Creating Etsy’s Design Principles

Aligning on a shared definition of design excellence

Illustration by Lucy Sherston

During my time at Etsy, I had the pleasure of watching the design team grow and evolve. When I joined over six years ago, there was just a handful of designers working collectively to support business and customer needs. Today, it is a multi-disciplinary group of Product Designers, Brand Designers, Art Directors, CX Strategists, Information Architects, Copywriters, and Researchers.

With so much growth, it became critical for us to have a shared vision to guide the execution and output of our work. Last year Randy Hunt, VP of Design, introduced the Design team’s vision of Etsy being synonymous with design excellence. We had our North Star, but what did design excellence mean in practice for Etsy? What did that look like as a customer experience? How would we know if we’d achieved it or not?

To help answer these questions, I created a working group with the goal of creating a set of design principles. We believed that everyone in the company participates in creating the best possible customer experience for our community, and this belief was reflected in the makeup of the team, which represented multiple functions; Research, Brand, Engineering, Product, Design, Security, Members and Community, and Values Aligned Business.

After six months of workshops, Google Docs, surveys, spreadsheets, stakeholder interviews, and group discussions, we had our principles of design excellence:

  • Be effective
  • Create unity
  • Always be thorough
  • Express Etsy

I’ll get into details on them later, but first let’s go through how we got there.


A bottoms-up approach

When researching other companies’ principles and how they went about creating them, there wasn’t a lot of material that discussed process, especially for large companies. Although the end goal was the creation of these principles, we took a lot of care in making sure the process was thoughtful and inclusive of the individuals that we hoped would use them to inform their work on a daily basis. We believed that these principles were already inherent in the decisions and processes that guide everyone in their work, and that these principles should clearly be “Etsy” in their voice, tone, and values.

To help us determine how best to involve individuals in our process, we defined three concentric circles, clarifying the types of roles and level of involvement we’d ask people to contribute to the creation of the principles.

Principles Working Group

The core group responsible for the creation and implementation of the principles. Also responsible for involving key influencers and admin throughout the process.

Influencers

Key leaders who are responsible for providing feedback throughout the process, and are seen as advocates for the use of the principles.

Admin

The largest group of contributors from across the company who are responsible for providing feedback on what design excellence looked like in practice and in our work.

Aligning on our goals

The first thing we needed to do was discuss and align on some core questions about the goals and intended scope of the principles. Michael Yap, a User Experience Strategist at Etsy, quickly identified what he called The 5W’s:

  1. What motivates this work?
  2. What are the goals of these principles?
  3. What is our definition of design?
  4. What characteristics should these principles exhibit?
  5. Who should benefit from these principles?

Michael facilitated a series of workshops, giving the group space to unpack our desires for these principles, and align on a definition for the questions above. We then created our “one-sheeter”, capturing these questions on a single sheet of paper that could be printed, shared, and referenced going forward. At the beginning of every meeting, we’d review the 5W’s, asking ourselves if they still felt accurate, and update the sheet when needed. The document evolved over time, and expanded to include more questions that helped guide the creation of the principles:

6. What informs these principles?

7. When and where would these principles be used?

8. What format should these principles take?

One of the final iterations of our “one-sheeter” that we reviewed at the beginning of every meeting.

Uncovering the “raw material”

In order to involve a wide array of individuals across the company, we created a short survey to better understand our definition of excellence in our work. We sent the survey to individuals across Product and Brand Design, Product Management, Marketing, Engineering, Research, and Values Aligned Business.

We then identified recurring themes from the responses, consolidating them down to 21 distinct statements. Using these core statements, we workshopped our first version of the principles.

Gut-checking with key influencers

Once we had our first rough draft of the principles, we wanted a gut-check from individuals we had identified as influencers. We did this through 1-on-1 stakeholder interviews, and used this time to ask questions about what value principles would bring to their work, how these principles would apply or impact their work, what would make these principles successful, and what was resonating (or not) with the first draft of principles. Earning buy-in and engagement from those that would later advocate for the use of these principles in existing processes would be a key to their success.

First we took an axe to them. Then a scalpel.

