Design is a team sport

Stories, traditions and learnings from my 2.34 years at Etsy

Last Friday, I said goodbye to one of the greatest tech companies.

The hardest part about leaving Etsy, my team and all the dog and human friends I’ve made was building up the courage to schedule a retrospective with myself.

What have I learned?

I flipped through my notes, sketches and photos, and noticed a theme emerge — great design can’t be achieved alone. As my friend Maya said, design is a team sport. A delightful end experience is the fruit of thoughtful UX, elegant UI, smooth front-end, reliable back-end and many caregivers throughout the making progress. We, regardless of our titles, design together.

What do we design?

We design culture.

Good culture is like rich soil — it nourishes people and products.

Giphy source

One of the traditions to fertilize team culture was our weekly All Hands on Mondays. No work talk. Instead, we focused on feelings.

We shared how we felt that day and stories about our weekends — trips taken, drinks downed, dates went on, food cooked, movies and shows indulged. I later learned that our tradition fed directly into what’s known as “psychological safety” at work.

Psychological safety is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up… It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’ (source)

While we formed a circle around our desks, took turns to share our stories and listen to each other, we grew comfortable at being open and vulnerable in front of each other.

As a result, we were able to celebrate failures.

“I fucked up last week. Ask me how” flag

Sharing what we did wrong or could do better from the previous week was a crucial opportunity to verbalize our learnings. The fuck up could be work-related or personal, and the honorable flag was awarded to the individual we thought deserve it the most.

A conversation starter, the bright yellow sign also forced us to discuss our failures with colleagues and guests who passed through the office. When our mistakes were repeatedly communicated outward, the learnings take root.

We design process.

Process is the structure that allows a product to grow and strengthen in a good culture. It carries the product from ideation to fruition, and evolves with the product.

When we first set to building Pattern, an online storefront for Etsy sellers, feedback from different groups in the organization came to different members of the team at different points of the week. It was a nightmare to try meeting ad hoc to share feedback with everyone, not to mention properly assigning action items.

Realizing that critical information was slipping through the cracks, we huddled around a whiteboard to form a plan.

Design/Product Process formed earlier this year
  • Monday a.m. Review work that’s been done in the previous week
  • Monday p.m. Plan the tasks for the current week
  • Tuesday Meeting day for product and design where our peers across the organization can give feedback
  • Wednesday Consolidate feedback from Tuesday and decide on actionable to-dos
  • Thursday & Friday Design, develop and implement actionable to-dos

After we sketched out the calendar, we specified purpose and attendees for each meeting to create accountabilities across the team. The effect was immediate — a clearer definition around feedback sharing allowed us to be more efficient in our iterations and better distribute responsibilities and ownership.

We design business.

A good product is like a well-translated book — it delivers the original intent of the author in a language we understand.

With good culture and process in place, we ought to be good translators. We translate business objectives into code, interfaces and advertisements.

One of Pattern’s main goals was to become the easiest way for Etsy sellers to create their own websites. For the first release, we built the product around sellers’ existing branding assets and listings in their Etsy shops with limited customization functionalities.

My test Etsy shop (left) to Pattern site (right) with one click.

Since launch a little over 4 months ago, we gathered a ton of feedback from sellers, and one metric that persistently succeeded our competitors was “ease of use.”

The experience of interacting with Pattern, like reading a translated literature, reveals our values and individualities as translators. The product is accessible and empowering, and those are our values from the very beginning.

As the team continue to outfit Pattern with more robust functionalities, the balance of complexity and accessibility will be the challenge for the phases to come. And we have to prioritize the business impact of our decisions.

How will this feature appeal to more users? How will this way of building the back-end structure account for future optimization of the product? How is this UX better than others in achieving our end goal?

We’re hired to build good products, and it’s up to us to make meaningful businesses. The journey of getting there matters just as much as where we end up.

We, as a team, design culture, process and business. And I — the designer — inquire, observe, translate, sketch and facilitate. Rinse and repeat. I’m deeply in debt to all who have pushed me closer to those definitions over the last few years, as now they’ve become my guiding lights for adventures to come.

The Maker Innovation team chilling at the overlook of Mt. Beacon. Hailey was probably looking for Pokemon.

A final bow to the Maker Innovation team at Etsy, without whom this blog post will not be possible. Thank you for the laughter, tears, high-fives, karaokes, BBQs, beers, post-its, sweats and #tirefires. 🙇🏻