Designing for Food and Culture at OpenTable

Chloe Park, Senior Experience Designer

OpenTable has been around since 1998 — well before most of the companies that come to mind when we think “design-oriented.” And yet, thanks to a recent emphasis on user experience, their whole suite of products have gained a reputation for their solid design.

In addition to their consumer-facing website and apps, OpenTable also offers a front-of-house management system for restaurants. Their holistic approach to the dining experience has created some fascinating design challenges. We spoke to Chloe Park, senior experience designer at OpenTable, about culture, collaboration, and designing for one of the most fundamental human activities.


How did you get connected with OpenTable?

It all started after OpenTable acquired Foodspotting. At the time, OpenTable didn’t have an in-house design team, and Foodspotting’s designer-founder, Alexa Andrzejewski, was a catalyst for starting that up.

Chloe Park, Senior Experience Designer at OpenTable. Photo by Kevin Mao.

She reached out to me a few times after seeing a concept I’d posted on Dribbble for a food truck app, back in 2012 or 2013, but it wasn’t until the second or third time that I responded. I was really hesitant at first. I’d gone to Opentable.com and the site at the time was atrocious, and I was like, “There’s no way I’m working for this company.” But I had coffee with Alexa and went to the OpenTable office, and I remember being really surprised by it all. My interest level went from the negatives to the positives — it sounded like there could be some really interesting stuff happening there, especially since things were so non-designery for a company so established.

OpenTable has been around since 1999, so it’s one of the older companies in the SF area, and it’s a public company. Maybe it’s because of the design attention it’s gotten recently, but a lot of people seem to think it’s a newer startup. That dichotomy was really interesting to me — it’s an old, established company with a large userbase that’s obviously profitable, but there was the prospect of redesigning almost all of their products and creating new ones.

It was an unusual situation. You’d have the reach and impact that a designer has as an early employee at a startup, but you’d have it at the large scale of a public company like OpenTable. It was a leap of faith, but it was also a circumstance that I didn’t know if I’d ever find myself in again.

How does design fit in with OpenTable’s culture?

It’s hard for me to tell, since I’ve been part of the “post-design” era of OpenTable (rather than pre-design, before design was a priority). I was their third or fourth designer, and now we’re up to around 28. It’s hard to isolate what’s changing because of design versus what’s changing because the company itself is changing.

There are some things that have changed for OpenTable as a business. Priceline acquired us over a year ago, and that’s changed a few things. It’s like we’ve been adopted.

But I think that design has increased the level of intentionality behind the company’s culture. I was just talking to another designer about this, and she was commenting about the little things that have changed throughout the office — things that seem so fundamental or basic, but make a difference. We get flower deliveries, for example, and our receptionist separates them into multiple arrangements throughout the office, especially in the larger open spaces where people congregate and mingle. We also have this thing where people don’t have individual trashcans; we only have group trash cans in open areas, and I’ve heard that was to get people to come out and talk to each other.

Little things like that, or the drip coffee station an engineer made, add an increased quality of presence to things. When you’re talking to a very design-centric company or a smaller startup where everyone has control over these things it’s kind of like “duh,” but when you’re scaling this large and no one is being intentional or careful about the little things, it can get quite messy. And so I feel like design has introduced a certain level of care.

That’s just in our office and that culture. Of course it’s also in our products and how we do things and how we work, and in the quality of products that we’re shipping.

How have the OpenTable products changed since you joined?

So much has changed. I don’t know where to begin. Design isn’t all visual, but even if you were to look at screenshots of the products three years ago and today, it’s like Extreme Makeover: OpenTable Edition.

I’ve had the pleasure of working on multiple products at OpenTable, which is something that some of our newer designers don’t get to do as often since they’ve been hired for a specific platform or product. When I joined I was on the consumer web team working on Opentable.com, and then that got shelved for a little bit while we were working on the OpenTable iOS redesign. That was when iOS 7 was coming out, and flat design came and kind of ruined everything, as my colleague said [laughs]. We were working with Apple because they’d reached out to us about featuring OpenTable as part of a suite of apps designed for the launch of iOS 7. I worked on that, and then I worked on our Payments product, and then I worked on the restaurant side of our product called Guest Center, and now I’m back on iOS.

OpenTable being highlighted at Apple’s 2013 Keynote

My point in sharing all this is that, having touched all of those different points, I’ve seen how all of those products have been significantly affected by design. Visually, everything’s gotten quite the facelift, and some of it has been at the sacrifice of other aspects of the design. For example, the launch of Opentable.com’s redesign was a really major project that took a long time, and we didn’t get to work on a lot of the UX or the skeleton behind the site as much as we wanted to, just because the facelift itself was such an arduous process. I think that’s a lot of what we’re dealing with now.

