolizing the time you spend in the software itself.

It’s a bold gambit, but if anyone can pull it off, Daniel can. As a self-taught designer who began his career as a freelancer, he worked his way up first at the advertising firm DDB before joining Apple’s marketing communications team and eventually becoming the Director of Design for Square, the digital payments company that went public at a valuation of $3.6 billion in 2015.

We caught up for a chat that ranged from how to stand out in a crowded marketplace to why it’s a bad idea to judge your product’s success simply based on how much time people are spending in it. Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. Thanks to a decreasing barrier to entry, we’re witnessing an extremely crowded marketplace. That means it’s no longer acceptable to be just okay; you have to be great. How will you stand out from the pack?
  2. When most people think of product development, they imagine an in-person experience. That’s why the forced remote reality many companies are experiencing has included a lot of growing pains. But remote work is here to stay, which means that teams must now focus on building those muscles.
  3. Whereas many companies judge themselves based on how much they’re shipping – and how fast – Daniel values a lesson he learned at Apple, where designers spent the first four to six weeks of any project in an exploratory phase. Build a complete picture of the field, then go to work.
  4. Designers have the opportunity to play a huge role in the future of work. Today, we’re careening between a bloated set of apps that are time-consuming at best and unreliable at worst. If designers can help streamline our toolkits, we can make a breakthrough in efficient remote collaboration.
  5. Daniel believes that biasing for engagement is the easy way out. Flow aims to be a tool you can check a few times a day; then it wants to get out of the way and let you accomplish spectacular things.

If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Dee Reddy: Daniel, we’re delighted to have you join us on the podcast today. Can you start things off by giving our audience just a bit of insight into your background and how you worked your way up to becoming CEO and CCO of Flow?

Daniel Scrivner: Thank you so much, Dee. I’m super happy to be here today. My background is definitely atypical. Just to rewind and give everyone a little bit of context, I’ve been doing design work at a bunch of different levels over the last 15 years. My whole career to date is primarily design-focused. And then about a year and a half ago, I took a giant leap to move from being a design executive into the CEO role at Flow. I have three things I love and can’t help but just be constantly fascinated and obsessed by. Design as a skill set, as a way of looking at the world, is something that I love. And then the two other loves are investing and business. So the way that my career shift makes a ton of sense to me is that it’s the intersection of those things, especially in my latest role.

Dee: Before Flow, you had the creative director role at Square. Where else had you been?

Daniel: Yeah, I’ve not bounced around a ton. I started out my career as a freelancer. And really, that was just absolutely out of necessity. I knew that I loved design. I knew that this was the thing I wanted to do. That said, I had no clue about how to progress and end up at companies. Looking backwards now, I’m obviously really thankful. I feel lucky. I’m super appreciative of the places I’ve been able to work. But starting out my career, it was definitely like, “I want to do this, so let me just do anything and everything I can to get business.” So I started out working for free. As I got a little bit of portfolio work, then I could get some clients, and then I went on to land bigger clients.

That was maybe the first two years of my career. Then I moved to Los Angeles and worked for an advertising agency in LA called DDB. From there, I made the move to San Francisco and was at Apple for just a little over three years. Maybe if I was to rewind a few years before when I was at Apple, I feel like I would have been lucky. If you were to ask me: “Would you like to work at Apple? How would that work? What would that look like?” It was absolutely something I wanted to do. I just thought it would be much, much, much later in my career.

“I think of life in some ways as a video game, and I just want to keep levelling up and getting better at what I love”

I was super fortunate in that I had it early on in my career. I think of that period of my life and career as a design bootcamp, because I have no formal education. I don’t have a design degree. That was me learning what I call “repeatably excellent design,” where you can do great work again and again and again. I was at Apple for three and a half years, and then I went and made the move to Square, where I was for five and a half years. I ended up leading the team and reporting to Jack Dorsey and growing the design team from four to 40. And then today, I’m at Flow as the CEO.

