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Welcoming Josh Wilburne to the Outverse design team

March 15, 2024
Lily Bradic

We’re excited to welcome Josh Wilburne to Outverse as our new Product Design Lead. Josh brings with him a wealth of experience designing communication and knowledge interfaces for the likes of Meta, Twitter, Lyft, and Cord.

We sat down with Josh to discuss his biggest learnings and personal highlights from the last decade of his career — from increasing the character limit for Tweets, to preventing harm and abuse in direct messages.

How moderation can make or break the culture of an ecosystem

“At Twitter especially, it was drilled into me to figure out how people could abuse any given feature.”

Josh worked at Twitter (now X) as a Product Designer from 2016 to 2018. One of his first projects there was the request inbox, a feature that gives people more control over what they see in their DMs. Prior to its rollout, every DM a user received would appear in the same place, whether they knew the sender or not. If media was attached, this too would be displayed.

“An illustrator I follow online posted about how she’d receive all these explicit, unsolicited pictures, and how it was really upsetting,” explains Josh. “And of course, this happens thousands of times a day.”

The distress caused by unsolicited DMs was top of mind for Josh while he was designing the request inbox: he was determined that Twitter didn’t display an image if the recipient didn’t know who it was from. Since the request inbox was rolled out, Twitter has obfuscated all media and links in DMs from people you don’t follow. While this doesn’t prevent users sending explicit images, it gives recipients a say in whether they view them or not.

“We were trying to cut down on abuse in the platform. And even though the broader project was really around making DMs feel more alive — adding typing indicators and read receipts — it was a good opportunity to build some safety features too.”

This, and projects like it, showed Josh the impact that content moderation and safety features can have on a platform’s culture.

“We’ve seen that play out with X again recently,” he says. “With much looser moderation than it had as Twitter, it feels like a completely different space.”

From Josh’s experience, it’s better to set the foundations for moderation early. It can be difficult to reign in certain behaviors once they’re engrained. When restrictions are introduced once culture is established, they can make people feel like something has been taken from them.

Reddit has notably reckoned with this over the years. In 2015, they launched an anti-harassment policy aimed at making the site safer and more welcoming. The resulting ban of several subreddits sparked accusations of censorship from some of the community. For huge social platforms like Reddit and X, moderation disputes often centre around free speech and misinformation — and while product communities don’t typically spark such wide-reaching disputes, moderation is still important for any scaled community, and Josh views it as an essential safety consideration for businesses.

“ I think of moderation and harm prevention as being totally foundational, and I love that we’re building that into Outverse. It needs to be easy for businesses to build safe and welcoming communities.“

Making knowledge retrievable for Workplace

From 2019 to 2022, Josh worked at Meta, first on the Portal video calling product and then on notifications and knowledge surfaces within Workplace.

“One great thing about Workplace is that you can go away for a week, come back, and get a nice digest of what happened. With chat-based tools like Slack, if you're gone for a week, you come back to an overwhelming number of notifications and no context for any of it.”

For many businesses, Workplace serves as a knowledge base for medium-to-long-term information — like how to claim expenses for an upcoming conference, or how to request a piece of software.

“It helped that search was really robust on workplace,” says Josh. “It was great for making knowledge retrievable long-term.”

Josh also worked on custom landing pages to help businesses organize this information. These pages were designed to help team leads create knowledge bases for their direct reports.

“Say you're a design lead and you have 30 people under you. You can build a collection of all these important articles and documents that your team will need. ‘Here are the Figma files, here's where we post our weekly updates. Here’s how to get access to tools.’ It’s a better place to store that long-term information than Slack.”

Finding inspiration for creative problem solving

When Twitter doubled the character count from 140 to 280, Josh worked on the redesign.

“We were certainly not the first team to have tried doing it, but we were the first team to succeed,” he explains. “It’s way more complicated than I think most people realize.”

For starters, the character count isn’t actually fixed — it’s weighted depending on the language the user tweets in.

“Very simplistically, you can break it down into dense or non-dense languages,” says Josh. “So if you tweet solely in Japanese, you’d be able to communicate much more within that character limit than if you tweeted in English.”

In the redesign, the character limit for dense languages stayed at 140, and for non-dense languages, this extended to 280. Tweeting in a combination of languages — or including emoji — results in a character limit somewhere in between.

“That’s why the composer doesn't show a number when you're tweeting,” says Josh. “It just shows you roughly the amount of space you have left.”

For his research, Josh looked to physically analogous things for inspiration: objects that could convey a finite amount of information in a way that was visually understandable.

“I looked at post-it notes first, because they physically limit the space you have. But that didn’t really translate. I also thought about the hidden timers on things like Instagram stories or Snapchat, and that was closer.”

The team tried over sixty prototypes. Josh was playing Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild at the time, and was struck by the design of the stamina wheel that appears when Link is running or climbing. The wheel depletes in real-time as stamina is used, and changes color when nearly empty.

“The game gives you no way of quantifying the exact number, because the number isn't even important. It communicates the concept that there's a finite amount of the thing, and it's running down. So that’s where I was at when I landed on the circle design for the character count,” he explains.

Why data tells the most compelling stories

“Look at how users are hacking or getting around limitations in your product — often, there’s a feature in that.”

The idea for a weighted character count came from examining the existing data around character usage in Tweets.

“I give a lot of credit for this to Iku, an engineering colleague I had, who tweeted in both English and Japanese. He recognized that in Japanese you could convey so much more than you could in an English Tweet. He was really early in catching that, and then he looked at the data.”

Source: Twitter

At the time, 9% of Tweets sent in English were exactly 140 characters. For Tweets sent in Japanese, this figure was 0.4%.

“So there's a massive spike at the end that only happened in non-dense languages like English, German, and Spanish,” says Josh. “From people trying to cram in their message.”

“It’s probably the most newsworthy thing I’ve done in my career, and I didn't even think we would actually get it done at first. Because up until that point, 140-character Tweets was a core truth of Twitter. It was so fundamental to who we were.”

Josh points to several other features at Twitter that came out of behavioral data.

“The Retweet originated from a behavior that was already happening on Twitter,” explains Josh. “Before Retweets, people would write the letters ‘RT’, add the user’s handle, and then paste the Tweet in manually.”

Twitter’s thread feature was similar: previously, users could only compose one Tweet at a time, and would have to reply to their original Tweet to start a thread. Recognizing this, the team built threads, allowing users to compose and send multiple Tweets at once.

“If you don't pay attention to how people use the platform, you miss opportunities to learn really important things about what people want from your product.”

Product quality as a component of culture

“It was very clear from my first discussions with the Outverse team that quality was important,” says Josh. “I was impressed by how high the bar was.”

For Josh, high quality standards aren’t just a nice-to-have: they’re a fundamental pillar of what he considers an ideal company culture.

“No company is too small to start nurturing that type of culture,” he explains. “But it needs to be intentional. When I was at Lyft, they basically doubled in size, and that was one of the things they focused on.”

“It meant that as they grew, there was still a continuity of what the company stood for, and what it meant to design there. I think it’s never too early to start defining that,” says Josh.

“It makes me happy to see that at Outverse. For a company where product is so core to the experience, every touch point matters. And that includes community, too.”

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