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Designer, writer, teacher. I love building things.

Speaking from experience, they did a really hard thing

I was one of one hundred designers on Windows Phone and got to work on lots of interesting projects. One of my assignments was working on Internet Explorer for Windows Phone, though interally we just called it Browser. One of the most difficult challenges we faced was what I called the Octopus Tab Problem: If someone goes to a website and clicks eight tabs, how can you give them quick access to each page they’ve loaded? It’s easy on desktop, but on mobile it’s really hard. Back in 2012, no one had cracked it.

We were surprised to learn…

Old icons on the left, new icons on the right

The short version

At, we’re designing a tool that lets you record websites, add annotations to the recording, and debug issues. Our product has three icons as part of our devtools that refer to Comments, Source Explorer, and Pause Information. We recently updated them from the icons on the left to the icons on the right. Much better, eh?

So that’s the short version. Read on for the long version.

Design at a startup

We’re a small team and I’m the only designer. A lot of my job is making sure I’m not blocking our developers, so I don’t usually have the luxury to make something…

A visualisation of playlists

140 shows times 104 songs, illustrated

Imagine you have a band that plays live music, and you need to come up with the setlist each night. Many bands play the same basic show, plus or minus a song or two. But some bands make an effort to have no two performances be the same. Let’s say you were a band like that, and you wanted to write an algorithm to decide what to play each night. How might you do it?

Some guiding principles for a playlist algorithm

  • People like rare songs more than overplayed songs
  • People like good songs more than bad songs
  • New songs need a chance to prove themselves


Five Books in 2021 Journal, Issue #9

I’m trying to write five books this year. My latest challenge is getting my first book edited and polished up so I can have it delivered by September. But as I mentioned last time, the book isn’t nearly long enough. It’s around 90 pages of content, which is so small it’s messing up the hardcover binding.

So I’ve been writing new stuff, editing the stuff I do have, and sequencing everything so the topics unfold naturally while reading. The working title of the book, which I don’t like very much, has been “What Your Dad Believes.” Should you start a…

1989 left a mark

They hung a picture of tank man in the halls of my elementary school. The Tiananmen Square massacre had happened the week before, and the iconic photo was everywhere. What I learned then is what I know now:

  • Students were protesting the government
  • The government sent the military to kill them
  • This man stood in front of a tank in a small protest

Tank Man was a slow burn. I found the image striking, and I found the Chinese government’s reaction truly horrific. But it got lost into the din of everything else scary I was noticing at the time…

A medley, if you will

When I was about seven, I told my father I wanted to learn the clarinet. I’m not sure what came over me. I knew he played many instruments, and his father played as well. He leapt into action, rented me a clarinet, and I started taking classes at school soon afterwards.

This was about 30 years ago, and Paula Abdul was the biggest pop star on the planet. One evening I mentioned that I liked her song Opposites Attract, and asked if we could get sheet music so I could learn to play it. My dad said ok, and I…

Ridiculous Q+A

When you start talking to OpenAI in a nonsensical Q&A format, it takes your lead and runs with it. These are questions and answers that OpenAI is returning all by itself:

Q: what’s the difference between a duck?
A: The direction it’s gonna quack

Q: What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhinoceros?
A: A dead panda

Q: What is the difference between a hamburger and a cheeseburger?
A: Cheeseburger tastes good

Q: Why is there an expiration date on sour cream?
A: Because cream is too good to be true.

Q: Why did the rock…

*Five Books in 2021

In my last update, I said I was done with my first book. I was aiming for 30k words but only ended up with 19k, and figured I should see how it feels in the hand. Well, the book came in the mail and the results are in: it’s not good.

The book is very, very thin. To the point where it feels more like a pamphlet than an actual book. To the point where the binding of the pages is too small to justify the hard cover. Even making it softcover probably won’t help make it feel like a…

I got access to OpenAI and GPT-3 and I’m blown away

You might have heard about OpenAI or GPT-3. It is software that lets you write text using a giant robot brain. I recently got access to it and the results are pretty dang impressive. Here are some examples I’ve been playing with.

Explaining Iran/Contra to a second grader

One of the demos they highlight is explaining text to a second grader. I pasted in a huge chunk of text from Wikipedia that explains the Iran Contra affair, then wrote “I rephrased it for him, in plain language a second grader can understand:”

OpenAI continued with this:

In the 1980s, the United States sold weapons to Iran…

First impressions count for a lot!

As I mentioned in this week’s changelog, my startup is spending a lot of time on “onboarding,” the UX term for welcoming someone to your product. Our onboarding design has to handle a fair bit of complexity. First, we have two products, a browser and a web-based experience. We have to figure out what to do if someone is logged in or logged out. We need to think about how to invite other people to something you’re working on. It’s complex!

I find it can be helpful to map everything out. Some folks like to make a sprawling flow chart…

Jon Bell

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