I’ve been here for three years. In my first two years, we were focused on Round One, just launching the products — the new website, the new app, a beta of our restaurant iPad app (Guest Center). We were all about launching and taking that first step, and now we can observe and optimize and assess and figure out what we can do to improve everything further.

How large is the OpenTable design team?

Right now we have around 28 designers, made up of brand designers, user researchers, product designers on the diner and restaurant side, as well as one UI writer.

I’m very curious about the design research process at OpenTable. I like to imagine that you guys get to go to a lot of restaurants.

Research is a huge part of what we do. OpenTable is fortunate in that we’re in a sector that everyone can relate to. It’s not like we’re dealing with cloud storage or anything super technical, we’re dealing with food and hanging out — real-life, relatable things.

We share our researchers across both the restaurant and diner sides of the business. Having them deal with both sides, and having our designers as involved with research as much as possible, allows us to have broad knowledge-sharing.

“When you ask them, people often have one answer, but you learn much more by watching people interact with the software in the most authentic situation.”

A lot of our research happens by going into restaurants and talking to their managers and to the front-of-house staff who are actually using our software. There’s a lot of shadowing, too, so we can watch people using our products. When you ask them, people often have one answer, but you learn much more by watching people interact with the software in the most authentic situation.

When I was working on the restaurant side, I went to New York to talk to Momofuku Má Pêche — a Vietnamese restaurant — and talking to their manager and seeing what artifacts they use and listening to them walk through the daily process of running a restaurant. I was there to see how our latest (beta) version of Guest Center (OpenTable’s restaurant management iPad app) was working (or not working) for them. A lot of times we think we’re making a one-stop solution with our iPad app, but some places like Má Pêche are old-school about this and actually make pen-and-paper charts that they’d transfer into the iPad app for every shift. That really stood out to me, so I worked on a feature that would help them integrate their analog process into their app so they wouldn’t have to do a two-step process.

On the consumer side, we’ve done a lot of research around payments. We arrange to find users who’ll let us go out on a meal with them, and we try to make it as real as possible. I went on one which was with this woman, and she’d invited her boyfriend along because that’s how they’d normally have a date, and it was just them and a few of us at the table with them. [laughs] We try to be flies on the wall during research.

I’m working on stuff related to loyalty and rewards now, and what better way to get some quick feedback than to actually go to cafés near the office? We’re fortunate enough to be in FiDi where there are lots of cafés with people, and I’ll literally just walk outside with a prototype or even paper screens with sketches, and ask people if they’re willing to help in exchange for an Amazon gift card. Within an hour, you can get 4 to 6 people of various demographics. That’s influenced my designs quite a bit. I’ve changed my designs because of a five-minute conversation.

How does the design team collaborate?

When our design team was smaller, we all used to sit together, but now we sit with our respective teams. I’m sitting with my other mobile designers, as well as some other people on mobile (mobile PM, mobile engineers), rather than having all the designers together. I think that’s forced the design team to figure out a more formal way of collaborating, compared to when we’re all sitting together and can literally just turn around and bounce ideas off of each other.

We have weekly design team share-outs, so every Wednesday we order in lunch and the whole team sits in a big room, and on a rotating schedule each team gets an hour to share what they’ve been working on. It’s an opportunity to share, get feedback, or even do activities. For example, we’ll sometimes do a research activity, or use the time to reflect on how our team is doing. Designing our team also happens in these design meetings — very Inception.

Our separate smaller teams have their own methods of collaborating. On my team (consumer mobile), we have regular feedback meetings, as well as other meetings for different needs or different depths of work. And of course, as a whole team, we do the usual things that a lot of teams do — we have offsites, we have social lunches. One thing about our team is that we actually like each other, so we do a lot to stay in touch socially and personally, and that improves our ability to collaborate. It keeps the conversation open beyond just formal meetings, and it’s more just being able to talk to each other about stuff — human beings before designers.

Do you use any collaboration software?

Yeah. It’s kind of a taboo topic because there are clear preferences such as the designers liking Slack while the company uses HipChat, so we’re on HipChat officially. [laughs]

Each team is a little different. We use JIRA for tickets for working on development and deployment and other non-design team things. We use Trello. I’ve used Basecamp personally in the past, but less of that now. Obviously we use Wake. And we use different prototyping tools — everyone is different. We’ve used InVision, I’ve personally been using the new Flinto and Principle. Sketch and Photoshop are both in use. The majority of us use Sketch, but there are a few stragglers who are sticking with Photoshop [ahem] and kind of breaking our process. I won’t name any names.

There always are. What’s something the team does differently today than it did a year ago?

We’ve been doing a lot more A/B testing, primarily on the consumer side. With the acquisition by Priceline, we’ve made some different hires — we’ve got a guy in Web who came from Booking.com, a Priceline sister company, and Booking is notorious for doing a lot of testing and optimization.