Dee: What a great way to cut your teeth. You’ve described yourself before as a self-taught designer. How did that come about, Daniel?

Daniel: It came about as a necessity. But a big part of it was just how I grew up. I grew up with a mathematician scientist for a father who worked at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He was super nerdy, super technical and definitely wanted to look at problems from all angles and figure out how to solve them. And I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from that. Then my mom was a teacher, and she taught elementary school for decades and decades before she retired. Just growing up at home, one of our favorite things to do as a family – as bizarre as it sounds – was just to go to the library. For us, it was this magical place where we would go as a family. I’ve got two younger brothers, and we would all break off.

We’d all go to our different places at the library. From a very early age for me, if there was something I wanted to learn, my first thought was: “Well, how do I figure that out? What books can I read? What seminars could I go to? What can I figure out about it?” That’s just innate in how I think. If there’s anything I’m interested in, I’m going to go and try to figure out how to learn about that myself and look at the best people and the best resources.

Then with design and how I ended up being self-taught, again, I stumbled into it. When I was in high school, I wanted to graduate early. One of the classes I ended up taking over one summer in order to do that was a class all about HTML and how to build websites. Now we have HTML and CSS and JavaScript and it’s much, much more technical, as I’m sure the audience knows. But back then, it was just HTML. I took that class, but I really didn’t have any expectations of it. It just sounded like a cool class if I needed to get credits.

And I had this magical aha moment when I was in that class, where suddenly I found this thing where I could have an idea in my head, and I could create that myself, and then I could share it with other people. I just got hooked on that process. And what it really quickly led to was: “Okay, but now I don’t really want to share anything because it looks really bad. And what is this thing? How do you go about taking something and making it look ‘good,’ or at least the way I like it?” And that was my foray into design.

Cultivating relentless curiosity

Dee: That’s pretty cool. And that natural inquisitiveness that you mentioned a little bit earlier – I’d imagine that’s very useful in your other line of work, which is as an investor. How do you evaluate the companies you invest in?

Daniel: Yeah. It’s just a meta skill that unlocked so much in life. Another example would be as a CEO. I’ve heard it said before that business is not something you can learn. And when you go to business schools, you’re just primarily learning through a bunch of case studies. So you’re learning through analogy, and at some point in time, when you actually find yourself in the role daily, there are challenges you have no experience in or, in some ways, no business solving. And yet the role is to try to figure out how to go about solving these things, how to understand them, how to become better at them as a company.

I think of life in some ways as a video game, and I just want to keep leveling up and getting better at what I love and getting better as a person and working with incredible people. If that’s something you want to do, then it’s absolutely this master key that unlocks so much of that.

Dee: In terms of the work you do as an investor, what is the typical decision-making process like at Blackletter? Would you find that a lot of your decisions are informed by that design perspective?

Daniel: I definitely bring that angle to the table, and the way I try to think about that when I’m researching a company is through a process called due diligence. Usually, the way it works is that you will find a company you’re interested in, and then you need to go about traversing from point A to point B. Point A is where you found a company that is really interesting and really promising. Point B is where you’re now actually going to take out your checkbook and write a check for this.

“Today – no matter what industry you’re in, no matter what company you’re looking at – industries are really crowded because the barrier to entry has just dropped to the floor”

When you do that, especially if it’s an early stage company, you’re looking at five to 10 years average holding time for one of these investments. The company is going to go through a ton of ups and downs, and it’s going to change a lot from the time you write that check – hopefully forever as it continues to progress as a company.

Today – no matter what industry you’re in, no matter what company you’re looking at – industries are really crowded because the barrier to entry has just dropped to the floor. There are more companies competing in every market. Given that, this meta skill could just make you a better competitor as a company, and hopefully it makes you over time a better business, meaning you’re able to attract customers, retain those customers, generate value for them, and ultimately get profit from keeping the customer around as long as possible.

