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Path co-founder Dustin Mierau: 'an app without design is like a good story printed on a dot matrix printer'

Path co-founder Dustin Mierau: 'an app without design is like a good story printed on a dot matrix printer'

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dustin mierau path 1020
dustin mierau path 1020

Dustin Mierau is co-founder and Chief Designer at Path, a journal and social network for Android and iPhone. Before Path, he co-founded Macster, which eventually became Napster for Mac. Mierau took a few minutes to talk to The Verge about the finer points of designing great software, how to stay focused, and about remembering the internet before it was filled with ads. You can find him on Twitter at @dmierau.

What are you doing right now?

I'm watching the moon rise over San Francisco while listening to Stars' new album, The North. Like me, they're Canadian and I've always quite enjoyed their work. This new album is good. Day to day though, I'm at Path as co-founder heading up design, working with Dave and the best engineers and designers I've ever had the priviledge of working with to build a great product and company.

How do you structure your days?

I get up early. I work. I go to sleep late. I like to keep it simple. Most of my time at Path is spent with the team trying to build stuff we really want. On the weekends, I spend as much time as I can with my wife, Mary Ann, and our two dachshunds.

What is your first memory of the internet?

I have a quite few early memories actually and probably more than I should have. The installation of our first modem — 14.4 beautiful kilobits per second streaming right to my parent's Mac Centris 610 (at least when they weren't using the phone). Using early versions of Netscape Navigator, discovering Webcrawler, trying to make my first Hypercard stack available to other people in the world, most of the web being text displayed against a pretty serious looking default grey background.

"It was relatively innocent, too. No ads. Few corporations. Just people sharing information with each other."

Also, signing into my town's local BBS, the excitement of Eudora's "new mail" sound — emails were few and far between then, and without spam. It was all new and pretty exciting for a 12-year-old kid. It was relatively innocent, too. No ads. Few corporations. Just people sharing information with each other glued together by a few protocols. My hometown is quite small, but it didn't feel that way growing up. I like to think that part of that is due to the Internet. I really wish I had these memories on Path.

What's the hardest part of designing software?

Designing good software is tricky. First, you must know that I believe "software design" is a collaboration between designers and engineers. There are an incredible number of layers to software: the visuals, the interactions, the performance, the operating system, guidelines, error handling, and so on. And with an application like Path you have a vast server layer too that includes networking, caching, scripts, databases, storage, operating systems, and more. This whole stack, everything in it, sits on top of a single vision that must be aligned to produce a great experience. Coordinating all of this well across many people is definitely one of the harder problems, if not the hardest.

"We try not to worry too much about being original, that's not our goal."

Why have so many mobile apps emulated Path visually, in terms of cover photos, slide-out panes, pictures inside circular frames (even OS X grabbed this), and overall visual styling?

Most things people create are built on top of things created by others. I don't know where pictures inside circular frames came from, but they definitely existed before Path. I believe my grandmother has old photos in circular frames hanging on her wall. I honestly don't know if there's any one piece of our product that's original on its own. We try not to worry too much about being original, that's not our goal.

Our goal is to create the best experience for the product we're building. Some pieces of Path are interactions that have been around for a decade, some pieces we haven't seen before, some of our designs play off of the platform, and some don't, but I think every piece of Path adds up to something quite special. The best things push old things forward. I'd like to think that other developers are using things from Path because we've pushed on some old things.

Your team has called Path "the smart journal." How has journaling changed as technology as evolved?

I'll never forget watching Steve announce the iPhone. I remember being excited about the idea of millions of people now having a decent camera with them that was connected to the Internet. I actually thought that was a milestone in human history, but maybe that's silly. Yes, there were cellphones before the iPhone that had cameras which stored photos, but they were phones and the iPhone wasn't. The iPhone was a computer that fit in your pocket that could also make phone calls.

More importantly it was a computer that people actually wanted, even those who hated traditional computers. With a camera, it also had a keyboard, audio and video recording, and later GPS. When we started Path people were skeptical of the idea of journaling from your phone, but millions of people are using Path now to do just that. With push notifications I can capture a memory, back it up, and have my family's screens light up to it 1000 miles away at the press of a button. I wonder what this looks like in 20 years.

"They were phones and the iPhone wasn't. The iPhone was a computer."

What does a "social network" look like in five years? What defines it?

That's tough to answer. I have no idea what the devices we're using to socialize online with look like in five years, but I believe the network is the single most important piece of whatever those devices are, if it isn't already.

What software, or more generally UI/UX, inspires you the most?

Indie games and software tend to take the most liberties. Some of the most creative stuff is coming out of small shops. Over the years I've fallen in love with some really great software shops: Panic (Audion, Transmit, Coda), IconFactory(Twitterific, xScope), Atebits (Tweetie, which was sold to Twitter), Macromates (TextMate), Sophiestication (Articles, CoverSutra, Magical Weather), and Sofa (Checkout, Versions, and Kaleidoscope, which was sold to Facebook). Some of my favorite indie games: Cave Story, TinyWings, Lost Cities, Sword & Sworcery, Fez, Ski Safari, and Mage Gauntlet.

You once called Path "thoughtful engineering." What part of the app means the most to you, and why?

Path's feed is easily my most favorite thing we've done so far. We spent a lot of time making this a place you'd enjoy returning to. I honestly look forward to opening Path, to seeing new moments from my family and friends strung along the feed chronologically. There are a handful of animations and interactions that haven't gotten old (though I use them daily) that really make this space feel special.

This whole screen was pretty carefully crafted over many months. Every pixel on screen was considered. The most rewarding part of this design is that whenever someone shows me their Path feed that it has taken on their personality. It's really quite wonderful to think that millions of people around the world see their Path as a personal space, something that belongs to them, and not to us.

"Use design and engineering to make the utility as simple and as pleasant as possible."

How did you decide on the five "emotions" (Smile, Laugh, Gasp, Frown, and Love) you can express in Path?

We debated for weeks about them. Five is a really great number. It's an interesting number. It was five or three. Three didn't seem to let us express enough. More than five felt like too many and made it hard to choose sometimes. The key though was not to describe them with text, but instead let people instill meaning from the context and situation. Of course, we eventually added labels to each for notifications, which was probably a mistake. Need to revisit. Is this interesting? Welcome to my life.

What are the most important qualities in making an app "great"? What clicks? The design? The animations of moving from one screen to another?

Utility. What are people using your app for? Use design and engineering to make the utility as simple and as pleasant as possible. An application without utility is like a story without a plot, it just wanders and never really does anything. And an application without design is like a good story printed on a dot matrix printer, you want to read it but, yeah, no thanks.

What's the best book you've read lately?

I had started The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman recently, but haven't finished. I've been pretty bad about setting aside time to read books lately. Most of my reading time is given to articles I bookmark throughout the week.

How do you stay focused?

I keep as simple a task list as I can. I come in each morning and figure out what I want to accomplish that day and then set out to do it. It doesn't always work, but it certainly helps. Truth is, at an early stage company like Path there is some chaos and you need to be comfortable with being pulled away from your desk at any moment to help with anything. I'm pretty used to this now and I like to think I'm quite good at getting back into the zone quickly. Before we started Path this was not a skill I thought existed or could be developed. It is.

What's it like being really tall?

I really don't think about it until I'm shopping for clothes (which I tend to avoid). Of course, now you have me thinking about it. Thank you.

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