Generally, Priceline’s portfolio companies tend to be data-driven more than data-informed, and OpenTable hasn’t been as much, so that’s one area where I’ve noticed a lot of change. We built our own internal A/B testing tool, and that’s encouraged a lot of PMs and product owners to take advantage of testing.

I’m probably an overly honest person, but I think that… it’s kind of like what Uncle Ben told Spider-Man: “Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.” That’s what testing makes me think of. Having the internal tool increases accessibility and ability, and a lot of people like it because it’s great at getting data to back up whatever you want to push. But because of that, I think you have to be really careful.

“A/B testing provides such a myopic, short-term view of what optimizations are possible. It makes you focus on quick dollar amounts… But it’s hard to know the effects it might have on longer-term things like brand affinity.”

A/B testing provides such a myopic, short-term view of what optimizations are possible. It makes you focus on quick dollar amounts. “Just by changing this button color we brought in this many more bookings, which is this amount of money.” So a lot of product people react positively. More money, more this, more that. But it’s hard to know the effects it might have on longer-term things like brand affinity. That’s an area of caution — not saying this is what’s happening at OpenTable, but in general, people get excited and start loading up on all these tests like kids in a candy store, and it’s easy to manipulate numbers to influence what you want them to prove. I err on the side of being data-informed rather than data-driven, and that’s been an area that’s been challenged more in the past year.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the design world today?

I can think of two answers.

For me personally, I’ve been having a bit of an identity crisis. [#realtalk] I’ve been doing product design for almost four years now, and I’m starting to wonder: what’s coming up in the future? I was hired by OpenTable to do product design and interface work. I’m working primarily on the iOS platform, so what does that involve me doing? Visual design, prototyping, UX research. Lots of stuff, but all within the limitations of this screen. So now I’m thinking: how do designers get more involved at the product level, higher up beyond just the screen?

I think that was something I got to dabble with a little when I was working on the payments product. It was a lot more service design-oriented. There were only a handful of screens, but there was a lot that needed to be designed to happen in the background. There was the real-world design aspect of thinking through how you build and change people’s behaviors. It was about building on real-world interactions and diminishing the role of the actual screen and the interface.

“How does design work in the real world and between people, and how can we use the interface to not have an interface?”

In the past few years, there’s been a focus on the visual side of design, or the physical — creating intangible things to live on these tangible devices. Recently, I’ve been challenged a lot about design beyond the screen and beyond the interface. How does design work in the real world and between people, and how can we use the interface to not have an interface?

And this makes me wonder about my future. What will my next position or title be? What will that skillset be? Before, it was simple: “You are really good at making icons. You will make icons.” Okay, but what if icons don’t exist anymore, or the need for them diminishes? What is my role going to be? (I’m not personally attached to icons — I’m okay with that.) It’s about understanding the next era of design, and what product designers are going to do.

“We shouldn’t be so precious about design. It’s almost like design should pull a disappearing act — it should become so innate, it’s just assumed. That kind of care and intentionality should be baked in.”

Related to that is my second answer. I think a big challenge for design — broadly, not just product design — is: how do we make design less precious? How do we get it baked into things at such a fundamental level that it increases the baseline for all companies and products, rather than just being injected as just a step in the process? Design is no longer just an X factor — I think that’s something that came up in a previous In Progress post. In the past few years, a lot of companies were starting to care or appearing to care about design because they thought, “This is a differentiating factor between success and failure. It’s what made Warby Parker or all these other companies more successful.” And I think there’s an element of truth to that, but if your product sucks, design isn’t going to fix that necessarily. If it sucks, it just sucks. And so, in that same way, I think we shouldn’t be so precious about design. It’s almost like design should pull a disappearing act — it should become so innate, it’s just assumed. That kind of care and intentionality should be baked in.

But on the other hand, We all know designers can be a bit egotistical and think that everything’s about design. So how much of this is just designers putting design on a pedestal, thinking that the world wants design? I think of that Steve Jobs quote: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” I think about that and feeding people X even though they say they want Y, versus the super user-oriented school of thought. How do you balance being a visionary versus making something that people want now? Where does the middle ground lie?

Truthfully, I don’t have a great answer for some of your questions because they’re questions I have myself sometimes.


Thanks to Chloe Park for sharing her insights about design and collaboration. You can follow her on Twitter, and see what she and the OpenTable team have been building at opentable.com.

Chloe’s portrait was taken by Kevin Mao. Other photos were provided by Chloe. Photos of OpenTable’s San Francisco office can also be found on the Studio O+A website, and were taken by Jasper Sanidad.

To change the way your team collaborates, check out Wake — a private space to share and discuss design work with your team.