You can no longer be okay at this. In order to have an exceptional business, you have to be great at it. How do you stand out from the pack? How do you differentiate yourself from the other companies? That’s externally, meaning what’s the story you tell to potential customers and what’s the story you tell to the world? It’s also internally: What’s the story you are all holding onto as a company about what you’re building, why it’s important and why it makes sense? How do you keep those things living and breathing? And ultimately, from a customer’s perspective, how do you stand out in a really crowded market?

It’s a little bit of a messy analogy, but one of the visuals in my mind that just seems to click for me is, is that it’s like going to the grocery store aisle and looking for something that is ultimately very generic. Here in the United States, you can go to Whole Foods, you can go to the ketchup section, and there are probably 20 to 30 brands depending on the size of the store. And they all roughly sell the exact same thing. That’s such a great example of how most companies have to find a way to stand out and break through the pack. Even if you think what you do is very different, you still have to figure out how you communicate that to the world and how you do it in a way that resonates.

Dee: That makes a lot of sense. So then how do you apply that to your work at Flow?

Daniel: For a little bit of context, Flow is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. So it has a long track record and has had a lot of amazing leaders before I got the chance to come and take over as the CEO about a year and a half ago.

When I came, we were at a little bit of a crossroad. Let me just lay out the way that I think about the problem I’ve been solving with the team. If you just zoom out a little bit and think about the stories we all hear about businesses, through the media or through friends, primarily it’s just these really sexy, magic-bullet stories.

They might be about this company that’s been around for five years, but now we’re talking about it because it’s just hit this major milestone. Or it’s the early chapters – the early story of a company – and that’s become something we fantasize about. There’s a lot of mythology around it, and it’s just something people find really interesting because we all, as humans, are trying to find little tricks we can learn. So we all want to pay attention to these outliers.

“What I’m really trying to get to is this vertical alignment. I want the product to be the thing that supports everything”

But I would say, in most of the stories about businesses, you’re reading about the one- or two-percentile businesses, and you’re primarily focused on this glorified, early story of the company. What is way more applicable, what is a much more interesting thing, is what I saw at Flow: all throughout the U.S. and all throughout the world, there are a lot of great companies that take off and get traction in very little time. But most companies, if they’re lucky enough, manage to be around for five, 10, 15, 20 years. Then there’s companies that have been around for decades or a 100-plus years. But to do that, you have to constantly be reinventing yourself.

What I saw at Flow was a company that had a tremendous amount of success to date, but it found itself in a very different environment. There were super competitors maybe you would call them in our market – like Asana and Monday – that have raised a tremendous amount of venture capital and have just become these acquisition machines. There are these small, boutique players like Basecamp and Todoist, and I’m not saying that in a demeaning way. They have great businesses, and they have great products, but they’re playing a little bit of a different game.

What I needed to try to sort out at Flow was this: how do we take what has gotten us here – how do we take the spark that has attracted people to Flow over the years and has continued to make them love it and choose it over other products – and how do we then hold onto that, polish it up and amplify it? So what we’ve been doing for the last year is ushering in the next chapter of growth for the company.

And what that’s looked like is looking at all of those things. What is the product we’re building? What features does it have? What things do we want to build? What things do we feel strongly we shouldn’t build? All of that work. The way that’s crystallized is in a brand new version of the product that [we started] in beta with 600 of our largest customers. There’s been a year-plus of development work on that, and we’re now starting to get it out the door, which is really exciting.

“One thing that I am endlessly grateful for is that we have built up these muscles of how we build an incredible product as a fully remote team. Because in my experience, that’s very rare”

But then we also had to do that same thing everywhere else. So we’ve done that same exercise and marketing of, again, how do we stand out? If I think back to that ketchup analogy, I don’t think we were standing out. Previously, we looked like a brand that someone would just skip over and not even think about. So we had to spend some time there on the story that we want to tell about the product. What’s the story we want to tell about why people should try Flow and use Flow and why they’ll love Flow? And then we’ve done that same thing everywhere else.

