It’s common enough for designers and developers to hear the phrase “critique your assumptions.” It’s one of those deceptively simple phrases, the kind of thing that seems so logical and yet, somehow, so hard to follow through on. It’s also the phrase that most characterized my product design internship on Etsy’s Seller Experience team this summer.
Part 1: Angira discovers she knows nothing
As someone coming from a formal background in computer science, whose design education was largely self motivated, I knew right from the outset that I had a lot to learn. I also thought, however, that my extensive reading, work with clients, and interactions with other designers had allowed me to coalesce some basic understanding of the core principles of good design. I had built up knowledge of, for example, Dieter Rams’s 10 Commandments, or what Don Norman meant when he talked about human centered design. I used words like “simplicity” and “usability” to talk about designs I loved, and had a clear picture of what they meant in my head (simplicity, by the way, meant a focused experience, which did one thing really well; usability meant clear information hierarchy, with the most important actions taking clear precedence).
I had it all worked out.
I arrived at the office in June to discover that I would be working on the Listings & Inventory team, specifically on the Edit Listing form. The Edit Listing page on Etsy is the one-stop-shop where Etsy sellers go to manage the items they sell on Etsy’s platform. It’s a huge form where sellers provide all the information needed to surface an item in Etsy’s search, describe it to buyers all over the world, and keep track of inventory. Updates to photos, item details, price, and quantity all occur within the Edit Listing form. It’s also where Etsy sellers go to manage product options for the items they sell (for example, the color of a sweater, or the metal used to craft a ring).
All aspects of putting an item up for sale, the core concern of the creative entrepreneurs Etsy strives to empower, are handled from this one single-page app.
As a result, it’s an incredibly complex portion of the site, laden with interdependencies. I spent my first week at Etsy frantically making lists of all the functionality this one page covered, trying to wrap my head around the endless user flows and variety of actions. It should come as a surprise to no one, therefore, that the more time I spent with the product, the more I began to find cracks in my carefully researched opinions on what makes good design, to realize that my understanding of good design relied entirely on a set of (you guessed it!) assumptions, and, in short, to feel that I did not at all have it worked out.
It was overwhelming, but as I slowly made my lists and drew my user flows, it also felt like an incredible opportunity to learn the truth about good design.
Part 2: Angira attempts to learn everything
So what then, is good design for listing management? To really understand the answer to that question, I had to learn more about our users: Etsy sellers. I attended critiques, had discussions with my mentor, even went on a studio visit facilitated by Etsy’s (awesome) User Research team in an effort to understand the relationships sellers have with their inventory. What I realized is that Etsy sellers (and by extension the support structures they need from Etsy) are as diverse and unique as the products they sell. While Etsy’s marketplace is known for handmade goods, it’s also a place to find vintage items and craft supplies. Some sellers (for example, someone who sells antiques, or who paints custom portraits) have only one-of-a-kind items, while others (like someone who sells beads) might restock the same item over and over again. Some sellers can have as few as 10 listings, while others might have thousands. Some sellers might sell digital products that can be downloaded at the click of a button, while others have to carefully pack and ship delicate china across the world. Sellers might even be inventing things that no one else has ever imagined, and Etsy’s tools need to accommodate them.
The key, as my mentor, Jessica, put it to me, is that Etsy’s inventory tools are always used in the context of an actual item being put up for sale, by a seller who’s an expert on that item. That seller shouldn’t have to also be an expert on shipping, or search engine optimization, or brand development. Etsy aims to facilitate those parts of running a business, so that sellers can get back to making and finding incredible things. Simplicity, therefore, becomes making all the details associated with shipping, or search engine optimization, or brand development as manageable as possible. Usability becomes surfacing tools and features tailored to a particular seller’s inventory, so that they’re not dealing with noise from features that don’t apply to them.
Good design for the Edit Listings form means building products that are flexible enough to meet sellers’ varied needs while still helping them stay focused on the creative work they love.
Take, for example, the “shipping” portion of the Edit Listing form. This section asks the seller to input detailed information about the dimensions, weight, and postal service they’ll use to ship an item once someone buys it. Sellers who fill out this information can save shipping profiles for future listings, and print discounted shipping labels. For someone who regularly ships items, it’s a powerful and important tool. For someone who sells digital listings, however, it’s totally irrelevant. A buyer who purchases, say, an embroidery pattern, doesn’t need it shipped — they just need to download the pattern. The Edit Listing form makes this intuitive for sellers by hiding shipping information if you mark your listing as digital, replacing that section with a field for uploading a PDF. All of this happens off screen too, so the seller doesn’t have to think at all about shipping once they’ve declared it’s irrelevant. Details like that are what make good design for listing management.
Another example of good design in the context of listing management might be the sheer density of the Edit Listing form. Upon first glance, the quantity of inputs and labels and helper text crammed into the screen seems like the opposite of good design. I might have suggested increasing padding, making the fields seem more airy and breathable, and lessening the amount of information the seller has to concentrate on at any given time. Yet, when sellers in user research tested a more breathable version of the form, they complained that the extra padding meant they had to continuously scroll around the page in order to get the information they needed. My previously held beliefs ran counter to what users wanted and needed from the Edit Listing form. In fact, the density that I had thought would make the form more complicated actually helps sellers maintain context as they navigate, making their work easier to handle. This means they are able to spend less time filling out forms and more time making things.
Part 3: Angira realizes she actually knew some stuff all along
As I familiarized myself with the motivations and logic of the many seller tools, I found those cracks I had initially seen in my opinions on good design widening into chasms, causing everything I thought I knew about design to come crashing down around me. In fact, I basically spent the early part of my internship having a kind of existential crisis. If that sounds dramatic, it’s because to me, it was. I had all these opinions and all this knowledge, but was encountering problems where those opinions and that knowledge were not only irrelevant, but might even be preventing me from doing a good job.
I felt, at some level, like Dieter Rams and Don Norman had failed me, and that to design for listings and inventory I needed to start over from scratch. But as I continued to work through the design problems of the Edit Listing form, I realized that my previous knowledge base wasn’t useless. It had just been limited by assumptions. I was, in effect, tying everything I learned back to a particular kind of product that strives to do one thing really well, and serves a particular kind of user, since these were the products I used and read about regularly. And because I was doing that, I was knotting up key concepts like “good design makes a product understandable” with problem-specific concepts like “good design should surface one primary action.”
What I’ve learned is that “good design makes a product understandable” can mean “good design should surface one primary action” but, in a case like Etsy’s seller tools, it can also mean “good design should give clarity to many actions.”
Ultimately, even if my initial instinct was to throw out the baby with the bathwater, I went into the final weeks of my internship feeling a little more balanced. My time at Etsy gave me everything you could ask for in an internship: awesome co-workers, epic hijinks, and the chance to work on a problem that genuinely stretched my understanding of my chosen field, one that I probably never would have encountered in a classroom. I had the opportunity to critique even my most basic assumptions about everything I know, which means next time I encounter a new type of problem, I’ll spend less time having existential crises and more time finding creative solutions.
And maybe, in the end, that’s the truth about good design.