Noted Interviews: Seth Clifford

The tech space is full of creative people, exciting projects and interesting products. With Noted Interviews, we tap into the brilliant minds of the individuals behind such works, letting you know why and how they do what they do as well as giving you a better insight into who they are as people.

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Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Seth Clifford. I helped start a company called Nickelfish back in the early 2000s. We do design, strategy, and development work for some of the world’s best brands and corporate clients. Recently, we fulfilled a longtime desire and branched into product development, creating a new company called Derby. Our first app, Stringer, was released last November and received some great critical acclaim. We’re currently working on our next project. 

I’m also one of the hosts of the Iterate podcast with Rene Ritchie and Marc Edwards, which is focused on design and user experience. We’ve been at it for a few years and have had some truly amazing guests.

How did you get into design and mobile development? What came before? 

My professional life began as an educator. I’m certified in my state for Special Education and spent several years working with secondary-aged (14-21 years) students with autism. I spent another few years building a computer curriculum in my former middle school before taking my efforts with Nickelfish full time. Throughout the time I was teaching, we were building the company up, and a few years ago, it was the right time to make the jump to focus solely on the business.

"Computing has always been a passion of mine"

Computing has always been a passion of mine, since I was a little kid. I did some programming as I grew up, but I was always more interested in the way things worked from the user’s perspective, and less about the behind-the-scenes aspects. I played tons of video games and used all kinds of software and always took note of how things worked and what could make them better. I guess it was only natural that I eventually ended up trying to solve those problems for myself and other people.

Our start in mobile development was around the time Apple released the first iOS (then iPhone OS) SDK and opened the App Store. Some folks at BMW approached us about developing a game around the MINI brand, so we created a digital counterpart to a physical promotional toy they were shipping to customers at the time. I primarily focused on sound design for the game, but we built a custom fluid dynamics engine to simulate the liquid interior of the game, and all the visuals and art were created to enhance the personality of the brand. It was a great start to mobile development and we knew at once that it was something we wanted to focus on.

Tell me about Derby, Stringer and how that came to be?

For years, we had ideas about projects we wanted to build ourselves. But when the majority of your income is derived from client services, that always comes first. We consistently threw all of our effort into making the work we were doing for our clients as good as it could possibly be. At the end of 2013, we found ourselves in a position to try something new, based on the type of work we were doing and our staffing situation, so I was asked to help start a product team with (our then-Chief Technical Officer, now Chief Product Officer) Dave Vioreanu. 

Stringer is the first of a series of ideas that we’ve had percolating for a few years. It was so amazing to finally have the time to put toward something of our own design, and we’re really pleased with how it turned out. It’s a relatively simple concept–an app for shuffling your iTunes and iTunes Match music content–but it affords you some special abilities that the no other app offers. It was something we wanted to build for ourselves to use, and the response from users and the press has been overwhelmingly positive, so we’re really pleased. We’ve begun working on our next idea already, and we’re very excited about where it’s headed. 

Nickelfish is primarily for client work and Derby is your place for home-grown ideas. How do the development processes differ? Do you find there is a tension between creating for others and creating for yourselves?

The most notable way the processes differ is in where and how we get to talk about details. When you’re building something for a client, you have to respect the different forces at work on their side: the schedule, the marketing, the internal technical execution, the desires of their superiors–it all weighs on your decisions and recommendations. Very often you end up making choices that you don’t necessarily agree with (in terms of delivering what you believe to be the best product) to satisfy one or more of those criteria. When you build your own product, you have a different set of forces at work, but it’s up to you to make all of those decisions. It’s often more stressful because you have to make the tough choices yourself, but it’s exhilarating to follow something to its most logical end and explore the best ways to do something as opposed to acquiescing to the opinions of a group of people with very different goals in mind.

What does your current setup look like? What tools do you rely on to get the job done? 

I currently use a 13” Retina MacBook Pro for all my computing. At the office, I connect that to a 27” monitor at a standing desk. I use my iPhone 6 Plus for pretty much everything else, although I keep an iPad Air 2 at home that’s set up exactly like my laptop so I can work from that if I want to as well. I also have a 2014 Galaxy Note 10.1 that I keep solely at the office. I was curious about the pen technology last year so I picked one up, and I really enjoy starting things like wireframes there, sketching everything out in advance by hand, and then moving toward a more formal document in OmniGraffle. I’m very interested in the potential for an iPad Pro with stylus integration. That would be… well, pretty great. I think there’s a lot of room for that product line to grow and I sincerely hope it does.