So in my mind, what I’m really trying to get to is this vertical alignment. I want the product to be the thing that supports everything and be this incredible thing that brings people to Flow, makes them love using Flow. I want the marketing wrapper that we put around it to help just more people know about us, to help us reach more people, to help us continue to grow. I want the brand to make sense in that vein.

Long story short, we’ve refreshed everything – or are in the process of refreshing everything – and what we’re leading towards is a July re-launch of the company with this new product that will be available to everyone.

Building remote muscles

Dee: You’ve been working on this for the last year, year and a half, you’d said. But presumably, over the last few months, a lot has happened that may have impacted your plans, to say the least.

Daniel: Yes.

Dee: You are a remote-first company, so presumably that made weathering the current climate a little bit easier on your teams. But when you are planning for that big relaunch, how have you had to adapt?

Daniel: One thing that I am endlessly grateful for is that we have built up these muscles of how we build an incredible product as a fully remote team. Because in my experience, that’s very rare. A lot of companies have been forced into tackling that and figuring that out as part of the coronavirus and the effect that’s had on every company and every team. Primarily, when people think about the product development process, they almost exclusively think about it in person, because there are a lot of really wonderful things that happen in person, and I got to experience a lot of that when I was at Apple.

When we were at Apple, it would usually be a very small team, say somewhere between five to 10 [people who] would be literally put in a room. That was the project team that was on this. In the early innings of the project, you’d all be exploring what you were about to tackle, going in very different directions. You’d be sharing that work every single day. You’d be cross-pollinating the best ideas from each person – from each part of the team – and trying to grab those altogether.

There are some really magical things that happen in that part of the process when you’re in person. Maybe to split it apart – and this is going to be a little coarse because it’s a little bit more intricate than this – when you think about building a product, there are really two things you have to be doing at all times.

One is the vision and exploration part of great product development. This is maybe a little specific to what we’re tackling at Flow, but one of the things that we’ve committed to and that we feel really strongly about is that we want to have a product that is built in a flexible way. So we want to have the features that you’d expect, the features you need and hopefully some features you might think are just a great bonus – that might introduce you into some new ways of working. But we want to execute those really, really simply.

“So much capital is being poured into the space that there are a lot of companies that are just incentivized to out ship each other”

Because we have a small team, we want our products to feel lightweight, we want someone to be able to pick them up really quickly. But we then once you learn it, we want them to be flexible and open ended. So you can use them in various ways, depending on how you like to work as a team. Because one thing I will say about the space we’re in is that when you build something like task and project management, you quickly find out that every team has the same basic building blocks. Here’s a plan, whether it’s a roadmap or whether it’s the goals we have for the quarter. You have some sort of planning element. You have some sort of coordination element, which is like project management. Then you have some sort of delegation task: “We have to do this thing, how’s this going? Can I help? Is this going to run late?” It’s a little logistical piece.

And while all those pieces are the same, almost every company approaches them in a very, very different way. It’s also evolving at other companies. Those things I just outlined were hunches I had that have definitely been confirmed. We have to just be good at building something that’s simple so people can learn it, but it’s ultimately flexible. That exercise takes a lot of exploration and iteration. So the biggest thing that’s been helpful for us as a team is just being really vocal about that.

For us, product development isn’t getting from A to B as quickly as possible. It’s almost like the scientific method applied to product design. We have big problems that we’re focused on tackling at the moment, but we try to take a really iterative approach to those, where we’re going to try a lot of things. We’re going to try some of those in design. We’re going to try some of those in code and ship it in an internal beta that we all use as a team.

If we want to make a big change that maybe has a lot of technical work required to bring it to reality in a really durable way for all of our customers, we might try a little hacky thing just to try to approximate what it feels like. So that’s one thing you have to be good at, and that is really hard to do remotely. For us, it’s just been about being really direct and really open as a team about what’s not working, what’s working well and how we amplify that. How do we clarify that? I don’t think it’s ever something that you just figure it out. It kind of goes on.

