Sean Dillingham, Director of Product Design at Signal Sciences, has a mission: to make the best application security product on the planet. Sean joined the company in 2016 and has seen the product grow in breadth and depth while the company tripled in size. During that time, Sean has grown the design team to encompass multiple disciplines: product design, content strategy, and UX engineering. We sat down with Sean to talk about his vision for the role of design in security.
What about Signal Sciences as a company attracted you and what were the deciding factors that compelled you to join the team?
In retrospect joining Signal Sciences seems so obvious and inevitable, I’d love to say I knew right away how great it would turn out to be. But the truth is, every new job feels like I’m taking a big leap into total uncertainty.
What impressed me during the interview process was how intelligent, thoughtful, and approachable everyone was. Signal Sciences was small and young when I joined in 2016, but there was also a sense of maturity and mutual trust that seemed to be ingrained in the culture. I believed the mission was important and worthwhile, which is essential to get me excited about joining a company.
All of my initial impressions turned out to be true. The people at Signal Sciences are so smart, humble, and collaborative. Everyone is trusted and can make a huge impact. We have a product and a mission I care about, and I love my team so much.
Security teams are always looking for tools that provide actionable insights to stop the next attack. As Product Design Director, what sets apart a superior presentation of data in a SaaS security product? How do you determine what to visualize for our customers in the user interface?
We discuss this constantly as a team. We’re always trying to transform data into a meaningful narrative, a set of clear priorities, or actionable information. From the moment you “unbox” our product, we try to imbue it with a point of view about what matters. From there you can customize it to suit your needs, but it’s important to me that we have the conviction to put our values and opinions into the product. If our opinions turn out to be wrong, then we just get a newer, better set of opinions.
As much as we sweat the way data is presented inside our product, I’m really proud that we integrate well with tools like Slack, PagerDuty, Datadog, Splunk, and Kibana. That’s part of a product philosophy that says, “Hey, we get that you don’t have the time to babysit your security systems, and you need all your tools to talk to each other.” When designing, we have to hold two thoughts at once: “We want to make the best appsec dashboard on the planet,” and “A successful design outcome is sometimes one where our customers don’t need to log in to our dashboard.”
Tell us about your overall design philosophy and what informs the decisions you make when determining how to present information to our customers.
I’ve never had an overarching design philosophy. I never felt self-conscious about it until you asked this question. Damn.
I do have a set of personal values that I bring with me, and at Signal Sciences I’ve established a set of design principles that are specific to the needs of our customers and our identity as a company. “Champion Visibility” and “Reduce Uncertainty” are two of our principles we often use to help us evaluate the quality of our designs and guide our decision making.
I definitely steal ways of thinking about design from better designers. Dan Saffer, an author and designer at Twitter, has one that’s stuck with me:
“There are three great design themes: making something beautiful, making something easier, and making something possible.”
At any given moment on a project, it’s important for me to know which one of those activities we’re engaged in as designers.
Also, more and more companies get that the third category – “making things possible” – is where design can make a big difference. Because designers are comfortable with uncertainty and good at envisioning potential futures, we can help make new things possible for our customers and our business that haven’t been imagined yet.
Looking across the SaaS and/or security product landscape, what trends do you see and how are they significant to what we do at Signal Sciences or how we serve our customers?
I’ve been noodling on this for a while, and have a thought that is likely totally half-baked, so this seems like a perfect opportunity to share it. It’s just the two of us here, right?
Two companies keep coming up for me: GitHub and Slack. They’ve each changed how we work and what we expect from our tools. They’re very different companies, but I think there’s a meaningful similarity in the way they both took underlying, somewhat opaque technologies – git and IRC – and layered innovation and delight on top of them.
My dream is for Signal Sciences to do something analogous for the industry we serve. We’re in a great position to take these raw underlying materials – HTTP requests and responses, WAF detections and decisions – and layer on innovations that make application security dramatically more accessible to both security teams and developers.
Tell us one thing about yourself that no one who knows you would guess.
I couldn’t draw a straight line if my life depended on it. Actually, my team definitely knows this about me. But as a designer I’ve tried to keep it a secret for years. Thanks for giving me a space to confess – I feel lighter now that this is out in the open.