Max Ma

Max Ma — Hearthstone

Lead UI designer on Hearthstone at Blizzard Entertainment. Entrepreneur, photographer, gamer, DJ, and coffee lover.

What led you into design?

Personality.

It’s kinda funny to trace my career back to the start and think about it now. I’ve always been an easily irritated, confused user; when I was a kid, I’d keep my room tidy and organized because searching through clutter was mentally exhausting to me. Decades later, I’d jump into a new car and complain about its dashboard.

I studied 3D animation in San Francisco, got my hands on everything from building websites to animating, rigging, and particle effects. I was known as a “generalist” then, a term that was frowned upon because no companies wanted a new grad who tried to do everything without a clear focus. That mentality took a 180° turn when smartphones came out. I was hired by a tiny app start-up, where I got involved in product and interface design.

That’s when it became clear to me: no matter how seamless the execution, a product can only be as good as its design. The habit of putting myself in the shoes of a user was a clear sign that becoming a designer was my only option to guarantee the outcome I wanted.

What does a typical day look like?

We have a tiny UI team of two, so we are naturally very close and the day usually starts off with us grabbing coffee and breakfast. After that I check in with designers, engineers or artists on the things that we are currently collaborating on, then return to my desk to go over everything from yesterday with a fresher look.

The nature of UI design involves interactions with almost every discipline on the team, so it’s common to get sidetracked by meetings, feedback, or questions. My trick is to pick one thing and one thing only at the beginning of the day, then make it great by the end of day. It really helps me focus.

I think what’s really cool about the game industry—especially the Hearthstone team—is that we are a relatively small team who shares similar values, interests, and passion for what we do. We are always the first people to test our product, and thanks to that we get good, timely feedback from just about everyone on the team. Needless to say, it also makes my typical day an awesome one.

What’s your setup?

Macbook pro + wireless everything.

Where do you go to get inspired?

Podcasts, cool Kickstarter pitches, fascinating documentaries on Netflix from sushi to modern hypercars, mind blowing facts from Kurzgesagt, answers to our 1st-world-problems from Uncrate and @BoredElonMusk, mobile phone apps from games to stock/cryptocurrency exchange…I even find inspiration from shopping at Zara. The fashion industry is pretty good at being one step ahead (right or wrong).

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

I replaced the stock brake light and blinkers on my motorcycle with an integrated tail light. It signals both turning and braking, it’s brighter, weighs less, is more aerodynamic, and consumes less energy.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

Hearthstone! I hesitate to mention it here because it’s really a team effort.

Blizzard has a great track record of producing games that stand the test of time, and Hearthstone is no exception—3 years old and still going strong! It lets the community play against each other in real time, across different platforms—from PC to smartphone—on two very different sets of UI. It’s not perfect, but the tremendous amount of creative work, tough challenges I’ve faced, mistakes I’ve made, and lessons I’ve learned are rare and invaluable for any designer.

What design challenge do you face at your company?

  1. Designing an interface with emphasis on fantasy and real-world physicality.
  2. The parallel design and development of two sets of interfaces across desktop, tablet and phone.
  3. Adding new content/features while maintaining a simple and manageable user experience for the years to come.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Foodies say: “You are what you eat,” I say: “You are what you use.” There are a lot of products out there; pick the good ones to absorb, and avoid the bad ones so you don’t start tolerating their flaws.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Twitter: @mxma101
IG: @mxma

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