Armed with the insight and feedback from the stakeholder interviews, we stripped the principles down to five core concepts. We began a process of iterating on these core concepts, each iteration focusing on tweaking, removing, and adding to them with a specific focus in mind. As we tweaked and reviewed, the principles slowly came into focus. We learned that they needed to be bold, feel actionable, and that their value was in adding clarity to what the output and execution of design excellence meant for us. After two months, multiple discussions with key influencers, and nine iterations, we had created a set of four principles that we believed achieved our goals set forth in our 5W’s:

Be effective

Excellent design means satisfying customer’s needs. It’s asking, ‘are we solving the right problems, in the best way, for the right people?’ Learn from feedback. Listen to your peers, team members, and customers. Open your mind, and have an empathetic heart.

Create unity

Excellent design means unity. It’s asking, ‘does everything we do feel essential, and work together to create a holistic experience?’ Be consistent. Champion our systems. Align our brand. Make sure nothing is arbitrary.

Always be thorough

Excellent design means thoughtful design. It’s asking, ‘have we been deliberate and intentional down to the last detail?’ Apply all your passion and skill to crafting experiences that make people feel emotionally connected and respected.

Express Etsy

Excellent design means boldly being ourselves. It’s asking, ‘are we bravely expressing who we are in what we make?’ Be masters of our convictions and values. Bring their meaning and purpose to our work, and make it uniquely Etsy.

Putting our principles into practice

When thinking about the best way to unveil the principles, we kept on thinking about what we continually heard from influencers and our peers; in order for them to be successful, they should be central to the way we talk about and evaluate our work and processes used to make it. We had a hunch that what we needed to answer the question of how can we form habits around using these principles in everyone’s daily work?

After sharing the principles at our design all hands, we held a workshop with the entire design team to help facilitate a conversation and way of thinking about how these principles apply to our work. Central to the workshop was having everyone explore various Etsy environments for examples of each principle “in the wild”. Everyone explored our space and found examples of our principles everywhere around them. The result was an exercise in making the process come full circle: These principles were not novel concepts, but rather a shared lens for us to discuss, inform, and help us make better design decisions, together.


Learnings and advice

When I started this working group, I had no idea how we should create these principles, and how long it was going to end up taking us. Once we had finally shared and celebrated the creation of these principles, we took time to reflect and identify what we liked, learned, and longed for from the past six months. These were the key learnings that we identified as a group about our process:

Set a hard deadline, and hold yourself to it.

We were a large group working on these principles in addition to our daily responsibilities. It was easy for check-ins or milestones to slip, but when we had a hard deadline that was impossible to move, it helped to keep us on track.

Invest in aligning on your goals as a team at the very beginning.

Setting time aside early on to make sure everyone was aligned on the specific goals for the work was critical. Also creating a ritual around reviewing our 5Ws at the beginning of every meeting helped make sure we were on the same page when discussing specific next steps or decisions.

Be clear about what’s expected of everyone and what role they play.

Having a large and diverse working group was incredibly helpful in making sure our principles would truly be relevant and actionable to anyone within the company, but there were moments where it was unclear how best to contribute. Identifying what specific decisions or tasks each person could uniquely be responsible for would have been more impactful, sped up the process, and made everyone engaged throughout the six months.

Thank you

None of this would have been possible without the dedication and support from these fine folks who helped to lovingly craft these principles as a team: Michael Yap, Marco Suarez, Jessica Harllee, Sam Sherman, Maddy Berd, Netty Devonshire, Katie Potochney, Amit Snyderman, Daniel Espeset, Eleanor Saitta, Julia van Grieken, Nikki Summer, Madeleine Di Gangi, Randy Hunt, Alex Wright, Jason Huff, Floris Dekker, Chesley Andrews, Kristina Pyton, Karyn Campbell, Jim Thomas, Kyle Turman, Jung Park, Anda Corrie, Kate Carmody, Russ Poslusny, Amy Dyer, Jay Bergesen, Andre Rickerby, Nickey Skarstad, Arpan Podduturi, Aaron Pass, Lynnea Midland, Jedediah Baker, and the entire design team at Etsy. Thank you.