Then the other stuff that we’re always doing is the day-in, day-out tactical work where we have to build these features this week. We need to let customers know about them. So I’d say that the latter piece is easy. The former piece is really, really hard. And that works best is when you build up that muscle as a team over time. I’m just grateful that we had a lot of reps before we got to this period.

“For almost everybody today – if you’re building a tech company, if you’re in product, if you’re in engineering, if you’re in design – all your work happens outside of those apps. All your real, impactful, value-add work is deep work that you do”

Dee: Yeah, I can imagine. Because I’ve heard you say before that the ideal future for Flow is that when you build a tool that gets more powerful, the less that people need to use it. So if you’re trying to achieve something that nuanced, it can be quite difficult if people aren’t in the same room together.

Daniel: Yeah. It can be quite difficult if people aren’t in the same room together. And to maybe put a little bit of a finer tip on that point, a perspective I brought to Flow is that over the years, I’ve used different project management software. I definitely have had my own iterations on what I do personally. I’ve worked with different teams that have had different processes. So I had a little bit of a constellation of experience to draw from as I was thinking about this. But one thing that hit me over the head as I was really gearing up to take on this role is what we’re seeing now [in the industry]: so much capital is being poured into the space that there are a lot of companies that are just incentivized to out ship each other. And that’s the way that they’re competing.

And so there are companies – just to name one of our competitors – like ClickUp that we compete with. Literally on their roadmap, they have a publicly stated goal to ship one new feature per week. And internally, maybe that feels good. Maybe that sounds good. In my experience, there’s absolutely no way to do that and have it be a consistently high-quality product that doesn’t end up feeling bloated and all over the place over time. We’re seeing people ship stuff just because.

The way a lot of people compete is they don’t really know how to make something of striking quality. So the only thing that they think works – that they hope works – is just more and more and more. So just trying to pile on additional features. And what that’s leading to in some cases is feeling like your job should be living in this tool all day long. That this is where you’re actually getting work. This is where you’re producing value. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth of almost everyone I’ve ever worked with.

“Rather than going to the gym and just slamming weights for an hour and destroying your body over a period of time, how do you not do that? And how do you just do just enough to get stronger without doing too much harm?”

For almost everybody today – if you’re building a tech company, if you’re in product, if you’re in engineering, if you’re in design – all your work happens outside of those apps. All your real, impactful, value-add work is deep work that you do. So what we want to do with Flow is make it a product that’s powerful enough that you can hold all the pieces together and keep everybody on the same page. But we want to make it this thing that ideally you check in the morning, you check in the middle of the day, and you check in the evening.

Just from that minimal amount of usage as a team, you’re able to really feel the effects: “Wow, we’re way more on the same page than we were before. Anytime I have a question, I don’t have to go and tap a teammate. I can go and look at this task in Flow and see the activity and drop a comment in it.

There’s this thing in exercise called a “minimal effective dose.” Rather than going to the gym and just slamming weights for an hour and destroying your body over a period of time, how do you not do that? And how do you just do just enough to get stronger without doing too much harm? There’s that same thing when it comes to productivity. How do you plan enough, be organized enough, think deeply enough and yet understand that real work is going to happen outside that tool?

Making time for exploration

Dee: Yeah, because ultimately these things are tools. They’re not meant to be the work itself. They’re just meant to facilitate it. For teams who are now working remotely – many of whom are not expected to be back into an office maybe even this year at all – what other tools would you recommend design leaders include in their tech stack?

Daniel: To be super honest, one thing we’re working on at the moment is reinventing and refreshing how projects work and flow. In the new version of Flow, “In Flow” acts as a projects tab where you’ll be able to navigate all the projects that you have across teams. You’ll be able to see the projects that matter to you in a pin section. You’ll be able to see the status of them.

There are a lot of routes we can take. [We don’t want to] jump into a route just on a hunch or on a thought or on a personal preference. Let’s try as much as possible to treat it more like it’s a scientific project. You want to look at it from all angles. The way I think about that in terms of the design world is that you just want to do a lot of exploration.

