Ready When You Are

How to share your work fearlessly

Illustration by Yoko Sakao Ohama

Knowing the right time to show your work is kind of like knowing when to slice into an avocado:

Not ready.
Not ready.
Not ready.
Too late.

I’ve definitely been very guilty of waiting too long to get a second pair of eyes on my work. I suppose I wait because I’m afraid of being perceived as sloppy or unprofessional when I show unfinished work or work in progress.

Showing your work exposes all of your vulnerabilities as a designer. It surfaces problems you haven’t thought about, inconsistencies you might be introducing for no good reason, and possibly a lack of visual polish or attention to detail.

When I first joined Etsy, surrounded by its amazing and talented design team, I thought the best thing to do before showing my work was to try to solve as many of these problems myself without looping in others to demonstrate that it was thought out, considered, ready for feedback, and more importantly, that I was a designer worthy of being here.

It took a very public and embarrassing delay of showing my work to surface how incredibly wrong I was — and how showing work early, leaning on my teammates, and shifting my mindset about negative feedback is ultimately what creates the best experience for our users.

Ways to share

At Etsy we use several tools to share work. We have a #product-design channel on Slack for questions and gut-checks, weekly buyer and seller-facing design team critiques, and my personal team has an internal design demo every week where all the designers present ideas to the brilliant engineers, PMs, and stakeholders we work with.

In our new weekly presentation (called Design Lightning™), all 40 product designers at Etsy have two minutes to get up and talk about what we’re working on and where we are in our process. Defining the stage of the work we’re in helps us create a shared context and awareness of what we’re all working on and helps guide our fellow designers to give us more holistic solutions.

Our design process

At Etsy, we practice iterative human-centered design, which looks a little like this:

What human-centered iterative design stage we’re in greatly influences the type of feedback we receive. When we observe and empathize, we’re conducting user interviews, running analysis, and working with our research team to gather qualitative data. After evaluating what we’ve learned, we can define the problem we’re trying to solve, assess what the opportunity is for our users, and determine the success we’d like to achieve.

Then we ideate: we brainstorm, wireframe, and prototype interfaces or interactions using Sketch, Principle, or HTML/CSS on our internal sandbox. Once this is completed, it’s time to user test, A/B test, and gather quantitative data — then the process starts all over again based on what we learn from launching our product.

It’s way too often that designers like myself jump straight into ideation without properly defining a problem. Working on a large team of talented people and regularly sharing and articulating your thought process and ideas is a great way to kick that habit.

Learning the hard way

Before Design Lightning™, our weekly product design status presentation, it was really easy to let myself fade into the background during a critique. Since my work wasn’t “ready”, I thought it wasn’t worth showing.

When we were in the midst of finalizing Guest Checkout, I thought I could iterate quickly and put a new idea in front of my own team, but when it came time to show it to the greater buyer design team, I froze. I didn’t have confidence that idea was great and the way I had executed it was sloppy and unfinished, “It’s just an idea, not fully fleshed out, and everyone will think I’m an idiot if I show this,” I thought.

So I didn’t present in critique the first week I worked on changing Guest Checkout. I worked up the courage around the second or third week after iterating a bit and was given a lot of really helpful and honest feedback by the designers on the buyer-facing design team who told me I needed to make sure I was still solving the right problem for the right people and not creating new ones.

But during the time I had waited to show my work, my team had already started building on my half-baked solution. I quickly decided to post a draft of our new direction I had been putting off for 2 weeks on Basecamp and proceeded to get a stampede of paragraphs of questions and feedback from every design manager at Etsy right before a demo to our executive team. Literally anyone at Etsy with access to Basecamp could see how badly I had failed to document this decision-making.

Looking back on this now, I am extremely thankful for all the feedback I received. It stopped an inferior product from launching to our buyers, extended our launch time, and clarified a lot of questions about stakeholders, product ownership, and how we can experiment more thoughtfully. But at the time it was happening, I was humiliated and ashamed of myself — mostly because I knew this all could have been avoided if I had just shared my work earlier.

Since that experience, I’ve tried to become a lot more vocal and transparent about what I’m working on, and I try to ensure that everyone I work with sees all my super-early, semi-formed ideas and Sketch artboards. I present at every buyer critique, I ask stakeholders and other designers directly for feedback, and have ad-hoc critiques when those people don’t respond or are too busy.

Showing work and receiving feedback

When I think really honestly about what prevents me from showing my work, it’s the fear of receiving negative feedback, which I used to definitively interpret as “I’m a terrible and incompetent designer.” In a lot of ways I’m really thankful that the way I overcame this fear was by receiving a ton of it. It was like being thrown into deep water and discovering that I still remembered how to swim.

Another thing that helped me was approaching feedback with a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset, as outlined in this article by Julie Zhou where she cites Carol Dwyer’s book, Mindset.

“A fixed mindset presumes that what you are capable of today is how capable you really are, which means every time you get critical feedback, you read it as a judgement on your person. Hey, this thing you did isn’t great gets translated to *I’m* not great. A growth mindset presumes that no matter where you are now, you can improve.”

After reading this article, I realized that receiving feedback is the best and most effective way to improve as a designer, and that showing work early and often is the best way to get it.

Some things to remember when receiving feedback:

  • Sharing ideas early helps people follow along with your thinking throughout your process.
  • Your early ideas are not a reflection of you as a person or your full capabilities as a designer, and you can always improve and iterate.
  • Documenting your ideas is a valuable way to help you and other members of your team affirm and reassess your decisions.
  • Your team members are willing and able to help you — asking for their help is not a sign of weakness, but strength and humility.
  • It’s safe to assume that all feedback is given with the best intentions, and that we’re all working towards the same goal.
  • Forget your ego, remember the user, and always ensure you are solving the right problem for them.

It’s super easy to work heads down on something without coming up for air or asking for feedback before you’re ready, but there’s no excuse for doing that when you’re part of a team as supportive, friendly, and talented as the one we have at Etsy.

So: when is your work “ready”?

Never. But, if you shift your mindset, you can be.

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