In terms of software, I use lots of things, but Dropbox and 1Password have been absolutely transformative in my life. I can’t imagine going back to a world without them. For my site, I write in TextWrangler and Marked on the Mac and Editorial on the iPad, and I use Day One for personal stuff. For productivity, I’m using a combination of Todoist and Due. And of course, I can’t live without TextExpander. As a workflow rule, I generally try to use tools that work wherever I want to be: Mac, iPad, iPhone.

You specialize in user experience. What UI/UX would you say is the most innovative or the most inspiring? What does the future hold for how we interact with our devices and with each other?

I really think that experience is moving to a far more personalized place than it previously was. There’s a tradeoff involved though, in that in order to create experiences for just “us”, we need to tell applications and services more about ourselves, which is something I occasionally struggle with. The magic is happening with contextual awareness and with ease-of-use. Look at things like Google Now, anticipating what you’ll need to know and bringing it to you without you having to ask, and Apple Pay, making transactions quicker and way more secure. Just between those two examples, you can see the philosophical difference in what they deliver. One wants to know everything about you to serve you better, the other purposefully wants to know almost nothing to protect you. I’m extremely interested in the balance between these two ideals and the directions different companies will go in the coming years.

As far as our interactions with devices and one another, I find myself feeling both more and less connected to people the more I immerse myself in technology and it’s a strange place to be. I’m trying to be more present in the moment with those around me, and attending conferences and things like that to physically be somewhere with other people, but so much of our day is talking to one another through screens which at this point feels totally normal. It’s a personal issue, but it’s something I struggle with, and I think a lot of other folks do too. I’m fascinated by everything around me in this electronic world and always have been since I was a kid, but it’s coming with some difficult cerebral and emotional challenges.

If you weren’t working with mobile apps, what would you be doing?

I really like thinking about user interfaces so it would probably be something where I was trying to actively solve problems for some set of users in another way. There’s a lot of places in our lives where screens make sense, and most of those experiences are completely awful. I think there are real problems to be solved in automotive, for instance, whereas the screen you might find on your refrigerator has a slightly lower need for intelligent design. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t have one, but just that the stakes are significantly lower, and as such, very few companies are stepping up to improve those experiences. They’re throwing touch screens on things but not giving any thought to why. Sometimes a physical control that responds to your actual hand moving it is just a better idea. But if we’re not going to use one, then it needs to be an improvement. There’s tons of work to be done for users in a million places.

Podcasting is seemingly experiencing a bit of a renaissance at the moment. You co-host Iterate and before that you were a regular on the iMore Show. What do you make of the mainstream chatter surrounding the medium?

"those of us who have been in this space for years can tell you, there hasn’t been some watershed renaissance."


I think it’s great, because it means that we can continue making content for entirely new audiences, and in some cases, being able to monetize against our work. It’s tiresome though because as those of us who have been in this space for years can tell you, there hasn’t been some watershed renaissance. We’re still doing the stuff we’ve been doing all along.

The attention of the mainstream through shows like Serial can drive interest in the medium, but the breathless hype surrounding where it’s headed is just that. Those of us who love it will just keep on doing content as well as we can, and hopefully the net result will be new listeners and more opportunities to be compensated for our work.

And on the topic of the whole “what gear should I be using” debate, plenty of really smart people have already said it better, but I’ll echo it quickly: sound as good as you can afford to, but focus on what you’re saying. As long as your show doesn’t sound like glass in a blender, people want to hear your voice. They don’t care about your mic rig. I’m still always amazed when I meet people in person and they tell me they’re a listener and they like what I do. It never gets old, and it makes me so happy to know that someone is appreciating stuff I’ve been a part of.

What are your hopes for tech in 2015? What are you most excited to see?

I know that it has to be this way to advance the entire space, but as I get older, I’m less interested in seeing tech just for sake of it. I want more products and services that enhance my life, or make something difficult easier, or just provide me with joy. There’s so much stuff that exists just because it can, and while part of me thinks that’s cool in and of itself, I don’t need more stuff. I want less stuff that means more to me.

What does 2015 hold for Nickelfish, Derby and Seth Clifford? 

Nickelfish has some very exciting projects on the horizon with some new and interesting clients, and Derby has a pretty cool idea in the pipe that we’re working through right now. I can’t really talk about it yet, but hopefully you’ll see something in the spring. As far as myself, I’m just trying to do whatever it is I want to do that day a little better than I did the day before. 

Where can people find out more about you and your work?

I write at sethclifford.me, and on Twitter I’m @sethclifford. As I mentioned, I co-host Iterate with Rene Ritchie of iMore and Marc Edwards of Bjango, and you can find that show in your podcast app of choice. I occasionally pop up on other shows from time to time too. You can check out Nickelfish at nickelfish.com and Derby at heyderby.com. And if you like shuffling your music collection, take Stringer for a test drive.