One thing I picked up at Apple that I’ve held really near and dear ever since then is the way they structure their design projects. I’ve seen no other company do this well; a lot of people don’t get it because it requires a different way of thinking. Not to give any specifics, but sometimes on a project at Apple, maybe you’d be working on something for, say, three to six months. You would spend the first four to six weeks just doing exploration. You’re not shipping stuff. You’re not handing stuff off to engineers. You’re asking: “Should we present this section in a tab? What are all the different ways we could visualize the tabs? What are different ways that we could structure it? Or maybe how could you animate in between the tabs? What are some different interactions that we could use?” It was just this really wonderful open-ended exploratory, inquisitive part of the process. And we’ve tried to bring that into Flow.

“The tools we have today aren’t all the tools we need to do great work remotely”

Really, that doesn’t require any special tools. I mean, I use paper and pencil all day long, and that is where I go to start. Then I’ll bring things into Photoshop, which is still the app that I prefer to work in. And sometimes I’ll work in Sketch or in Figma. But for the most part, I continue to find myself in Photoshop. I try to do as many explorations as I can. And then I try to make sure as a team that we have time set aside for in-depth conversation.

I traditionally try to structure those so that in the first 10 to 15 minutes of the meeting, we’re just going through and describing what we’re seeing here, why this was something we were exploring and what we think is interesting and not interesting. We save the rest of the meeting for what we like to think of as great, open-ended questions. We try to think about it less as critique, less as, “Here’s what I think” – although that’s always welcome, too. But better than any critique or feedback is asking amazing questions that you can put in the back of your mind and come back to again and again and again.

There are certainly tools that we use. We’ll put stuff in InVision. We definitely use Zeplin. We’ll do some light prototyping sometimes, or we’ll animate stuff and maybe turn it into a GIF or something that’s easily shareable. But I would say we’re not overly reliant on these tools and think about them more as a way of thinking, a way of approaching design and a culture. It’s a culture around how you create things. What are the values that expresses?

The best tool is just that cultural component – that free but very hard-earned cultural component and getting that right over time. And [you get that] just by sitting on in human interaction and open-ended, in-depth, generous discussions.

The role of design in a post-crisis world

Dee: At the moment, we’re almost universally appraising how we live and work in digital environments. So with that very particular way of thinking, what sort of role do you think designers can play in coming of age during the current crisis?

Daniel: I feel like it’s a hard question to answer in a lot of ways. Maybe the point I would make is that by and large, the tools we have today aren’t all the tools we need to do great work remotely. Right now, there are a lot of people who are focusing on this whole remote [angle] where we used to be in person, and now all of a sudden we’re at home, but we still have that in-human, in-person connection to be able to lean on.

“We’re going to work together from around the world, in different countries and different languages”

The trend that we’re in the very early innings of – and it will probably take decades to play out all the way – is just basically getting rid of all the structure, getting rid of all the closed mindedness, getting rid of all the esoteric ways of thinking about work. We’re doing a little bit today, but we’re going to work together from around the world, in different countries and different languages. We’re going to work in different time zones from one another. We’re likely going to work with people who we have very little in-person contact with ever, potentially. And I still think that the best cultures will always have a big element of in-person communication because there’s just no way to replicate that.

So the way I think about it is, “How do we create these digital tools that can help us work together in that context 24/7, around the globe, in different languages?” And the big move will be better asynchronous tools. Because today we have a lot of tools like Slack that constantly interrupt my workday.

“I find that my day, at least as things are set up today, just feels frenetic”

First off, I get into the office and my calendar is shotgun-blasted with meetings. I try to get on a call, and there are like five different things to go between. Then I’m sharing notes in a Dropbox Paper doc, and then I’m over here in email. And I find that my day, at least as things are set up today, just feels frenetic. It does not generate a sense of presence or calm or thinking about how you want to show up in this interaction with the people you’re going to be talking to.

