Jason São Bento is currently the lead user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) designer on YouTube Live, where he has been working for almost four years. Prior to this role, he worked on Google Fiber, as a UX designer at pioneering design studio Teehan + Lax, and on projects like helping NASA scientists collaborate better. I talked to him about designing for user engagement, and the surprising aspects of working at scale.

Jason Sao Bento headshot
Jason Sao Bento

How did you get into UX?

I stumbled into being a UX designer. I had studied to be an art director for advertising, then started working at a game company. They needed help with UI, so I started doing UX through that before really knowing what it was. Once I got into it, it automatically clicked for me. I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do, working on solving problems and helping users to meet their goals.’

What’s your current role on the YouTube Live team?

Right now, I’m the UX lead for YouTube Live, which means I look after all the creator and viewer experiences across the whole lifespan of YouTube Live experiences. We’re trying to make the whole live experience seamless across YouTube, for example making it easier for creators to go live, or develop new experiences for creators and viewers to interact with each other.

Live is a growth area for YouTube. When you look at watch time, which is a key metric we track, livestreams are increasing tenfold from the last three years. It’s been amazing to have been able to help shape that growth!

What are some of the challenges of designing at a global scale, and how do you approach them?

Designing at a scale like YouTube, with 1.9 billion monthly logged-in users can be a scary thing, but it’s also really exciting. For Live, we think about our users, the different types of livestream, and all of the content categories out there. It’s a lot to cover — we try to do our best to make it as seamless as possible.

In terms of users we have to think about three pillars: creators, interaction tools, and viewers. Creators are central to the platform, because without them we don’t have content. If they succeed, we succeed. Interaction tools enable our viewers and creators to interact with each other, which is a key part of the experience. Third, we have viewers, which covers all the other parts of the viewer experience. For example, what does the watch page look like, or how do people search for livestreams.

We also think about three types of livestream. There’s the casual livestream, where someone turns on their camera and wants to talk about something or share something they have created.

The second type of livestream would be livestreaming your gameplay or similar. And then there’s temporal events, where a lot of people gather together for these giant moments, like a SpaceX launch.

With content categories, YouTube is really broad, so we are always trying to make sure it works as well for a fashion creator as a gamer — what’s a way for anyone to interact with our tools and feel good about it?

The challenge is to create tools that can flex across these different considerations. It can be a balancing act. How do you create tools that can move around for all these different use cases? You do have to compromise here and there and try to come up with the best possible solution.

Why does user engagement matter in UX?

Defining engagement depends on the type of things you’re trying to build. Engagement is core to Live in general, and for us it’s about how people engage with each other. Live is about the community created and about the people watching. By creating meaningful ways to engage your user you create a reason for them to come back. You do this in UX by creating a dialogue with the user, or by engaging them with a new part of your app. You have to have an experience that’s good enough to entice people to engage with your product.

A lot of UX designers try to force engagement, and that’s something we never want to do. We don’t want to create engagement that isn’t natural to the space of livestreaming.

Can you share some examples of UX that drives engagement?

With Live, part of the experience is being there in the moment, so we try to be strategic about how we send out notifications. We may do it because you subscribe to a creator’s channel, or because you asked to be notified of a livestream. The notifications give you the sense of urgency of engaging with a creator who is Live right now.

 Super Chat allows viewers to highlight their messages in the chat during a live stream with a creator
Super Chat allows viewers to highlight their messages in the chat during a live stream with a creator. Image by YouTube.

Last year we launched Super Chat, which is a way for viewers to engage with creators on bigger livestreams. With 200,000 people watching a livestream, it can be hard to get noticed in the chat, and hard for creators to pick people to interact with. Fans can purchase Super Chats to highlight their messages within the live chat stream. It’s a way for fans to feel good, engage with the creator, and get noticed. It’s something that really enables person-to-person interaction, and it’s been hugely successful.

How do you design for sustained user engagement at the scale of a global platform?

Research and feedback are our compass for our design process. Meeting with our users and creators helps to drive our decision-making at a global scale. We chat with them, and try to figure out how to make the tools better. One of the things I’ve done with my team is really encourage them to keep a pulse of what’s going on in our ecosystem, through doing lots of research. This sparks ideas related to new tools. I also encourage my team to do immersion projects where they put themselves in the shoes of a creator by creating a channel and going live. This helps us to identify friction points, as well as being able to relate to our users when we meet them.

 An iterative process allows YouTube Live’s tools to constantly evolve, like adding live chat replays alongside video replays.
An iterative process allows YouTube Live’s tools to constantly evolve, like adding live chat replays alongside video replays. Image by YouTube.

Working at YouTube is different from most of the projects I’ve worked on because it’s a truly iterative process. We’re constantly trying to make YouTube Live better, which means that we might launch something and then have plans for how we will improve it this year or next year. We can always tweak and play with what works and what removes friction and drives engagement.

What surprises you about doing UX and UI design at this scale?

I can’t count how many times I’ve met a creator who says we’ve changed their life. That’s something that I never expected to do. It’s a really encouraging thing to hear because you’re often in the weeds and it makes you realize all the hours you put in aren’t in vain. I hear stories like, “I’m a retired veteran, I was working at a grocery store. Then I started livestreaming and it changed my life. I can do this and make it my career.”

 The SpaceX Falcon Heavy test flight on February 6, 2018, was a hugely anticipated livestream, with 2.3 million concurrent views
The SpaceX Falcon Heavy test flight on February 6, 2018, was a hugely anticipated livestream, with 2.3 million concurrent views. Image by SpaceX.

There are also these moments that can feel like being part of history, like the recent SpaceX launch of the Falcon Heavy test flight. It was one of our biggest livestreams. When it was happening our entire office was glued to the livestream, thinking, “Oh my God, this is history right now!” We were all holding our breath.

Do you have any advice for other designers just starting out?

You don’t need a degree to be a UX designer. If you understand what the principles of UX are, you can become a UX designer. In my case I didn’t have a lot of formal experience, I learned on the job.

I think people should look for inspiration outside of UX because sometimes we live in a little UX best-practice bubble. I look at a good friend of mine, Cory Schmitz, who does identity work. He takes a lot of UX principles and applies them to graphic design, which is a great example of getting inspiration outside your domain. Everyday life can also be an inspiration, and other experiences outside of UX.

 Jason looks to designers in other domains for inspiration, for example Cory Schmitz.
Jason looks to designers in other domains for inspiration, for example Cory Schmitz. Image by Cory Schmitz.

In terms of UX resources, the gaming space has a lot of interesting thinking. Steph Chow has written some excellent posts on topics, like visually conveying progression in games, which are good inspiration for UX. I also recommend Daniel Burka, he’s a great resource to follow on Twitter. He developed a lot of UX approaches at Google.

Finally, I also think it’s important not to pigeonhole yourself as a designer. I hear a lot of questions around “Am I an interaction designer, am I visual designer?” and so on. To me, UX is designing an end-to-end experience — and everything that goes into that.