Cap Watkins

Sr. Product Design Manager at Etsy. Formerly at Amazon, Formspring and Zoosk. Draws pretty pictures on the Internet all day.

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The Fight

I was giving a talk the other night and, during the question and answer session, a designer described a difficult situation he was facing at his company. After he finished, one of the other speakers told him it was probably time to quit, to vote with his feet. His answer was probably right, of course. I’ve definitely been there a couple of times in my career - exhausted and finding no purchase with my company. That’s how so many tenures at companies end. Frustrated, tired.

At the end of the day, though, it’s not simply being tired or frustrated that leads us to move on. Because, spoiler alert, every job at times will be frustrating and leave you exhausted. The kicker is being frustrated and tired and not believing in your team, the product you’re building or the company itself. It’s a feeling that you can’t change things for the better, or that...

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Should Engineers Design?

Why should I learn to code if engineers don’t have to learn to design?

The last few times I’ve spoken about how Etsy’s product designers are expected to help write the front-end for their features, I’ve gotten that question during each Q&A. And after receiving similar responses on Twitter when I wrote about why designers should code, I’m convinced that the topic seems worth addressing. So, a few thoughts…

That’s a pretty bummer response.

I can’t remember which logical fallacy is being violated by the question, but using a perceived injustice to prevent yourself from acquiring new skills and responsibilities seems like a losing attitude. What other learning experiences are you denying yourself just because you see other people not learning things?

Engineers do design.

In fact, the only way the above question even makes sense to me is...

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“Good Enough”

This afternoon, I met up with a designer who was in town for a few days. We were catching up and talking shop over drinks, when she brought up an issue near and dear to every designer’s heart (paraphrased).

We ship things sometimes and it’s not how I pictured it. It’s not as great as it could be. We do these two week sprints and people keep saying that it’s good enough, so we ship at the end. But I know it’s not as great as it can be. And we keep saying we’ll go back to fix it, but I know we probably won’t. I look at other products and how well-designed they are and I just don’t see how to reach that level.

We all know that feeling. You’ve got a vision or even a fully-realized design and the end-result that gets shipped seems lacking. There was a corner case that wasn’t totally accounted for and kind of looks weird. A feature...

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My Design Process - Part 3

  • Part 1
  • Part 2

Build

You’ve discussed, debated, designed, prototyped and user-tested. Time to build! Yeah, you too. I’ve already written about the real reason designers should code, but here’s another: you’re about to wish you could. As your engineering pals start putting this product together, they’re going to uncover an untold number of corner cases you never accounted for in your design. They’re going to come to you and ask, “Hey, what happens when you have a digital order that’s customized, but also purchased from a Wedding Registry?” You’re going to stare blankly for a second, half your brain processing the request, the other half waiting to see if they’re kidding.

They’re not. Your layout is broken. And while you could sit there and verbally explain every little tweak and fix, life is much simpler and,...

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My Design Process, Part 2

Missed part 1? Read it here.

Design

Time to grab your design tool(s) of choice and get designing. This could mean pencil and paper, Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, Balsamiq, html/css, or anything else you prefer. The goal is to get to something clickable as quickly as possible. The great thing about having done all the up front work, is you probably have pretty good ideas for what might be solid directions by the time you get to this step. Try them all as quickly and cheaply as possible. Remember the pros and cons you were listing during the competitive analysis process? Do the same here. Admit where your design is weak and see how that balances with its strengths.

Solicit feedback regularly and consistently. Get eyes on what you’re doing, start tossing what’s clearly a dead-end and iterating on what feels right. Collaboration is definitely your friend at this point. If...

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My Design Process, Part 1

When I first got into designing products, my first year or two was spent mostly in Photoshop designing high-fidelity mockups a single screen at a time, showing them to my team, iterating and then getting into code. While I had previous experience with critique from my Creative Writing program, my writing process - just sit down and start writing something, anything - left a lot to be desired. And while the results weren’t terrible, they certainly weren’t as thoughtful and holistic as they could have been.

Luckily, I’ve had a few more jobs and opportunities since then to work with more designers, get some experience, add new tools to my skill set and improve my process. Now, I’m finally in a place where I can repeat the same steps and get fairly solid results. The scope and necessity of each step shifts depending on the size and scope of the project. But, generally, I...

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Why Designers Really Should Learn to Code

There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about whether or not designers should be obligated to learn how to implement what they design. This obviously causes a bit of angst amongst the design community because, of course, not every designer has been in a position to learn to write their own front-end code (and that being a requirement is scary). And, hey, some people just aren’t interested in that part of the product process. That’s what engineers are for, right?

On the other side, the common refrain seems to circle around designers becoming more and more independent. If designers know how to code, we can finally be free of engineers telling us we can’t do something. We can implement our vision for the design and not have to rely on anyone else. We can create complex animations, subtle gradients and shadows with pixel perfection. Never have to submit or...

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The Dark Corners of Your UI

The other day, the engineering manager on my team was testing some stuff and happened upon this heartbreakingly terrible interface:

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 11.22.55 AM.png

He pinged the designers and we obviously filed a design bug immediately to bring that page up to any kind of snuff. However, the discovery of that UI got me thinking about all the dark corners in our software we let sit and rot away. These are the parts of our flows that either aren’t immediately ROI positive or are hidden from us because they’re either edge cases or a part of the product we just don’t see very often. I challenge you to take a fresh look at the following pages/flows in your product:

  • New user on-boarding.
  • Empty states (particularly for new users).
  • Password and email resets.
  • Email confirmation prompts.
  • Emails you’re sending.
  • User Settings.
  • Closing an account.

What I’ve seen time and again is that people...

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Free to Be Great

When I first joined Etsy, it was my first job attempting to manage a team of people. In previous jobs, I’d been senior to other designers, and even mentored designers to help improve their processes, but this was the first time I would wind up officially responsible for others. And while I was excited, I was simultaneously pretty terrified. What if I failed? What if I found out I was a terrible manager? What if I hated the role and wanted to design full-time again instead? In my first one-on-one with our Creative Director, Randy, I laid it all out there.

I just want you to know that I could be totally wrong for this role. I’m going to try really hard to be great at it, but the truth is I’ve never managed a team before and might wind up being not very good at it.

Without missing a beat, Randy said something I’ll never forget.

That’s okay, don’t worry...

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The Switch from Designer to Manager

Nowadays, when I mention that I manage part of the Etsy design team, the reaction is nearly always the same. First, the person I’m talking to asks how much design work that means I’m doing now. When I tell them the answer (“none”), they scrunch their face a little, as if they just tasted something sour and ask, “How is that? I don’t think I could ever stop designing completely.”

The reaction is pretty familiar to me, since it was also mine until a few short months ago. When I started at Etsy, the design team was about half the size it is now. I actually wasn’t managing anyone at all. And while I did spend some time helping develop processes and structure for the design team, I had plenty of time left to design stuff. In fact, my first year was spent redesigning Etsy’s item reviews system, which was a pretty messy and difficult...

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