It’s going to be maybe a very designer answer because I don’t see any silver bullet, but the way I think about it is: What tools can we have that can take this minimum viable approach where people know that productivity doesn’t happen in these tools? Most of the time, there’s a supporting or girding structure around it. How do you make great tools that allow people to have more control over their schedule and how they like to work? And ideally, how can you do it in a way that’s not manipulative? It’s something we focus on. It flows well to how we treat push notifications and how we treat badging of different tabs in the app.

There are a lot of tools today that, again, just all grade themselves on this super blunt term of engagement, which really just means the more people can be in this app, the more they can click, the more they can do something, even if all we’re doing is triggering dopamine releases in their brain. So they think they’re doing things, but they’re not really doing things. A lot of products are playing that game.

Embracing the anti-metric

Dee: You used the word anti-metric, I think, to describe that before. Which I quite liked.

Daniel: Yeah. In my mind, it’s just one of the things that’s broken today. It’s an absence of deeper thought about what you should really be aiming for – what you should really be focusing on in terms of metrics. Something like engagement seems sexy: People are spending more time in the app, they’re doing more things in the app. That’s looking at it in terms of first order. So you’re looking at this person who’s doing these things, but moving the ball forward and shipping things that matter – doing good work – that’s more focusing on second- and third-order effects of your work.

So in my mind, biasing for engagement feels intellectually lazy. Most times, what you end up doing, if you were to talk to that user, is almost the opposite of what they really want. We hear this from our customers all the time: They don’t want it. They want to spend as little time as possible in any app. They want to spend as much time as possible owning their schedule and being able to do the work that they find fulfilling. So yeah, I definitely think it’s an anti-metric.

“Biasing for engagement feels intellectually lazy”

Dee: Before we let you go, we’d love to know if there’s a business or design leader that you aspire to in your work?

Daniel: I use this term “constellation” all the time. If I’m doing a design project, I’m trying to build a constellation of references and things that either directly or tangentially apply to what I’m working on. I don’t want to have one source of inspiration or one idea. I want to be able to triangulate and have say 10 to 50 of them and be able to cherry-pick the things that are best from each of them and then combine them. That’s how I think about it in the design process. And similarly, that’s how I think about it in life.

There are plenty of people who I really admire. One of them is Ray Dalio, and one of my favorite books is Principles. He’s worked in a very different field, building a quantitative hedge fund. It’s one of the biggest in the world. So it’s a very different industry, it’s a very different focus, and it’s a very different type of work. But one of the concepts I pulled from the book is that he talks about building this engine. You’re building this system, this machine – and I don’t mean that in an impersonal way. I just mean that you’re ultimately trying to build something great where you have inputs that go into it, and coming out the other side is just something incredible. You’ve had this amazing process between what’s gone in and what’s come out. That same thing applies in business.

One of his big points is you need to be able to zoom out and look down on that from above and really understand at any point in time what’s working, what’s not working, how do I get this to the next level? I found that super applicable because, whether you’re a designer in a team or whether you’re a CEO of a company, it is so easy to get lost in the weeds. You’re just so up-close to the problem that it’s very easy for you to rationalize: “Yeah, but it’s not that bad. Here’s why. And here’s this inside context I have.” Sometimes I find that if you’re in that mentality for too long, it’s just really hard to figure out the path forward because it’s like you’re marching and you’re looking down at your feet, just taking one tiny step at a time. And so just this concept of zooming out – being able to look down on what you’re building, on what you’re creating and trying to optimize that as a whole system – is just a really fascinating approach.

Dee: Lastly, Daniel, before we let you go, where can people keep up with your work?

Daniel: If you go to getflow.com/intercom, you’ll be able to sign up and get an additional 25% off. So if anyone is curious and wants to try it out, we have a super generous 30-day trial. You can go use all our pro features, no credit card required, cancel any time. All of that good stuff. And then people can find my work at danielscrivner.com. And I’m also @DanielScrivner on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, all of that good stuff.

Dee: It’s been a real pleasure chatting to you today, Daniel.

Daniel: Thank you so much, Dee. It’s been wonderful.